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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.