Wychwood chopped down

Witney brewery latest victim of Carlsberg Marston’s cost cutting drive

The home of Hobgoblin is to close its doors in November after Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) swung the axe on yet another once independent brewery. Production of Hobgoblin will now be concentrated at the group’s huge brewery in Burton-on-Trent, and the future of the Witney site is unclear.

The news was long awaited following the closure of CMBC-owned Jennings brewery in Cumbria, and the decision to sell off Ringwood brewery in Hampshire. CMBC has also sold off the former Charles Wells brewery in Bedford to Spanish brewing giant Damm, saying beers produced there – including the Young’s beers after this London brewery closed in 2006 – would be brewed elsewhere in its estate. The group’s other major production centre is the former Banks’s brewery in Wolverhampton, and that is set to take over brewing of the Brakspear beers produced in Witney after Brakspear’s Henley-on-Thames brewery closed in 2002.

Brewery production was moved to Burton for casking and bottling. Image: Oxford Mail

CMBC’s plans to close Wychwood have ben condemned by CAMRA National Chairman Nik Antona, who said: “CAMRA never wants to see the closure of any brewery, be it large or small, traditional or contemporary, and too many across the UK are shutting their doors forever at an alarming rate. The proposal to close Wychwood brewery in Witney this November is the latest in a growing list of casualties at the hands of global brewers.

“Whilst it is heartening to know that the Wychwood brand will continue in some fashion at CMBC and the iconic Brakspear Double Drop beer will live on at Banks’s, it is a great shame for Oxfordshire to lose such a classic, recognisable brewery. Fresh off the heels of closing Jennings brewery in Cumbria and selling off Ringwood brewery of Hampshire, it is worrying to see the UK’s brewing heritage slowly erode. The diminishing consumer choice at the hands of the commercial giants is of great concern.”

His words “in some fashion” may bring a wry smile to many drinkers’ faces, as most will be able to recall some of the once independent beers that were moved away following a take-over, with many saying they taste nothing like the original. But the general public is often unaware that many beers claiming to have a local identity are in fact brewed far away, one example being Morland Original, once of Abingdon but now of Bury St Edmunds, home base of Greene King. At least Brakspear beers continued to be brewed in Oxfordshire, but not any more.

Hobgoblin has become an international best seller due to clever marketing, and is instantly recognisable in bottle and can although the draught beer is on the wane locally with not one single pump of it being spotted during last week’s beer census in central Oxford. The use of the sneering hobgoblin figure asking: “What’s the matter, lager boy, scared you might taste something?” proved to be a massive hit especially with younger drinkers, with Hobgoblin becoming the beer of choice at many music festivals and similar events. But Hobgoblin had to move with the times, and a few years ago the original beer was rebranded as Ruby while Gold and IPA versions were produced to cater for changing tastes. Speciality beers produced in Witney included King Goblin (6.6%).

Wychwood forged strong links with the community, employing shop workers and tour guides until these operations, with the short lived tap room, were closed down a couple of years ago. It hosted a major family event every Hallowe’en – Hobgoblin being promoted internationally as “Unofficial Beer of Hallowe’en”, “best sipped in the dark”. The brand’s Marketing Manager, Joanne Wyke, was quoted in 2020 saying: “Consumer spending on Hallowe’en has almost doubled since 2013 to become the second biggest drinking occasion after New Year’s Eve. 49.5 million pints of Hobgoblin have been sold in the UK in last 12 months, and during lockdown the beer has delivered phenomenal growth.”

Jon Tilson (left) with former head brewer Jeff Drew, who retired in 2016

The six-strong brewing team in Witney, headed by Jon Tilson who first joined to do work experience in 1992, now face redundancy. More would normally have been employed at such a brewery, but production was taken by tanker to be put into barrels or bottles at Burton-on-Trent, leading to some disputes about whether Hobgoblin was really local. Success of the brand led to some production moving to the Midlands a few years ago.

What will happen to the Witney site? CMBC only leased it, and it is possible that brewing could continue here as some small independent breweries are keen on expansion. Demolition of some of the site is also possible, with more housing space in demand despite the current rather difficult access from Corn Street.

Part of the site dates back to 1841 as Eagle Maltings, malting barley for Clinch’s brewery, which was taken over by Courage and closed in 1961. In 1983, part of the site was rented by Glenny Brewery, with Chris Moss then taking over and renaming it Wychwood Brewery in 1990. The brewery was taken over in 2002 by Refresh UK, a Marston’s subsidiary, with Marston’s taking over fully in 2008.