“Some old boys asked me when the film show was starting,” said owner Rik Lyall, and when I asked them what sort of films, they replied, ‘You know the mucky ‘uns! Apparently, the blue films were a feature, after-hours.”
The Griffin, is listed in the record books as being one of the first pubs to be established in Frome, and could date back to the middle of the 16th century. It is in one of the oldest parts of Mendip’s biggest town and is one of the few inns there which have seen a rapid increase in clients, at a time when other public houses have been calling last orders blaming Government legislation and the credit crunch for their demise.
Rik believes the success is due to his private brewery, which produces enough real ale to satisfy his own regulars, and offer supplies to other enthusiasts in the area. He also runs the bar at the popular Cheese and Grain Centre, which attracts top bands and acts from around the country, and much of Frome’s home-grown talent “of which there is plenty,” says Rik.
Compared to the big boys, not much ale actually comes out of the fermenting vessels, but the 9,000 pints a week which do are acclaimed by the Campaign for Real Ale as some of the best nectar in Britain, and quickly quaffed by locals and visitors. Rik already has plans to expand the brewery, which will mean a move to bigger premises to satisfy demand.
Live music, quizzes, traditional pub games, theme nights and a heated smoking area are also provided for customers, and when the inn celebrates the 10th anniversary of its new lease of life next year, a kitchen will provide traditional pub grub, while firmly sticking to its tradition of being a drinking inn.
“We will always be a wet-led pub, concentrating on the beer,” promises Rik. “That has what has brought the customers back, and that is what they want. The food and things like the pool table upstairs are just extras.”
No draught lagers or ciders will be found in this pub, now or in the future. Any bottles or substances of a dubious nature brought into the pub by hopeful salesmen used to find a place on the “shelf of shame” established to show everyone what they are glad to be missing.
The Griffin re-opened in May 1999 after being closed down with an uncertain future for more than 18 months a previous landlord’s wheeze to increase trade, by supplying regulars with T-shirts inscribed with the pub’s name, and sending them off to spread the word to rival establishments, blew up in his face. They took his money, spent it elsewhere, and never returned.
One regular at the old pub is a resident ghost, which has never been seen, although is prone to playing pranks. Efforts to find the spook’s lair were abandoned after one investigator, exploring the entrance to an old cellar tunnel with a suitable beverage in his hand, fled when the half-pint glass exploded.
Rik had been at the Cotleigh Brewery on the Somerset/Devon border in Wiveliscombe until January 1999, and was responsible for developing its range of beers using American, Australian and New Zealand hops.
“I was living in Frome,” says Rik, whose CV also includes Bunces (now Stonehenge) and Hop Back, “and found the travelling to Wiveliscombe at the other end of the county too much. When the opportunity at the Griffin presented itself, I jumped at it.”
His passion for home-brewing began when he was a pupil at a Guildford school. He then went on to take a course on beer production, got his qualifications and became a professional brewer.
“One of the first beers that I perfected,” recalls Rik, “was the golden beer of Guildford. Using only pale ale malt from the home-brew shop and flavoured with Goldings, I created one of the first summer time beers. This was in 1983, and several years before Exmoor Gold kicked off the whole golden ales boom.
“I was very influenced by what I was drinking from Oddbins at the time, beers such as Pilsner Urquell and the French bière de garde Jenlain. I took these influences and combined them with my knowledge of Gales HSB and bottles of the same brewery’s Prize Old Ale.”
Inspired by the fact that ancient Britons had been brewing concoctions down the ages, he decided to study books on ancient recipes, and also acquired some ideas from local brewing enthusiasts. “I made a green- tinged nettle beer and also a spruce beer using spruce essence. I would love to recreate this. It was more of an old-fashioned ale with quite a low hopping rate and a delicious resinous note to it,” he said.
Like most home-brewers, he found that some things didn’t turn out quite as expected.
Rik recalls: “While still at school, one day I was awoken with the most terrific explosion. The day before I had started making a gallon of rice and raisin wine. During the night, a raisin had swelled, due to the carbon dioxide from the yeast working, risen up and become lodged in the airlock, thus preventing the gas escaping.
“The explosion saw all of the raisins deposited all over the ceiling of my bedroom.
“After this my father, who was always quite supportive of my efforts, despite coming home from work to find the floor sticky with malt and the bath full of bottles being sterilised, became more hesitant over my wine-making.”
As well as being responsible for the golden ale of Guildford, Rik claims to be the originator of a black beer specific to the town.
“In 1985, I developed a recipe for a stout that literally came out pitch black. At the time it weighed in at six per cent and tasted delicious. My father recently moved and reminded me that I still had some bottles of wine up in the loft. Among the bottles of elderflower wine was one last bottle of my black beer, Chateau Artington Walk 1985.
“After settling it for a few days back in Frome, I chilled it, knocked off the top and was amazed that, even 22 years later, it was still magnificent. The bottle had been in the loft, where the temperature had been going up and down throughout the year, but there was no spoilage or off-flavours present.
“There was just a lovely smooth well- conditioned stout with the flavour of the roasted malt coming through, as well as hints of licorice and burnt chocolate.
“I really thought it was going to be a bottle of vinegar. Shame there was only the one, but it shows that I was doing something right even then.”
The eight-barrel brewery is a showpiece for Milk Street’s carefully crafted beers such as Beer, Funky Monkey and Zigzag Stout.
“I called the locals’ favourite Beer because I wanted it to stand on its own merit without a fancy name,” says Rik. “I like to experiment, that is something that comes from working at Bunces, Hop Back and Cotleigh, as well as my past history as a home-brewer.’
He is proud of another brew, Elderbeer, an unfiltered and unpasteurised wheat beer that contains elderflower. Only Rik, as head brewer, and his assistant James, produce the beer, using malt from nearby Warminster, hops from Charles Faram and their own yeast. “A very versatile one and a similar strain to Young’s,” says Rik.
He also employs a woman in the office to deal with orders, and a bar manager, Charlie Thomas a pretty blonde who also organises the entertainment. His wife Cathy is a teacher at Frome Community College.
“We are still developing the Griffin and always looking for new ideas,” said Rik, proudly showing off a new stained-glass window he has installed in the bar, with a griffin emblem.
“A nice fire, a warm welcome, good beer, and plenty of good music and entertainment really is a recipe for success.”
The Griffin, 25 Milk Street, Frome, Somerset BA11 3DB. Tel: 01373 467766 or 07879 423424. Email: email@example.com
Frome can be proud of is its long-established brewing tradition that was cemented with the foundation of the Lamb Brewery in 1853 by brothers John and Thomas Baily.
The Lamb was a thriving company, which owned more than 70 pubs at one stage, including Victoria Inn and Lamb Hotel at Christchurch Street East and the Angel & Crown Inn at Vallis Way. Newspaper adverts proclaimed the fame of their XX Burton, Invalid Porter (Double Stout) and Pale Ale, the latter a beer that was promoted as a “family beer”.
This was the time when beer was the universal drink of both working and middle classes, with the latter showing a love for sparkling pale ales and turning their backs on what they perceived were the murky, muddy waters of the worker’s porters and strong milds. The age of the so-called running beers, or bitter, was about to dawn.
The late 19th century also saw the amalgamation of Bath Arms Brewery, Castle Brewery, and Badcox Brewery to form Frome United Breweries, with brewing taking place at the now demolished Badcox site. In 1955, the company merged with the Lamb Brewery to form Frome & Lamb. Sadly, Ushers and the Stroud Brewery gobbled it up and the premises were demolished in 1959. Brewing stopped in the town until 1999 when the Milk Street Brewery set up its mash tun at the Griffin Inn (built 1590 and once an Ushers pub), just off the historic St Catherine Hill. Now, there is locally brewed beer once more.