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Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Beartown Brewery has been around for almost 30 years since Ian Burns kicked off with his bear themed brews in Congleton, East Cheshire. Now the brewery is pushing forward for growth under the youthful Manning team. We took a glimpse on a Beer Tours UK outing there to see what was going on.

Michael Manning takes us through the plant he put together with his father

First the bible, then the bear and then.... the beer

Congleton was known for its bears four hundred years ago, when the 'sport' of baiting was all the rage as entertainment to brighten up the dull weekends in the quiet East Cheshire parish without Netflix. The ambitious town council decided they needed a new beast to liven the job up a bit more, but found themselves strapped for cask. Their solution was to raid the Town Bible Fund for the readies; their fame, or infamy, quickly spread.

The new look Beartown

It's a legendary story, whatever the veracity. That's why brewery founder and long time home brewer Ian Burns adopted the bear theme for his fledgling cask conditioned ales - first Bearskinful, a standard bitter, and later Kodiak Gold, warmly welcomed as a fine pioneer of the fledgling style to become the flagship beer.

MD Joe Manning (2nd left) tells the Beartown story

MD Joe Manning tells the tale to kick start our brewery tour with a bit of humour. Later he adds, with a light but underlying seriously optimistic note, that now the aim is to make the town more famous for its beers rather than the legend. Based on our visit, that ambition is looking promising, with their enthusiastic 'can do' approach to the business - including a stylish rebrand - shining through to those on the tour; 'I was really impressed with the way they came over and their enthusiasm', says one beer tourist over a beer in the splendid 'Den' taproom.

The Mannings, a local family, took over the reins from Ian back in 2017, after running a local pub and a small three barrel-brew-length brewery. Then the business was largely about supplying pubs in the locality with cask ale. There was a plan for growth, but, of course, as for many, Covid kicked their plans offside for a while. However, rising to the challenge to supply customers throughout lockdowns with takeaway beer, Beartown were heartened to find there was a vast pool of support from the local community. It inspired them to carry on and plan for expansion, investing in a modern brewhouse with the help of European rural development funds and putting the gleaming stainless steel equipment together themselves. 'Impressive indeed', observed the beer tourist. Today there is a stunning and immaculate 35 hectolitre-brew-length plant complete with the spacious The Den taproom in Pilgrim Street, just around the corner from the original and still trading brewery tap in Willow Street.

The Den ... a stunning taproom

That's a capacity to brew some 6160 pints of beer each time and they brew five times a week. In old money that is around 100 brewers-barrels (288 pints per brewers barrel). The kit - for beer technos - includes a lauter tun, whirpool, underback, kegging machine and yeast propogation tank. Following the launch of new, modern branding along with a poster marketing campaign in Liverpool and Manchester, 2022 saw sales surpass prepandemic levels. Lots more packaged beer in bottle and can was sold but cask ale sales were 'skyrocketing' - 'with artisan beers being in more demand than ever' - rather belying a recent claim from one beer monolith, who likes to close small breweries, that cask ale is dying.

Now, there is a fine mix of ales across the board of cask, keg and packaged as the team find new markets across the North West and beyond with 'quality craftmanship' at the heart of the brewery. On our visit we were able to taste a variety of ales in the taproom, which included: Inception (4.4%abv) described as a 'crushable session IPA' and the very punchy 'I Think Bob's Dead' stout clocking in at a powerful 11.5 per cent strength with chocolate and coffee notes, fruit and bittering, one of the new craft range in keg and can.

And now down to serious business... the tasting

The immaculately kept brewing kit

The range of cask ales includes speciality Bluebeary, Skinful (4.2%), a well balanced best bitter, Peach Melbear (4.4%) with a strong peach aroma, fruity with dry bitterness, Creme Bearlee (ABV 4.8%) and Polar Eclipse (4.8%) a roasty, dry and bitter classic stout. Of course, the crisp, dry pale Kodiak (4%) remains a great favourite.

Sustainability it as the heart of the business, complete with solar panels and other energy saving initiatives. And though the brands may have been first created ftom the legend of a rather cruel pastime, the contemporary plight of the bear is a big focus, with money raised for the Animals in Asia charity and also Care Bear donations through Quantock (5%) mild ale.

Fresh beer from the tank

Beartown is clearly a business set for growth by tackling the contemporary beer scene with zest, skill and social responsiblity. We are already looking forward to our next big Beartown hug. Cheers!

Rupert raises a glass to the future for Beartown

Mark from Brisbane tackles a taster from the tank


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