Last Friday, 17 June, saw the Tetley brewery in Leeds close for the last time. The local branch of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) held a silent vigil at midday on Saturday to mark the end of a brewery that has been associated with Leeds in much the same way that a certain brown ale has been with Newcastle.
Joshua Tetley established his brewery on this site in 1822, so the closure brings 189 years of brewing history to an end. In a way, even longer as the Tetley brewery replaced a previous brewery on the same site dating from the late 18th century. Carlsberg UK, owners of Tetley's, said that the beer market faces the "perfect storm of falling consumption, increasing costs and rising tax", leading to over-capacity in the brewing industry, which had rendered the brewery uneconomical. Although cynics might point to the value of the large piece of land that the brewery was sitting on in the centre of Leeds, the truth probably combines both reasons. Tetley isn't my cup of tea, and if I'm in a pub serving Tetley real ales, I prefer the mild to the bitter, except that, unfortunately, a lot of pubs serving Tetley's have put the mild on smoothflow.
Southport CAMRA visited the brewery on 30 October last year, and I asked our guides whether they had a lot of brewery trips. I was very surprised to be told that this was the first one in 2010; the previous one had been in summer 2009. Most of Southport CAMRA’s trips tend to be to smallish regional breweries or microbreweries, so going around an enormous beer factory was something very different. The processes were essentially the same, but on a far greater scale, and in this case, automated. Computers controlled much of the brewing and we were shown a control room that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Starship Enterprise. Part of the brewing process was done in vessels called ‘coppers’, which used to be made out of copper, but are now made of stainless steel. The last actual copper was still there; it dated from 1966, and had a plaque commemorating that it was last of its type to be installed by the manufacturer.
The brewery was on its annual shutdown, so not much was happening, but we were still taken around the brew house, fermenting room with the famous Yorkshire squares (actually oblong), boardrooms, and the bottling and canning plant. It was very quiet, whereas normally we would have had to wear ear protection for much of the tour. What struck me was, although the production rooms were huge, how few people were needed actually to operate it all. Altogether, only about 150 people worked on the entire site.
At one point we were taken through what I assumed was the old entrance foyer, sumptuously fitted with wood-panelled walls, a grandfather clock (still working), old-fashioned office furniture, an old rotating door and a caged lift. It was beautiful and looked like a hotel foyer from ‘Jeeves and Wooster’. We were also taken through what had once been offices, again with wood-panelled walls, and a low wooden railing, but otherwise empty. I hope none of it is dumped in skips now the brewery has closed.
Tetley Bitter is still the second biggest selling real ale in the UK, so it won't be disappearing: brewing of cask Tetley's will move to the Midlands while the smoothflow will be brewed in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Carlsberg UK said that “The brewery may be closing but we are keeping some of the site open and have managed to secure the future of 114 Carlsberg UK employees in Leeds. They are mainly based in the telesales and credit control functions in Tetley House.” I could be wrong, but I suspect that such jobs, welcome as they no doubt are to the individuals concerned, are something of a let-down after working in the brewery.
Although I wasn't a fan of Tetley's, I'd have preferred them to brew more interesting beers, which they had begun doing with seasonal specials, rather than close down. The government should (but almost certainly won't) note that ever-increasing beer tax was one of the reasons given for the closure of this historic brewery.
Photo by Ms Sam Thomas, taken on our CAMRA trip to the brewery.