In worshipful company

The Worshipful Company of Brewers, one of the oldest livery companies in the City of London


On the last day of summer term at my secondary school, some of the teachers would let us bring in snacks and play music, turning the final lesson of the year into a mini celebration. At Dame Alice Owen’s School, a state academy in Hertfordshire, they go one considerably better. 

No mere classroom parties for them. No, at Dame Alice Owen’s on the last day of the school year, a distinguished visitor in a fur-trimmed robe arrives to hand out ‘beer money’ to every pupil in a solemn, mostly silent ceremony that dates back to 1881. It’s not a lot of cash – between £1 and £10 depending on the year group – but everyone gets it. Doesn’t matter if they’re soon to go to uni or yet to turn 11, that ‘beer money’ is theirs to do what they want with. How much of the cash actually goes on beer is anybody’s guess, but you’ve got to imagine that the local pubs probably do quite well out of it. 

That distinguished visitor is the Master of the Worshipful Company of Brewers, the elected head of one of the oldest livery companies in the City of London. A sort of networking group for the brewing industry today, whose 56 member breweries account for 90 per cent of the beer sold in the UK, the Brewers’ Company (as it’s more usually known) for centuries had almost total control over brewing in the City. Granted its first royal charter in 1438, but in less formal existence from at least 1292, the Brewers’ Company was created to protect the brewing trade – if you wanted to brew beer in the City, it was the Company’s rules you had to follow.  

A quick explainer for those not familiar with the finer details of governance in our fine capital: the City of London, which has its origins in the small Roman settlement of Londinium, is part of London but is a separate jurisdiction with its own Lord Mayor. The livery companies – there are 110 of them today, including the Brewers – and their liverymen, aka members, play a crucial role in the election of the Lord Mayor.

The Brewers’ Company has had a charitable role going back over the centuries, which is where the ‘beer money’ tradition comes in. Celebrated at Dame Alice Owen’s and Aldenham School, both of which were set up by philanthropically minded associates of the Brewers in the early 1600s and still in receipt of considerable support from the Company, ‘beer money’ is a nod to its role, in centuries past, of providing pupils with beer as a safer alternative to dirty drinking water. 

The third Brewers’ Hall, Aldermanbury Square in London

“When water became safe to drink there was no longer a requirement to provide beer and so that was substituted by money,” explains Michael O’Dwyer, clerk of the Company. “Now it's purely ceremonial.”

The Brewers are pretty good at the ceremonial stuff, as you might expect from an organisation that dates back more than 700 years. At the end of big Company lunches, where liverymen – senior directors male, female and otherwise of a member brewery – get together to hob-knob about the brewing business, the Master stands up to toast the Queen and royal family. The usual tipple for toasting at this sort of event would be port. The Brewers do it with…yep, you’ve guessed it. 

“The Master chooses a beer from his brewery,” explains Michael. (Elected annually, the Master tends to be an industry veteran, a top executive of one of the Company’s corporate members.) “It's usually very strong, a sort of Imperial Russian stout or a vintage ale. Something a little bit different that you don't want too much of.”

Another quirk of the Company is that all new liverymen must sign a ‘Freedom Bond’, essentially a promise that, if she or he should go on to become Lord Mayor of London, the high costs associated with that office won’t be passed on to the Company. In reality, that’s pretty unlikely to happen – there hasn’t been a Brewer Lord Mayor since 1800, the candidates these days coming mostly from industries more closely associated with the modern City of London, such as finance. 

Only breweries producing over 5000 barrels of beer a year are eligible for membership, and “because there now aren’t lots of big London breweries, there aren't Brewers’ Company liverymen who have been brought up in the City and have that affinity with the City in the same way that used to be the case,” explains Michael.

Of the 56 current members, none are actually based in the City, and only two – Fuller’s and Five Points Brewing Company – are even in London. That’s all thanks to a decision made in the 1990s to extend membership to British and international breweries, a decision made in response to a new legislation limiting how many pubs a brewery could own. 

“There was lots of amalgamation and consolidation and the consequence was that there weren't enough [big] London brewers for the Brewers’ Company to keep going,” says Michael. Forced with a choice of either widening membership to individuals and companies only peripherally related to brewing or opening up the Company first nationally and then internationally, they went for the latter. 

That was before Michael’s time but he’s in no doubt that it was the right thing to do: 

“We're regarded quite jealously by lots of the other livery companies and I think we are more effective, because [the liverymen] are all still directors or senior executives of breweries, so when they meet, the conversations that they have are all proper, useful, commercial conversations in a social setting.” 

Ed Mason, founder and MD of Five Points, who became a liveryman in 2021, agrees. “One of the things that appeals to me most about the Brewers’ Company is that alone amongst the City of London guilds, it exists solely for the original trade for which is was established, and you still have to be a brewer or brewery owner in order to join. 

“It is a fantastic opportunity to meet with other breweries and share ideas and experiences - there are breweries of all shapes and sizes and I am impressed that they are striving to be as representative of the current brewing scene as possible.”

There’s a limit to how representative the Company can be in terms of its membership, given the 5,000 barrels a year requirement (other members include the likes of Carlsberg and Diageo alongside big independents such as Titanic and Brakspear) but that’s not to say that the rest of the industry is left entirely in the cold. The London Brewers Alliance, a loose collective of breweries that includes Gipsy Hill Brewing Company, Nirvana Brewery and Pressure Drop, have held events at Brewers’ Hall for free – “the only quid pro quo is that I can stand up and give a bit of history about the Brewers’ Company,” says Michael. 

The Company also supports the wider industry through its grants programme, offering academic scholarships, funding research projects and soon, Michael hopes – cashflow permitting – contributing to the costs of professional brewing qualifications for those brewers whose employers are too cash-strapped to be able to support.  

The second Brewers' Hall courtyard

“There is still definitely a diversity problem [in brewing],” says Michael, “and we'll be able to help that.”

There’s certainly a diversity problem at the Brewers’ Company itself – women and people of colour make up a tiny proportion of the Company’s 200 liverymen.

“Our pool are the directors of the British brewing industry and the British brewing industry, at director and senior manager level of the size of brewery that you have to be [to qualify for membership], is still predominantly white and male,” Michael explains. 

It’s a problem they’re keen to address and are “working very hard” to rectify, he goes on, mentioning a recent equality and diversity audit and the conversations the Company has with its member breweries about the importance of diversity when it comes to nominating their staff as liverymen. “We're improving quickly, but it'll take a bit of time to catch up,” he says.

The Company has the time to make those changes. “We’re the trustee of close to £100 million pounds of endowed funds. And as an endowed fund, you can't spend the funds, you can only spend the income from it. So there's going to be a role for looking after that forever,” Michael says.

“Beer is going to be around - certainly for a very long time, I can't necessarily say forever - and so brewers are going to be around. So the future of the company is pretty secure as long as it remains relevant and as long as it contributes.

“It'll change, it’ll become more diverse. All these things will be a good thing. But I think we will still be meeting on the same site we have since 1292 in another 200 years.”

Images: The Brewers’ Company

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