Beer Tours UK at prayer - photo special
Updated: Feb 11
We have had some fairly unusual and quirky brewery visits over the past few years - from farmyard sheds to stately homes - but this was the strangest yet,a working brewery in a restored Victorian church: the unique St Annes Brewery hidden away in the tiny Shropshire village of Lea Cross, just south of Shrewsbury.
I had kept the venue a close secret from the tour group, so when we turned up outside the church there was some surprise - and maybe a little consternation. But then the empty casks outside gave a pretty good clue that they were going to get a bit more than communion wine.
Some two years old, this fascinating brewery run by publican Chris Jones has been blessed with success this year - winning Overall Gold at the SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) Wales&West beer competition with Iron&Fire, a 7.5%abv strength stout infused with Brazillian coffee. It will be judged in the SIBA National Beer Competition in March 2020. The top title came after taking the gold award in the Specialist Ale category. Major Stout (7.00%) also snatched the gold crown in the Strong Beer category.
The church has an intriguing and, more lately, rather tumultulous history. Built in 1888 by Samuel J Hawkes,who was rector until 1909, it was a private chapel dedicated to his mother, Anne, and was not consecrated; the only unconsecrated church in Shropshire. Hawkes insisted that the church be open all hours to accommodate local miners when they came off shift, in a brave attempt to keep them out of the pub we understand. A curate was appointed in 1938, but it was denied the honour of being a parish apparently.
After St Annes fell into disuse and disprepair, the early 2000s saw a dispute between local people and the Hereford Diocese over ownership of the Grade II listed building - locals claimed it had been left to the village. Chris Jones' late father Eric was at the centre of the wrangle, determined to save the church from the housing developers. Following a five year battle the church was finally purchased by Chris through a third party and Eric took on the ambitious restoration work. A church organist for several Shropshire churches, he purchased a concert size pipe organ from Cricklewood for £1 - and then spent £50,000 installing it.
Eric died in 2013 but Chris has carried on with the restoration to recreate the church as a community venue for concerts, choral events and family occasions, including weddings alongside a shiny new brewery. Now Chris has plans for growth and the idea is that beer sales will help sustain the cost of the building work, which has already included repairs to the tile roof and central tower.
The idea for the brewery came after his son gave Chris a home brew kit - this led to an exploration of beer styles in Denmark, Germany and Belgium before in investing in the 500-litre brewery from China.
Since start up Chris and head brewer Eric Birrill - with help from brewer Eric Jensen of Helsinger - have created a variety of ales including the Iron & Fire brewed with coffee beans from the eponymous coffee emporium in Shrewsbury. The portfolio includes Tumbledown Dick (4.5%) named after the second Lord Protector of England, Richard Cromwell, who - unlike his austere father Oliver - apparently liked a tipple or two. This is an excellent easy drinking golden ale and went down well. Others are Lea Cross Dark (4.5%) mild, The Three Erics IPA (4.3%), quite a well hopped brew named for the three aformentioned Erics and Bad, Bad Lea Cross Brown (4.5%) brown ale as they explore several styles using a variety of ingredients. Iron & Fire and Major Stout were both sampled and much appreciated when we briefly visited the brewery pub, the Albion Vaults in Shrewsbury. Currently the beers can be found in the Albion and other pubs around Shrewsbury and south Shropshire.
Note: Apologies for the 'haze' on some of the photographs but when we visited Eric was brewing and busy with a liquor boil - nothing to do with a spiritual presence, despite being just after Halloween!