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English Beer names and their origins-Old Bob

Updated on July 24, 2012

Old Bob bottle label

Old Bob

Old Bob Strong Premium Ale

5.1% ABV 50cl bottle.

Available at Asda and Sainsbury.

Old Bob is deep reddish amber ale with a creamy yellow head and looks just the way traditional old ale should look. I enjoy a nice bottle of Old Bob, it's thick, biscuity and malty just the way I like my beers and is ideal with a ploughman's in the garden on a hot summer day (anyone remember them?).

There's no great secret to Old Bob, the beer was named after a former head brewer, who came from Chelmsford in Essex, the story if the beer itself and the brewery is far more fascinating.

The story of Ridley’s brewery is a familiar one among British brewers; in 2005 Ridleys was struggling under the weight of an £8.8 million debt and facing closure, CAMRA opposed the takeover, citing a loss of regionality and independence in brewing.

Ridley’s employed up to 160 people, often generations of the same families, the man who locked up for the last time for instance had been with the company for 48 years. Staff used to be invited to the family house at Christmas and parties were held for employee’s children. Not only was the town facing job losses but it also faced losing one of its most iconic landmarks in the brewery at Hartford end. Ridley's was sold to the Greene King brewery by the Ridley family on July 4th of that year for £45.6million and it looked like just another sad tale of the demise of a well known traditional family brewer disappearing.

The brewing of a number of Ridley brands (and the ownership of 73 pubs) switched to Bury St Edmunds and the old brewery at Hartford End was closed down. Often under similar circumstances the new beer is only a poor imitation of the original but here is a case of a fine beer recreated with great care and skill. Greene King is one of the few large brewers committed to cask beers, they are not destroyers of tradition and with the gift of hindsight CAMRA's criticism has proved to be unjustified. Nobody wants to see redundancies or the loss of a regional brewers, but given the scale of the financial difficulties closure would have been inevitable if a buyer had not been found. Selling proved the lesser of the two evils and seven years later on history has shown that the outcome was not an evil at all, but a saviour; Old Bob wasn't rebranded as a Green King beer and the historical Ridley's name was retained. The popular consensus among Old Bob aficionados is that Green King have faithfully reproduced an old favourite.

After being decommissioned by Greene King the brewery was sold to a property developer and it is being developed into flats and offices, but thankfully, both the red-brick Victorian façade facing the river and the iconic chimney should be retained.

So like all good stories ours ends well, but there is a twist in the tail and once again a Ridley is making beer in Essex.

In 2005, Nelion Ridley, the son of the family chairman was working at the brewery when the decision was made to sell the business. The proud 163-year family tradition of brewing came to an end and it appeared that a Ridley would never brew beer in Essex again. Following the sale of the family business Nelion worked in Bury St Edmunds with Greene King for a short while but his heart wasn’t in it; working for a larger brewer and particularly one that had just purchased the family business was too bitter a pill to swallow.

Seeking a clean break from the drinks industry, Nelion trained as a teacher but after eighteen months he realised that brewing was in his blood. His brother had bought The Compasses Inn, not far from the family home in 2008 and Nelion's thoughts turned to starting a small brewery in a barn at the family home but the cost of equipping it was prohibitive. Just up the road at Braintree the Davanzo brothers had started Felstar Brewery, they had spare capacity and were happy to let their near-neighbour use it.

Once again there is a Ridley brewing in Essex. Nelion’s new craft brewery which re-establishes the 163-year Ridley brewing tradition is called Bishop Nick after an esteemed ancestor. Bishop Nicholas Ridley was a Bishop of London who was burned at the stake in 1555. The new breweries first beer is aptly named 1555 and is sold at brother Jocelyn’s pub.


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