Saturday, 28 July 2018

Road to Damascus

Following close on the heels of my last post, which bemoaned the loss of a regional identity amongst Britain's brewers. Now I want to take a brief look back in time to the early 1970's, which was the start of my drinking career. I describe the journey I went on as being like on the Road to Damascus, because towards the end of that particular stretch, I experienced a real "epiphany moment."

The acquisition of CAMRA's first Good Beer Guide in 1974, acted as the catalyst which sparked my life-long interest in good beer and good places in which to drink it. The list of breweries at the back of the guide, whilst sparse on detail, opened my eyes to the delights which still awaited the eager beer lover in the British Isles, and I embarked on a quest to track down and sample as many of them as I could.

For the record I managed to sample beers from the majority of the breweries listed in that pioneering guide, although the fate of brewers such as Grays of Chelmsford and Melbourne's of Stamford, had already been sealed by the time the publication reached the bookshops.

What I want to write about here though, is the beers I drank before I first became aware of CAMRA and interested in beer in general. The early 1970's was a time of great social change. People were becoming more upwardly mobile and their aspirations and expectations of life were becoming more rigorous and more demanding. Nowhere was completely immune to these changes, and the licensed trade naturally followed suit.

Pubs and the beer they sold began changing, as brewers responded to want they saw as a demand for more sophisticated and more forward looking tastes. Pubs became more comfortable and less divisive in terms of class. Partitions between different bars (public and saloon) were removed, and pubs became more comfortable and more appealing to women. No longer were they places for the men folk to gather in and get drunk, but rather places where different sectors of society could meet and get together on equal terms.

Unfortunately the rush to remove many of the historic features and often attractive features from these pubs, had the effect of creating characterless and totally soulless "drinking barns," with all the appeal of a wet weekend in Bognor.

Worse was to come though, as along with the pubs, brewers felt the need to offer something more modern in the way of beer. To be fair, the consistency of traditional cask-conditioned beer had always been a little hit and miss, especially where there was an inexperienced or sloppy licensee involved, so the brewers took the opportunity to remove this variable from the equation.

No longer would they allow an incompetent publican to ruin their carefully crafted beer, they would instead carry out the all important maturation at then brewery and then present the licensee with a product that only required a spanner to couple it up to a beer line and a gas cylinder, before it was ready to serve. Brewery-conditioned, container or keg beer was the way forward and the public were just going to love the new totally consistent and crystal clear product that modern pubs would be serving up.

As a highly impressionable teenager and fan of all things modern, I lapped up these changes and even embraced them. That shiny illuminated box on the bar, was the source of the beer of the future; it was the way to go, and keg beers like Courage Tavern, Whitbread Tankard and Ind Coope Double Diamond was what it was all about. These were the beers I sought out when I first embarked on my drinking career.

Keg beers were not universally welcomed though; much to the brewers surprise. They may have provided consistency as well as reducing wastage, and they also made the cellar-man's job much easier, but they were served too cold, were lacking in flavour and were often far too gassy.

I can still remember the look of disdain on the face of the landlord of our village pub when I sidled up to the bar and meekly asked for a pint of Tankard. It was probably the only pint he'd served all week, and me asking for a pint of fizz, must have seemed like an insult to a man who prided himself on the quality of the cask beer he kept and served from barrels behind the bar.

I was unabashed, and continued my love affair with keg beer. On a school trip to Thanet I was introduced to a couple of hitherto unknown keg brands. I was studying A-level geology, and we were out on a day's field trip, examining the base of the chalk cliffs at an area between Broadstairs and Margate, known as Botany Bay.

The cliffs are rich in fossils, and from memory we found some corals and the odd sea urchin, but one particular friend had a better idea and suggested a few of us adjourn to the nearby, cliff-top hostelry, known then as the Fayreness Hotel. Unlike my mother and father, Roy's parents were regular pub goers, and the habit had passed on to their son. I'm not sure how he knew about the Fayreness, but it didn't take long for him to guide us up the steep path, between a gap in the chalk cliffs to the hotel.

Today the pub has been renamed as the Botany Bay Hotel, and has been much extended, which is why photos of the place look completely different to the pub I remember. There were two totally unfamiliar fonts on the bar; one was red and dispensed a beer called Mc Ewan's Export; the other was black and dispensed Younger's Tartan.
I had never heard of either of these beers, but one member of our small group had and we ended up trying a pint of both. I was more than slightly inebriated afterwards, as we made before making our way back down to the beach to carry on with the fossil hunt as though nothing had happened.

A few months later another school friend discovered Mc Ewan's and Younger's beers on sale at the Five Bells, in a village called Brabourne. The latter was effectively the next village to Brook, which was where the family home was situated, and the Five Bells was a well-known local free-house.

Despite its tucked-away location, the pub became a popular meeting place for my friends and I, being easily reachable by motorbike in my case, and by car for those whose parents were slightly more affluent. It continued serving the two Scottish beers, and we continued to give it our patronage. By the time I went off to university in Salford in the autumn of 1973, I thought I knew all there was to know about beer; boy was I in for a shock!

As well as keg beer I had developed a liking for Newcastle Brown Ale. This legendary bottled beer was available in local Shepherd Neame pubs, but it came at a price. It was only sold in half-pint bottles, which meant it was virtually double the price of  Shepherd Neame Bitter (it wasn't called "Master Brew" back then), but to someone who wasn't that keen on Shep's (probably because it was too distinctive and too bitter), it was a godsend.

Seeing it available in the Salford University Students Union bar, in clear pint bottles, at a price that was only marginally more than the draught Younger's Tartan or Tetley Bitter, was even better; or at least I thought so.

One evening I attended a function in the "posh" side of the union building. This was the academic section, normally reserved for the teaching staff and off-limits to students. The lecturers had proper glass mugs on their side, unlike the awful plastic "Skiffs" us students had to put up with.

I can't remember what the function was about, but as well as "freshers" like me, there were students from the years above mine, and also a sprinkling of post-graduate students. I recalls getting into conversation with a couple of these more mature students, and them querying my choice of drink. In my naivety I told them Newcy Brown was the "beer of the north."

I was soon put in my place and told that my chosen tipple was "chemical beer" - the sort of stuff which sent people mad. According to these two "experts" there was even a special ward in the Newcastle Royal Infirmary, for recovering Newcastle Brown Ale addicts!

Although naive,  I wasn't that gullible, but something of what they said struck a chord with me. Slowly, but surely, I began switching my allegiance back to bitter. I was certainly spoilt for choice in the Greater Manchester area and within a short distance from the university, there were pubs belonging to Boddington's, Greenall Whitley, Tetley and Bass. A bit further away there were pubs selling Holts, Wilson's, Robinson's and Threlfalls (Whitbread).

We will leave things here for the moment, as we've almost reached Damascus. Next time I will describe my "epiphany moment" which happened as I neared the end of my metaphysical journey, on the road to beer nirvana.


Russtovich said...

"with all the appeal of a wet weekend in Bognor."

Even I know that's not good! :)

"but they were served too cold, were lacking in flavour and were often far too gassy."

Thus heralding the coming of lager no doubt. ;)

"(probably because it was too distinctive and too bitter), "

It takes awhile to acquire good taste. :)

"Although naive, I wasn't that gullible, "

I should hope not!

"Slowly, but surely, I began switching my allegiance back to bitter."

And still there I take it. :)

"Next time I will describe my "epiphany moment"

I think it was Boak and Bailey who said there are 7 steps on the road to beer appreciation (they may have said something like beer geekery). Personally, I think it's something that's constantly evolving. I became a Guinness drinker some time back in the 90's and that lasted until around 2012. I got caught up in the IPA craze but have slowly moved back, more or less, to bitter. But I can't guarantee it will always be that way.

Looking forward to the "great reveal". :)


PS - "It was on sold in half-pint bottles,"

I think you mean 'only' sold.

Etu said...

There's so much in that, which chimes in with my own memories Paul.

I was staying in Ifor Evans hall, in Camden Town during my first year at university in the early 1970s. About twenty metres around the corridor on my floor was the bar, which always seemed to be playing Pink Floyd.

On tap was Newcastle Exhibition (or "Execution" as we called it). That was thirteen pence a pint as I recall. Newcastle Amber in bottle was fifteen pence and Newcastle Brown was eighteen (why, that was over three shillings). I couldn't say, as to the extent to which the bar might have been subsidised by the Students' Union etc., but Exhibition was my occasional pint there. My conversion had to wait a couple of years too.

The laugh-out-loud moment for me was when I read you description of the solemn warning that you had been given, about the specialist, dedicated ward in Newcastle for the victims of Broon Eel. It was almost word-for-word identical to the one given to me under similar circumstance.

I wonder what the truth was?



Ed said...

Ha! I was also told about the special ward for Newky Brown drinkers! This was by some geordies too.

Matt said...

This rings a few bells with me. The first draught beer I drank regularly was halves of Greenall Whitley's keg bitter, as a 16 year old in the local Labour club which, like the brewery that supplied it, is now long gone. Around 18, I moved on to drinking in a large Whitbread house, where most of my mates from Sixth Form had started going at weekends, which served keg Trophy bitter. Shortly after that, we also started occasionally poppinf into the "old man's pub" down the road from it which had cask Holt's bitter.

The point is that my attachement as a teenage drinker was to bitter, whether cask or keg, rather than to "real ale", a term I was only vaguely aware of, and then only through hearing disparaging sterotypes about CAMRA members. When I went to Staffs Poly in Stoke in the early 90's, I drank cask Banks's, Bass and Pedigree bitter in pubs around the city, and keg Worthington's (also in toughened platic glasses) in the students' union, although I remember quite a few people there still drinking bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale (a craze which I think has since died out). It was only really in my mid-twenties that I began to favour cask over keg bitter, first in pubs and then a bit later at beer festivals, and only in my mid-thirties that I finally got round to joining CAMRA.

Paul Bailey said...

Russ, I received some criticism the last time I used the term a “Wet weekend in Bognor.” I could have used plenty of other coastal locations, but the saying refers to the fact that whilst pleasant enough places to spend a few days, or even a slightly longer break, there’s nothing worse than a British seaside town when it’s blowing a gale and lashing down with rain.

Boak and Bailey might well be correct in their assertion about seven steps on the road to beer appreciation, but I think your assumption that they may have been referring to beer geekery instead, is nearer the mark! I think there is a strong tendency to over analyse things in general and beer in particular, but to their credit, B&B admit to being geeks; so full marks for honesty.

ETU, beer in the Union Bar at Salford was also was 13p a pint; nearly three bob as you so rightly point out! I wonder who started that story about the “recovery ward” for Broon Ale drinkers, as it certainly seems to have done the rounds, and over a wide geographical area as well, as you and Ed have both recounted.

I remember reading how legendary Geordie folk-rockers Lindisfarne, hated the stuff. Tour promoters assumed that because the band were from Newcastle they would be fans of the town’s Brown Ale. Much to the group’s disgust, they would regularly find several crates of the beer left in their dressing room. They were actually avid cask ale drinkers!

Matt, I love your reference to “old man’s pubs,” as that was the same term my Sixth Form friends and I used. We sometimes went a stage further and referred to them as “muck pits!”

My own attachment was also to bitter, as opposed to mild or lager, although after my keg infatuation, I soon learned how to distinguish the real thing. After that I never really looked back – but that’s for next time.

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