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Brewing and malting

Brewing - the preparation of beer from malt or hops - has been carried out in England since the Roman period, if not before. For thousands of years most homes in England would have brewed their own beer for their own consumption or to share with friends.

English beer originally derived its flavour and colour from malt, but after a different kind of beer was introduced from the Low Countries in the 1400s hops were also added. Traditionally beer that was made with hops was called beer and that which was made with malt was called ale, however these distinctions are no longer true.

Malting is one of Britain's oldest rural industries. Malt is the main ingredient in beer and in the Victorian period, when demand for beer was growing, it provided a link between agriculture and industry. The brewers who made the beer and bought in the malt ultimately had power over the maltsters who depended on them for their trade.

Malt provides the alcohol, most of the flavour and virtually all the colour of beer. It can be made from most grains, including barley, rice, oats and wheat.

Malting is the controlled germination of cereals (normally barley). The grains are soaked in warm water for about one week to allow them to germinate. This is known as chitting. The sprouted grain was then heated in a kiln to terminate the natural germination. The grain was then heated further to produce a particular colour and flavour - the higher the temperature the darker the colour and the richer the flavour.

Herefordshire brewers and maltsters according to the 1830 and 1840 editions of Pigot's Directory

  1830 1840
Bromyard 1 (maltster) 3 (all maltsters)
Hereford 20 (1 brewer, 19 maltsters) 18 (1 brewer, 17 maltsters)
Kington 8 (all maltsters) 6 (all maltsters)
Ledbury 6 (all maltsters) 9 (2 brewers, 7 maltsters)
Leominster 13 (all maltsters) 10 (all maltsters)
Ross-on-Wye 7 (all maltsters) 12 (2 brewers, 10 maltsters)
Weobley N/A 2 (both maltsters)

However the Directory does not take into account the smaller-scale maltsters that carried out their work in the villages throughout the county. By the 1851 census there were 17 maltsters in Hereford.

The Imperial Brewery, Hereford (HER reference no. 12056, Ordnance Survey grid reference SO 5080 4000)

One of the largest breweries in the county was the one that came to be known as the Imperial Brewery. It was originally opened as the Reynolds or Hereford Brewery in Bewell Street, Hereford, by J.C. Reynolds in 1834. In 1858 it was bought by Charles Watkins, a local entrepreneur who renamed his businesses with the prefix "Imperial" (hence the Imperial Inn, the Imperial Flour Mills and so on).

Charles Watkins transferred his business from the rear of the Imperial Inn in Widemarsh Street and added Bewell House (his residence) and its gardens, so that by the 1870s the area covered by the brewery had been extended to include an area from Bewell Street to Wall Street. At one time it also included St George's Hall, built as an ice-skating rink but later used as a hop and ale store.

The brewery was fortunate in that it had a supply of pure well water that contributed to the flavour of the drinks produced there. In 1898 Alfred Watkins (famous local photographer and author of The Old Straight Track), son of Charles Watkins, sold the brewery to the Hereford & Tredegar Brewery Ltd for £64,000, and in 1907 the business was further modernised and extended.

The firm established over 200 agencies and owned more than 70 tied houses for the sale of their drinks, which included Mild Ale, India Pale Ale, Export Pale Ale, Old Hereford Ale, National Household Pale Ale, Watkins' Cream Stout and Porter. The aerated and mineral water range included Orange Champagne, Soda, Seltzer, Lemonade, Lemon Beer and Lemontina. The most famous of all the drinks produced by this brewery was Watkins' Golden Sunlight Ale, which was awarded the only gold medal at the International Exhibition in 1886.

The brewery buildings were demolished in the 1990s and the space turned into a car park, which was subsequently built over. Now the only reminder of this once large-scale business is the Imperial Inn on Widemarsh Street, which backs onto Bewell Street.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]