Wednesday, 25 July 2018

In search of good beer

Regular blogger The Pub Curmudgeon aka Mudge,  posted an excellent piece about the joys of drinking in the 1970's; a time when it was possible to tell whereabouts one was in the country, by the local beer on offer.

He describes "a patchwork of independent breweries the length and breadth of the country, ranging from regional giants such as Vaux and Wolverhampton & Dudley to tiny firms like Bathams and Burts. Each had its own territory, its own distinctive beers and very often its own style of pub. It was a lesson in geography, with strongholds, heartlands and outposts."

Now that is a situation I not only remember very well, but also empathise with strongly, and I stated as much by a comment on that particular post. Mudge certainly managed to capture the sheer joy of travelling around the country, and the sense of anticipation which went with visiting certain towns, or areas, knowing that the beers you were going to drink weren’t available anywhere else. This made travelling a fulfilling and pleasant experience, but also made the destination much more rewarding and enjoyable.

Basically providing you knew your beers, you knew where you were in the country. As a beer lover, you also knew which parts of the kingdom would offer the best choice, or the most distinctive beers, and which areas to avoid.

For example the Greater Manchester conurbation could boast one of the best selections of beer anywhere in the country, as there were around half a dozen independent brewers operating in the region, alongside a couple of national breweries which also turned out a decent drop of beer.

Contrast this with the county of Norfolk, where a series of takeovers and mergers had left most of the county's pubs in the grip of one large brewer; the infamous Watney Mann. Watney's, of course, had abandoned cask beer altogether and, as early beer campaigner Richard Boston so eloquently put it, "had placed all their kegs in one basket." If you didn't like cold, weak, fizzy and characterless beer and lived in Norfolk, you were out of luck.

Obviously things have changed over the past half century, and good beer is not only far more widely available, but comes in a myriad of different types, styles and strengths. Beer Agencies - companies that distributed a variety of different beers, from all over the country, coupled with the parallel rise of the “beer exhibition”  pubs, which served these beers meant that in many cases punters could drink beers from the length and breadth of the British Isles, just by working their way along the bar!

Whilst many drinkers welcomed this vastly increased choice, for drinkers like myself it took much of the fun and excitement out of travelling around the country. Gone were the joys of a visit to Dorset, where the delights of Eldridge Pope, Hall & Woodhouse and Palmers awaited the thirsty drinker, or pitching up in rural Lincolnshire to enjoy a few pints of Bateman's.

A weekend in Oxford meant being able to sup the much missed Morrells beers, whilst a little further back along the Thames Valley, saw one in Henley-on-Thames, where the incomparable Brakspears Ales were available, in some of the most unspoilt and picturesque pubs imaginable.

One year, the previous Mrs Bailey and I took a holiday in the Cotswolds, and based ourselves near to Stow-in-the- Wold, with the purpose of visiting and drinking in as many Donnington pubs as possible.

Even more memorable were the forays we made, by bicycle, from south London, into Surrey where there was a handful of pubs belonging to legendary Horsham brewers, King & Barnes. Their Horsham PA, pale in colour, low in strength, but packed full of flavour and crowned with a flowery hoppiness, made the effort of all that pedal-pushing worthwhile.

Further afield, a trip into the area of East Sussex, centred on Lewes, meant the chance of enjoying the delectable and, in my view the still unbeatable, Harvey's Prize Sussex Ales. Another area of interest to the beer drinker was Suffolk, where beers from Adnam's, Greene King and Tolly Cobbold were widely available.

Whilst Tolly Cobbold have gone to that great brewery graveyard in the sky, Adnam's and Greene King beers are now nationally available, and the same has happened to other well-regarded brewers, such as Timothy Taylor's and Shepherd Neame, to name just a couple.

At least these companies are still independent and still brewing, in the main, good beer, unlike Boddingtons, the iconic beer from Manchester, which was bought up by a large brewer (Whitbread), turned into a national brand, dumbded down and bastardised, before suffering the ultimate indignity of seeing its brewery and original home closed and razed to the ground.

Slowly, but surely, the uniqueness that characterised the British beer scene has been eroded, and whilst there has been an unprecedented rise in the numbers of new brewers entering the market, producing some outstanding beers (as well as rather too many mediocre ones),  the decline in the numbers of independent family brewers, coupled with the rise of voracious pub owning companies has made pub-going a real lottery for many drinkers.

Whilst the potential choice of beers available to today's drinker would seem unimaginable to one from 40 years ago, much of this choice is random in its distribution and often haphazard in nature. Like Pub Curmudgeon, I look back to the years of mid 1970’s, with a real fondness. Today too much choice really does mean less, and I feel we have definitely lost something which is both unique and rather precious.


Etu said...

Ah, no mention of Shipstones, Kimberley or Home Ales, Paul...

However, I see that Peter has included you in his list of beer blogs again :)



Russtovich said...

"as early beer campaigner Richard Boston so eloquently put it, "had placed all their kegs in one basket." "

Very good saying. And, of course, Monty Python took the piss with regards to Watney's with their Travel Agent sketch. :)

"and razed to the ground"

(looks at razed and whistles innocently) :)

And with that, I'll forgo my usual cut/paste/quote/remark routine.

I agree mostly Paul with what you are saying. I think it might be an age thing in a way. Fifteen years ago I'd be happy if I could find Guinness wherever I went. Now, like you, I prefer checking out what the local area has to offer. I can understand small breweries having dreams of making it big, but there's a lot to be said for being big in your own small pond as it were.

Thankfully, in a way, Canada is more local for many breweries. Our interprovincial tariffs see to that!

And, on top of that, you have the gobbling up by large conglomerates. See this for example:

Sadly, we can't revert to the way it was. What we can do is make a mental effort to support local at home or when we're away.


Russtovich said...

Bugger. Should have used TinyUrl for that photo link:


Curmudgeon said...

That isn't a recent event. But it takes a special kind of obsession to trawl through a blogroll of 80-odd to establish which may be absent. Anyway, crawl back under your bridge now.

Curmudgeon said...

Your experience very much mirrors my own, Paul. While in theory we do have much more choice and diversity of styles now, I do wonder how much that means to people living outside the beer bubble. What gets me is how you never know what you're going to find when go into pubs. For example, the other day I was in a pub in the Peak District. It had five microbrewery pales on, all between 4.0 and 4.2%, which raises another question about variety of styles. Now, I'm pretty knowledgeable about beer, but I'd only actually heard of one of them, although I recognised most of the brewers of the others once I inspected the pumpclips. But surely that is just going to create confusion in the mind of the average drinker. And, in fact, one bloke came in, peered at the handpumps, and asked "Which one is the bitter?"

Etu said...

Curmudgeon old chap.

I have a thing called memory, and in relation to what I read on Paul's fine pages too. I remember with affection, the exchange relating to his eminently sensible actions, re piles of the Daily Hate Mail, even if you don't.

I certainly didn't do any trawling, and wasn't even awake at 0605 this morning.

Whatever were you doing, apart from writing sullen ripostes to me?

Or was that it?

Paul, one thing that we often forget about the 1970s is that lots of people had what were called hobbies back then. They really did collect stamps and spot trains, "to win friends and influence their uncles", as someone once said. Whilst they may indeed also have known plenty about the postal services of the world and about the British rail network, you didn't really want to get stuck with one at a party, did you?

These days, that personality type often seems to manifest itself as pub and beer tickers.

That, on the other hand, is what I like about your blog. It is the lover, rather than the fanatic, the enthusiast but not the obsessive, and all against the background of a normal, balanced, family and working life.

Keep up the good work.



Paul Bailey said...

Russ, Eric Idle’s character in the Monty Python Travel Agent sketch, certainly had it bang on with his “bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel” comment. Perhaps the equivalent beer today would be John Smith’s Extra Smooth?

Thanks for the Big Brewery “family tree” poster. For those of a certain age, it reminds me of those rock band “family trees” which showed the convoluted history of many iconic rock bands. Fleetwood Mac, Yes, Jethro Tull, Fairport |Convention etc).

ETU, thanks for the reminder about Nottingham. I’d forgotten about the trio of breweries which were active back in the mid 1970’s. It is a real tragedy that a city like that should lose all three, in relatively quick succession.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980’s that I finally managed to enjoy Home Ales and Shipstone’s on their home turf. Hardy & Hanson (Kimberley) had an outlet in Buxton, so it was worth taking a train there, from Manchester, having a walk up in the surrounding hills, and then enjoy a few pints before the journey back.

Your point about “hobbies” is particularly apt in relation to beer tickers, although quite how this could “win them friends and influence their uncles,” is open to question! I remember reading somewhere, that collecting, spotting and ticking are almost exclusively male obsessions. Women either have more sense, or better things to do. They would obviously say both, as well as adding they are too busy looking after us menfolk, but we won’t go there!

Finally, thank-you for kind comments in relation to the blog in general.

Mudge, as well as sharing similar experiences of enjoying local ales, from different parts of the country, I am increasingly finding the same as you in relation to pubs stocking beers which no-one has heard of. I used to pride myself on my knowledge of regional beers, but several years ago I stopped trying to keep up with the ever increasing number of breweries.

If people like us, who take an interest in beer, have never heard of the majority of these new oufits, how can the average drinker make an informed choice? The trouble is, as people like Retired Martin have pointed out, this obsession with choice is still rampant amongst many CAMRA branches – my own being no exception.

Etu said...

Cheers, Paul.

For some reason, we Nottinghamians tended to call Hardy Hanson (or Hardy's and Hanson's according to wiki) just "Kimberley" back then, maybe because of the pub signs, which featured the latter word more prominently.

Incidentally, in Saxon times, Nottingham was called "Snottengeham" or similar, but the usurping Normans couldn't pronounce combinations of consonants such as "sn", and so the "s" was dropped.

You can see why the good burghers of Scunthorpe fought them so valiantly.

Best wishes,