Key Points in the Birth of British Alterno-beer?

More on how British beer got from where it was to where it is with this attempt to identify some key points in the development of what we’re beginning to think of as an ‘alterno-beer’ culture. (That is, beer and pubs for awkward sods.)

We’re sure there are lots of points to add and that some of those we’ve come up with aren’t perhaps as significant as we imagine them to be: additions and corrections very welcome, as always. Be gentle with us.

  • Does anyone else see a story of something taking hold outside London and working its way in?
  • For us, the birth of CAMRA and the development in the 1970s-90s of the ‘real ale Mecca’ — pubs with more than three real ales, often from microbreweries — is the direct ancestor of ‘craft beer’.
  • Or did the brown and dusty real ale pub mate with the chromed style bar to create ‘craft beer bars’?
  • So many of the early microbreweries, brewpubs and ‘craft beer’ bars didn’t make it: they were before their time.
  • Please excuse us including the founding of a beer blog as an important event, but we think it was, alright? Back off.

And some gaps:

  • When did UK supermarkets start selling US and Belgian beer?
  • Where was Britain’s first Belgian beer bar and when did it open? The Dovetail opened in around 2000, we think. Any earlier?

Updates 12/07/2012 in red. Updates 19/07/2012 in blue. Updates 24/08/2012 in green.

1963 Homebrewing legalised.
1963 Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood founded in Epsom.
First ‘good beer’/anti-Big Five campaign group.
1971 CAMRA founded. Presents an alternative to ‘monopoly beers’.
1973 Durden Park Beer Circle founded by Dr John Harrison and others. Homebrewing culture institutionalised.
1972 Selby Brewery, North Yorkshire, re-opens after eighteen year hiatus. First British brewing company to open since at least World War II.
1973 Westbury Ales begins brewing at the Miners Arms in Priddy, Somerset. First new brewery.
1974 The Big Book of Brewing by Dave Line published. First really useful homebrewing manual.
1974 Litchborough Brewery founded in Northamptonshire by Bill Urquhart. First new brewery selling to the free trade.
1975 Pollard’s Brewery founded in Stockport by David Pollard. Early microbrewery.
1976 The Hole in the Wall, Waterloo, makes a name as a specialist real ale pub. Early ‘beer exhibition’ real ale specialist pub.
1976 Old British Beers and How to Make Them published by the Durden Park Beer Circle. Inspirational recipes for historic beer styles.
1976 John and Betty Blackwell take over the Barley Mow, St Albans, eventually selling 18 real ales. Early (the first?) ‘beer exhibition’, must-visit real ale pub.
1977 Godson’s brewery opens in Clapton. First new London brewery.
1977 The World Guide to Beer by Michael Jackson published. Inspirational beer Bible.
1978 Ringwood Brewery founded by Peter Austin. Early microbrewery.
1978 Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy by Dave Line published. Inspirational recipes for cloning commercial beers.
1979 Firkin brewpub chain founded by David Bruce. Early microbreweries/new British brewpubs.
1979 Marler’s Bar opened by Tim Martin. First Wetherspoon’s pub.
1979 Butcombe Brewery founded. Early microbrewery.
1980 Two Brewers Off Licence, Pitfield Street, London opens. Makes available German and Belgian beer.
1980 Franklin’s founded by Sean Franklin. Early microbrewery; use of exotic hops.
1982 Pitfield Brewery founded. Revival of historic styles and recipes.
1987 Summer Lightning launched. Early (successful) ‘blonde’ British ale.
1989? West Coast Brewing founded by Brendan Dobbin. ‘Hop-forward’, openly US-influenced British ale featuring ‘new world’ hops.
1990 Alastair Hook sets up Packhorse Brewing in Ashford, Kent. First ‘craft keg’ brewery.
1990 Kelham Island founded by Dave Wickett. Influential in development of ‘craft beer’ culture in the UK.
1990 Michael Jackson’s The Beer Hunter shown on Channel 4. Belgian, German and US beer treated with respect and admiration.
1992 Belgo opens in London. Belgian beer in a trendy bar/restaurant.
1993 Rooster’s founded by Sean Franklin. Yet more ‘hop-forward’ British ale.
1994 Dark Star Brewery founded by Rob Jones. Influential in development of ‘craft beer’ culture in the UK.
1994 Freedom Brewery founded. First UK ‘craft lager’ producer with wide distribution.
1996 Mark Dorber takes over at the White Horse. First (?) ‘craft beer’ pub/bar in the UK.
1997 North Bar opens in Leeds. Early ‘craft beer’ bar.
1999 Meantime Brewing founded by Alistair Hook. German-inspired UK lager and wheat beer production; attempts to revive historic British styles.
2000 Zero Degrees brewpub opens in Blackheath, London. Lager brewing; style-bar and beer geek destination.
2001 Microbar opens in London. Early ‘craft beer’ bar.
2002 Progressive Beer Duty introduced by the Government. Makes opening/running smaller breweries more financially viable.
2004 Thornbridge founded. Early product of ‘noughties’ brewing explosion.
2006 Rake Bar opened. Centre of ‘noughties’ ‘craft beer’ explosion.
2007 Stonch’s beer blog founded. First widely-read UK beer blog.
2007 Brewdog founded. Self-identified ‘craft’ brewery.
2008-2012 London brewing explosion. 7 breweries in London in 2007; 25 open or announced in 2011.
2009 Cask opens in Pimlico. Sign that London might support more than one ‘craft beer’ pub.

Cor, blimey — we’ve used so many distancing quote marks in that, we might as well have put the whole thing in one big pair.

23 thoughts on “Key Points in the Birth of British Alterno-beer?”

    1. Good spot, thanks, Steve.

      We’ve just clocked that Belgo opened in London in 1992. Waiting to see if the Twittershire can come up with anything earlier.

  1. There were a few “beer exhibition” pubs in the late 70s, the Barley Mow at Tyttenhanger Green in Hertfordshire being one of the most famous.

    I would say the Beer Orders – for better or worse – were a catalyst in the process you describe.

    1. Thanks for this extra info. Got a link to something that explains what you mean by beer exhibition pubs? Or care to elaborate yourself?

      1. Simply a pub that is not tied to one particular brewery and offers a range of beers from different brewers. In the 1979 Good Beer Guide the Barley Mow offered Greene King (Biggleswade) KK, Abbot; Paines EG; Ruddles County; Fullers ESB; Courage (London) Directors; Adnams Bitter; Brakspear Pale Ale, Special Bitter; Draught Bass; Samual Smith OBB; Everards Old Original; Theakston (Masham) Old Peculier, and is described as “A permanent exhibition, always popular”.

        The Duck on the Hagley Road in Birmingham was another, offering 9 beers in the same Guide.

  2. I would say that the first well known blonde beer was Boddingtons. It was distinctive and straw coloured from a from God knows when, but first mentioned as such in the 1978 GBG, but straw coloured for many years before that I believe. In the new wave, it was more likely Exmoor Gold, founded in 1986. Archer’s Golden was around in 1982, but maybe not widely available, but at least as available as Summer Lightning was in 1987.

    The Beer House in Manchester was selling draught Belgians including Kriek, Leffe and Hoegaarden, plus bottles in 1997 and probably earlier.

    Being gentle as requested, you could probably pick quite a few things in the North to fill the gaps between 1999 and 2006 when London started to pick up.

    But I need my tea. Oops supper. Umm.

    1. Thanks. We weren’t sure about Summer Lightning but struggled to find a decent reference. Michael Jackson is probably where to look.

      Will be interesting to hear your suggestions when you’ve had your tea..

      After a certain point, individual breweries aren’t big news unless they have a particular influence on ‘the scene’. We did wonder about mentioning Marble, though. (1998?)

      Pivni in York, maybe? Need to check when that opened.

      And can you tell us more about the Beer House?

      1. Martyn Cornell’s Gold, Amber and Black is very good on the development of pale, hoppy “Summer” ales.

  3. Major omission – 1977, publication of Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer. Probably the single most important event in the history of opening people’s minds in the UK to other types of beer.

    On the subject of Golden Ale, (sorry, self promotion alert), I explored this at length in Amber Gold and Black: you can find beers called “golden ale” in the UK as early as 1842, and yes, Exmoor Gold was the first modern example, in 1986, but without a doubt the beer that created the category was Summer Lightning, after its success at the (IIRC) 1989 GBBF in Leeds, when it won the ‘new brewery champion beer’ title, and the 1992 GBBF, when it won the Best Strong Beer title. There were very few “golden ales” in 1990, and more than 40 “golden ales” and “summer ales” by 1994.

    The Pitfield Brewery was equalled in importance, if not actually topped, by its associated off-licence in Pitfield Street, N1, which started life as the Two Brewers off-licence around 1980, and was a vital source for beers from Belgium, especially, but also Germany, the US and elsewhere at a time when such beers were almost impossible to find in the UK.

    Also (ahem), while David Bruce (founder of the Firkin chain) undoubtedly deserves a namecheck, I think Tim Martin, founder of Wetherspoons, also needs a wave: surely he’s the man that made the “beer exhibition” pub a High Street regular rather than a rural rarety.

    1. You beat me to it Martyn. 1977 World Guide to Beer. Increadibly important for “Craft Beer” on both side of the Atlantic.

  4. Great article, interesting take on the ‘alterno-beer culture. I wouldn’t agree that the birth of CAMRA was the ‘direct descendant of craft beer’. I joined CAMRA in the early 70s because I’d moved from NW England where real ale was plentiful to Hampshire, where it was very hard to find. I bought a local CAMRA Hampshire beer guide so I could find beers like Gales, Devenish, Brickwoods, Wadworths, Hall & Woodhouse in some pretty out of the way places. Microbreweries weren’t unheard of even then. I have fond memories of the Three Tuns at Bishop’s Castle and the All Nations Brewery in Madeley (both Shropshire). There was also the Blue Anchor at Helston, as I remember.

    Boddingtons was indeed a pale bitter back as far as my memory goes, probably about 1971. I remember it being described in an early CAMRA national guide as ‘one of the strongest beers by alcohol content in the country’ despite an Original Gravity of around 1036, as it was so bitter. We didn’t have %ABV in those days. The Beer House in Manchester had a huge range of beers and was a local institution in the late 80’s. It also had the best jukebox ever, a healthy student population, cheap curries and its famous ‘Docker’s Wedge’ a very reasonably priced ‘sandwich’ made from half a loaf of bread!

  5. Early/mid-90s Oddbins and Thresher (+ some supermarkets) began to carry a lot of US micros – Anchor, Sam Adams, Pete’s Wicked Ale, Brooklyn Lager – bold flavours, cool branding etc = More influence on current UK microbreweries than CAMRA?

  6. Martyn’s your man. Funny though how Boddies is glossed over. As Dave says, it was a great beer back then.

    I think before I have time to add anything more, you’ll have moved on to something else though. I’ll just mention that gap briefly though. Think of the explosion of Yorkshire and GM/Manchester/ Cumbria in that space, many of which provided something different to brown bitters and only now are London Breweries latching on. Many still do the brown thing far too much. Plus pioneers of micro bottling such as Hambleton.

    And in my humble view Brendan was pioneering hops way before and way better than Sean Franklin. Sean’s forte (again in my opinion) was the promotion of serious beer tasting and how to do it.

    1. Thanks, TM. So we’re talking Marble, Pictish and… any other particular breweries you’d associate with that boom? (We’re probably going to keep working on this post for a few days at least.)

      Anyroadup, that’s an equivalent explosion to the London one but several years earlier, and perhaps less obvious because the starting base for the number of breweries wasn’t as weirdly low as London in 2007.

  7. Well Marble came later and were probably best known for the fact their beer was all organic though that has changed since. I believe only one or two are just now. I am more thinking of Phoenix, Coniston, Kitchen (famous for its vegetable beers such as Tormented Turnip, Tubby Tangerine, Carrot Cruncher, Raisin Stout etc. all brilliant I recall), Goose Eye, Linfit, Ossett.Tiger Tops, Barge and Barrel which were all brewing huge diverse beer while London was still feasting mainly on Courage Best.

    Pale hoppy beers were emerging from those as well as classic stouts (Englsh Guineas from Linfi for example) barley wines, old ales etc. Most of these led the move from mild, bitter, best bitter.

  8. That’s great, thanks very much. Haven’t heard of most of those breweries! (We are still learning, not ashamed to admit it.)

  9. I would say that the key tipping point in the development of the “craft beer” movement came when beer enthusiasts on a large scale started brewing new and different beers for themselves rather than simply taking an interest in what was already there. Which happened first in the US. For many years, the vast majority of British micro brewers simply produced beers in the established British styles.

  10. Lovely post, and immaculately put together. Thanks, guys. Love T’man’s Franklin point…I didn’t know about Brendan til I read his post. Not sure about the Stonch bit though! (only kidding).
    Beer Exhibition pubs, eh? Interesting…

  11. This is a fascinating subject and if I were retired then it would be a great project for a book (the internet is too ephemeral to provide reliable history). You should try and get a copy of ‘New Beer Guide’ published by CAMRA in 1988 and written by Brian Glover, who was editor of What’s Brewing for a few years. He gives the first new independent as Selby in 1972, although as this was a re-opening he classes the first ‘new wave’ breweries as the Miners Arms (Priddy) in 1973 and the Masons Arms (South Leigh) in 1974. These only sold on their own premises, with the first free-trade brewery being Litchborough in 1974, then followed by Pollard.

    Incidentally the book mentions that Wiltshire/Tisbury had the agency for Spaten – no date given but looks like 1986/7.

    I lived in Norwich over 1974-9 and when I went there it had c3 (sources vary) real ale pubs. I have the 1977 local beer guide which lists 22 including a few with over 4 beers – revolutionary at the time! The Ten Bells was a favourite in my later years there and I remember that the owner used to go round the Midlands regularly in a van, collecting rare beers to sell in the pub – ‘rare’ then would be something like Batemans. The nearby Golden Star was I think the first brewpub in the area, probably around 1977. It launched with Wifebeater Bitter, a name that was quickly changed.

    1. Ian — this is really useful stuff, thanks, especially re: Selby, Litchborough et al.

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