A WELSH BREWERY THROUGH THE AGES
Our founder, David John, owned iron and tinplate works around Llanelli when, in the mid-1830’s, he bought the King’s Head opposite his home in the village of Felinfoel. This was no ordinary pub but an important coaching inn. It also had a more worrying feature. Alongside the building, which stuck out into the road, was a toll gate, which became a red rag to an angry bull. The Rebecca riots (1839 – 1843) involving the hard pressed tenant farmers, who bitterly resented the road charges on their wagons and animals, rampaged through Carmarthenshire, destroying toll gates. Feeling was running high against the authorities, which led David to abandon the King and renamed his tavern the Union Inn.
Like most pubs of the time, The Union Inn brewed its own beer. This proved popular and soon our Felinfoel ales were being sold to other houses. As demand increased, he realised the need for a purpose built brewery. In 1878, opposite the pub, in the grounds of his house, Pantglas, he built the imposing stone brewery astride the river Lliedi, where we still brew our beer today. The premises became a focal point of the community, employing about fifty people. A villager later recalled: “Nearly every family kept a pig in their garden. When the butcher was booked to kill a pig in the back yard, large cans of hot water were carried from the brewery to scrape and clean the pig. Some people living in the vicinity even carried hot water for their weekly washing. Ladders were borrowed, tools sharpened, any excuse to go into the brewery for a drink.”
On brewing day, farmers from the surrounding area came for the ‘sog’, the spent grains from the mash tun, to feed their animals. ‘The yards and road outside were crowded with the farmers’ carts, waiting their turn to be served.’ and our brewery still stands on Farmers Row today.
Gradually the brewery built up trade throughout the old counties of Carmarthen, Cardigan and Pembroke, buying pubs as they became available. When David retired from his business interests, his sons David and Martin took over the running of the brewery. In addition to their successful beers they produced mineral waters under the Trebuan Spring label, which came from a source above the village. It was they who registered the brewery as a private company in1906. The family also had mining interests, and in 1908 these almost undermined the brewery. Sinking a well at the brewery to find an additional supply of water, workmen struck a two-foot thick seam of coal, some 12 yards below the surface. But, after due consideration, the John family decided not to work the seam, as it would interfere with the brewery buildings.
Another family joined in the running of the brewery when David John’s daughter, Mary Anne, married John Lewis, the manager of the Wern Ironworks. John Lewis was a compulsive gambler, prepared to risk everything on the turn of a card or a throw of the die. He is reputed to have lost a tinworks on a bet, and would probably have gambled away the brewery except that his wife controlled the shares.
The Inter-war Years
In the 1920’s, the strain became too much, and he shot himself while alone in the brewery office. Undaunted, his wife Mary Anne, a formidable woman, carried on with the business. Her visits to the brewery made a deep impression on the staff. She carried a big stick, and if she was unhappy with the performance of any of her employees – she hit them with it! The stick still hangs in our brewery today.
These were troubled times at the brewery, but the company’s close connections with the tinplate industry were to alter that. Many brewers were sceptical that drinkers would ever accept beer in a can. Customers expected beer to be on draught from a cask, or in a glass bottle. Advocates of the can pointed out that ale had been enjoyed in pewter mugs for centuries, but few were convinced. Much more of a concern were the serious technical problems. Beer required a container that could withstand a pressure in excess of 80lb per square inch. Food cans, which had been established as early as 1812, only needed to withstand 25-35lb. Then there was the question of flavour contamination. Beer reacted with the bare tinplate, leaving a tinny taste. But coating with the traditional brewers’ pitch, as used in casks, was no use in the smaller container. A magazine of the time said that samples of linings for the can were found to absorb all the hop flavour out of the beer and left it tasting like the proverbial ‘ditchwater’.
Finally there was the all-important bottom line. Cans cost more than glass bottles. Breweries, which had invested heavily in bottling plants and large stocks of returnable bottles, were unlikely to be enthusiastic. In fact, like most drinkers, they were deeply suspicious. Sanders Watney of the London brewers “Watney, Combe, and Reid”, said in an article in the World Press Review in 1934: “I am not convinced that there would be any demand in this country for beer in cans”. With brewers and drinkers indifferent, if not hostile, the impetus for change had to come from another quarter; the sector with the most to gain. The enthusiasm came from the hard-pressed tinplate manufacturers of Llanelli in South Wales. They were helped by having two brewers in the area.
Buckley’s Brewery was reported by the Welsh morning newspaper, the Western Mail, to be investigating canned beer in October 1935. Felinfoel, with our family interests in the tinplate industry, were just as keen – if not keener. The weekly “Llanelli and County Guardian” recorded the historic moment on 3 December 1935, under the triple heading: ‘Canned Beer Arrives’, ‘Epoch-Making Process at Felinfoel Brewery’, ‘New Hope for Tinplate Industry’. The paper’s report said that the first can of beer was turned out ‘without a hitch’ in the presence of chairman Martin John, brewer Sidney John and representatives of other brewing and trade interests. The conical cans were filled on adapted bottling machinery and sealed with a standard bottle top (known as a crown cork). The 10oz cans of pale ale were the equivalent of half-pint bottles. They
were then packed in cardboard containers, holding two-dozen cans, ready for dispatch. The newspaper reported: ‘One of the most impressive features of the process was its simplicity and speed. Girls, who in the past have handled many thousands of bottles, adapted themselves to new conditions with apparent ease and, once started, the cans were filled and corked with unbroken regularity.’
Brewery manager Willie Rees explained that Felinfoel had been experimenting with canned beer for a couple of months. “We were particularly struck with the success which followed its inception in America at the beginning of the year, and realising its potential and the stimulus which its universal adoption in this country would give to the tinplate trade, and especially local industry, we decided to put the novel idea into practical use ourselves.”
Head brewer Sidney John believed they had gone one or two steps better than the pioneers across the Atlantic, claiming the Americans had brewed a beer to suit the can, while Felinfoel had found a can ‘to hold the perfect beer’. ‘Their beer is being pasteurised and the result is that the natural ingredients are being destroyed. That is not and will not be the case with our beer’, he pledged. ‘The difficulties of the London Metal Box Company have been to find a lining to preserve beer in its best state. After considerable research work, they have succeeded in doing so – the Americans have not.’
Felinfoel was so proud of its achievements that every employee of the brewery and the tinplate works was given a can to mark the occasion. These cans today are valuable collectors’ items. Buckley’s was not amused at being beaten to the punch by its smaller neighbours. In the same issues of the paper, it paid for a large advert to proclaim: “The canning of beer was accomplished at Buckley’s Brewery bottling stores on the 3rd December, and samples may be seen at the brewery and at displays in the town. However, until the directors are satisfied that canned beer has the same estimable qualities as their bottled product, the process will be in the nature of an experiment, and for the time being the canning process will be conducted experimentally with persistence and caution.” It was not until many years later that Buckley’s actually produced a canned beer for public sale.
After trial batches we began to produce canned beer for public sale from 19 March 1936. 1936 also marked the start of H.T. Lewis’ chairmanship of the company.
The success of our canned ale, brewed to celebrate the coronation of King George VI in May 1937, led to us becoming the only South Wales brewery with a regular interest outside Britain. Later many beers, St David’s Porter, Prince’s Porter, Cream Stout, Heritage Ale and Hercules Strong Ale were brewed expressly for export.
In 1965 a bitter disagreement between the John and Lewis families came to a head when larger neighbours Buckley’s bid for the brewery. The Lewis family had been in charge for a number of years, with most of the members on the board, but it was a distant control given they had other interests and the brewery’s head office had been moved to Knightsbridge.
Buckley’s had privately approached members of the John family before making its £500,000 bid public. When news of the take-over broke in April 1965 they could claim to have secured acceptance from 48.7 per cent of shareholders. By May, this figure had edged up to 49.5 per cent. Buckley’s was almost there. ‘We have been motivated solely by our determination to ensure that the brewing industry in Llanelli remains under local control’, said Buckley’s, adding, ‘With the interest that Buckley’s now have, this objective should be achieved.’ Our directors recommended rejection. A crucial role was played by Lady Davies, who owned eleven shares. She was approached by Buckley’s and was offered £2,750. Had she sold the take-over would have succeeded. Instead, she rejected the money and gave the shares to the Lewises. Despite its paper-thin majority, the Lewis family kept control, even though Buckley’s had gained a seat on the board. A holding company was established to prevent further family disputes leading to more shares, and the controlling interest, sliding down the road to Llanelli. The attempted take-over left one strange ritual. As Buckley’s had contracted with members of the John family to buy their shares, ending up holding 49.5 per cent of Felinfoel Brewery without any influence in the private company, Buckley’s shareholders were not amused and regularly asked when the take-over was to be completed. Buckley’s made regular offers for the remaining shares, which our directors just as regularly threw in the bin. Our long history of canning beer continues and in 1969 we were awarded the prestigious ‘Beer can of the year’ award when Prince’s Ale, a commemorative ale brewed for the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, took the coveted top prize. We still have some of the original cans in their packaging in the brewery.
As a sign of renewed faith in the village brewery, when Trevor died in 1974, his son John brought the head office back to Felinfoel. In 1976, under his chairmanship, we won International cups for draught beer, Double Dragon in the premium category and our Best Bitter in the bitter category. In 1978 a special ale was brewed to celebrate 100 years in our brewery. Throughout this decade John was gradually modernising the old brewery. The wooden fermenting squares were replaced with stainless steel ones, and in 1979 a new copper vat was commissioned in place of the original, heavily-patched, open coal-fired vessel. ‘We don’t have to work in a continuous fog any more’, said head brewer Fred Cheesewright.
Upgrading of the brewery continued into the 1980s and the company was returned to private ownership in 1982. That same year saw Fred Cheesewright retire from his position as Head Brewer having completed 30 years’ service with the brewery. Finally, one of our directors, Major A.L.Davies, was made Master of the Vintners in 1985. Buckley’s once again bid for the company in 1987 and, once again, the directors of the company resisted their advances.
In 1990 the future of the company was secured with the birth of the 6th generation of our family. To mark the occasion we brewed a special 8% beer, called Jeremy’s ale, which you can still see in the brewery today. By 1991 the remaining shares in the company had been bought back from United Distillers to place the entire company back in the hands of the Lewis family.
To complement our award winning ales we also introduced our first lager in 1996. Celtic Gold was brewed specifically to cater for the Welsh palate.
More recently we were delighted to welcome HRH Prince Charles to the brewery during his tour of Wales in July 2012. He took a keen interest in the tour of the brewery and was shown the entire brewing process. We were able to show him the commemorative ale we brewed for his investiture and even convinced him to pull a few pints in the Greyhound Inn across the road from the brewery. You can see photographs of his time with us in our gallery.
Today we are still brewing our award winning ales in the heart of Felinfoel. This year we introduced our newest ale, an IPA, which has been extremely well received. We have developed a new website, which you have discovered if you are reading this and we are looking forward to a bright future as we continue to play an active part in the Welsh brewing industry.