Category Archives: Beer history

The World on your Sofa

It can sometimes feel as if drinking anywhere but the pub is a betrayal of ‘proper beer’, but it’s actually played a huge part in developing the culture Britain has today, and has broadened the palates of many.

That thought was prompted by this Tweet from Zak Avery, who runs legendary bottle-shop Beer Ritz:

In conversation recently, we said that we didn’t particularly enjoy beer festivals because they aren’t ‘how we like to drink’, which prompted the question, ‘Well, how do you like to drink?’ The honest answer is either (a) in the pub (once or twice a week) or (b) in the front room (more often).

Unless you live conveniently close to a good multi-pump real ale pub or a craft beer bar, then home is the only place to satisfy a spontaneous craving for a bit of strange. As we’ve said before, we like St Austell Tribute, but we don’t want to drink it every night, which is where a case of oddities from Beer Merchants or Beer Ritz, or even a few things from Tesco, fill the gap.

The majority of our most profound beer experience have, as it happens, occurred in pubs or beer gardens, but, for example, the first really aromatically-hoppy beer that ever made us say ‘Wow!’ we drank at home — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from ASDA, in, we think, around 2005.

Drinking fancy-pants beers at home is a fairly recent phenomenon which arose alongside the Campaign for Real Ale, meeting a demand among newly-assertive consumers for better beer.

Belgian beer didn’t start appearing in Britain in any great variety until the 1980s with ‘bottle shops’, run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. One of the first, and perhaps most famous was the one on Pitfield Street. The founding of Cave Direct (Beer Merchants) is covered briefly in our book. Another such shop we read about but didn’t look into in great detail was Grog Blossom in Notting Hill, which was profiled in the Financial Times in 1989.

As for bottled British beer, here’s how Richard Morrice, a long-time industry PR man, put it when we interviewed him last summer:

You have to remember that, in the seventies, ‘premium bottle beers’ didn’t exist. Bottled beer was Mackeson’s, Bass, Forest Brown, that kind of thing, and usually came in 550ml returnable ‘London pint’ bottles, or in ‘nips’. There was a limited choice of regional brands and that was it.

In the late eighties, Shepherd Neame released a range of 500ml bottled ales, which was a risky enterprise, and there was a limited take-up by supermarkets. These ‘PBAs’ (premium bottled ales) sat in a price gap between the very cheap drink-at-home lager and draught beer in the pub, on a pence-per-litre basis, and the supermarket buyers just weren’t convinced. When Marston’s launched their range of PBAs as late as 1991, there were still no retailers really willing to take them.

[But, fairly] quickly… you started to get things like Marston’s Head Brewer’s Choice series, and seasonals, until there was quite a lot of choice.

If you want to experience the Michael Jackson vision of a world where beer comes in every shade and strength, from the beefy blackness of imperial stout to the barely-intoxicating pallor of Berliner Weisse, your own front room remains the place where you’re most likely to find it.

Klink

Old fellers drinking in a pub, from an illustraton c.1914.

There’s a ghoulish glee in reading about the grotty brewing practices of the past, especially when the product in question has a catchy brand name.

According to a correspondent of the Lancet in 1865, the people of South Staffordshire were particularly prone to getting legless on a by-product of brewing known as ‘klink’:

In the larger breweries there is always a varying amount of… strong ale which has become so tart or acid as to be unfit for ordinary sale. This strong ale is modified in various ways to make it palatable, and is then reissued at a very low price… In the district this liquor, known as “klink,” is sold at the low rate of twopence per quart, and being exceedingly strong, the above quantity is enough to intoxicate most men… It is not, however, the intoxicating power of klink beer which is its only bad property; but, from the development of certain acids, the effect upon the mucous lining of the stomach, upon the liver and kidneys, is most injurious, and those who are in the habit of drinking it are well aware of the effect. Unfortunately, too, this kind of beer has got largely into use as harvest drink… Probably neither brewers nor employers are aware of the amount of injury inflicted by this drink.

Every other mention of klink we’ve been able to find with an admittedly superficial search, including  a piece in the British Medical Journal from 1869, seems to derive from this source.

So, it’s not very reliable. It might also be temperance campaign misinformation, or simply a misunderstanding about some aspect of the brewing process.

But, in the context of 19th century brewing practices, it doesn’t sound at all unlikely to us.

It made us wonder what it might taste like but, mostly, it reminded us how lucky we are that this kind of practice has all but died out…

Hasn’t it?

The Arrival of Aroma

Humulus Lupulus illustration.

The fundamental shift in thinking around hops which took place at some point after the 1970s was reflected in a mid-nineties UK industry competition.

First run in 1996, ‘The Beauty of Hops’ was sponsored and organised by the National Hop Association (now the British Hop Association), Horticulture Research International (HRI) and SIBA.

In its inaugural year, the event took place at the White Horse, Parson’s Green, then run by Mark Dorber, and reflects a strain of thought you might call ‘Franklinism’:

The aim behind the Awards was an attempt to stimulate thought about varietal brewing, to  steal some of the clothes of oenologists and increase understanding of the potentials of individual hops in the same way that grape varieties are assessed and understood. [The Grist, May/June 1996, ed. Alastair Hook]

It seems amazing, in an age when Marks & Spencer has a single-hop beer range, to think that this approach needed prompting as recently as 18 years ago.

Four hop varieties were used in the competition: Phoenix, Progress, Target, and the then-brand-new First Gold. The winners in each hop category were, respectively, Ballards with Nyewood Gold; Rooster’s (Sean Franklin) with Bullseye; and Hop Back with Thunderstorm. The First Gold competition was informal and no winner was announced.

The competition was repeated the following year, this time at Wolverhampton & Dudley brewery, and with a new category open to regional/family brewers: Aromatic Cask Ales.

The task brewers they were set was ‘to brew a beer with any grist of English grown hops — Max ABV 5%’. The gold medal winners were Hardy & Hanson of Nottinghamshire with Guzzling Goose, described by a correspondent for The Grist (Mar/Apr 1997, ed. Peter Haydon):

Here was a beer that was balanced, not too powerfully bitter, which demonstrated a teamwork between the hop aroma and the hop flavour, so that the former gave you a reasonable indication of what the latter was going to provide.

In second place, Wolverhampton & Dudley’s White Rabbit ‘painted a landscape of fruits and spices’.

The winners in other categories were Crouch Vale First Gold (single hop cask), Rooster’s Jerry (aromatic lager), and Freeminer Trafalgar (single hop bottle).

The most entertaining thing about The Grist article, however, is the criticism directed at brewers who didn’t rise to the challenge:

The judges of the aromatic cask ales… were a little disappointed with the standard of the ale offered up to taste. The beers fell into four categories. Oxidised (by far the largest), full of off flavours (buckets of diacetyl and acetone), good beers but either of so malty a character or so lacking in hop character that one was left wondering why they had been entered in a hop competition, or good beers that filled the remit… 

One beer was so bad it prompted Hop Back’s John Gilbert to remark, disturbingly, that it reminded him of his ‘Granny’s pants’, while another wasn’t fit to wash his dog in.

There’s a sense that the regional brewers didn’t understand how the rules of the game were changing — that ‘hoppy’ was gaining a new, alternate meaning that didn’t have much to do with bitterness or Fuggles. In the years that followed these competitions, the gap between them and the ‘micros’ would grow ever wider.

This post was, as you’ll have guessed, based only on a couple of old magazine articles. If you can point us to more detailed information on the Beauty of Hops competitions, or were involved yourself as a competitor or judge, please do comment below.

The Original Hackney Hipster Brewer

Godson's Brewery.
Snaps of Godson’s Brewery yard via Patrick Fitzpatrick.

It’s London Beer City from Saturday 9 to 16 August and we thought this would be a good time to answer a question Brew Britannia unfortunately left dangling: what did happen to Godson’s brewery?

Founded in 1977, Godson’s was the first new brewing company to be established in London for decades, and we’re quite proud of having tracked down its founder, Patrick Fitzpatrick.

We’ve described him a few times now as the original Hackney hipster brewer — bearded, charming and hippyish, he was only in his twenties when he went into business in East London, having been inspired on a trip to India.

For one reason and another, we were obliged to remove a section explaining the downfall of Godson’s from the final draft of the book, but accidentally left in a teasing line suggesting that ‘everything that could go wrong did…’

Now, slightly edited (but hopefully transparently so) is a chunk of the transcript of our interview with Mr Fitzpatrick, which will hopefully satisfy those of you who were left on tenterhooks.

The first brewery was in Hackney and that was a temporary premises. We knew it was due to be redeveloped, at some point, into a car park, but we asked how long we had it for and they said, oh, five or ten years. Then Mrs Thatcher came to power and, to stimulate the economy, ordered councils to spend on capital projects. Someone in Hackney Council didn’t realise we’d been promised this premises by their property division and the development was suddenly moved forward.

Tower Hamlets heard about this and they invited us in. The Gunmaker’s Lane property was totally unsuitable – absolutely everything about it was wrong. It was an old, wooden-floored warehouse. We also had staff problems, employing people through the local employment exchange. It was a bad summer for brewing, by which I mean it was really hot, so we had quality control problems, but we had to keep up the supply to customers.

I also had a bit of a falling out with [logistics manager] Hugo Freeman and [brewer] Rob Adams… [and] they both left the industry, as far as I know.

In the autumn/winter of the same year, we moved again, to the Black Horse brewery. This was much better, but, again, everything had to be moved. While we were moving around, we couldn’t brew or sell our own beer…

Then there was the Tisbury merger, which was really a reverse takeover. We heard about them through John Wilmot, who was also working as a consultant for them. My wife wanted to move out of London and so this seemed like a good opportunity. It was in a mess, though, and we had to close it down and rebuild it, all the while having the beer brewed in London, which wasn’t ideal. Then, in 1983, they got taken over, while we were in the process of ‘due diligence’ for the merger, by a company which was investing gold salvaged from a World War II shipwreck… I pulled out, being owed something like £120k.

Then Everards, Adnams, Hall & Woodhouse and Ruddles set up their own distribution company and offered me the chance to go in with them. I think, now, wrongly, I did so. I thought, great – if they take on distribution, then I can concentrate on brewing, but I hadn’t realised what an essential combination the two were…

We also took on another brewery, Chudley, which was run by Tom Chudley in Maida Vale. I thought we were taking on a business partner who could actually brew and would look after production, but… [actually] we inherited his debt. [B&B: And then Chudley left the company.]

All this ‘corporate’ stuff began to take over from the actual brewing, and just wore me out. We eventually sold the rights to the name to Peter Gibb at Gibb’s Mews, and I left brewing.

So there you go –the lack of a decent, stable premises, and a series of partnerships that didn’t work out, were what did for Godson’s.

John Lennon’s Quiet Pint Revisited

lennon_specs_474

‘In conclusion, there is some evidence that circa 1966 John Lennon made a remark about the difficulty of experiencing a “quiet pint” in a favorite Liverpool pub.’

So states a blog post by Garson O’Toole, the famous consulting quote investigator, responding to a query we made last year.

He has traced it back as far as Philip Norman’s 1981 muck-raking biography Shout! but not to source.

If you’ve got copies of magazines containing Bill Harry’s early Beatles writing, perhaps you’ll have more luck.