A rather peculiar move, in my opinion, if we compare it to the Belgian brewing giant’s recent operations, especially in Europe… La Virgen was born as a product designed for the Madrid market, and until a year ago it was basically focused on it. As a company, it has never quite been in the circles of the national craft movement, appearing in few festivals and without a significant presence in specialised bars. On the contrary, it has successfully penetrated the market with a craft-labelled product that delivers a similar experience to the ‘usual’ beers.
One of the locals most excited about her plan was [Rebecca Atkinson’s] friend Trevor Munroe. He and his wife run an oyster farm on Sober Island, and the 43-year-old thought the brewery would be great for the community. Not to mention, it was to be a mutually beneficial relationship: Munroe wanted to help Atkinson find land; she wanted to use his oysters in her beer. Better yet, they planned to team up to attract tourists to the island with tours that would end with cold beer and fresh oysters… But the relationship began to sour when Atkinson delayed the construction of the brewery and started brewing beer at her mom’s place instead.
The story highlights all kinds of issues around provenance, marketing, and the meaning of local — is Atkinson exploiting the island’s quirky name or is she sincere in her stated intent to eventually move production there?
From 1980 to 1982 one of London Weekend Television’s top-rated sitcoms was Holding the Fort in which Peter Davison played a microbrewer. We spoke to the writers, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, to find out more.
We were first tipped off to the existence of Holding the Fort by a comment from ‘Dvorak’ on something we posted back in September. We watched as much as we could find on YouTube and were amazed by how accurately it portrayed the then embryonic British microbrewing scene. On the off-chance, we emailed Marks & Gran via their website just as the success of their revival of Goodnight Sweetheart hit them and they became very busy. We heard nothing until this week when we got an apologetic reply and an invitation to phone them at their office.
Because the way the timing worked out Bailey made the call, speaking to Laurence Marks while Maurice Gran made muffled interjections somewhere in the background. We’ve slightly edited the transcript for clarity and to remove some umm-ing and er-ing.
From what we’ve been able to see Holding the Fort is a pretty accurate portrayal of what was going on in British brewing at the time.
Microbrewing had just started and we had met the man… What was his name? This was 40 years ago, our very first commissioned sitcom, so it’s hard to remember. He was the man who started a chain of pubs… What were they called?
David Bruce — the Firkin chain?
That’s him! He was always our adviser on brewing and, in fact, he provided all the brewing equipment for the production which was in the basement of our fictional brewer’s house in Tufnell Park, North London.
Our central character, our male central character, who we join in the first episode, is a brewer. The brewery where he works is closing and moving to the North. He and his wife, played by Patricia Hodge, have just had a little baby and they don’t want to move North, so she goes back to her old job as an Army Captain and he decides he can run a small brewery from his house.
And his assistant, played by Matthew Kelly, he’s a kind of stereotypical real ale drinker with the beard and so on.
No, Fitz, he’s not a brewer — he’s just kind of a layabout, but he starts to learn to brew. Peter Davison, who’s the brewer, is very clean cut. David Bruce always looked alright to me! Very smart.
Peter Davison was in Doctor Who at the same time you were making this series — is that right?
Well, yes and no. We made the first series in 1980 then he got cast as Doctor Who between series, so he was alternating between our series at LWT and Doctor Who at the BBC.
It’s odd that you’re so well-known but that this show is so obscure — we’d never heard of it and it’s quite hard to get to see. But there were three series so it must have been popular.
Oh, yes — hugely successful. It was, at one time, LWT’s top-rated comedy show. I have no idea why it’s out of circulation — I don’t understand the machinations of TV networks.
Were you into beer yourselves? Were you CAMRA members or anything like that?
I was a journalist at the time, in the mid-1970s, and was invited along to the first CAMRA beer festival at Covent Garden in 1975. I went along to what is now the London Transport Museum and there was every beer in the entire country, barrels everywhere. People were walking around vomiting, falling over… It was the closest we’d come to the Munich Oktoberfest, I suppose.
I was with a friend who was a much more learned beer drinker than me, and we worked our way round deciding which was the best beer there. We both agreed it was Hook Norton. In fact, we loved it so much, we found out where the brewery was, took a day off work and drove out there. There were three pubs near the brewery, supplied directly, and we drank in all of them. And funnily enough, it’s now my local brewer.
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Marks & Gran are still writing together. You can read more about their long career at their website, Marks & Gran, and they are also on Twitter @marksandgran.
In our recent trawl of the Sunday Times archive we found something we could have done with three years ago: a killer quote from Britain’s first microbrewer.
Well, sort of first — terms and conditions apply, and the ins and outs are all in Chapter Four of Brew Britannia. At any rate, when Bill Urquhart founded the Litchborough Brewery in 1974 he helped kick off a revolution.
In his splendid and essential 1988 book New Beer Guide published in 1988, Brian Glover (not that one, the beer one) used a wonderful quote from Mr Urquhart that would have fit perfectly into our narrative of the birth of the small-is-beautiful, anti-corporate tendency in the alternative strand of British brewing:
Brewers have been edged aside in favour of people who talk about economics rather than beer. Everyone now has to be trained in the concept of marginal profits. They’ve swamped out the people who want to make good beer. Once the head brewers used to decide what the beer would be. Now they make what they are told.
He cited its source as the Northampton Chronicle which we in 2013 duly called up from the stacks at the British Library’s newspaper library, then based at Colindale in North London. We read several years worth of issues, several times and… Nothing. (Though we followed a couple of grim murder cases with interest.) Either Mr Glover got the name of the paper wrong or there was some other confusion.
We contacted Mr Glover directly but his notes were left with CAMRA and have since gone missing, and he couldn’t remember any further details.
Finally, a bit glum at hours of wasted time, we sought the advice of one of our mentors who said our instincts were right: without a source, we shouldn’t use it. With a sigh, we agreed, and didn’t.
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.