ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Lost Breweries: A is for Ash Vine

I've been regularly drinking beer for about 25 years now, which probably makes me just about qualified to reminisce about breweries that have slipped from our horizons.

It's easy to forget that this even happens, given that we've been reaping a seemingly endless harvest of new breweries for many years now. But some, indeed many, breweries go beer-belly-up for various reasons, so this is the first in a series of posts where I look back wistfully - or in this case, not - at a few of them. Starting with West Country micro Ash Vine.

And if you're sitting there thinking 'Ash Vine... Hmm.. were their beers as boring as I remember?' then you're pretty much on the same wavelength as me! And if the name draws a blank, it's probably further proof of the singularly unmemorable nature of their beers. Their many, many all-very-similar beers...

Ash Vines to Ash Vines

Based in Frome, Somerset, they started out in the late 1980s and spent most of their existence in a rural brewpub - the White Hart in Trudoxhill - but few would've heard of them or sampled their beers until their rapid expansion in the mid-90s. They began to distribute nationwide, moving to the far larger Frome site, and getting on the Wetherspoons list at a time when Spoons themselves were just starting to expand outside of London.

Beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones wrote about the Ash Vine expansion at the time. Things were looking good. Their beers were everywhere.

And then, suddenly, Ash Vine went to the wall around the turn of the millennium, just before the number of microbreweries in the country began to increase exponentially.

I had 'Eye of Newt' at this Wetherfest. Or was it 'Vampire'?

So, what went wrong with this brewery who seemed to have it all?

If you were a ticker in the 1990s, Ash Vine were a Godsend in their prolificness. Every time there was an angle to be exploited - Euro 96, the Rugby World Cup, Wimbledon, Halloween, Christmas, you name it, they brewed a beer for it. Generally a 'different' beer each time, too.

(For all I know, the beer they probably brewed to commemorate Jim Broadbent's 48th birthday was different from the one they brewed for his 47th!)

But most of them were indistinguishable from one another. Paleish 4.something % best bitters that didn't go overboard on the hops or the malt or indeed anything that might risk imparting some flavour. Maybe a tiny hint of Fuggles or Challenger if you were lucky and really tasted hard.

Yes, this was the time before we all got hooked on overdoses of New World hops but there was still scope for some variation, surely? They did a series of single hop beers (well of course they did, they did a series of fucking everything) none of which had enough of the damn things in to serve as a limp handshake, let alone a full-blown introduction to the variety.

(Incidentally the best Ash Vine beer was probably one of their standard offerings - Black Bess Porter - simply because it was actually different from most of the stuff they were churning out and had a slightly sweet toastiness about it if I remember correctly.)

But the blandness and sameyness of their beers doesn't really explain why they suddenly went under at a time when the future seemed bright, at least in terms of numbers and distribution? After all, other breweries have deployed the same tactic. Like Cottage with their endless train-themed ales, and Welton's who never miss an opportunity to cash in on an event.

(As an aside, I recently tried Windsor & Eton's 90 Glorious Years, a beer brewed to celebrate the 90th birthday of our longest-reigning monarch in history. An opportunity to brew something different, something spectacular, right? Like a 9% Imperial White IPA or something. Instead this 'special' beer is a bog-standard, bland 4.0% bitter that tastes exactly like any number of everyday beers...)

Ash Vine were far from alone, so what happened? Did Tim Martin have them dropped from the Wetherlist? Did they borrow too heavily for their larger brewery and suffer debilitating cash-flow issues? (I've seen this happen to far better breweries than Ash Vine). Did they go down the less cask, more bottling route and find the demand just didn't exist at the time?

If anybody does know what actually happened to Ash Vine, do let me know. I never heard anything about founder Rob Viney going on to another brewery somewhere else, but for a time in the late 1990s, Ash Vine's star briefly shone. Unlike most of their beers.

Ash Vine 1987-2001

1 comment:

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