Only a Northern Brewer

David Pollard, 1977.

This is the story of a first-wave British microbrewery that came and went, and of which little is remembered more than 40 years on: Pollard’s of Stockport, in Greater Manchester.

A handful of small new breweries opened in the early 1970s, and the Campaign for Real Ale had come into existence, but it was only after 1975 that a kind of chain reaction seems to have been triggered. CAMRA membership kept climbing, hitting 30,000 by March that year, and specialist pubs sprouting across the country to cater for ‘the real ale craze’. New brewers began to appear in ever greater numbers, too, and among the original set was Pollard’s of Reddish Vale in Stockport, run by a towering man with a drooping moustache and thick sideburns – David Pollard.

Pollard left school and went straight into the brewing trade in 1950, working alongside his father, George, as an apprentice at Robinson’s in Stockport. He went on thereafter to take jobs at various breweries across England, finding himself repeatedly shunted on as, one by one, they fell to the takeover mania of the Big Six. He became increasingly angry and frustrated, as expressed in a 1975 article in the Observer:

The accountants and engineers had started running things. All the big firms wanted were pasteurised, carbonated beers with no taste or character.

In around 1968 he started his own business – a small shop selling home brewing equipment and ingredients, on Hillgate in Stockport. Until 1963 home brewing had needed a license but when Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudlin removed that requirement, a small boom commenced. Newspapers and magazines were filled with recipes and how-to guides, and Boots the Chemist began to sell brewing kits to a new band of enthusiasts. Amidst all that excitement, Pollard’s shop was a success, and soon moved to larger premises on nearby Buxton Road.

Therapeutic as home brewing might have been for him, however, what he really wanted to be doing was making beer for sale in pubs and clubs. Buoyed by the rise of CAMRA, and perhaps aware of the recent small brewery openings in Litchborough and Selby, he bought £5,000 worth of new brewing equipment, and invested a further £5,000 in premises and ingredients. The site he chose, largely because it was cheap and the water was good, was a small unit in the recently-opened Reddish Vale Industrial Estate in the countryside south of Manchester, where the low, red-brick buildings of a substantial 19th Century printing plant had been converted into workshops.

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The Most Important British Craft Beers?

British beer bottle cap.

In response to an article listing ‘The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers’ Michael Lally at Bush Craft Beer has challenged his readers to think about what might be on a Brit-centric version of that list:

I think we can define ‘craft’ relatively loosely and ‘important’ in a similar way to our US colleagues: It’s one that either changed consumer tastes or how breweries approach making beer. There are a few obvious ones: Punk IPA by Brewdog, Jaipur by Thornbridge, ESB by Fullers.

There’s a survey you can respond to including space to make your own suggestions but here’s some food for thought from us.

1. Traquair House Ale (1965)

Arguably the very first ‘microbrewery’ was Traquair House which commenced production in 1965. It demonstrated that it was possible for small breweries to be opened despite prevailing industry trends, and also that small independent breweries could often do more interesting things than their bitter- and lager-focused Big Six peers — this beer was (and is) at a hefty ABV and very rich.

2. Litchborough Bitter (1974)

Another brewery with a strong claim to being the first microbrewery was Bill Urquhart’s Litchborough based in the village of that name near Northampton. The beer itself doesn’t seem to have been especially exciting but the business model, and Mr Urquhart’s mentoring/consultancy, directly inspired the microbrewery boom that followed.

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Was Meantime the First UK Craft Brewery?

Alastair Hook's editorial.

In a Tweet Meantime Brewing stated their claim to be (paraphrasing): ‘The only craft brewer in the UK when it was founded in 1999.’

It’s paraphrased because, after prodding from disgruntled beer geeks, the Tweet was removed. The thing is, we don’t think that’s an outrageous claim, even if it is a bit bigheaded, and requires a lot of disclaimers.

But first, the case against: how do you define ‘craft’ in a British context? (Groan.) If it means using aromatic American hops and brewing pale ales and IPAs then Brendan Dobbin (West Coast/Dobbin’s) and Sean Franklin (Franklin’s, Rooster’s) got there first, and that was fairly widespread by the late 1990s.

If it’s about fancy, expensive bottled beer with sexy packaging then look at Newquay Steam. (Thanks for the reminder, Jackie.)

If it means eschewing real ale and real ale culture then Meantime’s Alastair Hook was beaten to that by, er, Alastair Hook, at his own earlier brewing ventures Packhorse (1990), Freedom (1995) and Mash & Air (1997). He was raging against CAMRA and the strictures of cask ale culture, as he saw them, from around the same time.

Freedom Pilsner, a British lager.

If craft in your mind is synonymous with microbrewing then you can look back to the boom of the 1980s, or 1974, or 1972, or 1965.

If it means not being a national or multi-national giant, brewing interesting beer, employing traditional methods, and so on, then take your pick — Young’s, Adnams, almost anyone.

So, yes, we get all that, but it’s a bit like the debate around who invented the hot air balloon, or the radio. Guglielmo Marconi is generally credited with the invention of radio as we know it today but there is a long line of inventors and innovators, all with their champions, who either contributed to the technology or somehow nearly got there much earlier. In fact, Marconi was just the bloke who pulled it all together, perfected the technology and, crucially, managed to make a commercial success of it.

When it comes to craft beer in the UK, then, as per our definition 2 — cultural as much as anything, dismissive of CAMRA, bitter and mild, and looking overseas for inspiration — Alastair Hook is Marconi. He’s the man who made it work.

Meantime was gaining headlines by falling out with CAMRA about access to beer festivals when James Watt of BrewDog was still at school. The range of beers Hook brewed at Meantime at the beginning featured multiple types of lager and wheat beer but not one British-style pale ale or bitter (as far as we’re aware), and it was all brewery-conditioned, served either from bottles or kegs.

And Meantime was a commercial success in a way that Franklin’s, Dobbin’s and Mash & Air weren’t. Where others, however innovative or interesting, remained the preserve of geeks, Meantime went mainstream. It was the brewery that, when we first started paying attention to beer, had its bottles in stylish bars and restaurants, showing that beer could dress up and cut it with the cool kids. Meantime also worked out a way to get people to pay something like £4 a pint when most people were still boggling at half that price.

You might find all of that repellent but, for better or worse, that’s what craft beer means in the UK now, and Hook pulled it all together half a decade before anyone else.

Of course we’re playing devil’s advocate a bit here and, to be honest, we think Thornbridge and BrewDog both have claims that are about as strong. But we really don’t think it’s ridiculous of Meantime’s PR people to make that statement. It is, however, daft of them to think they could get away with it without being challenged.

Needless to say if you want more detail on any of this there are lots of bits and pieces here on the blog and we tried to pull it all together in Brew Britannia, the central argument of which is something like (a) alternative beer culture didn’t begin in 2005 but (b) real ale, world beer and craft beer are distinct waves of the same overarching 50 year event.

The Shake Out, 1983-84

We’re intending to spend a bit more time pondering the health of the UK beer industry in 2016 but, for perspective, here’s a bit of history around the first micro-brewery ‘shake out’ which happened back in the 1980s.

Brian Glover wrote for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper for many years providing a running commentary on the rise of the microbrewery which would eventually form the basis of his essential 1988 New Beer Guide. In 1982 he produced a multi-page report on the microbrewery boom cheering on the then 100 or so new breweries that had flowered since the mid-1970s. The tone was triumphant with only one closure to report, though a profile of Bourne Valley Brewery run by James Lynch (former CAMRA chair turned brewer) and John Featherby highlighted some challenges:

Back at the brewery, they are drawing in their horns to weather the recession. ‘We have just withdrawn from supplying London (and the West Country) on a regular basis,’ said John Featherby. ‘We are restricting our trading area… to cut our transport costs.’

Featherby also admitted that the brewery hadn’t made any money in its three years of trading and said, ‘In fact, we would not set up a brewery now. We could not afford to.’

Then, throughout 1983, there were rumblings, such as an article that appeared in What’s Brewing in April that year headlined THE GREAT BEER CRASH. It reported on the collapse of a London-based distributor, Roger Berman’s B&W, taking with it the associated micro-brewery, Union. In December, Brian Glover was observing that Devon’s micro-brewery scene was thriving with five then operating in the county.

But it could soon turn sour if they crowd each other out… ‘It’s certainly getting tight in the free trade around here,’ admitted Paul Bigrig [of the Mill Brewery], ‘especially with the appearance of Summerskills and Bates.’ Already Swimbridge Brewery in North Devon has gone under this year.

Then, in February 1984, in another special supplement, Glover called it: SMALL BEER CRASH.

The expected ‘shakeout’ of new small breweries has finally arrived with 12 having closed since July [1983]… All were free trade brewers, most struggling to sell their beer without the protection of their own pubs… The only surprise is that so many survived for so long, given the harsh recession, stiff competition and dearth of genuine freehouses…

The most famous of the failed breweries was Penrhos, founded by Richard Boston and Monty Python star Terry Jones in 1977 and run by Martin Griffiths. (His computer brain didn’t work out.) Griffiths reckoned he and Jones had lost £70,000 (going on for a quarter of a million quid in today’s money) over the course of the brewery’s life.

Another brewer, Geoff Patton of Swimbridge in Devon, cited aggressive discounting by larger breweries. The owners of Swannells in Hertfordshire acknowledged that poor quality control and marketing had contributed to its failure. Tisbury fell when its sister pub chain, on which it relied for the bulk of its sales, went into receivership.

Brian Glover said, in conclusion, ‘The small brewery boom… looks to be over.’ His final prediction?

The future, it would seem, lies in the consolidation of the surviving free trade brewers; an expanding number of [brew pubs] — and increasing involvement in small-scale brewing by the major brewers… A few new independent free trade brewers will appear in the next couple of years. But sadly, they will almost certainly be outweighed by the number that give up the unequal struggle.

As it happened, the paltry c.100 micro-breweries of 1984 have become c.1,500 in 2016, which just goes to show how difficult it can be to predict anything.

Where to Buy Brew Britannia

Although we understand Brew Britannia is now out of print there are still various ways and places to get hold of a copy if you want to give it to someone this Christmas.

  1. Amazon UK is sold out but, if you insist on buying from there, there are several third-party sellers with brand new copies at reasonable prices.
  2. Amazon US has it in stock and delivers (we think) worldwide — certainly to the UK, anyway, fairly promptly.
  3. Other online bookstores such as Waterstones, Book Depository, Foyles and Books Please are offering it ready to dispatch with in a day or two.
  4. Specialists Beer Inn Print is offering it along with a huge selection of other beer- and pub-related books — well worth a browse.
  5. If you want a signed copy then we have a few at hand which we’re selling at £12.99 including postage within the mainland UK — drop us an email via contact@boakandbailey.com to discuss dedications and details.
  6. We know that there are also a few copies out and about in small independent book and beer shops — check your local before you order online.

Remember to tell the lucky recipient about the errata (or, as we call it, the List of Burning Shame) and the (also award-winning) follow-up supplement ‘The Good, the Bad and the Murky’.

And if if you still need convincing here are links to a bunch of reviews and whatnot.