Football’s Cinderella story of the year has a subplot best shared over a pint
Success has many fathers, as they say, but one overlooked plotline in the Hollywood story of Wrexham’s rise to the top of the National League is the local beer the city will be sinking to celebrate a fairytale triumph.
Just like the club itself, recently revived by the celebrity pair of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, Wrexham Lager dates back to the Victorian era and is enjoying an unexpected renaissance. Served in the pub beside The Racecourse Ground, the Turf Hotel where the world’s third oldest professional club was formed back in 1864, this is the distinctive dragon brand you see on the beer glasses of film stars as they experience the football phenomenon for themselves.
This Saturday, a win for Wrexham in their last home game of the season will see the Welsh club return to the Football League after 15 years and lagoons of the namesake lager downed across Wales.
Wrexham had already lifted the inaugural Welsh Cup and The Racecourse Ground had staged the national team’s first home game by the time two German immigrants, Ivan Levinstein and Otto Isler, got together in 1882 to brew Bavarian-style lager. The Manchester residents had chosen Wrexham for the quality of the local water and the hillside location they had found, ideal for insulating cellars.
Sadly, a lack of ice hindered the cooling process and the enterprise folded in 1886. It took another German, industrialist Robert Graesser, to introduce refrigeration and the means to export his product across the British Empire, for Wrexham Lager to take off.
With Graesser in control, bypassing a domestic market dominated by ale drinkers, the chilled beer was sold to troops in Africa and aboard ocean liners. This was the only lager that went down with the Titanic in 1912.
While homecoming expats and servicemen sought out Wrexham Lager in the UK, the company’s German connections did it few favours during the two world wars. Ind Coope of Burton-on-Trent bought out Wrexham Lager in 1949, before Allied Breweries swallowed up Ind Coope in 1981.
By then, Britain had become a nation of lager drinkers, a trend that nicely coincided with the football boom of the 1960s. Beer companies duly sponsored clubs and tournaments. Carlsberg, which took over Allied in 1992, had its logo featured on Wrexham’s shirts.
Although Wrexham gained modern brewing facilities and rebranding, the popularity of other lager brands also prominent in the sporting arena overshadowed this local brew and commercial production ceased around the turn of the new century. The brewery was demolished and a retail park built in its place.
Around the same time, Wrexham AFC entered administration, buried in debt. Points deductions and legal wranglings led to relegation from the Football League in 2008 after an 87-year stay.
The following year, as the club failed in the first of many attempts to regain league status, a random rendezvous had positive consequences for the moribund beer brand at least. As current sales chief Joss Roberts says: “In 2009, a chance meeting (in a pub of all places!) between now company director Mark Roberts and ex-head brewer of Wrexham Lager Ian Dale, saw them discuss the potential of reviving the iconic north Welsh brewery”.
The Roberts family ran several local businesses in Wrexham and was interested in a microbrewery for its next venture. They next met Martyn Jones, ex-MP of Clwyd South, who had worked at the Wrexham Lager brewery as a microbiologist and had bought the original name for £1 in 2001 to keep its memory alive.
A decade later, an agreement between the Roberts and Jones in place, a contemporary brewery was developed by Kasper Schulz of Bamberg in the heart of Wrexham, one you can visit today in St George’s Crescent. As well as five-litre kegs of Sky Blue, Bootlegger 1974 and the flagship Wrexham Lager, the shop stocks T-shirts, coasters and, of course, bucket hats.
The same year that the new brewery opened, fans across Wrexham were clubbing together to donate sums to keep the club alive. The Wrexham Supporters’ Trust then assumed control of the Red Dragons and the venerable club began knocking on the door of the Football League.
Across the Atlantic, UK stand-up comic Humphrey Ker, on the writing team of a show created by Rob McElhenney, was combining lunchtime with watching the frenzied Liverpool-Barcelona Champions League semi of 2019.
Beside him, previously disinterested soccer virgin McElhenney quickly cottoned on to what he was seeing, an inkling later confirmed by watching the Sunderland ’Til I Die Netflix doc as recommended by the football-mad Ker. In no time, the old Etonian was drawing up a hit list of potential UK clubs for his boss to invest in.
Wrexham’s long tradition, committed fanbase and extensive catchment area across North Wales pushed their name forward. McElhenney brought Ryan Reynolds on board, and in no time, with a huge thumbs-up from the supporters’ trust, the pair were supping rebranded Wrexham Lager in The Turf. Then came the town’s own TV doc, Welcome to Wrexham…
The twin revivals of club and beer have dovetailed, the Roberts family shifting record numbers of lager and merchandise as hordes of curious foreign football tourists descend on The Raceourse Ground in desperate search of a ticket.
Nearly half of Saturday’s sell-out crowd of 10,500 watching the club’s probable crowning as National League champions against Boreham Wood will be gathered in the two-tier Wrexham Lager stand. Images of title celebrations beamed around the globe should do wonders for brand recognition, before Wrexham head off to the States to take on Manchester United in a pre-season friendly.
The next step in this Wrexham Goes To Hollywood story will be the long haul up the league ladder, as envisaged by the popular celebrity owners. Ian Dale and team at Wrexham Lager had better get brewing.
Wrexham Lager, 42 St George’s Crescent, Wrexham LL13 8DB. Open Mon-Fri 8am-5pm.
Wrexham AFC v Boreham Wood, Saturday, April 22, 6.30pm, The Racecourse Ground, Mold Road, Wrexham LL11 2AH.