Friday, 21 February 2014

The Beer Drinker's Companion

I was prompted to write this piece after learning via Boake & Bailey’s Blog, of the passing of the pioneering beer explorer and writer, Frank Baillie. Frank passed away last week at the grand old age of 92, and a touching, and very apt tribute to him appeared on the CAMRA website. Appropriately for a man who did so much in the early days to spark an interest in good beer, and who provided much in the way of information about the UK brewing industry for the fledgling Campaign for Real Ale, the tribute was written by Graham Lees;one of the original four founders of CAMRA. You can read it in its entirety here.
Frank Baillie’s major contribution, back in the early 1970’s, was the publication of the ground-breaking piece of work which he had written following  several years  of assiduous research. Titled "The Beer Drinker's Companion", the book appeared in 1973 as a hard-back edition only, priced at £2.95. I was a student at the time, and the cover price represented quite a sum to me, so much so that I had to wait until the summer vacation before I could afford to purchase a copy! It was however, worth every penny.
The dust jacket hinted at the delights to come, by describing how Britain was still fortunate in having over 1,000 home-produced brands of beer. This was qualified by the statement that whilst many of them were beers of great character, the majority of them were little known and hard to find. It ended by informing readers that Frank Baillie "assiduously researches the practical aspects of beer as a hobby", that he has "drunk beer in thirty-six countries" and that he had "drunk all the draught beers at present available, as well as a great many bottled and keg beers".

"The Beer Drinker's Companion" was a pioneering work; never before had any publication attempted to list every brewery company still operating in Britain, let alone go on to describe the different beers produced by these breweries. The book was definitely a labour of love, being well researched and written in an entertaining and often witty style. It included sections on: 

What Is Beer?
Beer Types Defined
Dispensing Systems
The Flavour of Beer
Gravity and Strength
The Brewer’s Art
Home-Brewed Houses
Changes and Trends in the Brewing Industry

The main part of the book listed, in alphabetical order, all the regional breweries of Great Britain and the Channel Islands. Under each entry, the address of the brewery concerned was given, together with a short description of the town (or village), in order to set the scene. This was followed by instructions of how to recognise pubs belonging to the brewery and, more importantly, where to find them. Outposts, where a particular brewery's beers could be obtained, were also listed, and in some cases the actual pubs were named.

All the beers, produced by the brewery, were then listed and described, starting with the draught beers, before moving on to the keg and bottled ales. The dispense method, such as traditional hand pumps, top-pressure, or keg and tank systems, favoured by each brewery company were also mentioned. In all 88 different independent breweries and their products were described, but unfortunately over half of them are no longer brewing.

There was also a section on the National Brewers, but the book did not list all their individual; breweries, or indeed describe all the beers they produced. However, when one considers that Whitbread at the time operated some 16 breweries and Bass 11 plants, this omission is perhaps not surprising. In addition, Whitbread and Bass were in the process of rationalising these plants (closing many of them), so their inclusion would have been a futile exercise anyway.

Frank Baillie stated in the introduction to his book that "the shelves of practically any book store are overflowing with books about wine, but apart from a few books about home brewing, books on beer are very few and far between". He then went on to say (rightly in my view), "that beer with its infinite variety of palate and even bouquet is man's most popular drink. There are still over a thousand brands of beer to be found in Britain (not including imported beers), and the philosophy that "beer is beer", implying that all beer tastes alike could not be more misguided".

He called for a little more customer orientation on the part of both brewers and pub landlords alike, so that a new customer in a pub belonging to an unfamiliar brewer would know what to order, how strong the beers were and a rough indication of what they taste like.

He concludes by stating "As these ideal are not likely to be realised, this book has been compiled, and it is dedicated to the many beer drinkers who would like to find, know about and drink some of the wonderful beers still left before it is too late." I count myself as one of those beer drinkers and remain hugely indebted to Mr Baillie for compiling "The Beer Drinkers Companion".

Things of course, have moved on since the early 1970's, when traditional beer really was in danger of disappearing. Fortunately, thanks to the sterling work carried out by CAMRA, not only is traditional beer widely available, but the choice of beer available to today's drinkers is far in excess of that which existed forty years ago. In addition to the surviving established independent brewers, there are now hundreds of new micro-breweries that have started up in the intervening years.

Extinct styles such as porter and cask-conditioned stout have made a comeback. Seasonal ales are now widely produced, and even the large breweries have significantly increased the range of beers sold in their pubs. On top of that, the author's plea for more customer orientation has been largely recognised. The strength of beer, in terms of alcohol by volume (ABV), is now listed by law either at the point of dispense, or on the bottle or can, and CAMRA's best selling Good Beer Guide gives details of all the cask conditioned ales produced in the UK, as well as tasting notes for the vast majority of them. Interest in beer, breweries and brewing has also increased dramatically, not just here in the UK, but on a truly global scale. In short we beer drinkers have never had it so good.

In the latter part of 1996 an article concerning Frank Baillie appeared in "What's Brewing". As well as informing younger readers about "The Beer Drinkers Companion", it interviewed Frank some twenty-five years on. The article described how he was still enjoying beer at the ripe old age of 73 and that, whilst he had no plans to update his work, he was glad that it had sparked the amount of interest that it did.

Eighteen years after that interview, Frank Baillie is sadly no longer with us.I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I remember hearing the tale of a memorable encounter a former Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA branch chairman had with the man, back in the late 1970’s. I won’t name the person concerned, but him and another former branch member were in Blackpool, for an early CAMRA National AGM. Frank Baillie happened to be staying at the same boarding house as the two Maidstone members, and my friend recounted that on the first morning of their stay Frank arrived down for breakfast and when the landlady asked what he would like for breakfast, he requested kippers. “I’m afraid kippers aren’t on the menu, sir,” was the landlady’s reply. Frank looked a bit disappointed, but accepted the news with good grace. At breakfast the following morning, when asked the same question, Mr Baillie produced from under the table, a couple of kippers, wrapped in newspaper, which he had procured earlier that morning from the local fish market! The landlady was taken aback, but nevertheless agreed to cook them for him.

I don’t know whether this arrangement continued for the rest of the weekend, but my two CAMRA colleagues found the whole thing highly amusing, and very apt and true-to-form behaviour from someone who was known to be quite a character. CAMRA was full of them in the early days!


Curmudgeon said...

I've blogged about this in the past here, although I wrongly said that Frank Baillie was no longer with us.

A true evocation of a largely vanished world.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for the reminder, Mudgie. I read your post from August 2012, and see that I even posted a comment on it, and a quite a lengthy one at that!

The sentiments expressed, of course, remain the same; Frank Baillie was a true pioneer, and the world of beer appreciation and brewing in general owes him a huge debt of gratitude.