Category Archives: real ale

Computer World, 1983

Detail of brewing Process as depicted c.1980,

‘I have always hated the actual brewing process,’ said Martin Griffiths of Penrhos Brewery in an interview with CAMRA’s What’s Brewing in March 1983.

Rather a startling admission, but many ‘lifestyle’ brewers — those who like the idea, but aren’t capable of achieving some kind of Zen enlightenment through endless cleaning — probably come to feel the same.

Griffiths (bow-tied and moustachioed, like a TV antiques expert in the accompanying photo) had a radical solution: he turned control of the brewery over to a computer. Or, rather, to ‘a suitcase-sized microchip brain’ known as BPC — the Brewery Process Controller:

Martin’s apparatus is so accurate that it has a temperature read-out to 0.1°C on any point of the brewing process… Other features include automatic and remote manual control over flows, temperatures and boiler operation, as well as an automatic log of brewing.

Big breweries, like the colossal Bass Charrington plant at Runcorn, had been computer controlled for some time, but the new wave of small British breweries seemed to rather pride themselves on using sticks and bathtubs. Did a computer quite fit the image?

Griffiths had grand plans to sell BPCs to new businesses in the then blossoming American microbrewery scene, but it didn’t come off, and Penrhos ceased trading later in 1983.

The founding of Penrhos Brewery, and its significance in the story of British beer, is covered in Brew Britannia.

The Post Craft World

Illustration: beer on a table.

It is inevitable that, by the time a trend goes ‘mainstream’, those who first championed it will be moving on. And so it is with ‘craft beer’.

2014 is set to be the year of craft beer, with the term ‘craft ales‘ leaking into everyday usage, while Wetherspoon’s, big regional brewers and supermarkets have gone into overdrive slapping the words onto every receptive surface.

So of course the cognoscenti, after some years of grumbling, have begun to reject the phrase outright.

We think it’s partly that they’re just bored of hearing it. They’re certainly bored of the debate about what it means, even as they’re drawn to join in.

It is also, however, gaining some distinctly negative connotations: we recently noticed a former noted craftophile describing a dodgy pint as ‘a bit too craft’ the other day.

Apart from BrewDog, we haven’t spoken to many brewers to whom we would apply the term who like or use it themselves.

In fact, these brewers from New Zealand have suggested an alternative…

Post craft

The elements of ‘craft beer’ people seem to be reacting against are sloppiness, inconsistency and sometimes downright dirtiness. The appetite for novelty doesn’t seem to be diminishing just yet, but there is perhaps now less appetite for bankrolling other people’s playtime: people are beginning to demand cleanness and consistency, and to reward those breweries which deliver it.

Or, to put it another way, people are realising that undisciplined, amateurish, enthusiastic ‘punk’ music is far more fun to listen to than ‘punk’ beers are to drink.

And after that?

The abandonment of ‘craft beer’ by the geeks won’t mean the sudden resurgence of ‘real ale’. Not yet, anyway: we can well imagine, in a few years time, a cutting-edge revivalist movement founded on brown bitter brewed in dodgy old barns, with crystal malt, Fuggles and Goldings.

Everything becomes cool again given time.

The Pub Curmudgeon and Pete Brown have also both considered the ‘craft beer’ trend (or fad) in recent posts.

Keg Was Better on the Day

Tetley sign, Sheffield.

In 1976, the Sunday Mirror invited Michael Hardman, a founding member of the Campaign for Real Ale, to take part in a beer ‘taste test’. He walked right into a trap.

Tasting ‘blind’, Hardman joined his fellow judges in declaring a keg bitter, Tetley’s Drum, the unanimous winner, and the Sunday Mirror duly declared it ‘the best beer in Britain’.

Hardman was quoted in the article, admitting that Drum was ‘very good’ and that he wasn’t surprised by the result.

CAMRA had, in effect, publicly endorsed a product of the very type it had been set up to do away with.

Campaign members were not impressed: they wrote to What’s Brewing declaring it a ‘fiasco’ and berating Hardman not only for taking part, but in particular for appearing to speak positively about keg bitter.

Hardman argued that he had only reacted honestly — the real ales, in the middle of a famous heat wave, had not been at their best, and the keg had been ‘in better condition on the day‘. He also defended his decision to take part, saying that CAMRA needed to take every opportunity it could to reach mainstream audiences.

Nonetheless, a lesson was learned, we think: we can’t recall hearing of anyone from CAMRA being lured into a similar cask vs. keg blind-tasting since.

There was only so much space available in Brew Britannia and not every nugget we came across made it into the text, so there will no doubt be more posts like this in the coming months.

Cask Ale as Premium Product

Map of cask ale prices, 1984.

In 1984, the trade magazine Pub Leader conducted a survey of beer prices around in England and Wales and discovered that cask ale cost 2p more per pint than comparable keg beer.

The average price for  keg was 70½p a pint, while cask cost 72½p. (Lager was more expensive again at an average of 81p a pint.)

In trendy London, the price difference was even more pronounced, with a pint of cask ale going at 85½p (About £2.35 in today’s money.) One pub in the West End of the city was charging a staggering £1.03. (Equivalent to £2.90 today.)

The Campaign for Real Ale weren’t happy with this finding and urged the Brewers’ Society to admit that its members ‘are gradually turning real ale into a premium product at a premium price’.

What can we conclude from this? That being fussy makes consumers vulnerable to exploitation?

At any rate, it was surely CAMRA’s efforts in the 1970s which ‘turned real ale into a premium product’: brewers and publicans were simply, and somewhat reluctantly, responding to the market CAMRA created.

We’re trying to digest a big pile of surveys and articles about ‘the price of a pint’ from the 1960s onward, and we’ll no doubt share a few more of these snapshots as we go.

Return of the Wood

Wooden barrels at the Wild Beer Co, Somerset.

The opening chapter of our book concerns the Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood, and one of the first things we learned about the SPBW is that, since the late sixties, they’ve actually been pretty relaxed about the whole wood thing.

Though caricatured as fundamentalists, the Society’s founders realised early on that the beer they liked wasn’t literally ’from the wood’ in most cases.

When we toured a large regional brewery a while ago, we spotted a wooden cask sitting in a corner. The head brewer who was accompanying us rolled his eyes: ‘We do that for one pub in the estate. The regulars insist on it. Wood’s fine, as long as you like your beer to taste of vinegar.’

With this attitude holding sway in the industry, the SPBW accepted that, as long as a beer was cask-conditioned, even if said cask was made of metal, it would do the job.

And yet, fifty years after their founding (the first meeting took place on 6 December 1963), wood is suddenly back in fashion in British brewing.

At the East London Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) ‘Pig’s Ear’ beer festival in Hackney (running until this Saturday, 7 December), in honour of the SPBW, ten beers are being dispensed ‘from the wood’. This has taken some lobbying to achieve, but could it become a habit? Well, why not — after all, wooden casks are dead ‘craft’ (rustic, artisanal, handmade) aren’t they? And wooden casks do look lovely.

Wooden beer casks.

More significant, perhaps, is the recent obsession with ‘barrel ageing’, derived from Belgium via the United States. Though it is not always used quite as Arthur Millard and the other founders of the SPBW might have hoped, hip young brewers positively fetishise wood. At the Wild Beer Company in Somerset, barrels — their source a closely guarded secret — are cooed over like newborn babies: ‘This one was used for Pedro Ximenez — smell it!’

Though much of the beer ends up in bottles or kegs, the SPBW have nonetheless welcomed this new (old) development with a mix of bewildered surprise and ‘we told you so’ delight.

It might not be ‘from the wood’, but it has been ‘in the wood’, or ‘through the wood’, and that is close enough.