Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Epiphany Moment

And now the promised “epiphany moment” referenced in my “Road to Damascus” post. This was when I ended my love affair with “big brand,” keg beers and started to take an interest in local and regional beers, brewed specifically to take account of local tastes and preferences.

Looking back, although there were a series of related “light-bulb” moments which combined to inspire in me a life-long passion in all things beer-related, it was a specific incident which provided that “vital spark."

That so-called “epiphany moment” took place in October 1973 when  as a young student, in my first year at Salford University, I was browsing through the shelves of the university book-shop. I came across a book which caught my attention with its unusual cover design and poignant title. The book was titled "The Death of the English Pub", its author was one Christopher Hutt and its cover price was 75p! To a student existing on around just £7 per week, this represented a considerable outlay, and yet a quick flick through the pages was enough to convince me that I just had to buy this book.

The book was well researched, and written in a lively and informative style which was hard to put down, so within a matter of days I had read the book from cover to cover. "The Death of the English Pub" was an expose on what was happening in the brewing industry and drinks trade. In particular, it highlighted the growth of the large brewers and told how they were killing off much loved local beers in favour of heavily advertised, yet totally characterless, national keg brands. It also described how pubs up and down the country were being tarted up and altered out of all recognition as the big brewers pursued their relentless quest for still greater profits.

The appalling record of the major brewing firms was contrasted with the exemplary behaviour of many of the surviving smaller, independent breweries whom, the book argued, were truly reflecting the real needs of customers rather than some obtuse marketing fantasy created by advertising moguls totally divorced from reality. In short by taking these policies to their logical conclusion, the big brewers would be responsible for "The Death of the English Pub".

The book had been written around the time when two pressure groups were starting to have a small impact on the big brewers, by alerting the drinking public as to what they were up to. These two groups were: The Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood (SPBW for short), plus the Campaign for Real Ale (or CAMRA). I was marginally aware of the existence of both these groups, and on my return to Kent, for the Christmas break, took active steps to join the latter organisation.

"The Death of the English Pub" changed my whole outlook on life and made me realise that certain things are important and are worth preserving. More importantly, they are worth fighting for. Although I had enjoyed a pint from the age of 16 or so, I had tended to take beer and pubs for granted, as my main interests at the time were rock music and chasing after the opposite sex.

I was a self-proclaimed expert in the former, but whilst I’d had some success with the latter, the ratio of male to female students at a university which specialised in science and engineering, was never going to work in my favour. In the pursuit of these aims, I had tended to frequent some of the more trendy, tarted-up outlets where the beer was normally cold, weak, gassy and overpriced. I had also been somewhat scathing when it came to some of the more traditional pubs, especially town ones, castigating them as "muck pits", frequented only by old men.

I still, however, retained a soft spot for traditional country pubs, and having been brought up in a small village, I could identify more closely with a traditional village hostelry. What I had read in Christopher Hutt's book, persuaded me that I was wrong to discount traditional town boozers, especially as they represented a fast vanishing part of our national heritage.

Living, as I was, in the Greater Manchester conurbation, surrounded by beers from all manner of local independent brewers, with some of the cheapest prices around, gave me ample opportunity to go out and sample as many local beers as I could. But it was not until the third term of that first year at Salford, that this interest and desire to explore as many unspoilt pubs really took hold. The catalyst this time was my purchase, during the Easter vacation, of CAMRA's first Good Beer Guide (cover price again 75p!).

When I returned to Manchester for the summer term, I eagerly sought out as many independent brewers and their beers as I could. I was helped in this quest by a fellow student, who shared the same lodgings as myself. Howard came from the Lake District, and was a great fan of Hartley's. He also had a van, and with the Good Beer Guide pointing us in the right direction we tracked down beers from Lees, Hyde's, Holt's, Oldham and Marston's, which were in addition to ales such as Boddington's, Robinson's, Tetley’s, Greenall Whitley and Wilson's which I had already sampled.

The rest as they say, is history, and I never really looked back. I still have my copy of "The Death of the English Pub", and refer back to it occasionally. Some of the issues it was fighting for seem rather trivial now, whilst other points have been fought over and won. However, as a pioneering and inspiring campaigning book, it deserves its place in history. It certainly changed my outlook on life and helped steer me towards the appreciation of much that I hold dear today. For that I will be forever grateful.
Looking back through the archives, I found a review I’d written, back in 2010, on "The Death of the English Pub.” The review gives a brief synopsis of the book, on a chapter by chapter basis, so if you want to get a proper flavour of what Christopher Hutt’s pioneering publication was all about, just click on the link here.



Russtovich said...

Once again I will forgo my usual cut/paste/comment thingy.

I've just ordered Hutt's book in paperback through Amazon (Canada). $2 to buy, $6 to ship (as it comes from the UK). The Internet can be bloody amazing at times. :)

I think most beer drinkers go on a spiritual (?) journey sometime in their lifetime. At least though who love the stuff. :)

Cask is very rare over on this side of the pond, but that does not mean we can't have our own epiphany... even if it doesn't hit us in the face. Life most of us in our younger years I was more interested in broads than booze (using that due to alliteration). I was never a fan of hard liquor; me and it do not get along (i.e. brain goes to sleep while the body chugs along). Even back then, in beer, I did not follow the "crowd". Never a lager drinker, always preferred something with a bit of a bite. And then in my waning university days I crossed over to Guinness. Partly because I couldn't drink it fast so it was a great way to 'wind down' at the end of the night.

I came to like Guinness and it was my 'go to' beer for many a year. But then, around 2010, I had a mini epiphany of my own. Guinness started to taste 'off' to me. It could have been me or slight changes to the product after Diageo took over, not quite sure. At that time my wife started buying local (i.e west coast) beers for me to try while I was home one week a month (I was working up north in a 'dry' camp - no booze). While I couldn't access cask over here, I started to favour the local brews, or at least the brews from the non mega brands as it were. I doubt since then I've purchased anything from what could be called a "big brewer" as it were.

While it may cost a little more, most of the beer I buy is local (within reason in this bloody big country) and all of it is something I enjoy. I don't drink to get drunk (at least not in the last 40 years!) and I like the variety of choice we have on the west coast of both Canada and the US.

Apologies for the ramble. I do believe had I been raised in the UK I'd be an ardent cask aficionado. :)


Russtovich said...

Oops! Forgot to mention, love the photo of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona at the start of your post. Saw it back in '80. Very good choice for an opening photo for an epiphany. :)

Matt said...

Richard Boston in his book Beer and Skittles, published in 1978, talks about coming back to England in the mid-60s after living in France and Sweden and, after drinking the new keg bitter, deciding that he no longer liked beer, before two "epiphanies" of his own convinced him that it was the beer that had changed not him: one a holiday by train to Prague where he drank Czech beer for the first time, and the othe,r back in Kent, drinking beer from Gardner's Brewery, Ash, in the Red Lion, Wingham.

Paul Bailey said...

I’m sure you will enjoy Christopher Hutt’s book, Russ. It may be 45 years old, but it’s still a good read, and there are examples which many of us can relate to, even today.

I like the idea of a spiritual journey for beer drinkers, as I think we all go on a voyage of discovery as we age and mature. I wonder what Diageo did to Guinness though, to make it less appealing to you.

Talking of the spiritual, Gaudi’s magnificent, un-finished masterpiece, cannot fail to inspire. The photo I used at the start of the post, was taken three years ago, on a visit to Barcelona back in 2015. It is estimated it will take a further 25 years before the cathedral is complete, so I made a promise to myself that providing I am fit and able, I will return to see the finished building in all its glory. That will be in 2040 and if I live, I will be 85 years of age.

Matt, Richard Boston’s Beer & Skittles is another favourite beer book of mine. I particularly like the way he describes his time in Prague, where he describes the setting of the city as magnificent, and the architecture as grand, but without being intimidating. “The food was stodgy, low in taste and protein, but my God the beer was good.”

He only intended staying for a couple of days, but ended up staying nearly a week, going from place to place, drinking the wonderful beer. He claimed that he ended up “Feeling more and more like the Good Soldier Svejk.” (Another excellent book btw).

I can empathise with that, and am so pleased I had the chance to visit Prague, before the “Velvet Revolution” when the city was quiet, peaceful and unsullied by mass-tourism, and as Boston put it, “The eye was not constantly assaulted by advertisements, nor the lungs, ears and human life itself endangered by roaring, polluting automobiles.”

Russtovich said...

"I wonder what Diageo did to Guinness though, to make it less appealing to you."

I don't know if it was Diageo, or me, or a bit of both. I definitely lost my love for Guinness around that time. I still order it when at a bar/pub once in a while and for the most part those seem ok. But, I still buy the odd can every few months to try at home and they most definitely don't do anything for me.

Just as well in a way as I'm quite happy to drink (and support) semi local stuff made in BC. :)


Russtovich said...

"I wonder what Diageo did to Guinness though, to make it less appealing to you."

I don't know if it was Diageo, or me, or a bit of both. I definitely lost my love for Guinness around that time. I still order it when at a bar/pub once in a while and for the most part those seem ok. But, I still buy the odd can every few months to try at home and they most definitely don't do anything for me.

Just as well in a way as I'm quite happy to drink (and support) semi local stuff made in BC. :)


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