Ely Ales & Forehill Brewery (A Brief History) – By Karl Bedingfield

Image: The Original New Story

A few years ago I redesigned the website for Ely Museum and while gathering information I came across the museum exhibits for the Brewery in Forehill and Ely Ales. I have lived in the area all my life and was aware Ely once had a brewery but didn’t realise how important it was to Ely at that time!

While viewing the exhibits I saw a reproduction news article detailing the history and beer making process of the Forehill Brewery when it was owned by Hall, Cutlack and Harlock (It was later owned by East Anglian Breweries) and decided (with the kind permission of Ely Museum) to reproduce it here. The article featured on page 11 of the Ely Standard on 15th April 1938.

The Brewery itself is long gone but if you are interested, it was located at the very bottom of Forehill, to the left, just before the sharp turn into Broad Street.

If you worked there be sure to leave a comment.

Hall, Cutlack & Harlock – Brewers of the famous Ely Ales

The antiquity and fame of Ely Ales dates from the reign of King Henry III.

In 1257 the King commanded the Mayor and Burgesses of King’s Lynn (then know as Lynn Episcopi) to permit the men of Ely to come into the town to sell their beer.

During the period 1700-1750 brewing was carried on by the Hall family on the Quayside, which was then the business quarter of the City, and in 1760 Messrs. George & John Hall Jnr. had a very extensive business.

In 1771 Lohn Harlock bought the lease of the ‘Three Crowns’ Inn and Brewery attached at Quayside, Ely, on December 25, 1771. The ‘Three Crowns’ site is now occupied by the residence of Mrs. Harlock, and the Old Brewery is now storage.

Beer was produced in the monasteries by the monks, and it is quite certain that it was produced at Ely in the Brewhouse near the gateway known as Ely Porta.

Ale or beer was first mentioned several thousand years ago, and Egypt, in the time of Seti I (1300 b.c.), was celebrated for it’s production. Later it is recorded that the methods of the Ancient Britons were improved upon by the Romans.
Beer was produced in the monasteries by the monks, and it is quite certain that it was produced at Ely in the Brewhouse near the gateway known as Ely Porta. The custom has only been discontinued in comparatively recent years, perhaps within the memory of some older people alive today.

A Progressive Firm

The present Company of Hall, Cutlack & Harlock Ltd. has now acquired the capital of Mills Brewery (Wisbech), Ltd., and it is expected that within a very short time every house formerly supplied by the Wisbech Brewery will have the famous Ely Ales on sale, both on draught and in bottle.
Hall, Cutlack & Harlock, Ltd. is a combination of nine brewery concerns as follows:

  • A & B. Hall, Ltd., composed of
  • George & John Hall, Ely.
  • Crown Brewery, Lincoln
  • Cutlack & Harlock, Ltd., composed of
  • F.L. Harlock, Ely
  • W. Cutlack, Littleport
  • Cutlack & Co., Ltd., Peterborough
  • Percy & Co., Soham
  • T.C. Legge, Ely.

It is interesting to note that their houses, numbering about 360, in which Ely Ales can now be obtained, extend from Newmarket to Lincoln.
Familiar indeed are the names of the Directors of this company, and it is very gratifying to recall the Public Services rendered.

Whether it is upon Rural, Urban or County Councils, or Magistrates or Sheriffs, or upon Military Service both in peace and war, or in the political world, each of them has or is giving his help to his county and country.

Their Forehill Brewery, Ely was completely remodelled in 1930, and it is considered to be the finest brewery for its size in the country. Many additions are still being made, and a bottlery, with the best automatic machinery for the handling of the enormous output of bottled ales, will shortly be at work.

The Directors of the Company realise that if good beer is to be produced it must be made of the best malt and hops available. To make such production an accomplished fact, large quantities of the finest Eastern Counties barley are purchased each year and dealt with at their own malting.

The Malting

The malting, in keeping with the rest of the brewery, is completely up-to-date in every respect. It contains barley screening, drying and elevating machinery, malt bins and malt cleaning machinery.
Malting, of course, cannot be carried out in really hot weather. The barley, when screened, passes to large tanks known as ‘steeps’ in which it is soaked (with changes of water) for nearly 60 hours. It is then run out on the floors, and the grain begins to chit. Meanwhile the blade begins to grow, but must not penetrate the husk. Internal changes are also taking place, and in about 12 days (during which it has frequently been turned over) it is ready to load up on the drying kiln under which is a furnace. An electric fan in the roof assists in getting away the vapour.

Slowly heated, the grain know as ‘green malt’ is hand dry in two days, and the heat is increased until about the third or fourth day, when it is cured and dried off. The curing process is the one which decides the colour and flavour of the malt.

Malts are high dried for mild and dark ales, and pale for pale ales.
The value of the malt depends largely upon the skill and attention of the maltster in looking after his floors and temperatures.

The Brewhouse

The brewhouse itself is worth a visit from anyone who wishes to see a modern and spotlessly clean plant and building. This ornamental building was erected in 1871. Vast changes have been made internally, and in 1930 the whole of the interior was removed and what amounts to a new building in steel and concrete has taken its place. White and green enamelled walls, girders, etc, make it look very pleasing. Various kinds of vessels are show to advantage, and one realises that as regards this company no expense has been spared and that every care is taken in each operation to ensure that the beer produced is a pure, wholesome and invigorating beverage.

Image: The Brewhouse

Very briefly the cycle of operations is as follows:

The required amount of malt for the brew is taken from the malt store, which is a closed heated room (to avoid the malt taking up moisture) and shot into a bin.
From this bin it is elevated to the screen for cleaning which commands a malt mill where the malt is ground. The ground malt, known as ‘grist’ falls into the grist case. The mashing operation then follows.

About 6 a.m. the grist is mixed with hot water at the required temperature, and in a suitable amount, by a machine.

The resulting mixture, looking rather like porridge, falls into the mash tun where it is stirred by mechanical rakes.

The mash tun has a gunmetal false bottom with very fine slits sawn in the plates, the object of which is to facilitate the drawing off of the fluid (now know as ‘wort’) from the husks in the mash tun

The wort is then run into a pressure copper, where the hops are added and the hopped wort boiled under a pressure of 2lb. for roughly two hours. At the end of this period the copper is emptied into another vessel with a false bottom of gunmetal plates and after allowing the hops to settle the hopped wort is drawn off bright and pumped to the cooling machine (paraflow) at the top of the brewery. After being cooled in the paraflow, with no chance whatsoever of coming into contact with the outside air, it passes to the fermenting vessel; the yeast is added and fermentation starts.

In the fermenting vessel the total gallons of beer made is gauged by the Officer of Customs and Excise, and the vessel may not be emptied before it is gauged and recorded. It should be noted that a brewer is responsible for giving 24 hours notice to brew and for entering up all the materials from which the beer is to be made before mashing operation takes place. In fact, the Excise Officer has a key to the building so that he can inspect at any hour he wishes, and the entire operation is open to inspection by the Customs and Excise from start to finish.

The Beer Duty payment is assessed upon each brew, depending upon amount and strength, and at the present time is £4 per standard barrel compared with 7s. 9d. in pre-war days. At the moment unfortunately, cheaper beer does not seem at all likely.

During fermentation, which may take from 5 to 7 days, the yeast has multiplied and floats to the top of the beer, and is removed by a vacuum pump. The best yeast is selected for future brewing and placed in its own cold store and the remainder pressed up and sent away to be sold.

The beer is then run into casks by means of a machine, and the casks stored in the cellars. The casks, have of course, previous to this have been carefully washed and steamed internally to ensure they are clean and fit to store the beverage.

A short storage in the cellars enables the beer to get into a condition fit to send out to the houses, mild ales generally take less time to mature than pale. Beer in cask when served in good condition is considered by many to be much superior to bottles beer and constitutes by far the larger proportion of the output of this brewery.

From the cellars the casks are hoisted by an elevator on to a loading stage, loaded into lorries and delivered to the company’s houses where it is hoped, it will be appreciated by the consumer.

The Bottling Department

Image: Ely Ales

High taxation, the cause of the present high price of beer and the change in the habits of the population to-day, has resulted in a large turnover to bottled beers instead of small casks.

This applies to Ely Brewery as well as well as every other brewery, with the result that large and costly additions had to be made to the bottlery of the Forehill Brewery. The very modern bottling department contains the latest machinery for bottling Ely Ales. It consists of an extensive conditioning room from which, when mature, the beers are moved into the cold rooms for storage until required. Both conditioning room and cold room are temperature regulated, the former at 60 F., and the latter at 33 F. The tanks used for storage are solid copper and glass lined steel.

From the cold room the beer is filtered, bottles, crown corked (or stoppered), pasturised and labelled. There are various ingenious machine involved in these essential processes.

Bottle-washing — a very important process owing to the misuse to which some of the bottles are subjected — is done on machines which spray out dregs, soak in hot detergent, rinse, spray internally and externally both with the detergent and clean water, after which, cool and clean, they pass to the bottling machine.

The result of this care is shown by the fact that Ely Ales & Stout will keep for an almost indefinite period.

Power and Light

It is interesting to recall that at the Quay Brewery at Ely many years ago, gas for lighting was produced in a small private gas works, but that was over-indulgence on the part of the gas man so frightened the owner (Mr. E.W. Harlock) that he demolished his gas works and proceeded to generate electric current by an ingenious arrangement of the primary batteries.

This was successful but also expensive, but when one of the acid pots bust on the head of his son, an electric dynamo was installed, driven by a steam engine, and was one of the earliest electrical installations in the country.

It is interesting to recall that at the Quay Brewery at Ely many years ago, gas for lighting was produced in a small private gas works

Considerable progress has been made since those days, and at Forehill Brewery to-day there are two sets of Bellis and Morcom high speed steam engines direct coupled to dynamos for power and light.

The exhaust steam from these engines which work out on the ‘pass out’ system, leaves at pressure and is used for boiling the water in preparation for the next day’s brew. It is also used for making a continual supply of hot water for cask washing, etc., and for heating the buildings when necessary.

Image: The Dynamos

The power used in a brewery to-day has increased so much owing to the more general use of machinery for ice making, water cooling and beer bottling, that to use the steam plant alone much of the steam would be blown to waste. To obviate this, two diesel Garnder crude oil engines direct coupled to dynamos have been installed, which can be work independently or in conjunction with the steam sets. The required load can be systematically adjusted. Each machine has its own motor, belting and shafting being avoided, thereby bringing a considerable saving. When the dynamos are idle, lighting is provided by electrical storage batteries.

The maintenance of so much plant and machinery naturally calls for expert supervision, and a workshop fitted with lathes, drills, forge etc., is provided, where mechanical and electrical repairs and replacements are efficiently dealt with.

Wines, Spirits and Aerated Waters

In addition to the brewing and malting, attention must be called to the very extensive wine and spirit business carried on, and to the very fine quality supplied.

There is also a large Mineral Water factory with the most modern machinery all electrically driven, situate at the Quayside Brewery.


A firm of this size naturally has to expend a great deal upon repairs, a large part that is put out to contract.
There is however a very up to-date repairs department, consisting of carpenters shop, complete with sawing and planing machinery, blacksmiths shop and paint shop, which is responsible for a considerable proportion of the work involved.

6 replies
  1. J. F.Lambert
    J. F.Lambert says:

    I have found a bottle of 1968 Bona Cervisia ale in a cousin’s effects. It was brewed at Forehill Brewerky to celebrate the festival of St. Ethelreda.
    Is it safe to drink?
    PS. If Ethelreda is spelled incorrectly predictive text is to blame.

  2. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    Fascinating. My grandfather, Ernest Bryant, was a driver for the brewery in the 1920s until his death in 1932.

  3. Kasia
    Kasia says:

    It was an interesting read. I’m writting because I found a bottle atopper in London. Near Kew Bridge. It says “ELY Brewery” on it. I am wondeing how old it is.

  4. Paul Holland
    Paul Holland says:

    Hello Chris Ayers. F T Cross operated from what is now The Royal Standard in Forehill. Ran as a tea room but also a pre cursor to Ely Museum. The tea rooms also served to display a huge amount of antiques and antiquities and included many bottle, jugs and ceramics of all kinds associated with the area and beyond. Lots brewing memorabilia included. Mr Cross was keen on fossil hunting and excavated a huge quantity from the local quarries over many years from WW1 to the early 1920’s and it was that that inspired him to create a museum and the tea room were also co named Ely Museum using signage. His son continued to run the premises as both tea rooms and museum until he retired in 1950s. The contents were then auctioned off and a fair amount was bought/donated to the current Ely museum at their former original premises. If you have a spare F T Cross Ginger Beer we would be happy to donate to aquire it as we have been looking for a while to add to our Ely collection of memorabilia

  5. Chris Ayers Witham Archaeology
    Chris Ayers Witham Archaeology says:

    Just completed an excavation at Willow walk and found a bottle dump of Fred T Cross Brewery Ely. Ginger beer, Kentish Hop beer printed on stone ware bottles. Pale green glass beer bottles and two brown glass bottles. Cross had a shop but cant find a reference to brewing. Can donate bottles to Ely museum.

    • Steve Green
      Steve Green says:

      Hi Chris, Where was your excavation in Willow Walk? My grandfather lived at No 9. He worked as a driver for the Harlock Brewery from the end of WW1.


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