St Austell Brewery dates its foundation from 1851. This was when the young Walter Hicks (see photo) first set up business as a “maltster” somewhere in the Trenance area. This meant that he would have supplied local alehouses with the malt from which most brewed their own beer. Later he moved his business to Church Street. He first began brewing his own beer about ten years later when he took on the lease of the Seven Stars Inn at the bottom of East Hill.
He was already gaining a monopoly on malt production in St Austell when he conceived the ambition of setting up the first modern commercial brewery. Having purchased the old London Inn on Market Street he was finally ready in 1870 to demolish it and set up a steam brewery complete with the most modern technology. The building itself with its classical brick façade and a symmetrical array of rounded-headed windows looks nothing like the production facility it, in fact, was. Only the chimney and the ventilation louvre on the roof betray its origins as an industrial building.
The main innovation was that the mash was heated by steam rather than a coal furnace. Another development was a patent refrigeration system that cooled the boiling liquor to the correct temperature before it was passed into the vats. Like corn mills, the brewing process began on the top floor and relied on gravity to move from one stage to the next. The four floors required on a sloping site created a ground floor that was partially below street level.
The steam brewery also provided accommodation for the Hicks family. By 1892 a more appropriate residence was needed for somebody who had now become one of St Austell’s leading citizens. Walter moved to The Brake in Menacuddle Woods and his son Walter Junior took his place at the brewery.
His daughter, Stella, remembered witnessing the complicated process of removing the church bells when they were taken away for re-casting: “It was fascinating living so near to watch them being brought through a window in the tower and being lowered to the ground, and the same in reverse when they came back.”
By 1890 the business had outgrown the original premises and a site was found for a second new brewery, further up the hill in an area that was still open countryside. Fifteen years later an adjacent site was chosen for the new County Grammar School. Thus generations of St Austell children were educated to the sweet smell of hops and the daily sounding of the brewery hooter.