4:24 PM October 7, 2022
Our Brentwood history columnist, Sylvia Kent, recalls the great post-war winemaking rage and glittering Vintner’s Ball.
Readers with fond memories may recall the great wine trend that began in Britain after World War II.
Many were grateful to Reginald Maudling – then Chancellor of the Exchequer – on April 3, 1963 when he abolished excise restrictions on home brewing beer.
You no longer had to have a private brewer’s license or pay duty on the beer you produced.
Already, members of the Women’s Institute (WI) were adept at making their own wine, but it was illegal to sell it.
Like many fads, fermenting your own fruit and vegetables has certainly caught the imagination of many households, especially in Romford (famous for its Ind Coope brewery) and members of the Brentwood Amateur Winemakers club.
It was in the mid-1960s that Brentwood-based Bill George and his friends founded their club.
With unrationed and plentiful sugar, the hobby quickly spread across the UK and the Essex Vintners’ Federation grew, with over 50 circles springing up in the county.
Soon, sales of carboys, siphons, yeast cultures, juice press equipment and, of course, the much-needed bags of sugar, were on the rise.
Winemaking supply stores opened in Brentwood with an excellent store in Romford Market, where specialist Winemaker and Home Brewer magazine was sold.
The membership of Brentwood Amateur Winemakers grew, as did their team of crack and winemakers who began winning top prizes in competitions.
Suddenly, these garden sheds contained more than the lawnmower, taking on the appearance of mini-vineyards.
The next task was to find local venues where enthusiasts could meet. Various venues were hired and so began a program of wine experts and craftsmen ready to advise on creating excellent wines.
The committee organized coaches to vineyards and beer cellars and there were overseas trips to wine country.
As the Christmas season approached, amateur winemakers in Brentwood began making arrangements for the festive season.
It was the time of the Vintners’ Ball and the hunt was on to find the biggest hall in Brentwood.
Eventually, the huge Keys Hall at Warley – one of the largest halls in Brentwood with its impossibly high ceiling and stunning dance floor that can seat over 200 people – was chosen.
It had served as a gymnasium at Warley Barracks and had for some time been threatened with demolition along with the barracks complex in l960.
Miraculously Keys Hall escaped, along with its neighbour, the beautiful Regimental Chapel.
As we now know, this was to be the site of the epic European headquarters of the famed Ford Motor Company, which opened in August 1964.
The day came for Brentwood’s first Winemakers’ Ball – committee members showed up to decorate Keys Hall for ticket holders, many of whom had applied to other wine clubs. There was even a waiting list!
Members and guests lined up to enter the hall, carrying their wine baskets containing bottles of sparkling wine, glasses and above all enthusiasm, eager to taste everyone’s best efforts.
Dancing, singing and tasting continued until midnight, recipes were exchanged, friendships were made and we all enjoyed that special Wassail Christmas spirit.
Keys Hall is still a wonderful place.