Ghost walks: beer digression

Worthington's White Shield car, National Brewery Centre, Burton-on-Trent, UK

Worthington’s White Shield car, National Brewery Centre, Burton-on-Trent, UK

A few posts ago, I wrote about following the course of the mostly hidden Kumutoto Stream through Wellington’s CBD.  The stream flowed past what is now the Wellington Club at 88 The Terrace.  Back in the 1840s, this site was home to Drake and Northwood’s Wellington Brewery – Wellington’s first brewery – which used water from the Kumutoto stream for brewing.

I wondered what kind of beer the brewery might have produced, and what the nearest equivalents might be from the fine craft beers that are brewed here these days, and so I asked my friend Vance Kerslake, from Island Bay’s very own Rascal’s Beer. Vance was inspired to digress from perfecting the recipe for his recently launched Oktoberfest beer, to do some further research about the brewery and its beers to which I’ve added some research and speculation of my own.

Drake and Northwood’s Wellington brewery was owned by Mr Thomas John Drake and his neighbour, Mr Thomas Northwood.  I’ve not been able to find anything out about Thomas Northwood, but Thomas Drake was an old Etonian and a descendant of Sir Francis Drake.  He arrived in Wellington on the ‘Aurora’ with his wife, Ceres Selina, and baby daughter in 1840. 

It appears that Drake and Northwood did not do their own brewing.  Two brewers are on record as having worked at the brewery: Mr Kilminster who had worked as a ‘brewer and maltster’ when he lived in Bath, England; and from 1849, Frederick Sedgwick Abbott who had worked at Abbot’s Bow Brewery in the East End of London.  By the time Frederick Abbott started brewing there, the brewery seems to have been taken over by a John Wade.  I’ve not been able to find out for sure, but I wonder if this might be the same John Wade after whom Wadestown is named.    

See below for reference

See below for reference

Given that both Mr Kilminster and Mr Abbott learnt their trade in England, the type of beer they brewed would no doubt have been in the style of English beers brewed at that time.  In 1843, the year it started operating, the brewery was advertising ‘Ale’ and ‘Table Ale’.  These would probably have been low alcohol everyday beers.  ‘Ale’ would probably have been amber-coloured or darker, and fresh.  It’s also likely that the brewery might have brewed porters, which were more aged than ales, and stouts, which were stronger and even more aged – both popular beer styles in 19th century England.

Advertisement for Wellington brewery

See below for reference

Abbot’s Bow Brewery, where Frederick Abbott worked as manager, was previously Abbot Hodgson’s Bow Brewery.  In the late 18th century, George Hodgson ‘invented’ India Pale Ale (IPA) and started exporting it to India.  IPA became particularly successful in India because this well-hopped and higher alcohol beer style benefitted from the conditions of the long sea voyage.  So it could be that the Wellington Brewery might have also brewed IPA, at least during the short period that Frederick Abbott worked there. 

In 1847, the brewery was advertising for Chevalier Barley, a variety of barley that has recently been revived and appears to have had a distinct flavour that mellowed over time, making it more suitable for aged beers like IPA and Porter.

chevalier barley

See below for reference

However, the pale malt used to make the English IPA that was being imported to India would have been made in coke-fired malt kilns. It is much more likely that the Wellington Brewery would have malted its barley using the plentiful supply of wood in the Wellington area, resulting in a darker and smokier malt.

While English-style ales, porters, stouts and IPAs are all brewed in New Zealand these days, Vance cautions that these styles of beers would have tasted very different in the 1840s.  The raw ingredients, as well as the processes used for malting, brewing and fermenting were all very different from those used in modern brewing. 

  • The barley used was higher in protein and more nutritious but produced cloudy turbid beers.
  • As I’ve noted above, malting over wood or coal fires would have produced darker, smoky malt.
  • The malting process would have produced malt with a more ‘grainy’ flavour.
  • Boiling over a wood or coal open fire in big copper vats would have produced some kettle caramelisation which tastes sweet, caramelly and a bit buttery.
  • Sanitation was unknown so unless the beer was really fresh it would have had some element of souring to it.
  • All the yeast strains would have been mixed strains including wild strains that sometimes produce sherry, green apple, cherry, buttery, or all manner of other flavour compounds.

As Vance says, no one really knows what beer in the 1840s would have tasted like. However, I couldn’t resist trying to think of some modern-day equivalents, mainly as an excuse to drink them, as I’m very partial to both sour and smoky flavours in my beer – these are the beers that I came up with.ghostbeer

The brewery closed in 1850, after only a few years in operation.  I’ve not been able to find out why. If the John Wade who was running the brewery in 1849 was the Wadestown John Wade, it could be because he left for the California Goldfields, never to return, in the same year.  

From the very early days of the colony, beers were imported from England, including India Pale Ales.  It is likely that the ales being produced by the Wellington Brewery would have struggled to compete, at least on taste, with imported beers from England produced using more modern technology, in particular the India Pale Ales that had been conditioned on the long sea voyage to New Zealand. 

Worthington's White ShieldAs with other styles of beer, the IPAs that were being exported from England to the colonies in the 19th century were very different from modern day IPAs.  However, Worthington’s White Shield, brewed in Burton-on-Trent, uses a recipe that is supposedly little changed from the 19th century.  In fact, Pete Brown, the English beer writer, took an IPA based on the Worthington’s White Shield recipe on his recreation of the journey of IPA to India in colonial times which he describes in his book ‘Hops and Glory’.  It just so happened that when I was on holiday in the UK recently, I spent a happy day at the fascinating National Brewery Centre at Burton-on-Trent where the Worthington’s micro-brewery is based.  I sampled the White Shield at the Brewery Tap on the museum site and very nice it was too.

And as for the owners and brewers of the Wellington Brewery:

  • Mr Kilminster, one of the brewers, moved to Porirua where he helped to construct the Porirua Road through Johnsonville and Tawa.  He apparently lived a ‘very quiet life’, until he passed away in Thorndon at the age of 97, on the same day as his wife who was 95.

  • Frederick Abbot, the other brewer, later moved north to Hawke’s Bay where he founded the settlement of Abbotsford which is now Waipawa.

  • Mr Drake moved to Johnsonville, also living a ‘very unostentatious life’ and dying in 1889 at the age of 75 after suffering for some years from an ‘internal complaint’ (hopefully not caused by drinking beer from his brewery). Part of his farm in Johnsonville was on land where Grenada village has since been built and the Caribbean names of the streets there acknowledge Mr Drake’s ancestor who buccaneered in those parts.  He was buried, along with his wife and daughters, in the Bolton Street cemetery.

Thomas Drake's grave


Brown P (2009) Hops and Glory
Irving-Smith F L, (1948) The Streets of my City

Image references

1849 advertisement for Wellington Brewery, National Library

1843 advertisement for Wellington Brewery, National Library

1847 advertisement for chevalier barley, National Library