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Our Heritage

Proud to be Welsh. Proud to be family owned. A lot has changed since 1882 but our values remain the same


Established 1882

Brains is not as Welsh as you think! Our founder Samuel Arthur Brain was born in 1850 and brought up in Bristol, before moving to Cardiff to train as a brewer. He proved to be a very talented brewer and he quickly rose to become Manager of the Phoenix Brewery in Working Street.

In 1872 he had fulfilled many a man’s dream by marrying a girl whose father owned a brewery! It was Thomas’s brewery in St Mary Street Cardiff and having learnt his trade down the road, he bought the brewery from his wife’s family with the help of his uncle, Joseph Benjamin Brain, who was Chairman of the West of England Bank. The year was 1882 and the first pint of Brains Beer was brewed at The Old Brewery.

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Rapid Expansion

Brains quickly made a name for itself across Cardiff and in 1887 Samuel Arthur and his uncle purchased land next to the brewery to expand The Old Brewery at a cost of £50,000 - that’s the equivalent of over £5 million today. It was a massive investment increasing capacity to 50,000 barrels and included a central cellar that could hold 5,000 casks of ale. 

As well as taking on the competition, Brains also took on the law to help it grow. The powerful Welsh temperance movement had led to The Welsh Sunday Closing Act of 1871, which prevented beer sales on the sabbath. But Brains circumvented that by building links with private social and working men’s clubs, which did not come under the jurisdiction of the law, opening up an additional 52 days-a-year of trading! 

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From Brewer to Mayor

The success of the brewery made Samuel Arthur a wealthy man and he set out to control the local liquor business from grain and grape to glass by becoming a founder of the Cardiff Maltings Company and Chairman of Stevens & Sons, the largest wine & spirits merchants in South Wales. At the same time, he was busy building up a tied estate of pubs in the Cardiff area.

But his influence stretched far beyond the bar. He was elected to Cardiff Council in 1885 and became Lord Mayor of Cardiff in 1899. He died just three years’ later at the age of 53, but he had established a name that lives to this day in Cardiff, throughout Wales and far beyond. And under the leadership of his uncle Joseph Benjamin and his sons Joseph Hugh and William Henry the business continued to thrive under family ownership.

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New Brewery and War

Trade remained brisk, so Brains commissioned the build of the New Brewery in Roath to complement production at The Old Brewery. In 1914 the build was complete, but Europe descended into war and the Government urged restraint in beer consumption to help the war effort. Under Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Government slashed pub opening hours and increased beer duty, halving demand and rendering the New Brewery superfluous to requirements in the short term.

Brains was bold enough to speak out against those trying to ban alcohol in 1916: “They have the effrontery to suggest that all men and women must be compelled to drink water. This is an insult to a hard-working, law-abiding, sober country”. And the pressure told - the growing public unrest at the shortage of beer stopped the War Cabinet adopting prohibition.

However, it was a difficult five years for the Company with the constant threat to the business of prohibition and the loss of many employees in the war, including Samuel Arthur’s Grandson, William Sweet-Escott, who was killed in action in 1918. 

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Beer is Best

After the First World War, restrictions remained in place. The 1921 Licensing Act limited pub trading hours and the heavy burden of wartime taxation was barely lifted. So, prices and beer volumes never returned to pre-war levels. 

At least the temperance movement was beginning to run out of steam, undermined by the disastrous consequences of prohibition in the US, which resulted in an illicit alcohol trade and its associated gangsters and guns. But when the depression began to bite in the early 1930s, unemployment meant that drinkers had little cash in their pockets and by 1932 sales crashed to less than half of their 1900 levels.

Stronger Brains brews like ‘Little Imp’ and ‘Imperial Stout’ vanished altogether and in 1933 the industry launched the ‘Beer is Best’ advertising campaign nationwide, which was backed by Brains, and by 1937 volume had increased by 50%. 

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Blockhouse on the Home Front

During the Second World War beer was viewed positively. The temperance movement renewed its call for restrictions on sale, but the Government saw beer and pubs as vital to maintaining morale at home. Prominent author Rupert Croft-Cooke reported that “Pubs bring people together in a spirit of companionship and cement the common purpose. The inn is the blockhouse on the home front”.

There were other threats to Brains’ business though. Cardiff was extensively bombed damaging famous Brains pubs, such as The Custom House on Bute Street. Raw materials started to dry up, so customers were asked to switch back to draught beer to save on glass, rubber, petrol and labour. And Brains beers became weaker in strength as supplies of malt and hops ran low.

As with many British families, the Brains family were not without their share of hardship and 1941-1952 was the only time in our history that a non-family member, G.H. Walters, was Chairman of the Company.

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Mine's a Dark

Brains Red Dragon had become the drink of Cardiff and dominated production at The Old Brewery for many years. The popular dark brew was nicknamed ‘Dark’ by Cardiffians and caught on so much that the legendary brew was renamed in their honour. The Red Dragon was then adopted as the Company’s trade mark.

Unlike other dark milds, which are predominantly sweet, Brains Dark is distinctively bitter, with a roasted aroma, spicy flavour and a hint of coffee. An old stock ledger shows that in 1940, Dark was responsible for three quarters of Brains production at nearly eight times the volume of the next most popular beer. It has won hundreds of awards through the years and remained Brains’ biggest-selling ale well into the 1980s. Some Brains pubs, like the Railway Inn in Ely, sold only Dark on draught until then and it is still a much-loved favourite with many Brains drinkers today.

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It wouldn't be Wales without SA

The now world-famous, iconic Brains SA was first brewed in 1958 to coincide with the Empire Games in Cardiff. There has been debate around the name ever since. Does it stand for Special Ale? Strong Ale? Or Samuel Arthur? Some even refer to it as Skull Attack, reflecting its side effects the morning after compared to other beers at the time, which were considerably weaker.

To be truthful, its origins are so lost in myth and legend that no-one is absolutely sure! But, whatever the truth, SA has become the toast of the Welsh nation and part of Welsh culture, just like the daffodil, leek, Dame Shirley and Sir Tom.

Over the years, there have been many memorable advertising campaigns for SA, none more famous than the campaign featuring a ‘Welcome to Wales’ sign with the ‘S’ and the ‘A’ removed with the caption: ‘it wouldn’t be Wales without SA’! 

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Brains takes the Crown

On a cold February night in 1997, discussions between Crown Buckley and Brains’ then Chairman, Christopher Brain, were concluded and the Pontyclun and Llanelli-based brewery joined the Brains family to create the leading Welsh brewer. Crown Buckley had itself been created in 1988 through the merger of The United Clubs Brewery and Buckleys, so three famous names in Welsh brewing were brought together on that February night.

The purchase of Crown Buckley was a great success. Not only did it mean that Brains tied estate increased by 28 pubs, but Crown Buckley’s beers, most notably The Rev. James, joined the Brains stable. The Rev. James is named after The Reverend James Buckley, who took over the Llanelli Brewery in 1824 from his father-in-law, Henry Child. He found himself with two concerns to run – saving souls and satisfying thirsts. The pint and the pulpit had never been so close! 

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End of an Era

By the late 1990’s, with the rapid development of Cardiff City Centre as well as growing beer volumes, it became clear that operating from The Old Brewery in St Mary Street was rapidly becoming unviable. An alternative location for the brewery and head office had to be sought, so when the Cardiff Brewery in Crawshay Street came up for sale, the difficult, but logical, decision was made to leave the Company’s historical and spiritual home.

So, in 1999, Brains moved to its new brewery and the letters B, R, A, I, N and S, were installed onto the famous chimney that forms the centrepiece of the site. The Cardiff Brewery significantly increased brewing capacity, enabling the Company to contract brew for other brand owners, as well as brew the full portfolio of Brains brands.

Another outcome of the move was the transformation of The Old Brewery in St Mary Street into the Brewery Quarter, which is now home to a dozen or so bars and restaurants, including Brains own Yard Bar & Kitchen.

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More Positive Thinking

In 2002, a complete overhaul and relaunch of Brains brand identity and beer range was undertaken. ‘Positive thinking’ was adopted as the brand’s mantra and, as part of that, Brains’ famous dragon mark was flipped to be more positive and forward looking. Some said that if you were to put the new dragon over Wales on a map of Britain, the dragon was now facing up to England, rather than running away from it!

Positive thinking was also used to project a tongue-in-cheek brand personality, with the upside-down half full glass becoming an icon for the brand. One of the first positive thinking advertising campaigns depicted the scoreboard at the Millennium Stadium with the ultimate score line for a Wales fan - Wales 50-0 England!

A series of other positive thinking campaigns were run, including the relocation of an outline map of Wales into the Caribbean in mid-winter and an image of a domestic sink with Brains Smooth on a third tap between the hot and the cold taps! 

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From Pump Clip to Red Jersey

Brains has always been passionate about its Welsh roots and a great supporter of Welsh sport. The next ambitious step was to emblazon the Company and family name across the most famous red rugby jersey in the world.

So, in 2004, Brains became shirt sponsor of the Wales rugby team and remained there for six years. There cannot have been a more natural sports sponsorship anywhere in the world, as a visit to a Brains Pub for a pint of Brains has always been part of a day out at a rugby international in Cardiff.

The positive thinking seemed to rub off on the team. In the first year of sponsorship, Wales won its first Six Nations Grand Slam for 27 years, including a famous last gasp 11-9 win over England in Cardiff. The campaign included the France away match in Paris, where a ban on alcohol advertising meant that Brains could not appear on the shirt. So, ‘Brains’ was replaced with ‘Brawn’ and after a successful campaign, it was reaffirmed that Brains and Brawn is always a winning combination! 

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SA strikes Gold

You could say that Brains struck gold with its launch of SA way back in 1958. So, it was only fitting this legendary ale was given the golden touch it deserved in 2006, reflecting the growing demand for lighter coloured, gold beers.

SA Gold is a hoppy, refreshing partner for SA. It was an instant success in pubs, bars and supermarkets and has been a cornerstone of Brains’ ale range ever since. In 2007, it won a Champion Beer of Britain award at the CAMRA Great British Beer Festival in the Strong Bitter Category.

In 2008, as part of Brains’ sponsorship of the Wales rugby team, a golden coloured away shirt was produced with SA Gold branding. The brand has also been supported by a range of advertising campaigns over the years, including ‘Use yours, drink ours’, ‘All beers have heads, only ours has Brains’ and, obviously, ‘Buy SA Gold in bars’! 

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Brains joins the Revolution

In 2012, Brains Craft Brewery was launched within the Company’s larger brewery in Crawshay Street. It enabled the brewing team to brew in smaller batches and be experimental with more adventurous flavours. The brewers quickly racked up over 100 different recipes and craft beers are now an essential part of the Brains beer range, with over a dozen different beers being brewed every year.

The brewing team are constantly researching potential flavour combinations for future brews.  There have been collaborations with some of the leading personalities in the beer world to produce bespoke beers. Some of the beers have been so successful that they have been elevated into the permanent Brains range. The best example of this is Barry Island IPA, brewed in collaboration with beer writer, Simon Martin, aka Mr Real Ale Guide. It is now available on an ongoing basis in cans and on draught.

Brains Craft Brewery is a source of great pride to the Company and its products are hugely popular amongst beer lovers all over the UK. Long live the revolution!

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Award-winning Pubs

Ever since its beginning in 1882, Brains has operated public houses. When S.A. Brain and his Uncle bought The Old Brewery from John Griffen Thomas in 1882, The Albert pub [now Yard Bar & Kitchen] was part of the deal. The Company quickly acquired more pubs and by 1900, over 80 pubs were either owned or leased by the brewery.

The Company has won many awards both for individual pubs and its overall estate, none more prestigious than The Publican Awards in 2013, where Brains was recognised as Best Managed Pub Company and Best Food Offer – a remarkable double award. More recently, the Penhelig Arms in Aberdovey, the Kings Arms in Pentyrch and the Plough & Harrow in Murton have all won significant awards.

Today, Brains operates over 160 pubs in a variety of different trading styles. Over the years, food has become more and more important and food now accounts for well over a third of sales in the Managed Estate. Continuous improvement of the quality of pub offers and standards of service is a key priority for the business.

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Prayers Answered

With such a strong following for The Rev. James, it would have been very unwise for the brewery to change the recipe, but in 2015 a new look for the brand was launched. The Rev. James was given a complete rebrand and Original was joined by other ‘Rev.’ branded beers. The current range includes The Rev. James Gold, Rye and Pale to complement, the timeless classic that is The Rev. James Original.

The Rev. James is now a vital part of our cask beer portfolio, alongside the Brains classics, Bitter, Dark, SA and SA Gold. The range is complemented by a range of seasonal ales, such as Bread of Heaven, the Official Ale of the Welsh Rugby Union, Phonics, brewed in collaboration with Welsh rock band Stereophonics, and Fir King Ale, the seasonal Christmas Ale. The Rev. himself would be very proud of the variety of beers on offer!

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Dragon Brewery

In June 2018, Brains Head Office moved from the Cardiff Brewery in Crawshay Street to here at the Dragon Brewery. The Crawshay Street site is in the process of being transformed into a 2.5 million square feet mixed-use development, which will be one of the UK’s largest regeneration projects and known as Central Quay. Brains is partnering with another Cardiff-based family business, Rightacres Property, to jointly develop Central Quay.

It is planned that the iconic Brains chimney and brewhouse will remain as the centrepiece of the Central Quay development, which will include a Brains brewpub and visitor attraction.

In the second half of 2018, Brains will be installing its new, modern and efficient brewery into this site, with brewing expected to switch from the Cardiff Brewery to the Dragon Brewery early in 2019. 

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1882 - Present Day

The Brains Family

Brains remains a family company to this day, being owned by the descendants of the Founders, S.A. Brain and J.B. Brain. In all, 10 family members have served as Chairman of the Company. Current Chairman, John Rhys, is the Great Grandson of S.A. Brain.

Down the years, the Brains family has guided the company through tumultuous times, including two World Wars, the threat of prohibition and a series of economic challenges from the depression of the 1930s to the stock market crash in 2008.

From its humble beginnings in 1882, the Company has developed into Wales’ leading brewer and pub company, renowned throughout Wales and far beyond. The family is committed to remaining an independent, family-owned company for the foreseeable future.

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