Dave Whatmuff

Dave Whatmuff taking part in a beer race challenge at college in 1966. His experiences at Bentley’s brewery may have given him the edge on other competitors!

Dave Whatmuff was born in 1948 and grew up at Glass Houghton near the Woodman Inn, a B.Y.B. pub demolished to make room for the M62 where it crosses the A639. Dave went to the King’s School in Pontefract until 1966 and from there went on to Constantine College in Middlesbrough which became Teesside University. There he was an early graduate in the new subject of computer science. Below he writes about his experiences working at the brewery in Woodlesford during several holiday vacations from school and college.

I was able to get a vacation job in December 1965 due to the fact that the head brewer was a neighbour of my girlfriend’s family. He lived in Garforth but his name escapes me.

During the holidays I stayed at my grandparents’ house in Castleford so that I could get the 5am bus to Woodlesford to start work at 5.30. The official start time was 6am, but we were expected to start 30 minutes early, for which we were paid “overtime”, so that we could get the casks of beer loaded onto the delivery trucks for transport to the pubs. 

We used 36 gallon wooden casks at the time and handling these was quite a challenge for a novice 17-year-old. However, most of the men who worked there full time were friendly enough and were willing to teach me the “art”. 

Empty casks came in during the day and were loaded onto a conveyer with the side bungholes over flaming gas jets to sterilise and kill any bacteria. At the end of the line they were examined, any broken bits of bungs or other foreign bodies removed, and then stood in lines to cool ready for refilling. Any needing repairs were done by the on-site “cooper”.

We would also receive casks of spoiled ale which were carefully emptied into a tank for later official measurement for refund of the “duty”. The casks would then join the other empties for sterilisation. 

The regular beer was brewed in stainless steel 20,000 gallon open tanks. A walkway ran around the tops of the tanks for inspection and access for cleaning. This also provided for one of the favourite pranks of the old-timers: during tours they would lean over the tank and pretend to take a great lungful of the “health-giving” gases, encouraging the novice to do the same. Of course, the top space of the tank contained pure carbon-dioxide, being heavier than air, and causing the inhaler to gasp and almost fall in! This always prompted the question: “Has anyone ever fallen in?” to which the response came: “Only once but he got out 3 times for a pee before he drowned”. 

Once brewing was complete the beer went through filters and the casks were filled 4 at a time at the “piano”. They were then rolled into an overnight “resting” zone where they were later “topped up” with a syrup to encourage a little secondary fermentation which would give the beer its head when served. 

The following morning these casks were rolled onto a device reminiscent of a submarine periscope, which the operator would plunge down to give the beer a shot of “finings”, before being rolled onto the trucks for delivery.

Cleaning up was a large part of the job. The floors where the casks had rested overnight were usually liberally spotted with overflow which needed to be mopped up and then scrubbed with cleaning fluid. The stainless-steel fermentation tanks then had to be scrubbed clean. This involved placing a ladder from the top, and climbing down from the walkway. There were also the smaller slate fermentation tanks which were used for brewing “Old Timothy”, a double-strength porter. These were only about 1000 gallons and were completely enclosed with a manhole for access to clean them, not a job for the claustrophobic! Neither was cleaning the kettle used for heating the mash, with the additional disadvantage of having residual heat. The workers assigned to that job usually stripped down to their underwear and then donned a boiler suit which would be ringing wet at the end of the job. 

A more pleasant task was the annual cleaning of the water filters, an outside job reserved for summer days. The spring water, which was partly responsible for the popularity of Bentley’s beer, was pumped through a series of room-sized filters, the first containing building bricks, then large pebbles, and so on down to gravel and sand. The cleaning job involved emptying each of these, scrubbing and hosing to remove the impurities which they had filtered from the water and then replacing the cleaned medium. They had two such sets of filters and would alternate each year. 

The days were long and hard work, but were broken up by four breaks – breakfast from 8 to 8:30, morning beer break from 10:15 to 10:30, lunch from 12 to 12:30, then afternoon beer break from 3:15 to 3:30 which was normal quitting time. There was also morning coffee and afternoon tea which were picked up by a nominated worker from the canteen, and expected to be taken on the job. 

The beer provided at the beer breaks was usually the “bottoms” from the fermentation tanks, very yeasty and initially unpleasant to the newcomer, but after a while you got so used to it that the beer served in pubs seemed somewhat lacking in flavour. 

At Christmas time workers were all given a Christmas box consisting of a selection of bottles of beer and spirits, along with chocolates and other items that were usually provided for sale at the pubs. Even we temporary workers received this very generous gift. 

I remember the year that the brewery was taken over by Whitbread. The beer recipes changed and the wooden casks were replaced with aluminum barrels, both to the detriment of the beer.

The last brew of Bentley’s beer at Woodlesford in 1968.