Strange brew

Still following his great great grandfather’s recipe and with his ancestor’s dog taking pride of place on the company logo, Eldon Robson introduces Rosie McGlade to the botanical brewing sensation Fentimans

Eldon Robson was very keen on cricket as a boy and used rows of old stoneware jars as targets when he practised his bowling in the back garden of the family home in Whickham.

The Fentiman’s office in Hexham today has a collection of around 300 of those jars, each worth around £50 or £60. One of Eldon’s few Fentimans-based regrets is that he didn’t find less valuable practice wickets.

The half gallon jars, known as grey hens, were vessels for ginger beer in the early half of the last century – a tradition that survived till the dawn of the 70s – and Fentimans delivered them from horse-drawn and later motorised soda wagons from its five northern factories.

Then, as it is now, it was an adult soft beverage, non-alcoholic but tasty, streets away from sweet pop aimed at younger drinkers.

Fentimans’ unique brewing process remains largely unchanged, bar the tweaks enforced by modern legislation, from the day great-great-grandfather Thomas Fentiman started it.

And like all good stories, it’s not without its ups and downs. Ginger beer went out of fashion in the 70s and 80s and production stopped, but Eldon, spurred by a friend’s throw-away remark that he missed Fentiman’s ginger beer, took a risk in 1994 and brought the brand back into business.

“It was just in my blood. I remembered going to the factory in Durham with my grandfather, who was running it then, and playing among the big bags of sugar and experiencing the aromas of ginger and so on.

“We started off with the original ginger beer recipe, which was and remains our biggest seller, and took it to a consultant chemist to decipher and adapt it to meet the required standards,” Eldon recalls.

It’s a very special recipe, which was actually given to Thomas Fentiman in 1905 by a fellow tradesman as collateral for a loan which was never paid back, giving full ownership to the Fentiman family.

“We’ve kept stringently to the principles of how it was made. Like a lot of companies, business isn’t as easy as it was a couple of years ago, but I think the authenticity of Fentiman’s is what keeps our brand prominent.”

In the States, Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade caused a stir last year when a young boy noticed the 0.5 per cent alcohol content (slightly less, actually), and the bottle was taken to Maine’s chief of police.

“They wanted to ban anyone under the age of 21 from drinking it,” Eldon recalls. “What a load of hot air that was. But good publicity. I was on the BBC World News three times over that incident. What a lot of people don’t realise is that all flavourings in food and drink contain ethanol, which has to be there to stabilise them, but only in tiny amounts.”

The Fentiman’s success tallies with a ginger revival which has seen a mass influx onto the market of ginger beers – alcoholic and not. “Whereas before, we had the market to ourselves,” Eldon adds.

Ginger beer is a live drink, as are all the Fentiman’s brews. In the old days, it would get up to 1.5 to 2 per cent alcohol t. “On a hot day it would keep fermenting, so you had to drink it within a week or the second fermentation started. We had to tackle that when we started again.”

Fentiman’s drinks are made from herbs and bruised roots. “In the case of the ginger beer, we crush vast quantities of ginger root, which is boiled up in huge copper kettles,” says Eldon.

Hallows was brought out a year ago, a 4 per cent alcoholic take on the ginger beer recipe, using the name of a great aunt to distinguish it from the soft drink.

“There were a lot of daughters at one point in the family, and they would marry, and old Thomas Fentiman would set them up with a cottage industry offshoot, making soft drinks in various parts of the country,” says Eldon.

“I’ve a huge collection of the old stone jars with various names alongside the Fentimans from those times, and Hallows was one of them.”

While there are now numerous alcoholic ginger beers on the market, the Hallows version is the only one, Eldon insists, which is properly made; botanically brewed from ginger, rather than having a wine or hops base with ginger flavouring added.

Originally, there were five factories, in Durham, Gateshead, Sheffield, Leeds and Middlesborough.

The dog that appears in the company logo is Fearless, the beloved Alsatian of Thomas Fentiman, who twice won the Crufts obedience test in 1933 and 1934. There’s a mosaic featuring Fearless in the Hexham HQ, and the original plaque with of his head can still be seen on the original factory wall in Gateshead.

Following behind ginger beer, Fentimans Curiosity Cola (colas once being sold by apothecaries claiming health-enhancing properties) and two lemonade varieties also do well, with a new rose-flavoured variety bringing some glamour to the stable.

“I got that idea from a restaurant in London, where they’d ground up rose petals as a condiment, and I thought, what a wonderful flavour, and borrowed the idea to create Rose Lemonade using rose oil.

“All the drinks are of our own invention. We have our own product development laboratory here in Hexham, and that gives us a lot of control over what we’re able to do.

“I haven’t run out of ideas. We have about 20 different styles out there, and have brought out a few new products of late.”

A range of mixers in cute bottles includes a tonic water made with kaffir leaves and lemon grass, and not too much quinine to avoid a metallic taste. “A lot of the expensive gins made now have very subtle flavours, and we’ve found this complements them well.

“We’re now developing a light tonic, and a ginger ale. You wouldn’t use ginger beer as a mixer.”

Plans are also in motion for a bitter lemon.

Will Fentimans stay in the family? Eldon is cautious. One of his two sons is now working in the film industry, but there is reason to hope – the other works in the business. It could be brewing botanically for many generations to come.

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