ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
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Friday, July 14, 2017

Lost Breweries: G is for Gibbs Mew

It's hard to believe, given the relative ease with which we can enjoy 8-10%+ DIPAs and Imperial Stouts these days, but there was a time, specifically the time when I started drinking, when almost all beer was in the 3.7-4.6% ABV range.

4.8% beers were, without a trace of irony, branded as 'Strong Ale' and if a beer was a whole 5 per cent, well, you'd genuinely have people shaking their heads, making a 'fwhooosh' noise, and saying things like 'Better not have too many of those!', 'Watch out for brain damage!', and 'Rather you than me, you criminally insane spazzbucket of derangement!'

No, really. They said things like this about 5% ABV beers in the early 1990s. Yeah, technically we had the 9% 'super strength' lager in cans, apparently consumed only by vagrants, and there were a few bottled exceptions like Whitbread Gold Label Barley wine and Thomas Hardy's Ale, but in a pub you'd struggle to find strong beers on draught, and if you inquired as to their existence, you'd be viewed with deep suspicion. You want a strong ale, have this one. 4.7%. Go easy on it there, boy.




How strong did you say it was?!?

And that's one of the reasons Gibbs Mew of Salisbury stood out among the regional breweries of their day. Their flagship beer, Bishop's Tipple, weighed in at 6.5%. And that, in them days, was a fairly big deal.

They brewed it, I believe, all year round; you could get it on cask in their pubs in the West Country (and indeed often in London Wetherspoons) and it had a fairly wide availability in bottled form, with quite elaborate, colourful branding for its time.


After Gibbs Mew closed in 1998, the beers were contract-brewed by Usher's of Trowbridge, who themselves didn't last many more years. Bishop's Tipple was reduced to 5.2% and was a shadow of its former self.

And when Usher's went the way of all flesh, the brand was subsequently acquired by Wadworth's and changed yet again - apparently it's now down to 5% but still marketed as a 'strong ale' as if we're in the early 90s.

The current incarnation, courtesy of Wadworth
But back to the original, which, in its day, was pretty distinctive rather than the generic ordinary beer it has become. It was a proper Barley wine, albeit at the weaker end of the BW spectrum, with loads of dried fruit and rich, sweet toffee, which appealed to my younger palate perhaps more than such a beer would do today.

Other Gibbs Mew beers were fairly nondescript and didn't generally travel East very often. I can barely remember what their bitter tasted like - it was an uneventful ordinary beer and perhaps nothing to shed tears over. (Salisbury is, however, a shockingly shite place to drink now, and this may well have been part of a broader effect of the closure.)

This is of course another barely explicable example of a regional brewery with a decent estate - around 300 pubs - that essentially spent decades building up a business, a brand, a product, a reputation, an identity... and then allowed it to disappear into the ether in the space of a few years.

How many younger people drinking the bland Waddies version of Bishop's Tipple today will even realise that this name is literally all that's left of a once substantial, if not great, brewery?


Gibbs Mew 1898-1998

2 comments:

  1. In the early 80s, as a recently married young chap, my wife and I loved jumping in my first car and exploring England. Even then beer was my favourite hobby, and it was great to stay in far off counties with their own regional breweries (my own was Kent, Sheps and Fremlins). Staying in Glastonbury, about 1981, with a couple of friends, I drove us all to Montacute one day to visit the great N't stately home there. The house not being open for an hour or two, we parked up and wandered into the village. The Phelips' Arms, I remember it well. What was on handpull? Gibbs Mew Bishop's Tipple. It was wonderful, the best beer I'd ever tasted. I can't remember if they advertised the abv. Probably not, or I wouldn't have had 4 pints of it. I figured an afternoon in the house and a cream tea would sober me up before I drove back, hours later. I guess it did, but I remember us all giggling childishly in the dark halls of the house as the tudor portraits looked on.. I have some photos of the brewery in Salisbury, and I have an (empty) nip bottle I bought from a great little shop they had in the city. I don't think their other beers had a great reputation, but I thought they were OK, if maybe not that memorable. I was very sad when the brewery closed though.

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  2. Gibbs Mew greatly expanded their tied estate in their last years by buying pubs from the former Big Six, which may have contributed to their downfall. The 1979 Good Beer Guide shows them as only having 55 pubs, but by 1996 the figure had risen to over 300.

    Apart from Bishop's Tipple, though, their beers never had much of a reputation, and they were regarded as being near the bottom of the Third Division South amongst family brewers. The 1994 GBG describes their Premium Bitter as "A truly bland and uninteresting beer".

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