Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Ridleys return to the Compasses, Littley Green

Most of my posts up to now have had something of a valedictory tone. By way of balance, this one is more of a “welcome back”. A few weeks ago, at Chelmsford beer festival I noticed some beers from the Compasses brewery, which I had never encountered before. A little bit of research revealed it is based at the Compasses Inn at Littley Green in rural Essex.

Now, I am familiar with the Compasses, although have not visited in many a long year. It was the brewery tap for Ridleys, which had operated a classic Victorian tower brewery under family control since 1841 in an equally rural setting at Hartford End, just a couple of miles away from the pub.

That is until 2005, when the brewery and Ridleys’ 70 odd pubs were acquired by Greene King. At this point in any Greene King acquisition story it is customary for the term “rapacious predator” to be applied but, in this case, things are not quite so straightforward as it seems that Ridleys had put themselves up for sale. Whether Ridleys was unviable in the longer term or it was a case of the family cashing in is beyond the scope of this piece but it seems to me inevitable that, at some point, most of the established family brewers will either go bust or the owners will decide to sell out. After the takeover things proceeded in the usual fashion. The brewery was promptly closed and stripped out, some of the Ridleys beers were dumped and a few were retained, brewed by Greene King in Bury St Edmunds.

Six years on the brewery still stands empty, redevelopment having, as usual been bogged down by planning wrangles, although it seems that a proposal for a housing development retaining part of the original structure is now in the offing

As for the Compasses, it operated for a few (presumably unsuccessful) years as part of the Greene King estate, followed by the customary attempt to sell it as a private house. Until, finally, it was sold to Joss Ridley, a direct relative of the original Ridley brewing family, who has reinvigorated the pub and decided to get back into the brewing business. I’m not sure whether he intends to install a brewery at the Compasses but, for the time being, the beers are brewed at Felstar brewery, just a few miles down the road. Their first beers appeared in May of this year. Fittingly, they are brewed by Joss’ brother Nelion. I wish them all the best in their endeavours.

There were three Compasses beers on the list at the Chelmsford festival – Gold, Special and Bitter. Unfortunately, the Gold was nowhere to be seen on either of my visits. The Special was a sweetish, fruity best bitter with caramel and nutty notes, perfectly well executed but not entirely to my personal taste – I’m just not that keen on that type of beer. The Bitter was a traditionally styled bitter, pleasantly drinkable although the malts seemed a little raw and toffeeish – probably still something of a work in progress. But it is invariably preferable to try the beers on their own turf than in, often less than perfect, beer festival conditions so it’s perfect excuse for an excursion into the Essex countryside to sup some fresh beers and sample the famous huffers (look it up).

A good opportunity would be this weekend, August 19-21, when there is a beer festival (with lots of other attractions too) at the Compasses. Unfortunately I am otherwise engaged so my return to the Compasses will have to wait a little bit longer.  

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