John Young

Visionary chairman for four decades of Young's brewery

Wednesday 20 September 2006 00:00 BST

John Allen Young, brewer: born Winchester 7 August 1921; managing director, Young & Co 1955-62, chairman 1962-2006, chief executive 1989-99; CBE 1975; married 1951 Yvonne Lieutenant (died 2002; one son, one daughter); died Wisborough Green, West Sussex 17 September 2006.

True to his surname, John Young strode in where angels feared to tread, and never stopped doing so. He had the boldness, confidence, energy and stamina of youth and a sharp sense of humour. He fought the good fight: against knaves and fools, popular wisdoms and people who knew the value of nothing. Marching into the sample room at his brewery, the family firm of Young & Co in Wandsworth, south London, which he chaired for 40 years, "Mr John" would indicate to his colleagues that, while "Good morning" was a polite greeting, he would prefer a pint to be thrust into his hand.

Death hesitated to claim him. Terminally ill, he bullied his doctor into proposing a date at which he would meet his maker. "Today I die," he wrote in his diary. He deemed it a poor show when his maker did not appear on the due date. In Belgium, the home country of his wife, Yvonne, there are breweries owned by Trappist monasteries. In one, I saw a plaque saying: "In Heaven, there is no beer, so we drink it here." John will have dealt with that by now. A heaven with no beer? Was there ever such a contradiction?

A Belgian abbey that did not have its own brewery once asked Young's to create a beer for it. The same beer is sold in this country as Young's Special London Ale. Pop the cork and the bouquet suggests that the bottle contains an entire Kentish hop garden. As an aperitif, it makes fino sherry taste oxidised and champagne seem flat. It is one of the world's great beers, but it is hard to find in the capital. My local Young's pub, a couple of miles from the brewery, does not stock this classic. Special London Ale is kept alive by sales in places like New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

I once ran into John and Yvonne Young with Young's American sales manager, at San Francisco airport. It turned out that we were all heading for a conference of craft brewers in Portland, Oregon. I remembered having read that John was to be a speaker. Once the plane had reached cruising height, the sales manager started trying to brief him. "Speech? What speech?" exclaimed John. "I know of no speech! Go and ask Michael. He knows about these things. Michael, you haven't heard anything about a speech, have you?"

At the conference, flip charts and marketing jargon numbed my brain until Young got up to speak. It was as though the room had suddenly become a saloon bar. He held forth with a ceaseless flow of anecdotes and jokes, and the audience suddenly remembered why they had become brewers.

Those of us who love beer, whether it is a Czech or German lager, a Belgian Trappist ale, a British or American barley wine, find it hard to understand people who don't. It is the wine of our country; a basic pleasure; fundamental to the quality of life. John Young understood this. He has been hailed as a traditionalist, but he was a visionary. He knew that beer must be tasted fresh. In the instance of British ales, this is best achieved by bringing the beer to its peak in the cellar of the pub. The popularity of his beers and pubs was proof - in London, under the noses of the national media - that the Campaign for Real Ale had created a new market. That was 30 years ago.

John Young was born in Winchester in 1921, the great-great-grandson of Charles Allen Young, one of two businessmen who took over the 16th-century Ram Brewery in Wandsworth in 1831. John joined the company in 1954, following service with the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War (and a degree in Economics at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on either side of it) and a stint in merchant shipping. He became managing director of the family firm in 1955, and chairman in 1962 when his father retired.

Young's beers are now more popular than ever, as are those of Fuller's, its neighbour across the Thames at Chiswick. Further up the river at Henley, Brakspear's beers were sufficiently popular to have been revived after the brewery building was sold for redevelopment. The high value of its site also staunched Morrell's, of Oxford. Yet otherwise intelligent independent brewers still succumb to the marketing macho of calling their products "brands" and referring to their beer as "the liquid".

While Young's beers thrived, its brewery at Wandsworth occupied a site where property values were soaring. Pressure began to build among shareholders to sell the site for redevelopment, retain the pubs, and brew elsewhere. However popular the beers, brewing is not a very profitable industry. John Young's attempts to defend the brewery introduced him to a wider audience.

He has been described, inadequately, as an eccentric. People thus identified are usually bores. Young was never boring. Barking, perhaps. If the rest of the world were sane, he would indeed have to be judged mad. Where else have you seen a company chairman appear at the annual meeting wearing boxing gloves or a bee-keeper's hat?

As his health began to fail, he had an eye operation. Next day, he was back at work. Christmas was approaching. "I used to visit every one of our pubs and personally give the landlord a card," he told me:

We had a hundred pubs then; now we have 200. This year, I have had a cut-out face-mask made, the cards will be delivered by someone looking like me, but it will be a salesman behind the mask.

I thought he was joking until he handed me a John Young mask and asked me to wear it for a photograph.

A couple of months before he died, Young spoke at his last AGM. He was very ill but he wanted to explain the plan that had been agreed: to retain the pubs, close the brewery and move production to Bedford, in a joint venture with that city's Charles Wells brewery. "John was like Captain Ahab lashed to the mast," a friend recalls. This week, John Young died, and production at Wandsworth ended. There had been brewing on the site for 500 years, and for the last three decades the brewery lived because he did. It produced beer of great character and individuality because he embodied those attributes. These were not coincidences.

Will Special London Ale be brewed in Bedford? I suppose Bedford can make something called a "London" beer if it can produce "Jamaican" Red Stripe, "Japanese" Kirin and "Indian" Cobra. But, when two breweries merge, how long can they continue to make two of everything? "Bedford won't be able to match London water," a distraught cabbie insisted. They will, contrary to that myth. It is easy to add or remove salts to match the mineral content, but it is fiddly.

Having learned to drink beer in Scotland (where it tends to be malty) and Yorkshire (nutty, creamy), I arrived in London, aged 20, unprepared for the intense bitterness of Young's beers. The taste, once acquired, was addictive. I had a barrel at my 21st and another at my wedding. I chose my home because it had a Young's local. On Monday, I called in for a pint. "This one's on me," said the publican. We said goodbye to John Young - and to Wandsworth. He got out just in time.

Michael Jackson

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