The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we interviewed Michael Hardman, one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordinary. ‘It used to have an intense bitterness that was almost too much for some people,’ he said. A good beer tasting note will trigger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief comment, delivered with such passion, and as straightforward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordinary had become a shadow of its 1970s self. Having worked for the brewery as a PR executive for 30 years Hardman watched with sadness as, first, the brand lost its great champion, the company’s eccentric chairman John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the historic Wandsworth facility ceased brewing and moved production to Charles Wells at Bedford.

For London ale drinkers this was a ravens departing the Tower moment, leaving London with a mere handful of breweries and only Fuller’s as an independent of any size. There were reassurances that extensive testing had been carried out to assure continuity and even rumours that the last batches of Wandsworth-brewed Ordinary were being blended with the new version to ease the transition. But Wells could point at specification sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and people who drank it regularly knew it.

Bedford-brewed Ordinary wasn’t terrible – we drank plenty and enjoyed it – but veteran drinkers would push it away, shaking their heads at its sheer… ordinariness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew something like Young’s Ordinary but could not breathe into the essential spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s London pubs, for so long a kind of defensive line against modernity, were also sold off and became a separate company. They generally continued to serve Young’s branded beers, however, so that, superficially at least, not much changed beyond a general ‘smartening up’. On trips to London we would invariably end up in one or another, either out of convenience or nostalgia, and check in on Ordinary. This was a sad, fruitless habit until the summer of 2014 when, suddenly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, drier, and more vigorous than we’d ever known it. But we doubted ourselves – perhaps it was a one-off? Or wishful thinking?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got better every time we’ve encountered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale earlier this year and now, after making a point of trying it in multiple pubs in four corners of London, and also in Exeter and Bristol, we want to underline this point: the sickness has gone and Young’s Ordinary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to London at the Flask in Hampstead — a gorgeous Victorian pub whose discreet partitions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a little more interesting — we drank luminous, comically foaming pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers perfumed with pine, citrus, mango or green onion. There’s barely a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a suggestion of minerals and lemon peel. But it has the austere structural elegance of a Victorian railway terminus, with a snatch of tame funkiness for seasoning.

We’ve been telling people the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells selling up to Marston’s, this resurgence might not last.

Where Can We Buy Your Beer?

The cover of the Beer Map of Great Britain, 1970s.

With (give or take — counts vary) something like 1,600 breweries currently operating in the UK a common complaint is the difficulty for smaller operators of getting those beers to consumers.

Big pub companies, chains and supermarkets dominate the market, buying beer from a chosen few breweries willing to meet their demanding terms. In many regions one or two large players (e.g. St Austell) control many of the pubs leaving a fistful of freehouses to fight over. And, so we gather from interviews and off-the-record chat, new small breweries can sometimes find themselves muscled out by better-established players of more or less the same size.

Yesterday we got involved in some Twitter chat about beer from Devon (there’s a poll, actually, if you feel like voting) and a version of what seems to us to be a common conversation unfurled. To paraphrase:

A: There’s no good beer in [PLACE]!

B: Yes there is — breweries X, Y and Z are awesome!

A: But I’ve never actually seen those beers for sale anywhere.

B: Ah.

In this context we’re beginning to think the single most important bit of information a small brewery can share is intelligence on where we can actually buy their beer, if it’s anything other than fairly ubiquitous.

It might be in the farmers’ market in Fulchester every third Sunday of the month; it might be in the delicatessen in Dufton; the bottle shop in Barchester; or the Coach & Horses in Casterbridge. We will go out of our way (a bit) to find a beer that sounds interesting, or to try something new on our beat, but we need a few hints, ideally without having to email or direct message the brewery. (And sometimes, even when we do that, we get ‘No idea, sorry’, or ‘It’s should be in a few pubs round Borsetshire this month’.)

A daily updated page on the brewery website, Facebook page or Twitter would probably work best.

We certainly appreciate that in the case of cask ale, even if a brewery knows a pub has taken delivery, it can be hard to say exactly when it’s going to go on or, equally, if it’s already sold out. Even so, wouldn’t a quick exchange of info between publican and brewer — a text message or social media nudge — be mutually beneficial here?

But perhaps there are good reasons why this doesn’t often seem to happen.

In the meantime, if you don’t know where your beer is on sale, and can’t tell people who want to buy it, then it almost might as well not exist.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 27 May 2017: Breweries, Books and the Bass Stink

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related reading we’ve particularly enjoyed in the last week, with a connecting thread about the fate of family brewers.

Commentators have now had time to digest the news of the sales of the Charles Wells brewery to Marston’s. Our pick of the analysis is this piece by Roger Protz in which he argues that we should be worried about this development, and the threat of more to come:

In a fast-changing beer world, family brewers feel crushed between the national brewers and the growing army of craft beer makers… Belinda Sutton, née Elgood, managing director of Elgood’s in Wisbech, told me in an interview that she was under intense pressure from Adnams and Greene King along with a number of new micro-breweries in the Fenland region. Elgood’s qualifies for Progressive Beer Duty: family brewers who don’t benefit from duty relief are really under the cosh.

For balance, though, there’s a similarly authoritative view from Martyn Cornell who argues that there isn’t much to worry about in this particular case:

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve…

Our view, in case you’re interested, is that it’s right to be wary per Mr Protz. Breweries in this category can feel dominant and even come across as bullies at a local level but they’re actually often rather vulnerable to predators. It wouldn’t take much for the last few to topple leaving us with complete polarisation between post-1970s microbreweries and national or multi-national giants. This middle ground  — breweries with chimneys and dray horses — is an important strand of British beer culture and it would be a shame to see it disappear.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 27 May 2017: Breweries, Books and the Bass Stink”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 20 May 2017: Hops, The Heatons, Homogoneity

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from South African hops (again) to Peter Pan.

Last week the chat in the beerosphere was dominated by AB-InBev’s control over the supply of apparently coveted (who knew?) South African hops. This week Lucy Corne, who literally wrote the book on South African craft beer, gives a different perspective for All About Beer:

What every article has overlooked is that while American brewers, for now at least, can’t get their hands on South African hops, there are microbreweries that can—in South Africa. The country now boasts almost 200 microbreweries, a number that has increased from just 50 in 2013… While some brewers utilize imported ingredients, many rely heavily on SAB—and now A-B InBev—for both malt and hops. The question of ingredients was of particular concern to South African microbrewers when the takeover was in progress last year, but their fears were somewhat assuaged by a clause in the agreement stating that ‘the Merged Entity shall continue to supply hops that are currently supplied by SABMiller to Small Beer Producers on the same terms and conditions as currently offered by SABMiller or otherwise on reasonable commercial terms.’

(Disclosure: we sometimes write for All About Beer too.)


The Beershop (shop frontage)

Jim at Beers Manchester highlights what looks like a fun crawl of micropubs that happen to be near each other in ‘the heatons’ (Heaton Moor and Heaton Chapel) in the suburbs of Stockport, Greater Manchester:

The message? Yes. Manchester is a truly fabulous place to go drinking. But a short train journey from Piccadilly – and a little gentle walking – can take you on a fabulous beer journey. To four special and individually superb bars and pubs… But put them together? I’m still smiling.


Charles Wells brewery.
Marston’s Gets Bigger

On Thursday the large family brewery Charles Wells of Bedfordshire announced that it had sold its beer brands and brewing operation to Marston’s:

The Bedford brewery site is the home of leading ale brands Bombardier, Courage, and McEwan’s and the sale also includes the UK distribution rights for Kirin Lager, Estrella Damm, Erdinger and Founders and the exclusive global license of the Young’s brand. In addition, Cockburn & Campbell, the wine merchants, will also transfer. Charlie Wells and John Bull beers will remain part of Charles Wells Ltd. Employees at the brewery in production, national sales, and brands marketing will transfer to Marston’s.

You might not care for Marston’s or Charles Wells beers but this seems to have been a genuine surprise for most industry observers and sees Marston’s go from BIG to HUGE. The list of brands it now controls — it already has Banks, Brakspear, Jennings, Thwaites and Wychwood — brings to mind the days of the Big Six in their acquisitive pomp. By our reckoning, something like a third to a half of the beers in your local supermarket premium bottled ale range could now be Marston’s owned. The same probably goes for the range of cask ales on the average high street. Astonishing.


A can of Stone Brewing beer.
No More Patience with Peter Pan?

We’re going to finish with a series of interconnected posts. First there’s Stan Hieronymus’s review of a book, Untapped: exploring the cultural dimensions of craft beer:

Hate your job? Become a brewer. This is an example of why J. Nikol Beckham writes in a new collection of essays that ‘the microbrew revolution’s success can be understood in part as the result of a mystique cultivated around a group of men who were ambitious and resourceful enough to ‘get paid to play’ and to capitalize upon the productive consumption of fans/customers who enthusiastically invested in this vision.’ The title of this fourth chapter… is a mouthful: ‘Entrepreneurial Leisure and the Microbrew Revolution: The Neoliberal Origins of the Craft Beer Movement.’ Not surprisingly, there’s a considerable amount to define and discover en route to Beckham’s conclusion.

That, and Alan McLeod’s comment on the same piece about Peter Pan syndrome (expanded upon here) made us think of a piece from a day earlier by Jeff Alworth: ‘Remember When Stone Was Cool?’ He says:

Now every brewery claims to be edgy and different. To be against big beer is required as an article of authenticity. The notion that breweries must be different and unique has been internalized. Every brewery press release emphasizes how ‘innovative’ they are (a claim now so distant from actual beer one hardly knows what it means). And just as it happened in rock and roll, once everyone’s a punk, no one is — which brings us back to Stone… Stone emerged as a revolutionary force. The problem is, once you’ve deposed the king, what comes next?

When we read all of these pieces together, we heard the sound of a dustbin-lid-sized penny dropping: something has changed, underdogs aren’t anymore, and the reason we’re rather bored of reading brewery profile pieces (and so rarely include them here) is that they’re so often the same stories about the same kind of people going through the same journey.

On a lighter note, but dancing around the same point, there’s this from Pilot — a brewery which also happens to toss out rather sharp commentary — which says an awful lot with great economy:

This post was scheduled late on Thursday. If anything broke on Friday we probably missed it. Sorry.

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.

Continue reading “Only a Northern Brewer”