Rip up the past, lose the future?

How necessary are brewery archives?


Craft beers are cultural butterflies. I don’t mean they flit from one thing to another. I mean most live cruelly short lives, capturing our attention for just a brief moment before they’re gone forever. Label designs come and go. Beers are brewed, drunk, and forgotten within the space of a few months.

The pace of change may have slowed a little recently, dampened by the pandemic, but within the breweries themselves, it is compounded by the usual daily churn of emails, documents, details, sales receipts, recipe sheets, early drafts of design ideas… All the digital froth that informs the intangible side of a brewery’s space in the world.

How much of this culture we all love do we lose forever each year? We can burn through our days in a heedless rush of the now, or we can stop to think about what we will leave behind. For the brewers the question becomes even more focused. What are you creating? Are you building something that will last, a legacy? How do you know it won’t be forgotten?

A continuous thread

Guinness has it better than most. It possesses a long history, a large archive, and enough money to pay someone to look after it full time.

The archive consists of about 7,000 boxes of documents dating back to the mid-1700s; a further 150 cabinets of advertising material including original Gilroy artwork (“My Goodness, My Guinness” and the iconic toucans); daily brewing records from 1870 onwards in “massive big ledgers”; and large collections of artefacts, memorabilia, and photographs.

All of this stuff is housed in the brewery itself. From her desk, archivist Eibhlin Colgan can smell the malt roasting.

For Eibhlin, the Guinness archive is more than just a record of the firm’s trading for 260 years. “It’s memory,” she says. “It’s evidence of our culture.” The archives give an insight into what drove the Guinness family in the late 1700s to early 1800s, and enrich what the firm does now by putting it into historical context.

Guinness Storehouse c.1910

The value in knowing your culture and knowing where you come from translates into commercial value, too. In practical terms, this means that the stories Guinness uses in its branding aren’t tales spun in isolation, but are backed up by material from the firm’s past. “When consumers look at the Guinness brand they know it stands for something, because Guinness has the stories to back that up,” says Eibhlin.

This value extends beyond the marketing department. Brewers find value digging out handwritten recipes from the 1700s. Academic researchers find value poring over the 150 years of staff records to trace the fate of Guinness men who fought in the First World War. Visitors find value piecing together the lives of their ancestors — Guinness was the largest employer in Dublin, and therefore in Ireland, for well over 100 years. “It can be emotional for people going through those records,” Eibhlin tells me. The archives make this possible.

Eibhlin’s favourite artefact is the lease Arthur Guinness took out on the brewery in 1759. “I know it sounds a bit obvious,” she says. “But the fact that we do hold that original lease, with Arthur’s original signature, it’s such an incredibly invaluable document to the [Guinness] story.”

When it was first established 20 years ago, the archivists had two centuries’ worth of material that needed sorting, assessing, and cataloguing. The important thing was to decide what pieces were worth keeping. Eibhlin might dispose of most “routine” documents, for example, but opt to keep those with links to specific events in the brewery’s history, or in world history.

This is particularly relevant for the times we’re living through now. In 100 years’ time people will be interested in Guinness’s reaction to Covid, just as we now look back to see how the brewery conducted itself during the First World War.

“There’s a huge onus on us to collect and curate material as it’s being created,” Eibhlin says. Still, it is neither possible nor desirable to keep everything. Her job is to identify what will be useful for future researchers, and enrich that by providing provenance and context. To do this, Eibhlin says, it’s important to know your collection well. “A lot of archivists tend to work on their collections for a serious length of time,” she tells me. “You really get to know them.”

So what should breweries be keeping hold of? “Ultimately what you’re looking for is evidence of decisions,” Eibhlin says.

This begins with high-level things, like the decision to start up in the first place. “Articles of incorporation are very important,” Eibhlin says. Clearly recipes are crucial but other production records are hugely important: evidence of what grains and other ingredients the brewers used, including those which were tested but didn’t make it into released products.

“It’ll be incredible to be looking back on recipes when nobody drinks IPAs anymore,” Eibhlin says. “What was this phenomenon from the early 21st century?”

Information on a brewer’s customers is useful too. Eibhlin tells me Guinness is regularly asked for historical evidence of its trading with various pubs. “In 100 years’ time, for the microbreweries and craft beers of today, it’ll be really interesting to see, where did you start? What breweries did you have links to? Did you just sell in your local area?”

Brewers should ask themselves what they would like their legacy to be for their children. “In 20 years’ time you’d want them to know about this business that you’ve set up. Think about it like that and what records you’d need to keep to be able to show that evidence. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of data,” Eibhlin says.

Starting up again

Archives can do more than shine a light on the past. They can also inform and shape the present. When Jamie Allsopp, seven-times great-grandson of the original Samuel Allsopp, decided to re-found Allsopp & Sons Brewery, 60 years after it disappeared into hibernation, all he had to go on were “a few Allsopp’s jugs and the desire to do it”. Jamie was never going to be content merely to slap the Allsopp’s name onto a new brewery. He wanted a real connection to his family’s brewing past. Had he not been able to hunt down the firm’s scattered archives, his desire would have been thwarted.

Allsopps was once one of the great names in British brewing. In the 1800s it brewed IPAs in Burton, sent pale ales to the Baltic states, bucked up intrepid polar explorers with its Arctic Ale, and even built the first big lager brewery in England. But, as Jamie puts it, “these glorious successes were eclipsed by spectacular failures”.

Allsopp's first fleet of vehicles

In the 1880s the firm suffered a disastrous stock market debut from which it had to be rescued. It went into receivership in 1911 and had to be rescued again. And it tried to save itself many times by merging with other brewers, all to no avail.

Eventually Allsopps merged with Ind Coope in 1934. This was “more of a takeover,” Jamie tells me, with Ind Coope dropping the Allsopps name in the 1950s. In 1961 Ind Coope merged with two other breweries to form what became, two years later, Allied Breweries. What was once the Allsopps brewery continued to change hands, with Tetley, then Carlsberg, and finally Molson Coors all sweeping through. When the dust settled the Allsopps archives were lost, scattered, and forgotten.

The brewery’s archives were gone, and the family also had precious little left. “Nothing significant or of any use in restarting the brewery,” Jamie says. He had heard of one recipe book. Unfortunately that had been lent out in the 1960s and never returned (as Pete Brown recounts in his book Hops and Glory).

What little was left, in the National Brewery Museum in Burton, was literally saved from a skip outside the brewery. “It’s quite difficult to piece it all back together again,” says Jamie, who is constantly looking out for material to buy back and reincorporate into the archive.

It took “a year of dead-ends” before Jamie tracked down an original Allsopps recipe book from the 1900s — the only surviving one he knows of — which had fetched up in the possession of a Leeds brewer named Steve Holt, of Kirkstall Brewery.

“I drove straight up there,” Jamie says. What he found was a big, beaten-up, red leather book with handwritten pages. “It was exactly how I wanted it to look,” Jamie recalls with a laugh. Here at last was the key with which Jamie could reopen a door to the past, and also unlock the future. “I was over the moon to find it,” says Jamie. “It was central to the rebirth of the company.”

It is from this book that Jamie was able to reinterpret a range of beers that led to the Allsopps brand relaunching a year later. Reading it, Jamie says he felt “the weight of my ancestors breathing down my back saying don’t mess it up again”. Jamie describes the book as a bridge in time between now and the old brewery that gives his IPA an air of authenticity.

Also crucial were the red hand logo and trademarks. These too had been blown far and wide by the winds of commerce. Some were lodged with Carlsberg. BrewDog owned, and even had plans to use, the logo. Jamie was able to retrieve these too and use them to form his brand as a recognisable continuation of what came before. “These aren’t my recipes, these are my ancestors’ recipes. These aren’t my designs, these are the advertising that their company has produced. We are the next iteration of Allsopps,” he says.

Jamie says he sometimes thinks about how difficult it must be to launch an entirely new brewery these days. “I’m redesigning a 300-year-old brand. It’s a complete joy and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be doing it. But to be starting from the ground up, to build up a story is a very difficult thing.”

Allsopp's postcard


There’s an idea that objects become possessions through the continued act of ownership. The everyday routine in someone’s life has its effect. It leaves a patina. The leather on a watch strap smoothed by years of use. The ring’s shine softened by a thousand tiny scuffs. We infuse these small items with our personality. Arthur Guinness’s signature on the lease.

What might beer lose if breweries don’t archive? Certainly recipes, logos, stuff that will help future minds understand what we know as beer today. But more than that, we would lose the touch of the human hand, the personalities of those involved.

Human life is short. Human memory is weak. If we want to leave something for those who come after, to help them to know who we were and what we did, we should hold onto what’s important, be that documents, photographs or artefacts.

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