Delicious, Strong and Exquisitely Fine

PUBLISHED: 10:55 28 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:33 20 February 2013



Beer, cider, perry and wine have been made for hundreds of years in Monmouth and the Wye Valley, where all the ingredients are readily available. The flavours and methods of production may have changed, but breweries, orchards and vineyards in the...

Beer has always been the preferred drink in Monmouth and the Wye Valley, and there is a long tradition of malting and brewing here. The medieval 'Welsh' Ale was very sweet, more like barley wine, and was regarded as 'glutinous, heady and soporific'. A land rent paid to the church of Worcester in Offa's time included 'three hogsheads of Welsh ale, sweetened with honey', which was then the commonest drink in Wales. At Monmouth brewers were obliged to pay Castle Couches - a toll of 17 gallons for every brew - to the king.

In the 17th century most beer was brewed on the premises of inns such as the Vine Tree in Monnow Street in Monmouth, or in the brewhouses of large estates. The malt was supplied from a growing number of maltsters at Monmouth, Redbrook, Tintern and Chepstow. Water was essential for brewing, and Charles Heath wrote in 1804 : 'The soft water used for washing or brewing purposes is sold in casks, which the housekeepers purchase of people employed in hauling it, with a one-horse team, from the Wye, - at a rate of 6d the half hogshead'.

During the 19th century, elsewhere in the country, larger and more commercial brewing enterprises were established, but in Monmouth although there were 14 maltsters in the 1830s it took another 30 years before George Tippins, maltster, went on to open the Monmouth Steam Brewery Co. in Inch Lane during the 1860s, about the same time that William Dugmore was brewing in St James Street. In 1884 George Tippins was listed as a maltster and corn merchant in St Mary's Street, and Walter Alabaster was the brewer and a wine and spirit merchant at the Brewery, Worcester Street.

In 1888 Alabaster's Monmouth Brewery was brewing Pure Malt Beer and supplying 'Mild Beer at 10d per Gal, Light Bitter Beer 1s per Gal, Beaufort Pale Ale 1s 2d per Gal, Strong Stock Beer 1s 6d per Gal'. The brewery continued until 1924 when it went into partnership with George Cossens, an ale, stout and cider bottler, and wine and spirit merchant, in St Mary's Street, and two years later it was taken over by the Newport brewery, Lloyd & Yorath Ltd.

The earliest breweries in the Monmouth area were across the River Wye at Redbrook. One was established by Richard Sims in 1825, another by James Hall, a wine merchant, who acquired the Upper Redbrook Brewery in the 1830s, and the third by Charles Herbert the following decade. In 1853 James Hall ceased brewing, and three years later Charles Herbert sold the Redbrook Brewery to Thomas Burgham.

The Burgham family ran and extended the business, and supplied at least 22 licensed premises either owned or tied to the Redbrook Brewery. In 1923 Ind Coope & Co took over the business and in 1926 most of the brewery buildings were demolished.

In 2005 on the west bank of the Wye at Whitebrook the Kingstone Brewery opened, and now produces a range of real ales including the Three Castles Brew, Classic Beer, Gatehouse Ale and Miller Ale. The Kingstone Brewery is now located at Tintern, where a selection of over fifty ales can be sampled in The Real Ale Shop.

In the 17th century cider was renowned for its medicinal powers, as described by John Evelyn: 'Generally all strong and pleasant cider excites and cleanses the Stomach, strengthens Digestion, and infallibly frees the Kidnies and Bladder from breeding the Gravel Stone'. Defoe in 1726 followed this with 'so very good, so fine and so cheap.......great quantities of this are sent to London, even by land carriage tho' so very remote, which is an evidence of the goodness of it beyond contradiction'.

Undoubtedly much cider and perry drunk in Monmouth originated in Herefordshire. But in 1786 Edward Davies, the Chepstow poet, wrote;

No better cider does the world supply

Than grows along thy borders, gentle Wye.

Delicious, strong and exquisitely fine,

With all the friendly properties of wine.

And at Monmouth in 1804 the town's notable antiquarian, Charles Heath, noted that the 'rich orcharding and fruit trees, producing the best kinds of cider and perry' were to be found along the banks of the Wye.

Cider was sometimes produced as a cash crop, but was usually drunk by the farmer's family and his farm workers. In the 19th century it was customary to pay labourers in cider and perry. Cider is made from bitter-sweet apples, which are richer in sugar but rather unpleasant to the taste as they contain a lot of tannin. After crushing the apples and pressing to extract the juice, farm cider was produced without the addition of cultural yeast, as the fermentation relied on the natural yeasts in the apples to produce a still, cloudy, acidic, invigorating and thirst-quenching drink. This was much appreciated during the heat of the summer when the farmer would provide bread, cheese, and cider for those helping with hay-making, a practice that continued into the 20th century.

Although very little cider seems to have been produced on a commercial basis during the 20th century, several cider makers have set up in the past few years to cater for the increasing popularity of cider and perry.

Several pubs in the Wye Valley now serve farmhouse cider including Ty Gwyn Cider made at Newcastle in the Monnow Valley. This refreshing medium cider is made on the farm from 40 year old apple trees producing such varieties as Brown Snout and Vilberie. Ty Gwyn Cider can be bought direct from the farm, at Redbrook Village Stores or in Monmouth from Fingal-Rock in Monnow Street. It is also served at The Bell Inn at Skenfrith, The Stone Mill restaurant at Rockfield, The Bell Inn at Redbrook and the Riverside Hotel in Monmouth.

Springfield Cider is produced at Llangovan in the beautiful Monmouthshire countryside, where a variety of true cider apples produce a range of Welsh Cider including Farmhouse, Old Barn and Sledgehammer, a strong cider matured in oak casks. The apples grown in the orchards on the farm are carefully selected and handpicked, washed in natural spring water and freshly pressed in the traditional method. Springfield Cider is also available from Fingal-Rock and Ross Feeds in Monmouth.

In Roman times wine was imported to the Monmouth area in amphorae, and during the Saxon period imported and home produced wines were available, with monasteries and priories tending their own vineyards. From the 12th century wine was imported from France to Chepstow, which enjoyed a long association with the wine trade. In the 13th century 'Wine cost 1s 6d a hogshead and, although there was a vineyard at Osbaston in Monmouth, most wine seems to have come through Tintern where it cost twopence a day for storage'.

Today there is the Ancre Hill Vineyard on the outskirts of Monmouth, a vineyard that was planted in 2006 and 2007 with four varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Seyval Blanc and Triomphe, which was harvested this autumn. The Monnow Valley Vineyards at Osbaston were planted in 1979 and in 1988 with vines grown on the steep slopes of the valley to produce grapes for a medium-dry wine that is fruity and full of character. At Pen-y-Clawdd, a few miles west of Monmouth, the Werddu Vineyard was recently planted with several varieties including Reichensteiner, Phoenix, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to produce some organic wines in the future.

From the late 18th century T. Taylor of Carmarthen was importing 'Old Red and White Port Wines of the best quality' into the Port of Bristol, Nathanial Purchas from Fownhope in Herefordshire was advertising 'French Brandy, Jamaica and other Spirituous Liquors', and Gardners in Gloucester were selling a range of wines, ports, Madeiras, Clarets and Champagne from France. So it is not surprising to discover that in 1769 John Powell of Monmouth founded his wine and spirit business in Agincourt Square about fifty years before James Hall at Redbrook. The Powell's wine and spirit business descended through the family and into the 20th century with C. Powell in 1888 selling Champagnes including 'Heidsiecks's Dry Monopole' at 84s per dozen bottles, which can still be purchased today for approximately £170 per case.

In the 1890s there was a family grocer and wine and spirit importer in Agincourt Square run by William Hall who claimed to have been 'established upwards of a century', and may have been a descendant of James Hall from Redbrook who continued as a wine and spirit merchant in Monmouth after he ceased brewing. In 1948 William Hall & Co were supplying a variety of food and drink including wines and mineral water. At this date mineral water, to cater for the more temperate drinker, was manufactured by C N Ballinger who since the 1890s was known for 'Ballinger's Famous Mineral Waters' from the nearby Pont Mynwy Mineral Water Works and later from their works in Glendower Street.

The only independent wine merchant in Monmouth today is Fingal-Rock, wine shippers and merchants, in Monnow Street. Here the proprietor aims to stock hand-picked wines, with individuality and interest, and to offer better quality at reasonable prices. He also sells cider from Ty Gwyn, four varieties of beer from the Kingstone Brewery, and a choice of three wines from the Monnow Valley Vineyard. A few locally produced ciders, beers and wines are also available at Farmers Markets and from some supermarkets in the area, demonstrating that the Monmouth drinks industry is definitely thriving and its produce well worth drinking.

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