Category Archives: Beer history

The Good, the Bad & the Murky — Brew Britannia: One Year On

This piece is 11,000 words long so you might want to consider downloading it to read on your tablet or smartphone via Pocket, Instapaper or another offline reader. It is also available as a free e-book in various formats via Smashwords.

Contents

  • Introduction
  • A London Particular – why everyone is talking about ‘murky’ beer
  • I Can I Can’t? – the reinvention of the tinny
  • Crowds & Community – crowdfunding: exploitation or fan service?
  • On the Turn – signs of tension
  • Vertical Integration – breweries with bars, bars with breweries
  • Almost Too Wee – the rise of the micropub
  • Sorry, Ronnie! – craft beer on the high street
  • Breaking Away from the Peloton – United Craft Brewers
  • Perestroika & Glasnost – CAMRA hints at change
  • Poochie is One Outrageous Dude! – the big boys do craft beer
  • Approaching Total Beer – an afterword
  • Appendix – Where Are They Now?
  • Acknowledgements

New section.

Introduction

We submitted the text of our book, Brew Britannia: the strange rebirth of British beer, in October 2013 and it was published in June the following year. Because the ‘strange rebirth’ it described was still underway, it wasn’t possible to provide a satisfying full stop to our attempt to tell the story of how British beer got from Big Six monopoly of the early 1970s to the vibrant scene we currently enjoy. The purpose of this update is to summarise developments in the past 18 months, to explain how (if at all) they fit into the ongoing narrative, and perhaps also to see if a punchline might be in sight.

In doing so, we have considered the ongoing creep of ‘craft beer’ into the mainstream – or is it the mainstream annexing and absorbing ‘craft’? We have also identified points of stress and increasing tension in an industry in which there is a decreasing amount of elbow room.

Like the last couple of chapters of Brew Britannia, this is commentary rather than history. It is in many ways a greater challenge to squeeze the truth out of people who are running active businesses than it was to get 40-year-old gossip out of CAMRA veterans of pensionable age. Nonetheless, as with the book, we have tried where possible to track stories back to their sources, to pin down dates on the timeline, and to avoid making assumptions – ‘Sez who?’ has been our constant challenge to each other. In a handful of instances, however, the only answer has been, ‘Sez us’.

Continue reading The Good, the Bad & the Murky — Brew Britannia: One Year On

Beer Clarity, Ornamental Glass & Mirrors in the 1890s

In her essay ‘Presenting the Perfect Pint: Drink and Visual Pleasure in Late Nineteenth-Century London’ Fiona Fisher argues that judging beer by its appearance was a product of a period when public houses were smartened up and glasses replaced tankards.

It is a fairly short essay which first appeared in Visual References: An International Journal of Documentation in November 2012 and is readily available to anyone with access to an academic library. (We managed to see a copy through a more roundabout route.)

There are lots of fascinating details pointing off towards original sources. For example, Fisher quotes a few words from this passage from George August Sala’s 1859 book Gaslight and Daylight which prompted us to seek out the surrounding text:

The inside of the [public] house was as much transmogrified as the outside… It was all mahogany — at least, what wasn’t mahogany, was gilt carving and ground glass, with flourishing patterns on it. The bar was cut up into little compartments like pawnbrokers’ boxes ; and there was the wholesale entrance, and the jug and bottle department, the retail bar, the snuggery, the private bar, the ladies’ bar, the wine and liqueur entrance, and the lunch bar. The handles of the taps were painted porcelain, and green, and yellow glass. There were mysterious glass columns, in which the bitter ale, instead of being drawn lip comfortably from the cask in the cellar below, remained always on view above ground to show its clearness, and was drawn out into glasses by a mysterious engine like an air-pump with something wrong in its inside.

That is just one example she provides of evidence that people were judging beer on its clarity from at least the middle of the 19th century but, she argues, it was only in the 1890s that the image of the connoisseur holding his glass up to the light really became common in advertising and depictions of beer drinking — ‘seeing is knowing’. An account from a Licensed Victuallers’ magazine of a landlord who ‘knows a good beer when he sees it (in a glass)’ (emphasis in original) is particularly compelling.

The pursuit of clarity in beer, she suggests, was tied up with expectations of transparency around weights and measures, ongoing anxiety over adulteration, and with efforts by the trade to elevate the status of pubs:

Within the modernized public house setting, the beer that was clear, bright, and sparkled in the glass symbolized its improved status to late nineteenth-century customers, whose participation in the visual pleasures of consumption asserted their status as discerning consumers and incorporated them within a fashionable public modernity.

We have found isolated nuggets of evidence to suggest that, historically, some people actually liked hazy or cloudy beer, in the same way haziness in scrumpy cider is valued by some as a sign of authenticity, but we are increasingly convinced that was an outlying preference and that people have long preferred clear beer, given the choice. Fisher’s argument that it is only in the last 125 years that they have had the means to be able to judge it — adequate lighting and glassware in pubs — makes sense in that context.

Comment thread challenge: if you respond to this post, can you do so without using the phrase ‘London murky’?

QUOTE: The English — Great Guzzlers of Beer

“I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great guzzlers of beer… We had an alehouse boy who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, and pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work.”

Benjamin Franklin recalls working in a London printing house in 1725 in chapter IV of his autobiography.

UK Brewery Numbers and Employment

The boom in the number of breweries in the UK has caused a buzz but isn’t the only important number: how many people are actually employed in making beer?

We pondered this question back in 2013 and it came up again recently in discussion at Jeffrey ‘Stonch’ Bell’s blog.

So we finally got out the copy of the BBPA Statistical Handbook 2012 we borrowed from Beer Today 18 months ago (sorry, Darren — we owe you several pints and your book back) and added some more recent numbers from the Business Register and Employment Survey (BRES) 2012 (revised) and the BBPA website to come up with this table:

Thousands employed in making beer (excl. malting) No. of Brewing Companies
1995 19.8 481
2000 19.5 500
2006 14.8 642
2007 13.9 667
2008 13.9 725
2009 15.1 745
2010 14 824
2012 13.4 1252

That suggests that, though there are more breweries than there have been since before World War II, the number of people employed in the industry is shrinking. In fact, we can put a rough number on it: in 1995, there were approximately 41.2 employees per brewery (EPB); in 2012, that was down to 10.7.

As to why that EPB number might have fallen, consider the picture illustrating this post: it’s from 1977 and shows men from Watney’s Mortlake brewery employed in the bottling hall, bottled beer transport division, road safety, the building department, draught beer transport… And there was a permanent team producing newsletters and magazines.

This isn’t necessarily bad news but it’s something to chew on.

Knowing our luck with dates and numbers lately, we’ve probably made a catastrophic miscalculation above. Let us know if/when you spot it in the comments below and we’ll fix it ASAP.