Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Battle Between The Brewing Smiths

You can spend too long sat inside reading old newspapers and cataloguing old postcards. There comes a time in the affairs of man when he should .... well when he should find a good pub and have a decent pint of beer. The weather was fine, my time was my own, and my Great Yorkshire Pubs blog was in need of updating : so off I went to Tadcaster. I am not sure why I went to Tadcaster, I didn't set out with the intention of going there but I was drawn by the powerful aroma of hops and malted barley. Tadcaster - which is a few miles west of York - is a brewery town. The pub I visited was the wonderful Angel and White Horse and if you want more information about it you can find it on my updated GYP Blog. But before having my pint I walked around town looking at two of the remaining three breweries : Samuel Smith's Old Brewery and John Smith's New Brewery. The story behind these two breweries with similar names is worthy of re-telling.
The oldest of the breweries was, appropriately enough, the Old Brewery which was built in 1758 and by the 1840s it had come into the ownership of a certain John Smith. John Smith built up the business, expanded the trade, modernised the plant and equipment and thrived. He was joined in the business by his brother William and by the two sons of his sister Sarah Riley. When John died in 1879 he left equal shares in the business to his brother William and another brother, Samuel, who had a tannery business in Leeds. On their death, the will stipulated, the business should pass to their heirs. There were three problems : the first was that William had never married and therefore had no heirs, the second was that Samuel Smith - or his heirs who were set to inherit the business - had never been involved in the running of the brewery, and the third was that no mention was made of the nephews Frank and Henry Riley.
A plan was hatched between William Smith and his nephews. And plot of land within a quarter of a mile of the old brewery site was obtained, a new purpose-built brewery was constructed and the trade, the fixtures, the fittings and the acquired expertise were craftily and rapidly moved there. As this new building didn't figure in John Smith's will it passed to Frank and Henry Riley on his death (the brothers rather cheekily had changed their name to Riley-Smith in the meantime). When Samuel Smith and his son (another Sam) arrived to take control of their legacy all they found was an empty building and a marked absence of trade.
Samuel Smith rebuilt the business trading from the old brewery and his company became Samuel Smith's. The Riley-Smiths had the advantage of the new large brewery and they traded under the name of John Smith's.
There was no love lost between the two firms and one can almost imagine raiding parties being sent out from one to make mischief at the other. Who won the battle between the Brewing Smith's? In some ways it is difficult to call. John Smith's grew faster and eventually became a powerful national brand. But then it got caught up in the wave of twentieth century mergers and acquisitions, first becoming part of the Courage Group and now part of the international Heineken Group. Samuel Smith remained comparatively small, trading locally but achieving an international reputation for its quality beers. In some ways the battle was one between traditions and technology. At my local pub they have both Sam Smith's and John Smith's available. I always have a pint of Sam's. For me tradition wins.


  1. Ha! What a wonderful piece of history! All of these stories would make a wonderful book - I get hooked every time I read your blog.

  2. Anonymous5:21 PM

    Alan, fantastic story! LOL! about the stripping of the old brewery. Spot on about the cheeky-ness of it all, but crafty, yes? I'll have to check out your other bloggos again. I missed the pub one!

  3. Catch with this posting - it made me instantly want a beer and there wasn't any in the house!

  4. Ive drunk gallons of the stuff but never knew the history behind my hangovers!Infact,I dont think (shame on me)Ive ever been to Tadcaster!
    Your talk about brewery smells remind me when i was a kid & we lived near Ramsdens Brewery in Halifax(where the Bank (nee:Building Society ) now sits.The smell nearly knocked me out of my Pram each time she took me into Town!
    Alan.Have You ever been to The Marble Arch in Manchester?One of my supping haunts recently.They brew on site.a Smashing Place!

  5. Great story. My gut feeling is you're making the correct choice with Sam based on the history you've presented.

  6. there is certainly something to be said for come up with some of the most amazing tales. cheers!

  7. Thanks all, glad you enjoyed it. It is just a pity that I couldn't buy you all a pint of Sams at the Angel and whilst we talked blogs.
    Tony : I remember the old Ramsdens Brewery well and I have to say that the site was better used as a brewery than as the corporate headquarters of a failed bank.

  8. I live in Alaska and I happened to come across Samuel Smith's India Ale in the back corner of a local liqueur store. I've never felt such elation by simply drinking a beer. Unfortunately it was the very last one in stock and they had no plans of bringing it back.. that was a long year ago.. today, after much diligent searching and many phone calls made over several months. I found it. I bought 3 of 5 and left the others so that someone else might find the same joy I did. It's my favorite brew. The carbonation is unlike anything else and it may sound funny but I truly feel like I'm transported back in time on every sip.


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