Essex: Born again - a Ridley is back in brewing! Real ales from Bishop Nick, six years after brewery sale rocked dynasty
PUBLISHED: 18:40 28 September 2011
In 2005, his family’s proud 163-year tradition of brewing came to an end. Now, a Ridley is again making beer in Essex. STEVEN RUSSELL hears how a dream has come true . . . and about the relevance of a bishop burned at the stake
EACH time he returns to the house where he grew up, Nelion Ridley is reminded how things used to be. He passes Ridley’s Brewery, which nestles by the River Chelmer and once rang to the sound of activity. Today it’s an industrial relic – boarded-up, empty, sad and silent.
Nelion was working there when the decision was made in 2005 to sell the business to Greene King for £45.6million. The brewing of a number of Ridley brands (and the ownership of 73 pubs) switched to Bury St Edmunds and the plant between Braintree and Chelmsford closed down.
It was, truly, the end of an era for a dynasty born in 1842.
Actually, the story goes back even further, to 1811, when William Ridley married Maria Dixon, the daughter of a mill owner at Hartford End. It wasn’t long before the couple took over the mill.
Son Thomas Dixon Ridley entered the world in 1814. He grew up to take charge of the business and in 1841 married Lydia Wells, who came from a Chelmsford brewing family.
Thomas built his own brewery close to the mill. A string of Essex inns was added over the years and TD Ridley & Sons Ltd became known for its mild, its bitter (named Ridley’s IPA along the way) and ales such as Witchfinder Porter and Old Bob.
Ridley’s employed up to 160 people – often generations of the same families – and had a turnover of about £17m in the 2000s. (The man who locked up for the last time, when closure came, had been with the company for 48 years. Staff used to be invited to the big house at Christmas and parties were held for employees’ children.)
Nelion – whose father, Nicholas, was chairman of Ridley’s – grew up in the shadow of the place. He, his brother and sisters (the sixth generation of the brewing lineage) lived and breathed the brewery – literally, if the wind came from the east and blew the aroma of hops and malt towards the nearby house.
After three years gaining experience with the larger brewer Whitbread, Nelion started at Hartford End in 2001, working as marketing manager and on national accounts and the sales side. He’d have loved the chance to run Ridley’s – still a going concern, he says, and at the time of the sale still the largest independent brewer and pub operator in Essex – and try to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. However, the majority view was that selling to Greene King was for the best.
“Ridley’s were in that awkward position of being neither big enough nor small enough,” he says. “We had a brewery with high overheads. Demand for traditional-brewed English beer had declined over 30 years and our brewery was obviously built many years before that, when that was all people were drinking.”
The post-sale period was hard, and not just because the family link was broken. “You had the workforce. The brewery was very tied in to Hartford End – many local people worked here – and that was difficult. But time moves on and – cliché – time heals wounds. I’m pleased to see that virtually everyone who was working at Ridley’s is now in employment elsewhere.”
After the sale, Nelion had a few months in Bury St Edmunds with Greene King, but his heart wasn’t in it, working for a larger concern, and particularly one that had just swallowed the family business. “Having a daily reminder of what used to be, and what is now, I decided it was best for me to make a break.”
He spent three or four months in France, working on wine harvests, and it looked odds-on he would go to New Zealand to further study wine production and to work, but he met wife-to-be Libby in London and love anchored him in England.
Seeking a clean break from the drinks industry, he trained as a teacher and taught eight- and nine-year-olds in a London prep school for about 18 months, but admits being a fish out of water.
“From brewing to teaching, there’s no real link,” he smiles. “It was really tough work. I don’t think I’d ever appreciated how hard it was a) retraining and b) being a teacher. I enjoyed many aspects of it (some I wasn’t so keen on) and after a year and a half of it – although I could teach and had passed the course – I decided I would be better doing what I knew before.”
His brother had bought The Compasses Inn, a former Ridley’s pub not far from Hartford End, from Greene King in 2008. Jocelyn, who had been an accountant in London and hadn’t worked for the family business, picked Nelion’s brain about the industry and “I suddenly found myself getting excited and interested again in the pub world.”
It was goodbye to the classroom. Nelion did a three-week course in Sunderland on the fundamentals of brewing. A dream was born.
There were thoughts about starting a little brewery in a barn at the family home, but the cost of equipping it to the necessary standard was prohibitive. Then, about a year ago, Franco rode to the rescue.
Italian brothers Marcello (known as Franco) and Giuseppe Davanzo (aka Paolo) started Felstar Brewery about 10 years ago, producing real ales the traditional way in an old store at Felsted Vineyard – just up the road towards Braintree.
Franco had spare capacity and was happy to let his near-neighbour use it – offering advice and practical help, too.
Nelion has been formulating his own brews since the turn of the year – “not replicas of Ridley’s recipes but they’re the sort of style of beer that, if Ridley’s had kept going, I would have wanted it to brew”.
They’ve been perfected and trialled – sold at brother Jocelyn’s pub and at some real ale festivals – and were officially launched last night at The Compasses.
Nelion’s new “craft brewery” – which re-establishes the 163-year Ridley brewing tradition – is called Bishop Nick.
The name comes from a notable ancestor. Bishop Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, was burned at the stake by Queen Mary in 1555 for his religious beliefs.
Ridley’s brewed a barley wine called Bishop’s Ale and the bishop’s head was the corporate symbol on the range of bottled ales in the 1970s and early ’80s.
One of Bishop Nick’s offerings is the bitter Ridley’s Rite, but Nelion was never truly tempted to make the family surname an overt part of the new company’s title. Greene King bought the business six years ago, and still sells Ridley’s Old Bob, so seeking to resurrect the name might have felt like bad form.
He trusts the associations surrounding Bishop Nick – and the beers themselves, of course – will be strong enough to write a new chapter of the Ridley story.
Wife Libby, who has a background in press and public relations, has been doing a sterling job spreading the message – and there’s welcome practical help from Franco Davanzo – but Nelion’s essentially a one-man band.
It promises to be an exciting if tiring time, particularly as the couple have a 15-month-old son and another baby due towards the end of January.
“I’m going to be brewing, delivering, selling, marketing, going round the pubs . . .” Nelion confirms. “Having worked on just one side at Ridley’s, I’m now – though on a much smaller scale – doing everything!
“It’s draining but fun. The beauty of it is you’re working for yourself again. I’m working again with beer. People say it’s in the blood, and there’s truth in that.
“The question people don’t ask me is ‘Why are you doing it?’ People know my background, know my history, and, to be honest, a lot of people have said ‘It’s a natural course of events, isn’t it? It’s time Ridleys were back brewing again.’”
He hopes to produce about eight to 10 barrels a week – about 2,300-2,800 pints – and find outlets in freehouses and suchlike within a 20- to 30-mile radius of Hartford End, probably.
If things go well, at some stage in the future he’d look to establish his own brewing plant – and perhaps add a pub or two along the way.
It’s very much a case of “from small acorns . . .”, but one can dream that, just maybe, it might grow into an enterprise to rival the old Ridley’s – “not in my lifetime, probably, but you’ve got to have ambition, haven’t you?
“It might be nice to leave a legacy for my children. I was left a part-legacy, I suppose. Who knows?”
His father, Nicholas, now lives between France and Singapore. Nelion had an email from him the other day, wishing him a fair wind.
“I think he sees it as a very competitive market. He still sees it as the right decision to exit when they did, but, me being his son, he wishes me luck with my enterprise. I think he’s mildly amused to see his name has somewhere got in! But, as I say to everyone, I didn’t name it after my father but after the bishop, Nicholas Ridley!”
As far as the old buildings are concerned, Nelion is keen to see them take on a new life. After being decommissioned by Greene King, the brewery was sold to a property developer. There’s permission for flats and offices, and work could start later this year or at the start of 2012, he understands.
Happily, both the red-brick Victorian façade facing the river, and the iconic chimney, should be retained.
A hands-on person keen to be moving rather than stuck behind a desk, Nelion enjoys the brewing process, where one needs to exercise fairly tight control over aspects such as cleanliness and temperature. There’s something enormously satisfying about producing beers customers enjoy, he feels.
“When people used to ask me what I did – when Ridley’s was still brewing – it was always of fascination to them. If I’d said ‘Oh, I work for a firm of accountants or solicitors, or work in the City, conversation wouldn’t really lead on from that. But everybody in Essex had either been into a Ridley’s pub or seen Ridley’s beers, or knew about them, and you were very much part of the community – and they felt a degree of ownership.
“That’s what I hope people will feel again.”
n Web: www.bishopnick.com
In the mix
BISHOP Nick is using malt from Muntons in Stowmarket, which produces a range of ingredients for the food and brewing industries. Hops are supplied by a company in Herefordshire. Nelion Ridley aims to use English hops where possible, but some come from mainland Europe and America.
Intriguingly, he’s currently using yeast “borrowed” from Crouch Vale Brewery, at South Woodham Ferrers. It seems that for all the underlying edge of potential competition, the real ale-creating community is a tight-knit and supportive bunch.
“What’s nice is that when they started up (in about 1981) they wanted some yeast and borrowed it from Ridley’s. When we were looking at getting some brewer’s yeast, we approached Crouch and they remembered Ridley’s helping them out and were only too happy for me to borrow some from them. It’s gone full circle in some respects.”
Bishop Nick’s trinity
• Ridley’s Rite (a 3.6% bitter): “This traditional East Anglian amber- coloured session beer has both crystal and pale ale malts balanced with those classic varieties of English hops, Fuggles and Goldings, to create a floral aroma with a subtle yet lasting bitterness.”
• Heresy (a 4% golden ale): “Refreshing golden ale brewed with just the finest English pale ale malt. Challenger hops provide a gentle spicy bitterness and Goldings give a citrus yet floral aroma.”
• 1555 (a 4.3% special bitter): “It is the blend of coloured malts that gives this full-bodied ale its rich ruby hue and distinctly sweet nutty taste. Styrian Goldings hops provide hints of ginger and fruit.”
The number 1555 refers to the year Bishop Nicholas was burned at the stake by Queen Mary!