In 1978 Peter Austin opened Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire, England, presenting a new concept in beer making: a microbrewery. At that time in the UK brewing was dominated by six giant national brewers who were converting their pubs from cask conditioned beers ( real ale) to bland filtered keg beers and taking over and closing many of the remaining independent breweries.
It seemed unlikely that Peter Austin’s tiny plant in a former bakery would dent the power of the Big Six nationals. But Ringwood Brewery proved to be a catalyst. CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale – had been launched in 1971, its membership had soared and its beer festivals were packed.
Rebellion was in the air and Peter Austin was ready to meet the challenge. When he eventually retired from Ringwood he had helped set up some 40 new breweries in Britain over 10 years at a rate of one every three months. He then toured the world, repeating the exercise in countries as diverse as China, France, Belgium, Nigeria, South Africa, Russia, Canada and the United States. In total he and his consulting company built some 140 breweries in 17 countries.
Peter Austin was born in Edmonton, north London, and educated in Highgate and on the Merchant Navy training ship HMS Conway. His family was closely involved in the brewing industry. A great uncle ran a brewery in Christchurch while his father worked for Pontifex, a major supplier of brewing equipment. As a result of the Hampshire connection, his first love was boats not beer and he sailed in Poole Harbour during school holidays. He joined P&O from the Conway but contracted TB and had to be invalided home from Australia.
He was not fit enough to fight in World War Two and moved into brewing. He did his "pupillage" or apprenticeship at Friary, Holroyd & Healy in Guildford, worked briefly at Morrells in Oxford and joined the Hull Brewery in 1945, where he became head brewer. He left in 1975 following a takeover by Northern Dairies.
He moved to Hampshire, bought a boat and took visitors on fishing expeditions. But the brewing bug had bit deep. In 1977 he accepted an invitation from Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Guardian writer Richard Boston – both passionate believers in the concept of small is beautiful – to build a tiny brewery in a former cattle byre at Penrhos Court in Herefordshire. He was back in brewing and a year later opened Ringwood. With business partner David Welsh, he produced Ringwood Best Bitter, Fortyniner and XXXX Porter. The strong ale Old Thumper put Ringwood and microbrewing on the map when it won the Champion Beer of Britain award from CAMRA in 1988. Peter was the first chairman of the Small Independent Brewers’ Association (SIBA), now the Society of Independent Brewers, which became a powerful lobbying voice for the sector.
In 1986 Peter and David Welsh moved from the original site in Minty's Yard, Ringwood into bigger buildings in the town that had once housed Tunks Brewery. Ringwood was now a substantial business, producing over 80 barrels a week for pubs throughout the south and south-west. In 1990 Peter sold his shares to David Welsh but continued consulting to aspiring brewers in Britain and worldwide.
His biggest impact was undoubtedly in the United States where over 75 breweries have been built using the Original Peter Austin Brick Kettle Brewing System. Alan Pugsley learnt the brewing skills with Peter at Ringwood and emigrated to the U.S. where he helped set up the D L Geary Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, in 1986, one of the first new-wave American micros. In 1994 Shipyard Brewing Company was opened in Portland, Maine where Ringwood Brewery gave Alan Pugsley permission to brew Peter Austin's Old Thumper recipe under licence. Peters legacy is truly alive and well in North America particularly the North East corridor.
Peter Austin passed away January 1, 2014 at the age of 92. Peter was a master brewer, Alan Pugsley’s mentor and dear friend. He was a great man, a great brewer, and an inspiration to all whom he touched. His legacy will continue on through the many beers and brewers he inspired around the world. His impact on good beer is immeasurable. There are more than 2,500 craft breweries in the U.S., 1,200 in Britain, 150 in Australia, 70 in New Zealand and a growing number in Italy. Beer drinkers have never had greater choice – and much of that is due to Peter Austin.