Here’s all the beer- and pub-related reading we’ve particularly enjoyed in the last week, with a connecting thread about the fate of family brewers.
Commentators have now had time to digest the news of the sales of the Charles Wells brewery to Marston’s. Our pick of the analysis is this piece by Roger Protz in which he argues that we should be worried about this development, and the threat of more to come:
In a fast-changing beer world, family brewers feel crushed between the national brewers and the growing army of craft beer makers… Belinda Sutton, née Elgood, managing director of Elgood’s in Wisbech, told me in an interview that she was under intense pressure from Adnams and Greene King along with a number of new micro-breweries in the Fenland region. Elgood’s qualifies for Progressive Beer Duty: family brewers who don’t benefit from duty relief are really under the cosh.
For balance, though, there’s a similarly authoritative view from Martyn Cornell who argues that there isn’t much to worry about in this particular case:
Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve…
Our view, in case you’re interested, is that it’s right to be wary per Mr Protz. Breweries in this category can feel dominant and even come across as bullies at a local level but they’re actually often rather vulnerable to predators. It wouldn’t take much for the last few to topple leaving us with complete polarisation between post-1970s microbreweries and national or multi-national giants. This middle ground — breweries with chimneys and dray horses — is an important strand of British beer culture and it would be a shame to see it disappear.
On a related note, Gary Gillman at Beer et seq. has been researching Bass pale ale and in so doing has unearthed a blunt note on its character at the turn of the 20th Century:
In 1900, a Congressional hearing looking at food safety and additives in beer heard evidence that on opening a bottle of Bass ale, people expected the ‘Bass stink’… I’m inclined to believe Bass, and think the Bass stink must have been attributable either to the Burton snatch (gypsum in water) or Brettanomyces, or both.
This makes us yearn, yet again, for more commercial examples of otherwise straightforward British pale ale with Brettanomyces character — exactly the kind of non-innovation that those family brewers could be exploring without chasing trends. As it is, we’ll keep blending them with Orval.
Roger Ryman, head brewer at our local family brewery, St Austell, seems fretful too. In an interview with Tim Sheahan of the Brewers’ Journal he offers some typically thoughtful responses which, at times, verge on the controversial:
I have to say, I do worry about cask beer in the longterm. Lots of breweries are moving out of cask beer production and I get and understand that decision. With cask, we all know that a great beer served in perfect condition has few rivals but the challenge for cask beer is, of course, the trade… Breweries have little control over how the beer they have produced is served in the pub and it obviously has a limited shelf life… maybe we will eventually end up at a point where cask beer becomes the preserve of specialist places, that look after it. Places that pay the brewery the price it deserves and attracts drinkers that are happy to pay the price it warrants.
For Good Beer Hunting Matt Curtis tells the story of Northern Monk Brew Co of Leeds. We remember Northern Monk’s emergence in 2013 and often wondered what was going on behind the scenes, with hints of drama and disappointment sneaking out on social media. Now we know:
[Russell] Bisset originally approached an award-winning homebrewer named David Bishop to design and brew Northern Monk’s beers while he focused on building his brand… Bishop says he almost didn’t take the job at first, but he couldn’t resist Bisset’s raw ambition. ‘I’d been approached by another guy before Russ came along,’ he says. ‘It was a similar story to Northern Monk, really—a guy with a brand and a stack of energy asking an enthusiastic homebrewer to work miracles. I politely declined that offer. Russ’ approach was different. After meeting him for the first time, he gave me the sense that he was going to make a go of this, with or without me. Those early days were a lot of fun.’
For Reviews in History Pam Lock, an academic specialising in the study of how alcohol is represented in Victorian fiction, reviews Paul Jennings’ new book A History of Drink and the English. At £95 a copy it’s probably a bit rich for most of us but Ms Lock’s review hits the key points and should give you an indication of whether to raid your savings:
Described in the publisher’s description as an introduction to alcohol studies, A History of Drink and the English, 1500–2000 is this, and much more. It gives students and researchers access to Jennings’s encyclopaedic knowledge of drink history from over 20 years’ study, making this book a real treat for specialists. Jennings employs a large and wide-ranging variety of sources, from taxation data and court reports to literary and theatrical renditions. Nonetheless, he manages this densely-packed history adeptly to create a very readable, often lively account, accessible to general as well as specialist readers.
Sir Roger Moore died this week which prompted fond recollections of working with him on an advert for Banks’s bitter in the 1990s from director Theo Delaney:
The script required Sir Roger to walk into the crowded saloon – in tuxedo and dickie bow naturally – causing everyone in the place to gawp at him in silence as he approached the bar. ‘The trouble with being a world-famous celebrity,’ he explains straight to camera, ‘is you simply can’t go for a quiet pint of Banks Bitter’.
(Footnote: this story appears in Campaign magazine whose founding editor was Michael Jackson. The name was his idea, too.)
We properly launched our Patreon page this week and are delighted to say that we’ve almost reached our first (fairly modest) target. If you want to support us doing things like, e.g., putting together news round-ups for two hours before breakfast every Saturday morning, then take a look. It’s maybe also worth mentioning that we’ve been posting on our Patreon feed — a couple of public posts and a few for Patrons only.
Finally, here’s news of a packaging innovation from Nathaniel Southwood. Everyone loves a packaging innovation, don’t they?