Bread of Heaven – a cultural impact on the town, Wrexham Lager

by Dave Edwards.

Wrexham Lager Brewery

This account is intended to supplement the existing account of Wrexham Lager Brewery to be found on this website.

Wrexham has been noted for its beer since medieval times, owing to the excellent underground water supplies of the town.  “Good water meant good beer,” says Jonathon Gammond of the Wrexham Museum.  At one time, Wrexham had as many as nineteen different breweries, but Wrexham Lager was the very first Lager Brewery.

Wrexham Lager Brewery was the brainchild of German immigrants Ivan Levinstein (Minshull-street, Manchester, chairman) and Otto Isler (Marsden-street, Manchester). They and their colleagues from Saxony and Bohemia did not think much of the local beers and were sure lager could sell here. Eventually they found a hilly spot on Central Road in the west of Wrexham where the mineral rich waters of the River Gwenfro were similar to those of Plzen (Pilsen) in the modern day Czech Republic and the lie of the land was ideal for the deep underground cellars needed to mature the lager and to insulate it from external heat.

In 1881, work began on building the brewery.  It was built at great cost from the designs of an eminent German architect, skilled in the construction of breweries and was erected under his personal supervision.  We know they were still building in October of 1882, because a news item mentioned John Delaney, a labourer engaged at the Wrexham Lager Beer Brewery, who fell 18 feet from scaffolding to the basement and was taken to Wrexham Infirmary seriously injured.

The  German roots of the business are reflected in the Lager office building’s Bavarian style turret.  The new brewery was named the Wrexham Lager Beer Company and was the first lager to be produced in the UK when the brewery became fully operational in late 1882.  The local brewers were fascinated; decoction mashing, bottom fermenting lager yeast and double fermentation in the tuns were all techniques that got their tongues wagging. The Germans brewers saw exports ready for the taking, although the Wrexham Advertiser feared that the brewers might find our winters too warm for their lager.

As predicted by the Wrexham Advertiser, in 1882 when brewing began, the cellars weren’t cold enough to produce the clear golden lager required.  Drinkers being conservative, nobody local wanted this new lager drink anyway and the other brewers conspired to strengthen such opinions.

In May 1884, Wrexham Lager announced, ‘Issue of £25,000 in 2,500 shares of £10 each, bearing interest at the minimum accumulative rate of £6 per cent per annum … Prospectuses and full particulars to be obtained at the Offices, 49, Spring Gardens, Manchester. As brewing and ice making have been commenced, the Company are prepared to quote for both Beer and Ice’. In addition to Levinstein (chairman) and Isler, the directors in 1884 were Otto Horkeimer, Esq., (Lower Mosley-street, Manchester), Noah Kolp, Esq., (George Street, Manchester), and E. J. Scott (Richmond Terrace, Blackburn).

On 31st July 1886, the company decided to go into voluntary liquidation.  At that time Otho Horkheimer was chairman and the company offices were at Stafford Chambers, 14 Brown Street, Manchester.

The Lager Brewery faced ruin until the day when Ivan Levinstein met Robert Graesser by chance on the train to Liverpool.  Graesser was an industrialist with Monsanto chemical works at Cefn Mawr.  He had his own mechanical refrigerator and he felt it could cool the brewery’s cellars so he joined the company in 1886 and bought a majority shareholding in the brewery.  He introduced mechanical refrigeration, which kept the temperature at minus one degrees Celsius.

In July 1887, the Wrexham Lager Brewery Company wrote to the Town Clerk to express their regret over a discharge into the town brook from their brewery.  This had apparently occurred without their knowledge and they had suspended brewing operations until permanent alterations could be made which, they believed, would prevent any discharge ever occurring again.

In the summer of 1888, Mr. Alexander McGuffie of Glasgow was appointed as an agent for the sale of Wrexham Lager Beer for Glasgow and the West of Scotland.  It was reported that a large circle of consumers had hailed lager as a beverage possessing all the required properties.  The Wrexham Weekly Advertiser commented on the constant supply of water of the finest quality and cited it as an important factor in the success of Wrexham Lager.

An account written about a tour of the brewery in September 1888 described four large malting rooms, each of which possessed a flooring capacity for 600 to 800 measures of grain. The floor was of concrete, with an abundance of necessary equipment.  The grain which had been converted into malt was stored in malt silos; huge custom-built chambers, where it waited until it was wanted. At the proper time, the malt was mechanically conveyed to the various floors where it was needed, no hand being necessary to touch a grain.  After undergoing many processes, the brew-house was arrived at, and the mashing of the malt and the boiling of the wort (essentially, unfermented beer) was carried on under the eye of the experienced brewer, or as the Germans called him, the braumeister, Mr Philip Lorentz.  The contents of the mash tun were drawn off, and after careful examination, and much testing, discharged into the copper, where, by means of dry steam, the necessary heat was obtained for the further processes. Scrupulous cleanliness was observed.  The cooler was of large capacity and possessed a fan in its centre which was revolved in order to procure a constant current of cold air. In the basement was a 60-horse power engine which supplied the motive power.

Running alongside the cooler was the refrigeration machine, which produced ice for use in the brewery.  Several flights of stairs led to the storage cellars.  There were six ice cellars, all of which contained 26 large storage casks, each one capable of storing 1,100 gallons of the lager beer.  Along one side of the cellars was a huge room which was filled with ice.  No daylight ever entered that room and it was kept at a few degrees above freezing all the year round.  This was necessary for the preservation of the lager.

In November 1888, the Wrexham Advertiser announced that the Wrexham Lager brewery had perfected a new beer of the Pilsener type.  It was described as a light refresher and a good tonic.  It was noted that on the Continent Pilsener Lager was a favourite drink and while it was light, enjoyable and refreshing it never resulted in drunken brawls.  The Advertiser concluded by saying that they had tasted the Wrexham Pilsener and could thoroughly recommend it as “the best lager yet introduced into this country.”

Even though they began to win brewing prizes, the tied pub system ensured that there were few outlets in the town for Wrexham Lager and in 1892 (according to the Liverpool Mercury) the company was bankrupted. On Wednesday, 15th June 1892, at the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, Messrs. Bevan and Phennah were instructed to sell by auction all those Freehold premises called the Wrexham Lager Beer Brewery.  The outcome of this auction is unknown, but we do know that at an extraordinary meeting on 30th September 1892 it was agreed to wind up the company and one of the Directors was appointed as Liquidator.  On 11th October, the assets were sold by the Liquidator to Robert F. Graesser, who headed a consortium.

Graesser re-launched the Wrexham Lager Beer Company.  At a meeting of Wrexham Town Council held on Tuesday, 27th June 1893, a letter was read out that they had received from Mr. R. Graesser, speaking of his intention to install electric lighting at the Wrexham Lager Beer Brewery.  He asked the council for their permission to place a pair of overhead wires to convey the current at low tension from the brewery to his vaults in Hope Street.  The council agreed to this with the proviso that the wires were to be removed if required.

Like most businesses, the staff often had petty arguments.  On Monday 1st July 1895 at Wrexham Borough Magistrates’ Court, William Cords was summoned by John Henry Edge for having assaulted him.  Both men were employees of Wrexham Lager Brewery.  Edge said that when Cords served him with his customary allowance of beer he complained to Mr. Cord that there was a lot of pitch in the tin and then threw the beer away.  Mr. Edge denied that he had used bad language and thrown the beer on Mr. Cord’s feet.  He claimed that Cord had used bad language and struck Mr. Edge on the side of his head, causing him to fall against a steam pipe.  Edge had been served a week’s notice in consequence of his behaviour.  Sidney Leopold Livingstone and John Higgins gave evidence on behalf of William Cords and the magistrates stopped the case and dismissed it.

Wrexham Lager decided to aim their product at two big markets: The Empire and the Army. Soldiers besieged with General Gordon in Khartoum in the Sudan tried to drown their fears with Wrexham Lager before they were hacked to pieces by the forces of the Mahdi in 1898.  A letter received by Wrexham Lager Brewery on 5th October 1899 was written by a Staff Sergeant Major of the army Service Corps serving in Sudan.  It read:  “Gentlemen, I enclose herewith one of your labels which was taken off a bottle found in the grounds of Gordon’s Palace at Khartoum on 3rd September 1898.  I send it as a matter of curiosity just to let you know how far your Wrexham Lager Beer can be had.” 

More peaceful outlets included the Great Western Railway and the growing number of transatlantic cruise liners.  Wrexham Lager travelled well over water and the firm prospered, their ace of clubs logo becoming familiar everywhere.  The White Star Line used it on their ships because of its ability to maintain its taste and quality in transit.

Four main lagers were produced by the Wrexham Lager Beer Company: a golden Pilsener; a dark Bavarian lager; a light lager and an unfiltered dark lager.  The latter was particularly popular with local miners as it was a meal in itself and was usually available from the “brewery tap” on site.  Despite its teething problems Wrexham Lager, and lager in general, became a national success, making this building a very important part of the town’s history.

On 10th April 1900, a new company was registered by Jordan and Sons Limited, of 12C Chancery Lane, London and given the name of The Wrexham Lager Beer Company, Limited.  The registered office was situated at the Wrexham LAger Beer Brewery, St. Mark’s Road, Wrexham.  The first governing director was Robert F. Graesser.

As with most industries, accidents do happen and sadly, on 21st August 1906, a brewer named Mullah was in the cellars of the Wrexham Lager Brewery attending to his usual duties when a vat with the capacity of seventy barrels burst.  Mullah received terrible injuries as a result.  He was taken to his private quarters in the building where two medical gentlemen administered aid.  His face was found to be smashed to the extent that he was unrecognisable and his chest was badly crushed.  His recovery was considered to be doubtful.

Otherwise, everything seemed to progress satisfactorily at the lager brewery, apart from some arguments over the direction of the company.  The only hassle came during the First World War when the German head brewer, Julius Kolb, was interned on the Isle of Man as an undesirable alien.  Anti-German feelings threatened sales, although the loyalty of the Graessers was never in doubt.  The Coventry Evening Telegraph of 11th October 1916 reported that “Justin Wilhelm Kolb, under-brewer, has been given exemption as “indispensable” until November 30th.  Whether this was the same Mr. Kolb or his relative is not known.  On Thursday, 7th December 1916, Justus Wilhelm Kolb (they clearly had difficulty with his name) applied for further exemption, but the claim was disallowed.  He was a maltster and under-brewer at Wrexham Lager Brewery.  The brewery had made every effort through the Board of Trade and the universities to secure a man able to brew this particular class of beer, but with no success.  Although Mr. Kolb had been passed for garrison duty abroad, as he was of alien extraction he could only be utilised for home service.

On Monday, 18th December 1916 another attempt was made by the Wrexham Lager Brewery to have Justus Wilhelm Kolb, of 1 Central Road, exempted from military service.  It was stated that he was the only trained employee engaged in brewing who could do the work, other than Mr. E. R. Graesser.  The application was based on the fact that the man was indispensable and 50 of the 76 other trained members of staff had joined the army.  The Lager Company promised to release Mr. Kolb if they could ever find a suitable substitute.  In the meantime, it was noted that Kolb hardly ever left the brewery at all and was willing to remain under military or police supervision.  The tribunal decided to grant exemption until 18th April 1917, conditional of Mr. Kolb remaining in his occupation.  Leave was granted to the military representative to appeal to the Central Tribunal.

In 1922, Wrexham Lager purchased the Cross Foxes (now Last Orders) public house, Abbot Street, which became its first outlet in Wrexham.  In that year, the Cross Foxes, Wrexham, also became the first place in the UK to sell chilled beer when the landlord of the Cross Foxes had the idea to serve lager cold.  When another brewery in Wrexham closed down, Wrexham Lager purchased the freeholds of their tied houses which brought the number of their outlets up to 23.

The Graesser family ran the brewery successfully but during the second world war their export trade was lost and after the war it became difficult to regain that lost trade.

In 1949 the Wrexham Lager Company was bought by Ind Coope of Burton upon Trent.  The popularity of lager increased and in the early 1960s Ind Coope invested £2.5million in a modernisation programme at Wrexham.  A series of mergers between Ind Coope, Tetley Walker and Ansells followed and they collectively became known as Allied Breweries, forming the biggest brewing group in Britain.  Wrexham Lager had a cultural impact on the town, and the brewery once sponsored Wrexham F.C.  To this day Wrexham fans still sing Bread of Heaven, substituting the words “Bread of Heaven”, with “Wrexham Lager”.

In 1992 Allied Breweries joined forces with the Danish brewers, Carlsberg, to become Carlsberg Tetley. This new company ran the Wrexham Lager Brewery until its closure in the year 2000.  The iconic brew continued to be produced in Leeds until 2002, when the decision to end the production of Wrexham Lager was taken.

The original Wrexham Lager brewery and the modern brewery buildings were demolished during 2002-3, although the Grade II Listed office building has since been renovated.  A small retail park, “Central Retail Park“, has now been built on the site of the former unlisted buildings.

In 2001, Martyn Jones, a Member of Parliament for the nearby Clwyd South constituency, who was also a former microchemist at the Wrexham Lager brewery, bought the original name and building for £1.

In 2010, local businessman Mark Roberts and his brother Vaughan Roberts met with Ian Dale, who was the brewing manager at the former Wrexham Lager plant upon closure.  They discussed the possibility of reviving the Wrexham Lager brand and negotiated with Martyn Jones for it, although certain rights regarding the old logos remain with Carlsberg-Tetley, precluding their usage.  They are currently using a new logo until they claim the rights for the old logo.

The revived company, which employs six people at St. George’s Crescent, operates from a state-of-the-art brewery.   The Roberts family hired John Bowler a renowned brewery engineer to set the specification required by Ian to brew Wrexham Lager once again.  The contract to build the brewery was given to German manufacturers Kaspar Schulz of Bamberg, who arrived in Wrexham in May 2011 with many truck loads of equipment.  It took them three and a half months to set up the brewhouse and in mid-September they began to test the equipment and commence trial brewing.

Using the original ingredients from an older version of the lager, Wrexham Lager was once again made available on Saturday, the 29th October 2011 at the Buck House Hotel in Bangor-on-Dee.  Alan Hayes and his family, the owners of Buck House, organised auctions for local charities and music, including a performance by the Brymbo Male Voice Choir.

Since that time, Wrexham Lager has been expanded to a range of pubs throughout the country, including several pubs within Wrexham itself; such as the Golden Lion, which was reopened on 7th November 2011.

The new beer sold 1.3 million pints in 2012, a level assisted by the anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which due to the original firm’s contract with the White Star Line, resulted in Wrexham Lager being widely believed to have been sold on the ship.  Based on this success, the owners have announced an expansion that will increase production tenfold, with the aim of selling 13 million pints within five years.  It has also been reported that the firm is in negotiations to have the lager served upon Clive Palmer’s replica Titanic II.

In 2017, some 6,550 beers, wines and spirits from 36 countries took part in the prestigious Concours International de Lyon competition, where Wrexham Lager received a silver medal.

Martyn Lewis, microbiologist and honorary president at Wrexham Lager, and head brewer Ian Dale are delighted by this prestigious award.

WRITTEN BY: Dave Edwards 2017.

SOURCES: Nick Bourne (BBC); Daily Post (2009); Jonathon Gammond (Wrexham Museum); London Gazette (6th August 1886); Manchester Guardian (24th May 1884); Wrexham Advertiser (16th May 1884; 30th July 1887; 22nd September 1888; 3rd November 1888; 1st July 1893; 6th July 1895; 21st April 1900;); Cheshire Observer (28th October 1882); BBC North East Wales; Wikipedia; Wrexham History website; The Liverpool Mercury (28th May 1892); The Manchester Courier (22nd August 1906); Coventry Evening Chronicle (11th October 1916); Liverpool Daily Post (8th December 1916); Llangollen Advertiser (22nd December 1916);

Also read:

Britain’s Original Lager Brewery – Wrexham Lager

Wrexham Lager – The Legend So Far 2015

Wrexham Lager Charity Gala Day 1987

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