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How Reading was once a brewing powerhouse

By Steve Charnock
19 April 2022
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The story of how Courage transformed the town of Reading into a brewing powerhouse renowned the world over.

Famously, Reading was always known for its ‘Three B’s’: biscuits, bulbs and beer. With good reason too. 

The population, profile and prominence of the place grew exponentially after the introduction of its railway station back in 1840. Soon, Reading would become noted for the runaway success of its three most successful businesses. As the 19th century progressed and British manufacturing became the envy of the world, a trio of firms emerged as leading lights in Reading.

Fast forward 180 years or so and, aside from the odd building or business park that shares a name with one of those entrepreneurial types that ran the Simonds brewery, Suttons Seeds or Huntley & Palmers, there’s precious little remaining of any of the three firms. Although, notably, Reading’s major town centre landmark - The Maiwand Lion - was sculpted by William Blackall Simonds.

READ MORE: Three innovative craft beer breweries in the South East of England to watch

Suttons Seeds - the ‘bulbs’ - are now headquartered down in Paignton. While Huntley & Palmers - the ‘biscuits’ - are happy enough at their Suffolk base, after their re-establishment as a company in 2006. 

It’s beer we want to talk about here, however.

The story of Reading’s brewing explosion works as something of a microcosm of manufacturing in this country. It’s also a perfect example of how business worked and works in the 20th and 21st centuries as tastes and markets change and globalisation cemented itself.

Image courtesy of d40tucker/Flickr

William Blackall Simonds established the Simonds Brewery on Reading's Broad Street all the way back in 1785. The Kennetside site steadily grew until it had various buildings in the then-quite modestly-sized town centre. Beer brewed where The Oracle hosts shoppers now was soon a favourite all around the country. 

A century of sustained growth turned Simonds into a brewing force, with its ‘Hopleaf’ IPA becoming a particular favourite amongst beer drinkers, especially British soldiers overseas.

READ MORE: How Hofmeister Beer was brought back from the dead

In 1960, Courage Barclay & Co. Ltd, a company started in London in 1787 (just two years after Simonds), merged with the Reading brewer to become Courage, Barclay, Simonds & Co Ltd., later simplified to just Courage Ltd.

In 1972, Bristol-based Imperial Tobacco - one of the world’s largest tobacco companies - acquired Courage, by this point one of the UK’s biggest brewers.

Six years later, with production rampant and the siloed Reading town centre sites becoming logistically problematic, the operation was moved a few miles south - to Worton Grange - an area between south Reading and and today’s M4 J11. A short walk from where, in 1998, Reading FC’s new Madejski Stadium would open and, for a few seasons, host Premier League football.

Image courtesy of d40tucker/Flickr

Here's where things get complicated… 

In 1986, Imperial Tobacco was bought out by The Hanson Trust for a cool £2.5bn. Hanson then sold the Courage arm of the business to the Australian agribusiness Elders IXL (more specifically, the Elders Brewing Group division). Elders soon changed their name to the Fosters Brewing Group. The Courage brewing arm merged with brewers Grand Metropolitan. The Scottish & Newcastle brewery then bought Courage and changed its name to Scottish Courage. They would later sell off the Courage brands to Bedford's Wells & Youngs Brewery. 

Follow that? It all happened in just 21 years.

Across those two and a bit decades, Courage upped production quite substantially. John Smiths, Kronenbourg and Fosters would all be brewed out of Reading during that time. 

The thing is, markets operate on supply and demand and tastes can change.

Wine, lager and coffee were taking over from traditional ales as the tipples of choice in pubs, bars, restaurants and homes. You probably know where this is going…

In 2008, Courage announced that the 58-acre site next to the M4 was to close because of ‘an over-capacity in the UK brewing industry’. It closed in 2010 and was demolished the following year. Closure of the Worton Grange site was described as ‘the most viable option for going forward’.

Image courtesy of d40tucker/Flickr

Just like that, large-scale brewing had left Reading. With Huntley & Palmers having closed down in 1972 and Suttons moving to Devon four years after that, it was the last of the town’s B’s to disappear. On the Worton Grange site now? One of Tesco's major national distribution centres.

A dozen years on however, and the 'B' for ‘Beer’ is back. Although now it’s technically a ‘CB’. A burgeoning craft beer scene in Reading gives pleasing echoes to the town’s past with serious craft players Siren Craft Brew leading the way out of Finchampstead. Tilehurst’s Double-Barrelled Brewery, Silchester’s Wild Weather Brewery and the town centre’s Phantom Brewing Co. are all emerging favourites too, while smaller operators such as Elusive Brewing and nanobreweries like Dolphin Brewery add extra flavour and body. Then there’s the more traditional beers of the West Berkshire Brewery and Loddon Brewery. All have RG postcodes, all operate in an area with a rich history of making really rather delicious beer.

With such a burgeoning brewing scene back in the town, does this mean we might soon see a return to those Three B’s? It seems unlikely. The 'B' for ‘Beer’ might be making a comeback, but the other two seem less likely to make a resurgence in the town. No matter how temptingly delicious craft biscuits sound.

READ MORE: Best restaurants for a business lunch in the Thames Valley

Today, Reading is the de facto capital of the Thames ‘Silicon’ Valley. As with the rest of Britain (and, indeed, most of the western world), manufacture is no longer a focus. The ever-growing Berkshire town has moved with the times and evolved. 

It's a business-centric place with a strong IT and communications focus, one that's still an ideally-placed hub for all forms of transport and logistics. So perhaps Reading should now be famous for its Three T’s: Telecoms, Technology and Transportation.

There’s one other T that shouldn’t be set too far aside, though… Tradition

T.S. Eliot once called tradition 'the means by which the vitality of the past enriches the life of the present.' We like the sound of that. As we live in the present and look to the future, we should always pay our respects to the past. And, every now and again, raise a toast to it. 

No champagne though, please. We’ll charge our glasses with a beer.