How old is Liverpool’s Cain’s Brewery?

There seem to be three main, and sometimes overlapping, trends in the self-image of British brewers: the traditional, the modern, and the ill-advised. Of these, the older brewers usually go for the first. They like to be seen as brewers of traditional ales, and it helps to let everyone know just how long they have been doing it. Some examples are brewers such as Young’s (1831), Fuller’s (1845), and Daniel Thwaites (1807), but there are many others keen to make the point that they have been around for a very long time. Shepherd Neame proudly declares itself Britain’s oldest brewer, trumping them all with the date “1698”, but hinting that brewing has been going on in their home town of Faversham much longer than that. Who would have thought it?

Cain’s, Liverpool’s biggest, and of late most controversial, brewer has the phrase “Established 1850” positioned prominently on its branding. That was the year that founder Robert Cain bought his first brewery, in Limekiln Lane; he bought the current brewery, on the other side of the city, as a going concern in 1858. When I was writing my book about Robert Cain and his brewery the question of how old the brewery is came up a lot, and I was unable to find a definitive answer. So I was only mildly surprised to hear yesterday from Sudarghara Dusanj from Cain’s, asking if I could tell him definitively how long there had been a brewery on the current site. Here’s what I wrote in my book:

“Cain bought the Stanhope Street brewery from George Hindley, the vicar of St. George’s Church, Everton. George and Robert Hindley had inherited the brewery from their father. After his father’s death Robert Hindley had tried and failed to make the brewery a success and was followed by Messrs. Hyde and Rust, brewers, who rented the premises but lasted only a few months before they were forced out of business. Soon after acquiring the brewery Cain set about modernizing and improving his investment:

“During the first two years of Mr. Cain’s occupancy all the old brewing utensils and machinery were taken out and replaced with the most modern appliances. The place was thus carried on for some years when further increase of business necessitated an extension. This was effected by purchasing some of the adjoining property called ‘Cotter’s Terrace’ and throwing it into the brewery. An old building, containing offices and a warehouse, which originally stood in the yard was removed, and a new building, fronting Stanhope-street, was erected in its place. From the earliest time in Stanhope-street till the present moment Mr. Cain has been adding to and improving his brewing plant and machinery, and everything new which comes out and which is better than older machinery he buys without hesitation.”(Liverpool Review, September 17, 1887)

Cain’s willingness to keep up with developments and his commitment to relentless expansion and ‘improvement’ made the brewery a success where others floundered.  The brewery itself had been bought by ‘old Mr. Hindley’ as a going concern 72 years earlier in 1786 so its long-term viability was not in doubt. But knowing its recent history of failure, Cain must have been very confident in his own ability to make it work. He was certainly helped by Liverpool’s own growing success story.”

That was the best I could do at the time, concluding that there had been a brewery on the Stanhope Street site since at least 1786, which is actually quite impressive. But after my conversation yesterday, the following snippet jumped out at me from something I was reading for my book on William Scoresby. This is from James Picton’s Memorials of Liverpool, published in 1873:

Returning to St. James’s Church, I will now ask the courteous reader to accompany me in a walk along the Old Park Road. This road, with Smithdown Lane, Lodge Lane, and the eastern part of Ullet Lane, down to 1775 were the only roads in the township. The house and outbuildings at the corner of Stanhope Street — now greatly metamorphosed — were built in 1775, about the time when Harrington was planned out. They were long the residence of Lord Sefton’s land-agent. In 1803 three houses had been built on the west side, near the corner of Mill Street, With this exception, and one or two shortly to be mentioned, no houses existed in the entire length of the road.

Swire’s Map of Liverpool, based on a survey made in 1823 and 1824, shows the area looking like this (click for a large version in another tab):

I’ve outlined in yellow the area referred to above as “Harrington” which, before the street layout was settled in 1775, was open fields and parkland, belonging to Lord Sefton. Until 1775 it was even beyond the limits of the town of Liverpool, which at that time reached only as far as Parliament Street, the borough boundary (marked by my vertical yellow line). I have also indicated on the map the site of Cain’s brewery, on Stanhope Street, and from this we can conclude that brewing on the site began some time between 1775 and 1786, but certainly no earlier than that. It makes it one of the oldest brewing sites in (more or less) continuous use in Britain, but the marketing department at Shepherd Neame can relax.

Read more about Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint, listen to me reading from Chapter 1, or buy the book here.

Rules for Brewing in the 18th Century

Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) is often credited with inventing modern cookery books, and is sometimes called “the mother of the dinner party”. Her book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which she published herself by subscription, appeared in 1747. It contains recipes for all kinds of dishes (I am a big fan of her pies), and instructions on managing and running a kitchen. In those days beer, and in particular “small beer” was drunk by most people as a substitute for water. Brewing was a common activity, and larger houses had their own brewhouses. Here are Hannah Glasse’s rules and instructions for brewing in a domestic kitchen (I’ve modernised the spelling). She takes care to offer advice on what to do if the available vessels are not large enough to take the whole brew in one go, and it is interesting also to note the emphasis on cleanliness, and on making sure that everything is boiled and “scalded”: “Take great care your casks are not musty, or have any ill taste; if they have, it is a hard thing to sweeten them.”


Care must be taken, in the first place, to have the malt clean; and after it is ground, it ought to stand four or five days.

For strong October [ale], five quarters of malt to three hogsheads, and twenty-four pounds of hops. This will afterwards make two hogsheads of good keeping small-beer, allowing five pounds of hops to it.

For middling beer, a quarter of malt makes a hogshead of ale, and one of small-beer. Or it will make three hogsheads of good small-beer, allowing eight pounds of hops. This will keep all the year. Or it will make twenty gallons of strong ale, and two hogsheads of small-beer that will keep all the year.

If you intend your ale to keep a great while, allow a pound of hops to every bushel; if to keep six months, five pounds to a hogshead; if for present drinking, three pounds to a hogshead, and the softest and clearest water you can get.

Observe the day before to have all your vessels very clean, and never use your tubs for any other use except to make wines.

Let your cask be very clean the day before with boiling water; and if your bung is big enough, scrub them well with a little birch-broom or brush ; but if they be very bad, take out the heads, and let them be scrubbed clean with a hand-brush, sand, and fullers-earth. Put on the head again, and scald them well, throw into the barrel a piece of unslacked lime, and stop the bung close.

The first copper of water, when it boils, pour into your mash-tub, and let it be cool enough to see your face in; then put in your malt, and let it be well mashed; have a copper of water boiling in the mean time, and when vour malt is well mashed, fill your mashing-tub, stir it well again, and cover it over with the sacks. Let it stand three hours, set a broad shallow tub under the cock, let it run very softly, and if it is thick throw it up again till it runs fine, then throw a handful of hops in the under tub, let the mash, run into it, and fill your rubs till all is run off. Have water boiling in the copper, and lay as much more on as you have occasion for, allowing one third for boiling and waste. Let that stand an hour, boiling more water to fill the mash-tub for small-beer; let the fire down a little, and put it into tubs enough to fill your mash. Let the second mash be run off, and fill your copper with the first wort; put in part of your hops, and make it boil quick. About an hour is long enough; when it has half boiled, throw in a handful of salt. Have a clean white wand and dip it into the copper, and if the wort feels clammy it is boiled enough; then slacken your fire, and take off your wort. Have ready a large tub, put two sticks across, and set your, straining basket over the tub on the sticks, and strain your wort through it. Put your other wort on to boil with the rest of the hops; let your mash be covered again with water, and thin your wort that is cooled in as many things as you can, for the thinner it lies, and the quicker it cools, the better. When quite cool, put it into the tunning-tub. Throw a handful of salt into every boil. When the mash has stood an hour draw it off, then fill your mash with cold water, take off the wort in the copper and order it as before. When cool, add to it the first in the tub; so soon as you empty one copper, fill the other, so boil your small-beer well. Let the last mash run off, and when both are boiled with fresh hops, order them as the two first boilings; when cool empty the mash tub, and put the smallbeer to work there. When cool enough work it, set a wooden bowl full of yeast in the beer, and it will work over with a little of the beer in the boil. Stir your tun up every twelve hours, let it stand two days, then tun it, taking off the yeast. Fill your vessels full, and save some to fill your barrels; let it stand till it has done working; then lay on your bung lightly for a fortnight, after that stop it as close as you can. Mind you have a vent-peg at the top of the vessel, in warm weather, open it; and if your drink hisses, as it often will, loosen till it has done, then stop it close again. If you can boil your ale in one boiling it is best, if your copper will allow of it; if not, boil it as conveniency serves.

When you come to draw your beer and find it is not fine, draw off a gallon, and set it on the fire, with two ounces of isinglass cut small and beat. Dissolve it in the beer over the fire: when it is all melted, let it-stand till it is cold, and pour it in at the bung, which must lay loose on till it has done fermenting, then stop it close for a month.

Take great care your casks are not musty, or have any ill taste; if they have, it is a hard thing to sweeten them.

You are to wash your casks with cold water before you scald them, and they should lie a day or two soaking, and clean them well, then scald them.

Lager Drinkers and India Pale Ale

The last few years have seen a revival in interest in IPAs (India Pale Ales), with brewers such as Brew Dog, Thornbridge, and Marble, among others, leading the charge to make ever more bitter, hoppy, bright, and flavoursome ales. Some of these, including Thornbridge’s Jaipur and Fyne Ales’ Avalanche, are among my favourite beers of any kind and I urge you to try them. But more than that I think they have a potential to change the landscape of British beer drinking in ways that have not yet been realised.

IPA has been in this culture-changing position before. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was the ale that travelled around the world, quenching the thirst of British soldiers in India and elsewhere. Sulphate-rich Burton water suits the large quantities of hops used as a preservative in IPA, making their bitterness more appealing. This happy coincidence made IPA key to the rise of Burton on Trent as Britain’s brewing powerhouse.

As a twenty-first century distribution centre Burton is nearly ideal, being right in the middle of the country. But in the years before the railways, ale had to travel from landlocked Burton along the river Trent to Hull or by canal and road to Liverpool. Traditional ales did not travel well, but the quantity of hops used in IPA to help it survive the journey to India was also useful on its 100-mile journey to the coast. Burton IPAs were introduced into port cities and allowed Burton brewers such as Bass to compete with local brewers in other regions. By the 1840s, when the railways had begun to make national distribution easier, Burton brewers such as Bass already had agents in many of the major port cities. As other brewers scrambled to compete, the national spread of Burton-brewed ales was responsible for a change in tastes across the British Isles so that by the twentieth century brewers routinely ‘Burtonised’ their brewing water.

A similar shift in taste took place in the twentieth century. Since the late 1960s British drinkers have swung away from traditional ales and settled on lager as their beer style of choice. Most of these lagers are bland, nondescript and at best inoffensive, but they are certainly popular. Carling, which is brewed, ironically enough, in Burton on Trent, is Britain’s best-selling beer. In the last few years though, things have been changing. In the face of rising commodity prices, rising taxation, declining pub sales, and downward pressure on price from the supermarkets, traditionally brewed ales have been making a comeback and small brewers seem to be springing up everywhere. In fact sales of ‘real’ ales are rising despite an otherwise flat or falling overall market. Where there is quality, the effects of financial crisis and fiscal meltdown seem to be felt least of all.

So what about IPA and where might it stand in the apparent trend back towards real ale?

Not long ago I had a conversation with a group of friends and the subject of beer came up, as it often does. One of the women asked what that delicious lager was that they had been drinking a few weeks earlier and interestingly the ‘lager’ in question turned out to be Innovation, an award-winning, hoppy American-style IPA brewed by Adnams. One of the great things about Innovation, and many other ales of its type, is that it can stand being drunk straight from the fridge without losing any of that wonderful flavour, making it ideal for the exact situation where lager has dominated. Curiously, while the big name lagers are mostly bland affairs, aimed at the undiscriminating palate, what this little anecdote suggests is that big flavours are not necessarily a problem.

This is a small point, but an interesting one I think. The woman who asked the question is not an ale drinker and would turn down a pint of bitter. But she loved Innovation and what’s more she remembered it, even if she didn’t know what it was. Crucially, she would drink it again, if she saw it. If brewers could get IPAs of this type in front of a enough drinkers of premium lagers I think we might have a real cultural shift on our hands. A problem for smaller and independent brewers is that two generations of drinkers have grown up with the idea that lager is more refreshing, more ‘easy drinking’ than other kinds of beer. Hoppy, zesty IPAs could be the ales to change that perception.