1986: An Original Suffolk Microbrewery
Our story, akin to the finest narratives, unfolded over a few pints in a snug pub. In 1986, two old school friends, Ian Hornsey and Dick Burge, found themselves in a local tavern expressing their disappointment with the subpar local brews.
Ian and Dick's passion for beer was undeniable. They weren't just beer aficionados; they were experienced homebrewers. Ian brought his expertise in microbiology, while Dick's financial acumen completed this perfect partnership. Their lofty goal? To establish a real ale legacy in the heart of Suffolk.
Motivated by this vision, they began their remarkable journey. The first step was acquiring a charming 10-barrel Peter Austin microbrewery, located on the vibrant High Street in Clare, Suffolk. To honour its local heritage, they aptly named it Nethergate Brewery.
1987: The Birth of Old Growler & Suffolk County
In the early days, a blend of trial and error was spiced with generous "quality control" tasting sessions, all in pursuit of brewing excellence. This fervent period in 1987 marked the debut of Nethergate's inaugural real ale – the now-iconic Suffolk County, originally dubbed Nethergate's Best Bitter. Its introduction was met with immediate acclaim, captivating local ale enthusiasts with its rich chestnut flavour.
As Christmas 1987 approached, Ian was inspired to craft a festive special. The outcome was the delightful Christmas Cracker, a traditional 5% premium porter. It quickly became the highlight of the holiday season, so much so that its popularity persisted into the new year. To sustain this demand, "Christmas Cracker" evolved into Nethergate's second signature beer.
Nevertheless, the seasonal name felt out of place year-round. Ian and Dick, therefore, chose a more timeless name: "Old Growler," in homage to Ian's beloved bulldog, Growler. This name would soon become synonymous with brewing excellence.
Old Growler is our most celebrated beer, acclaimed with the Overall Champion title at the CAMRA Winter Festival twice and the Supreme Champion award at the Chicago International Beer Festival.
The exceptional quality of Ian and Dick's creations quickly made Old Growler and Suffolk County staples in local pubs. Their initial success propelled them to explore more daring brewing techniques, experimenting with vivid flavours and unique hops in their seasonal offerings, and introducing limited-edition specialty beers.
These innovative brews, including Golden Gate, Umbel Ale, Augustinian, and Umbel Magna, swiftly gained acclaim for their distinctive tastes, fueling Ian and Dick's passion to broaden their range. Between 1995 and 2000, they crafted a remarkable selection of seasonal ales, many becoming local favourites. This journey solidified their reputation as respected beer craftsmen in the community.
2004: Across the border to pentlow
With our beers' rising popularity in the new century, the need for a larger facility became evident. In 2004, production moved to a leased 45-barrel plant on a farm in Pentlow, Essex. This expansion wasn't just in facilities but also in team size. To maintain the consistent quality and reputation of our beer, Ian and Dick brought in more beer enthusiasts. Notable additions included Tom Knox (now Head Brewer and part-owner at Colchester Brewery) and Ian Carson (our current Head Brewer). They devoted time to training their team, transforming them into experts and custodians of the Nethergate beer catalogue. This dedication soon earned us widespread acclaim, garnering numerous awards from respected beer circles in the UK and abroad.
Did someone say awards?
2010: Growler Brewery
As Ian and Dick approached retirement, they sought a more passive role in their business and began looking for suitable investors to take the reins. In early 2010, a management team with rich experience from Adnams and Wychwood Brewery stepped in, taking over in October.
Driven by a relentless ambition to elevate our Suffolk brewery and beer selection to national fame, the new team launched into an array of exciting endeavours. Among these were quirky projects like brewing 'Gladness' with the famed band Madness and exploring sour beers, which, though enticing, might have been a bit too hasty in retrospect.
A pivotal moment was our bold rebranding from 'Nethergate Brewery' to 'Growler Brewery', complete with a revamp of our Old Growler recipe into the 3.9% ABV Growler Bitter - a surprising twist for sure. The shock continued as we discontinued long-time favourites like Augustinian, Golden Gate, and Suffolk County.
Unfortunately, we soon realised that these changes didn't align with our original vision to expand Nethergate's presence beyond East Anglia. In our eagerness, we strayed from our core identity as passionate brewers crafting beers for everyday enjoyment. The craft beer craze, while exciting, also brought its share of downsides.
This shift, combined with the tough market conditions of 2008-2009, led to financial difficulties and uncertainty about Nethergate's future.
2014: nethergate Resurgence: Cheers to cask & community
As the custodians of Nethergate, we can't help but marvel at the journey we've undertaken since the iconic Dick Burge, accompanied by a passionate band of pioneers, reclaimed the brewery in April 2014. What began as a nostalgic nod - resurrecting the beloved name 'Nethergate' - transformed into a fervent mission to revive the tradition of sharing quality beer with our cherished locals. Dick eloquently stated, "It's akin to a homecoming. My connection to Nethergate is deep, and I couldn't stand by and watch its demise."
Brimming with renewed vigour, we swiftly assembled a proficient brewing team, led by our maestro Head Brewer, Ian Carson. Opting for simplicity, we resurrected our classic brews—Old Growler, Golden Gate, and Augustinian—akin to playing a cherished old record.
Despite challenges, the outpouring of support felt like a reunion with dear friends eagerly awaiting our return as the beloved local brewer we once were. Guided by our dynamic executive team, spearheaded by Rob Crawford, we streamlined our focus on consistently producing exceptional beer.
From 2010 to 2014, our brewery underwent a remarkable metamorphosis. Guided by Ian's relentless pursuit of perfection, Stour Valley Gold joined our stellar cask ale lineup. Once perfected, this golden ale quickly gained popularity across bars in East Anglia, standing proudly alongside our classic selections.
2017: Long melford & bigger, better brewing
Echoing our 2004 expansion, the need for more brewing space and modern equipment became evident by 2017. We relocated to a spacious 2-acre site at Rodbridge Corner in Long Melford. This new facility boasts state-of-the-art brewing equipment, a two-story warehouse, office space, a welcoming taproom, and a dedicated shop!
To celebrate our new facility, Ian and the team crafted a brand new exciting beer with vigour—Venture, a session amber ale that resonated so well with patrons that it became a mainstay in our collection. The addition of Venture completed our core cask ale range.
Entering our second decade in Long Melford, our locale has proven to be more than just a brewery; it's a cradle of creativity and a beacon for beer enthusiasts across Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Hertfordshire, and Northamptonshire. This expansion has not only honed our core range to perfection but birthed exciting novelties like Nethergate Craft Lager, Growling Dog craft ale, and Venture Point Five, our celebrated low-alcohol offering.
In 2020, we embarked on a thrilling venture with the acquisition of two unique stills, affectionately known as Bonnie & Clyde. The following year witnessed the launch of Melford’s Gin, a dry Suffolk gin that added a delightful twist to our expanding beverage portfolio.
2024: The Future of Nethergate
Our journey is a testament to the power of passion, resilience, and community. From our humble beginnings in a Suffolk tavern to the bustling enterprise we are today, we've navigated challenges and embraced opportunities, all while staying true to our core values and principles. Ian and Dick's dream of crafting beers for the enjoyment of their community has not only been realised but has flourished beyond their wildest expectations.
Our commitment to growth and community engagement led us to transform a historic 200-year-old property in Bury St Edmunds into a charming shop and taproom. This picturesque setting serves as a beacon of our heritage, offering a space where patrons can immerse themselves in the Nethergate experience. It stands as a testament to the support of our incredible patrons, who have been pivotal in establishing this unique site in Suffolk and we hope that with their continued support, we can open more venues in the county over the years to come.
With a robust community of over 800 Nethergate members, a vibrant taproom in Long Melford, and the inviting Bury St Edmunds shop and bar, our bonds with the community are stronger than ever. We are filled with pride and excitement as we look to the future.
Here at Nethergate, we're not just brewing beer; we're crafting experiences, nurturing traditions, and building a legacy that resonates deeply with our patrons. Cheers to the future, and to many more years of sharing exceptional beverages and creating unforgettable memories with our beloved community.