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Jennings brewery reborn

by Roger Protz, 02/10

At 9am on Thursday 11 February head brewer Jeremy Pettman and brewer Eldred Burns spun the wheels and pulled the levers above the mash tun at Jennings Brewery and started the mash for a batch of Jennings Bitter. 9am is a late hour for brewers - usually they start work as early as four in the morning. But this was a special day and brewery manager Gaynor Green wanted as many of her staff as possible to see an event they thought might never happen again in the brewery.    brewery

At the end of November, the brewery, along with the rest of the small Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, was devastated by floods that ruined homes and shops and swept away bridges. The brewery was especially badly hit because it stands on low-lying ground at the confluence of two rivers, the Cocker and the Derwent (above).

gaynor    Gaynor Green (left) points to a line on a ground-floor wall that marks the height of the water that came smashing into the brewery on 19 November. The mark is six feet one inch high. Gaynor recalls - and will never forget - arriving at the brewery to find the ground floor, including the visitor shop, knee deep in water. By the time she had evacuated the entire staff a few hours later, the water was waist high and vehicles in the car park alongside the rivers were bobbing around like corks.

Along with the shop, the cooperage, the yeast store and the power system were destroyed. Fortunately, the mash tun and coppers are located one floor up and were saved but 50 tonnes of malt had turned to concrete. Casks of beer had floated out of the brewery and ended up in Workington.

Without power, malt and yeast, the brewery was at a standstill. Once the waters had receded, Gaynor called the entire workforce together and told them there was no question of Jennings, founded in 1828, closing for good. She told them she had received a phone call from Stephen Oliver, boss of Marston's Brewing Company, which owns Jennings, assuring her the brewery would re-open and asking her just one vital question: "Do you want to brew beer off-site or wait until the brewery opens again?"

Gaynor says she was nervous about brewing Jenning's beers elsewhere but if the closure lasted for a month or more she needed supplies for the tied and free trade in Cumbria as well as for bottling. Richard Westwood, Marston's director of brewing, arrived two days after the flood, surveyed the damage and told Gaynor he could arrange to have the Jenning's beers - Bitter, Cumberland Ale, Cocker Hoop and Sneck Lifter - produced by Banks's in Wolverhampton and Marston's in Burton-on-Trent.

There was no attempt to pass the beers off as genuine Jenning's brews. Attachments to pump clips - known as "wobblers" - explained why the beers were being brewed elsewhere and that 10 pence from every pint sold would go to the flood relief fund. That has so far raised 178,000 and is the biggest single contribution to the fund. "We've had no negative reaction to the beers," Gaynor Green says. "Customers said they didn't taste the same as when they were brewed in Cockermouth - and that was music to my ears, proving that cask beers have a unique taste due to their location." Sneck Lifter, a dark Porter-style beer, was brewed at Marston's and had the famous Burton "snatch" of sulphur on the aroma from the local water, which is never encountered in the Cockermouth version of the beer.   

Gaynor has nothing but praise for her workforce. "They came in their wellies and old clothes and cleaned the brewery up," she says. "BT fixed the phone lines within a week so the telly sales girls could start moving beer again." There was sufficient stock in the system to enable Jennings to supply its customers until new beer was ready.

The mash tun and coppers were not damaged and the fermenters had been cleaned of ruined beer, but production could not start again until the buildings were dry and passed as safe. Environmental Health insisted that brewing water from the on-site bore hole had to be cleaned out three times before they would allow it be used again. The power panels have now been moved from the ground floor to the first and should be safe even if the Cocker and the Derwent flood again the future.

And beer can't be made without yeast. A batch of every British brewery's yeast culture is stored at the National Yeast Bank in Norwich. A sample was taken to Marston's laboratory in Burton and a sufficiently large batch was made to start the first few brews at Cockermouth.

Jennings is a sizeable brewery, able to produce 50,000 barrels a year. It supplies 50 of its own pubs in Cumbria as well as other pubs in the Marston's chain in the North-east, Lancashire and Yorkshire, plus a large free trade and a growing bottling business.

Jeremy Pettman and, his deputy head brewer Rebecca Adams believe in using the finest raw materials for their beers. Maris Otter is their choice of malting barley and the blend of grain for the first batch of Bitter was pale, amber, crystal and chocolate malts: it's an unusually dark version of Bitter, one that has been satisfying Cumbrian drinkers for close on two centuries. The hops are all English whole flowers: Challenger, Fuggles and Goldings. There are three additions in the copper.

   In the brewhouse, two hours after the mash started, Jeremy and Eldred taste the "first runnings" from the mash tun. It's hot, biscuity and delicious and surprisingly dry rather than sweet. They're satisfied with the result and they open the slotted base of the vessel to allow the sweet extract or wort to run into a receiving vessel and then on to the copper for the boil with hops. Left: Roger (in tie) and the workforce celebrate the first brew.

By Thursday of next week the first new batch of Jennings Bitter will be ready to drink, with Cumberland Ale hard on its heels. Life and beer are returning to Cockermouth.

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