Pandemic brought about downfall of much-loved Wood's brewery months after celebrations

One of the pioneers of the "real ale revolution" which led to the revival of the Midlands' independent brewing industry has closed just months after celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Preparing to celebrate a belated 40th anniversary of Wood's Brewery in September last year were brewing assistant Ben Watson, head brewer Andrew Pinnock, administration manager Jo Varcoe, and managing director Stephen O'Neill
Preparing to celebrate a belated 40th anniversary of Wood's Brewery in September last year were brewing assistant Ben Watson, head brewer Andrew Pinnock, administration manager Jo Varcoe, and managing director Stephen O'Neill

The award-winning Wood Brewery, famous for its Shropshire Lad bitter, has ceased production, apparently a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.

The brewery, which was founded in 1980, held a belated celebration of its 40th anniversary at the Shrewsbury Oktoberfest in October last year.

To mark the occasion, it relaunched Wood's Special Bitter, the first beer to be produced by the brewery when it was founded by brothers Edward and Anthony Wood, and their father Basil.

It appears that the brewery's dependence on the pub trade rather than the bottled-beer market made it particularly susceptible to lockdown restrictions. The company had planned to expand into the growing "craft ale" market, which unlike "real ale" allows beer to be dispensed from pressurised kegs, giving them a longer shelf life.

Wood Brewery was founded at The Plough Inn, Wistanstow

Basil Wood was owner of The Plough Inn at Wistanstow, near Craven Arms, when he and his sons started brewing from a stable behind the pub in April 1980. Wood's Special Bitter, which used hops from Kent and Germany to give a classic English bitter style proved to be a big hit. It was timed perfectly to benefit from the renewed interest in traditionally produced beers which followed the formation of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1971. The brewery was a founder member of the Small Independent Brewers Association – now the Society for Independent Brewers – which was also formed in 1980.

It was Shropshire Lad, launched in 1996, which truly established Wood's as one of the county's leading brewers, becoming a staple in pubs across the West Midlands. The premium bitter, brewed to mark the centenary of A E Housman's celebrated book of poems, became an instant hit, making use of hops from the fields of neighbouring Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

Edward Wood pictured in 2002

Shropshire Lass, a blonde ale, followed in 2007.

Anthony returned to his previous job as an estate agent shortly after the brewery was established, but Edward remained as managing director until the business was sold to Stephen O'Neill and Patrick McGuckian in 2018.

Edward Wood said at the time of the takeover: “Obviously I have mixed feelings about leaving the company, but I believe the new owners can take the business to a new level and are well placed to ensure substantial growth from a robust base.”

Mr O'Neill, who had previously served as senior vice-president of Pernod Ricard USA, launched a new range of "craft ales" under the Ironbridge brand towards the end of 2019, but the plan was frustrated by the lockdown.

Mr O'Neill told the Shropshire Star in September last year how the business had been hit particularly hard by the lockdown.

"We had planned to expand the craft-ale range in 2020, and find a brewing location in Ironbridge, potentially in partnership with a local pub," he said.

Edward Wood pictured in 2002

"One of our craft beers, Ironbridge Coracle IPA – won gold at the National Society of Independent Brewer's awards in Liverpool, and we had hoped to use this accolade to promote the beer.

"We won the award on March 12, and pubs were forced to close on March 20."

Mr O'Neill said 85 per cent of Wood's sales were in pubs, meaning that most of the brewery's trade was wiped out during the lockdown.

"We did improve our bottle sales, but nowhere near enough to compensate and we were forced to make cutbacks in a number of areas to survive."

The company, working with Ellesmere-based Shropshire Distillery, also launched a citrus-flavoured gin last year, making use of the Cascade hops used in Shropshire Lass and Take 5 IPA.

Wood's was founded in 1980 by Edward Wood, left, pictured in 2017 with general manager James Owens

The closure of one of Shropshire's oldest established independent breweries will send shockwaves throughout the real-ale fraternity. The Plough Inn is unaffected and remains open for business.

The big question now is whether the popular beers will die with the company. Shropshire Lad and Shropshire Lass have long been a favourite among real-ale drinkers in the West Midlands, and it is reasonable to assume that the brands will have significant value.

But will there be a small, independent brewery ready to continue the Wood's tradition, or will the brand be bought by one of the big players? Beer buffs in the region will be watching with great interest.

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