Horsing around

Meet Robinsons Brewery’s ambassadors


Robinsons Brewery’s new shire foal was born at 4.10am on the day of my call with operations manager John Robinson. Her show name - Hillgate Cordelia’s Charm – had been decided by the time we spoke but the family hadn’t yet settled on what the filly would be called day-to-day.

“We’re just booting around names at the moment and we’ll see what we end up with,” John says. He’s clearly thrilled about the new arrival, the third shire foal to be born into a shire breeding programme that the brewery started in 2018. 

Shires have long been an important element of life at Robinsons, with past duties including moving loads within the Stockport brewery as well as making deliveries to nearby pubs. The two shires that work there these days are saved the heavy lifting of their predecessors, however: 12-year-old Bobek and 6-year-old Mojo play more of an ambassadorial role. 

“They fly the brewery’s flag,” says John. “They are a marketing tool now really.”

Bobek and Mojo appear at new pub openings pulling the brewery’s dray, take part in May Day parades and compete at shire horse shows up and down the country. (In 2018, Mojo made history by becoming the first brewery shire since 1959 to be named champion of the National Shire Horse Show.) 

They’re also a central part of the visitor centre experience. “People like to see the brewery but the thing they all really want to see more than anything else is the horses,” says John with a chuckle. “They’ve got more followers on social media than any of our beer brands or the brewery itself or any of our pubs.” 

The birth of Hillgate Cordelia’s Charm (John later texts to tell me that her stable name is Dilly, which is certainly less of a mouthful) is especially good news following a difficult time for the Robinsons breeding programme. 

Last year one of the brewery’s brood mares died suddenly, probably after being fed something over the fence by a member of the public. Boris, her four-week-old foal, was left orphaned, entirely reliant on Robinsons head horsewoman Helen Preece, John and his family. 

“Even though the circumstances around his mum passing were terrible, you then had something else to focus on,”

says Helen.

“He was on feeds every two hours to start with. That’s around the clock. Luckily for us he took to it fantastically. He’s thriving.” 

The brewery usually aims to sell on the foals born as part of the breeding programme, to either another breeder or brewery, but they’re making an exception for Boris. 

“We’ve all become incredibly attached to him,” says John. “He’s like a dog, he’ll sit in the field and have cuddles. So Boris isn’t going anywhere.”

He’s still too young to pull the brewery dray but John hopes that Boris will work for Robinsons one day. And once he’s been registered as an official shire horse, they’ll be able to breed from him too.

Of the handful of British breweries like Robinsons that still keep horses, an even more exclusive group continue to use them for local deliveries. Hook Norton, in the Cotswolds, is one of them. 

The brewery’s coachman, the appropriately named Nick Carter, drives the brewery’s shires, Nelson and Commander, on deliveries to three local pubs. (There’s a third horse, Lucas, but he’s retired, living a pampered life at the visitor centre.) Pulling a dray that dates from 1940, the horses move around 10 barrels at a time, which equates to approximately half a tonne.

“The locals were up in arms that they weren’t out over lockdown,” says Nick. “We get photographed every time we’re out and about, which is really nice. They’ve got a huge following in Hook Norton village.” 

The shires are temperamentally well suited to the work, says the coachman, being naturally patient and “slow and steady” as a breed. But there’s still a lot of training that goes on, ensuring the horses are prepared for a huge range of different scenarios.

“We can’t work how we did 100 years ago, mainly because of the traffic,” he says, warming to a subject he’s clearly passionate about. 

“Cars are obviously a lot faster; they fly around country lanes. Being on the brewery yard it’s quite busy. We’ve got forklifts, lorries and tankers, so they see it within quite a safe environment before then going out onto the roads with it.”

Twenty-first-century brewery horses are at least saved the backbreaking labour of turning a mill wheel day in and day out, grinding the malt and pumping the water necessary for the brewing process. While not as numerous as the horses required to pull drays, mill horses played a crucial role in the commercialisation of brewing that took place in the 18th century. 

We think of steam as the major driver in the boom of British brewing, explains historian Thomas Almeroth-Williams in his book City of Beasts: How Animals Shaped Georgian London, but in fact it was a long time before steam engines were widespread. Until that point, brewery horses “facilitated a surge in production and profits, upon which all further advances in brewing were built,” he writes. 

Horse gins were finally phased out by the 1820s but many breweries continued to rely on draught horses for another hundred years or more (with a blip during the first world war when they were requisitioned, serving in the cavalry and pulling artillery). Hook Norton stopped using them in 1950, later than most, in favour of lorries; it would be 35 years before working shires were reintroduced.

Adnams, in Suffolk, only retired its draught horses in 2006, compelled to do so because the busy road to and from the brewery’s new distribution centre would have been too hazardous for the horses. Chris Orchard, now a tour guide at Adnams Visitor Centre, remembers vividly his last day there as head horseman: “It was terrible really. It was pretty emotional and I’m not terribly emotional.”

The Adnams horses, a French breed called Percherons, returned to the farm where they were born in Lincolnshire. Chris never saw them again: “It’s not fair on the horses to go visit them. It’s not fair on us either.”

That sense of fellow feeling between human and horse is evident in everyone I spoke to for this article. For Helen Preece at Robinsons, working with the brewery horses is “more of a vocation than a job. You have to love it. I wouldn’t change it for anything.” And that’s coming from someone whose working day begins at 7am, or as early as 4am on show days. 

There’s also the commitment shared by many in the industry to the future of heavy horse breeds, including shires. Once a common sight across rural Britain, there are now fewer than 1,500 shire horses.

“It’s really important that we try and keep tradition alive and bring it forward into the present day,” says Nick Carter. “There will come a point where our kids or the next generation of kids will not meet these horses if we don’t do something.”

For John Robinson, it’s about more than the numbers. For him, the fate of shire horses is a family matter. 

“The brewery wouldn’t have got to where it’s got if it hadn’t been for the shire horses. The brewery’s grown on the back of the fact that the shire horses can deliver all our beer for us, so we owe them a lot,” he says. 

“The country owes them a lot as well because of all the stuff they did during the war. They’re a slightly forgotten, undervalued breed in terms of what they’ve done for our country historically, and it’s nice to give them something back.”

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