Category Archives: Beer history

The Return of Dogbolter

What's Brewing magazine, Winter 1980/81, featuring David Bruce.

When we interviewed David ‘Firkin’ Bruce last summer, he told us about his new role as Chairman of the West Berkshire Brewery.

Last week, that rather belatedly triggered an idea: maybe, with a brewery at hand, he might be convinced, for the first time since the 1980s, to personally brew a beer to an original Firkin recipe.

He responded enthusiastically to the idea and is going to dig out his original 1979 recipe for the famous Dogbolter (all grain, no malt extract) and recreate it in the brewhouse at WBB.

It should be available on draught in time for the launch of Brew Britannia in June. There will also be a nationally-marketed bottled version available at some point afterwards.

Having spent so much time and effort researching the rise and fall of the Firkin brewpubs, we’re really excited at the prospect of actually tasting it.**

In fact, with the ’1970s bitter’ currently being tinkered with at Kirkstall in Leeds, and talk of an anniversary batch of Litchborough Bitter at Phipps NBC, it’s going to be an interesting couple of months for we who lust after long gone beers.

We’ll post more details on availability when we have them.

** We have, of course, tasted the Ramsgate Brewery beer of the same name. Let’s hope this doesn’t turn into one of those trademark disputes everyone hates.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

George Simonds

Brewery owner George Simonds c.1910

We know that the idea of small vs. big in the world of brewing isn’t new, but it was in the post-war period that brewers in Britain got really big to the point where it began to seem problematic.

They were complacent, arrogant and confident in the belief that consumers wanted consistency and familiarity above all else, and as a result, removed much of the diversity and flavour (for better or worse) from British beer.

It’s too much to say that big beer has been ‘overthrown’ in the last fifty years, but it has certainly been challenged — not only by consumers and small brewers, but also by governments which supported vibrant entrepreneurship over tweedy stolidity.

But none of those Big Six breweries began life as faceless monoliths. They were all small breweries once, founded by plucky individuals who saw an opportunity to challenge the status quo and make some money on the way. Eventually, though, they had to hand over control to sons and grandsons until, hundreds of years later, push-me-pull-you committees of cousins, in-laws and outsiders with no real interest in beer were in charge.

Our suspicion is that, of the current wave of new brewers (1970s to now) some will inevitably become the new Whitbreads and Watneys.

That doesn’t mean their beer will necessarily become terrible overnight (Watney’s beer was pretty good in the 1920s, it seems) but big breweries with lots at stake take fewer risks, and are more easily tempted into diminishing the beer for the sake of profit.

We don’t see, say, Sierra Nevada going into the Lite Lager business any time soon, but we can imagine, in thirty years time, a business which seems complacent and arrogant, and of which people will say: “They’re so dominant that no-one else can get into the market, and all they produce is that bland, dumbed-down, sub-6% pale ale crap…”

If that does happen, there will be plenty of brewers waiting to challenge them, and the cycle will continue.

This was prompted by a conversation between Alan McLeod and Stan Hieronymus.

GALLERY: British Lager

Lager has been part of British beer culture since the 1880s but took a long time to really take off.

The Decline of Mild

“I think that lighter beers… people used to drink with their eyes — if one person lifted a pint and looked through it, everybody did. Another stepping stone was the introduction of lager. When we talk about mild drinkers, they’re probably the lager drinkers now. Didn’t like bitter beer, enjoyed the mild beer, and now gone on to lager.”

Don Nixon, pub landlord 1960-1989, in Public Houses, Private Livesan oral history of Life in York pubs in the mid-20th century. (With some corrections to punctuation.)

The Seven Types of Boozer, c.2001

It can be hard sometimes to recall details of the recent past. It does, after all, tend to blend rather seamlessly into the present.

That’s why we love coming across specific, detailed contemporary observations such as this academic study of nightlife in British cities in the period 2000-2002.

Its authors, Meg Aubrey, Paul Chatterton and Robert Hollands, categorised the seven types of drinking establishment in the UK c.2001 as follows:

  • Style Bar: One off, individual, décor obviously highly designed and stylised. By nature fairly new. Could be part of a large company which owns many pubs but a style bar would not be branded.

  • Café Bar: High levels of design, serves food & coffee, lots of seats/tables, range of clientele/atmospheres throughout day. Can be independent or part of a national operator.

  • Traditional Pub: Characterised wood tables, patterned carpets etc Can be either corporate or owner-run so includes branded traditional pubs.

  • Ale House: Very Traditional, scarcely changed, original features & loyal, regular clientele. Can be either brewery owned or independent. Often in need of redecoration. Often situated in run down areas.

  • Theme Pub/Bar: Main feature is that it follows an obvious style throughout, often with memorabilia, chalk boards, bar dress etc. Themed outlets include (1) multi-sited, national High Street Brands such as Sport, Nationalities (Australian, New Zealand, Irish) or student theme pubs or (2) single site concept bars.

  • Disco Bar: Vertical drinking, loud music, few seats, very busy Fri/Sat. Often closed during day and do not open till evening.

  • Alternative Pub: Defined by décor, but often due to music policy, clientele, attitude.

That chimes with our memories of our early twenties when we spent a lot of time  in one particular ‘alternative pub’, drawn by the music and atmosphere rather than the beer.

But would a 2014 version of that list today also include ‘Craft Beer Bar’ as a distinct category? An early example of the phenomenon, Leeds’ North Bar, founded in 1997, actually gets a mention in a quote from a clubgoer (link to PDF, p20):

There is a real Milos crowd like there is a real North Bar crowd. They are quite similar to the North Bar people in fact some of them used to be North Bar people and then they grown out and they moved to Milos because there is like DJ sort of funk. And friends of the DJ will come and it is the bar people are all friends with each other and it is a big scene.

By way of context, the authors say: ‘One of the distinctive elements of Leeds’ nightlife is that many of the bars have loyal followings, often based upon musical and style policy.’

Perhaps these days, ‘craft beer’ is part of ‘style policy’. Or is it a ‘theme’?