There probably isn’t enough of Ian Nairn on beer to warrant the publication of Nairn on Beer, but it’s not far off — his interest did border on obsessive.
These are highlights from a couple of pieces he wrote for the Sunday Times in the 1970s in addition to his most famous essay on the subject, ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’, published in 1974.
First, there’s a review from 1976: when Richard Boston’s book Beer & Skittles came out that year, who was better placed to assess it for the Sunday Times than Nairn?
One of the first bits of paid beer writing we did was a shared profile of Nairn and Boston for the Campaign for Real Ale’s BEER magazine back in 2013, as part of the regular ‘Real Ale Heroes’ strand. Both men played their part in the rise of CAMRA and had similarly large brains though Boston was a hippyish left-winger and Nairn an ‘anarcho-Tory’. As founder member of CAMRA Michael Hardman put it, ‘It was perfect. Boston appealed to the socialists, Nairn to the capitalists.’
Political differences aside, Nairn’s review of Boston’s ‘delightful book’ appeared on 8 August 1976 and, with only brief sideswipe about mixed metaphors, was blazingly positive:
I know enough about beer and pubs to recognise just how much information has been ingested, digested and then distilled. Easy, easy, in the football chant. Just you try it. I am at the moment reading some of P.G. Wodehouse for the n’th time; the style is quite different, but the process is the same. Limpid simplicity meets hard work… In other words this is a literary masterpiece.
This post contains hits upon a few of our favourite themes in relatively few words: Ian Nairn, class, and the similarities between real ale culture and post-2005 craft beer.
In 1974 the architectural and cultural commentator Ian Nairn wrote an influential article in the Sunday Times which was reckoned at the time to have been partly responsible for the sudden leap in membership of the then young Campaign for Real Ale. That story is covered in Brew Britannia, Chapter Three, ‘CAMRA Rampant’ and the original article, we are assured, is going to be included in Adrian Tierney-Jones’s upcoming anthology of beer writing. (Disclosure: it will also include something by us.) Here’s a sample, though, to give an idea of Nairn’s angle:
[To] extinguish a local flavour, which is what has happened a hundred times in the last ten years, is like abolishing the Beaujolais: after all it’s red and alcoholic, might as well make it in Eurocity to an agreed Common Market recipe. The profits would be enormous, and the peasants wouldn’t know the difference… but the peasants are fighting back.
But here’s something we hadn’t seen until recently: the response from readers of the Sunday Times published a week later, on 7 July 1974. First, there’s an angry publican, Eddie Johnson of Chipping Ongar, saying something that, with a few changes, could be a comment on 21st Century craft beer culture:
Once more the voice of the middle class is raised in righteous indignation and is busily telling the working class what to drink… Would it surprise Ian Nairn to know that many years ago, when keg was first introduced and sold side by side with draught beer from the wood, keg was a runaway best seller? I worked in the London docks at the time, and 27 out of 30 docker bitter drinkers switched to keg… You see beer is a working man’s drink… It’s not to be spoken or written of in trendy, mannered language. It can’t be appreciated sipped out of half-pint dimple mugs by the chaps in their beards and jeans after a hard day’s sitting down the office.
This is part of a conversation that goes round in circles based largely on assertions: the thing I like, that was trendy 15 years ago, is humble, honest and straightforward; the thing they like, that’s just become trendy, is a symptom of snobbery and a symbol of elitism.
Her father and grandfather both made the malts themselves. They would soak the barley in water, then take it up and leave it to sprout in the sacks so it would remain wet. The shoots and rootlets would be removed by rubbing between the hands (just like at Storli in Norway). The rubbing was child’s work, and she herself started doing it when she was four years old. Her hands would get sweet and sticky, she says.
In The Bruery’s iteration, B. Lambicus brings the woodsy, hay, and earthy character to the forefront, with slightly lower attenuation and a soft lingering bitterness. Think baked sweet potato with the skin on and a faint dusting of ground black pepper.
The public sees the critic as a utility. The reason people love rating websites is that they point them in a direction. Critics help cut through all the clutter and noise to find the stuff worth enjoying… There are over 4,000 breweries in the US and if you say they each produce around seven beers each, you are looking at almost 30,000 different beers. The critic in part should strive to make the average consumer’s life a little bit easier.
London brewery Late Knights is going through some difficulties, closing one of its pubs and ceasing brewing, while the remaining six pubs have been split into two new companies. London Beer Guide (@BeerGuideLondon) has the latest news (quote updated 28/08/2016 15:30):
Each group of three is now under different ownership. Neither will carry Late Knights branding but both intend to continue to brew, though obviously only one has an actual brewery at present. We understand that a company called Erimus Brewing/Erimus Pubs and Bars now owns the first group of pubs, and that a company called Southey Brewing owns the second group, but this is yet to be confirmed.
The Pilcrow, Manchester’s brand new built-from-scratch pub, is to be run by the people behind the city’s Port Street Beer House and 2016’s ‘It’ brewery Cloudwater. A little surprise, perhaps even amounting to dismay, was expressed at this news on Twitter: The Pilcrow project had presented as community-led and relied to some extent on the work of volunteers learning traditional craft skills (e.g. wood-turning) as they made fixtures and fittings for the pub, and this felt to some bait-and-switch.
For what it’s worth, when we asked about the social/commercial status of the project by email back in February, it was made clear that the intention was always to hand over to a commercial operator and for the pub to make money in the long run, so we don’t think any volunteers can be said to have been hoodwinked.
These are a couple of useful resources you might want to bookmark if you’re planning a weekend city break this autumn:
The Railway Hotel in Edgware, North London, the subject of his petition, is another pub from the same period, so few of which are left that the remaining examples have become precious.
It’s a pub we know quite well even though we didn’t make it there on our tour of outer London’s inter-war pubs earlier in the year. It is mentioned in passing in Basil Oliver’s essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House as a notable example of the kind of ‘imposing inn… quasi timber-framed’ that Truman, Hanbury & Buxton were building at the time. Now, Mark says:
It closed in the early 2000’s and has remained boarded up and unloved since. Last month there was an arson attack which left a portion of the ground floor ruined, as yet no one has been prosecuted for this to our knowledge. The Railway Hotel has has several owners since last year.
These situations can be turned around. A couple of weeks back we visited The Fellowship Inn, a similar premises in South London, which having been listed is now the focus of a well-funded project which promises not only to restore the building architecturally but also to bring it back to life, giving over the pub to experienced chain operators, installing a microbrewery, and turning the derelict dance hall into a cinema.
Microbreweries as we know them today came into being in the 1960s or 1970s (see Brew Britannia for more on that) but did you know something along the same lines nearly emerged half a century earlier?
The Chelmsford Chronicle for 25 December 1914 carried the following story under a headline which gives us another term to throw into the jargon soup along with ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’: REVIVAL OF COTTAGE BREWING IN ESSEX VILLAGES.
One result of the additional tax of one penny per pint on beer and ale has seen a revival in the cottage brewing several Essex villages. The extra tax was of course put upon beer to help to pay the cost the war, and there was direct authority that the increase should be carried to the consumer by an extra halfpenny per glass, one penny per pint, on beer sold in licensed houses. This tax has incidentally led a notable return to the custom which prevailed in many Essex villages half a century ago of cottagers brewing their own beer. By law a cottager whose house is assessed at £8 or under per annum — most of the genuine rural cottages are assessed at about half that figure — can brew beer for his own consumption without paying any duty… In a town like Braintree, for instance, home brewing is practically unknown, but the country there has been just enough brewing at cottages or farms to keep the industry alive. So far the impetus to cottage brewing has been chiefly observed in villages Shalford and Stisted, where there are now several brews of Essex ale maturing for Christmas!
The article goes on to quote a local expert:
I have actually seen the brews being made in one place, and ascertained that there are eight cottagers waiting to use one copper which is supposed to make exceptionally good beer. Of course the home-brewed beer is not so nice-looking as good brewery beer, for the art of brewing has reached high perfection. The cottage beer that I have seen lacks sparkle and brightness of a nice bottled beer, but there is no doubt it is full of strength, and contains what the farm labourers call ‘plenty of bite.’
Cottage beer is strong, hazy and a bit chewy. That sounds familiar. He goes on:
The arrangements prevailing in Essex villages where I have seen ‘home’ beer being brewed is for the cottager to purchase malt, and hops, then to pay an experienced man in the Village 5s. to brew the beer to fill the cask, generally a hogshead.
That’s a fascinating arrangement — like the shared oven model for bread-making — but not quite what we’d recognise as microbrewing, i.e. a newly established small brewery producing beer for sale to the general public. A few years later, however, on 29 March 1919, the Licensed Trade News repeated much the same story of East Anglian cottage brewing but with an added twist. Citing an original article in the Evening Standard that we haven’t been able to track down, they reported that one social club in the London suburbs had been inspired by the home-brewing craze to consider applying for a licence to sell its own small batch, hand-crafted, artisanal products. (Our words, not theirs.)
As far as we know this didn’t go ahead (the big brewers weren’t happy and they tended to get their way, up to a point) but what would have happened if 1919 had seen the first new commercial ‘cottage brewery’? Might there have been ten by 1925, and 150 at the start of World War II?
UPDATE 05:32 24/08/2016
This newspaper report is a garbled account of the founding of the famous clubs breweries, isn’t it? The connection with East Anglian homebrewing is spurious.