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Issue 67 - Brewing Legends

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013

 

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Brewing Legends

Charles Douglas looks at the history of Tennent's Wellpark Brewery

IT manufactures one of Scotland's most iconic brands, but the Wellpark Brewery in Glasgow's Duke Street is one of Scotland's lesser known treasures.

The story goes back to 1740, five years before Prince Charles Edward Stuart's army retreated through Glasgow and headed north to defeat at Culloden. By then, the brewery was in full production, and records confirm that Jacobite troops quenched their thirst in passing, no doubt their last opportunity to enjoy a good pint.

Although brewing had taken place on the banks of the Molendinar Burn for at least a century, two brothers, Hugh and Robert Tennent, had seized the opportunity to expand the existing Drygate Brewery. In 1769, Hugh's sons, John and Robert, formed J&R Tennent, trademarked the 'Red T', and later extended the business by purchasing the neighbouring 5-acre brewery site of William McLehose, renaming it the Wellpark Brewery.

By the middle of the following century, J&R Tennent was the world's largest bottled beer exporter. With ownership passing through the generations, it was Robert's son Hugh who first brewed Tennent's lager in 1885.

The next step was to build a dedicated lager brewery at Wellpark. Local media announced that it was a “madman's dream.” Sadly Hugh Tennent died in 1890, not living to see his “madness” become reality, but in 1893, his product won the highest award at the Chicago World Fair.

Inspired by the emergence of lighter German beers, the first Tennent's draught lager was produced in 1924, the first Tennent's canned lager was released in 1935, and the first Tennent's keg lager in 1963, when the company was acquired by Charrington United Breweries.

Three years later, J&R Tennent formally merged with United Caledonian Breweries to form Tennent Caledonian breweries. At this stage, the Wellpark site was redeveloped, and in 1967, Charrington merged with Bass to form the Bass Charrington Group which in 2000 was bought by the Belgian brewer InterBev (InBev). In 2009, the C&C Group of Ireland purchased the Wellpark Brewery and the Tennent's brand, and acquired the Scottish and Irish distribution rights to Beck's and Stella Artois.

For a large proportion of the 20th century, Tennent's Lager was famous for its “Lager Lovelies”, a name derived from the photos of female models which up until 1989 were imprinted onto the sides of its cans. Today, the lightweight tin can design is in plain silver with the company's trademark 'Red T' featuring prominently.

Described as a “well balanced lager, sweet, malty flavours combine with a long hoppiness to create its crisp, refreshing character”, Tennent's has today become Scotland's best selling lager, commanding 60 per cent of the Scottish lager market.

However, the UK brewing industry was a very different prospect forty years ago when David Rutherford, C&C Group's manufacturing director, began his career with Scottish & Newcastle Breweries back in 1971. A jovial and engaging personality whose accent betrays him as a Geordie by birth, David retired in October of last year, but remains buoyantly optimistic about the future of Wellpark and especially Tennent's Lager, synonymous with its symbolic 'Red T'.

“There were very few brands around when I started as a laboratory assistant, then labourer in Newcastle,” he recalled as he conducted me on an animated tour of Wellpark Brewery. “You just went into a pub and asked for a pint.”

Having joined S&N, David soon found himself working his way up through the production side in Edinburgh as it grew to dominate the UK beer market. Among the other companies it acquired along the way were the Nottingham-based Home and Courage breweries.

“The volume requirements were so large in those days that the breweries just couldn't produce enough to meet the demand.,” he added with a grin. “And if the quality wasn't quite right, the policy was to just 'blend it and send it!'”

Brewers were making lots of money, but the downside was that they were not investing for the future.

That situation changed dramatically in the 1980s. “Quality moved high onto the agenda and companies started to rationalise and invest in automation, not before time,” says David. “Then came the 1990s, bringing a decline in volumes and the emergence of international brands. It was a challenging decade for all of us.”

Coupled with rapid change in consumer lifestyles, not least the advent of wine bars, cocktails and supermarkets, the old traditional ways of drinking began to disappear. However, the outcome was not entirely negative.

“The beauty with Tennent's as it now exists is that it's a lot less bureaucratic than a bigger brewer. “We are able to be fast in terms of decision making, and able to be more flexible.”

The C&C Group's extensive investment is obviously paying off, especially the installation of a $4million bottling plant. With different consumer choices, the Wellpark Brewery has launched a series of initiatives to engage with the general public as never before.

Last November saw the opening of a £1million state-of-the-art hospitality and training centre. An empty building on site has been converted to house four bespoke training rooms, including a wine and spirit room with tasting table, a working bar and beer cellar, and a large high-specification kitchen with chef's kitchen table. The Tennent's Training Academy is currently providing first aid training and individual leisure courses to groups and individuals (www. tennentstrainingacademy.co.uk).

In addition, the company has launched a MAP (Modern Apprenticeship Plus) initiative for young Scots between the age of sixteen and twenty four, working across Scotland's pubs, hotels and restaurants. The scheme, which incorporates food hygiene, health and safety, customer service and licensing, is designed to annually fast track twenty five of the industry's brightest and most ambitious.

Sponsorship is also high on the agenda, supporting the “Old Firm” football teams Sevco (formerly Rangers) and Celtic and from July, the English Football League One Club Preston North End. A jewel in the sponsorship crown has been the immensely popular T in the Park, a 3-day outdoor Scottish music festival launched in 1994.

Taking visible pride in his product, David is naturally thrilled that three of the brands he launched earlier this year – Tennent's Original Export (UK market), Tennent's Scotch Ale and Tennent's Extra (Italian market) – have won gold, silver and bronze awards at the Monde Selection in Belgium, and the International Beer Challenge.

When searching for a job all those years ago, David went home to ask for his parents' advice and they told him “Go for brewing. It's a job for life.” Their logic, he says, was that people will always want to drink.

How right they were.