Bill Urquhart: A Footnote to a Footnote

Urquhart in glasses and flat cap raising a pint.
Adapted from ‘Bill Urquhart at Litchborough’, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Continue reading “Bill Urquhart: A Footnote to a Footnote”

Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 2: Richard Boston and Country Pubs

Ian Nairn leans on a wall.
Adapted from ‘Nairn Across Britain’, 1972, via BBC Iplayer.

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?

Beer and Skittles by Richard Boston.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.

Continue reading “Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 2: Richard Boston and Country Pubs”

Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 1: Middle Class Real Ale

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.

Continue reading “Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 1: Middle Class Real Ale”

In Their Own Words: The 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition

This article first appeared in the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER in 2015 and is reproduced here with their permission. The original beer mat in the main image was given to us by Trevor Unwin. We’re very grateful to David Davies for the use of his contempyorary photographs. 

In 1975, the Campaign for Real Ale invented the modern beer festival when it staged a five-day event with more than 50 beers attended by 40,000 thirsty members. Forty years on, we asked those who were there – volunteers, Campaign leaders and drinkers – to share their memories.

Chris Bruton (organiser): A Cambridge branch member suggested a beer festival in the Corn Exchange at an early meeting in 1974. The main credit should go to the late Alan Hill – then a Personnel Manager at Pye in Cambridge. The festival made a significant profit, and the donation to central funds was essential to keep the Campaign afloat during a difficult period.

Chris Holmes (CAMRA chair 1975-76): Because of the success of Cambridge, someone had the bright idea of a bigger festival in London. I’d like to say that we were being very sophisticated and testing the market for a national festival but, really, we just had the opportunity and said, ‘Let’s do it!’

Chris Bruton: By this time CAMRA had employed a Commercial Manager, Eric Spragett, who was a Londoner. The main organising trio was Eric, John Bishopp and me. For some time a huge warehouse at St Katharine Docks was the favoured site but the logistics proved insurmountable. Finally, we found the old Flower Market in Covent Garden.

Continue reading “In Their Own Words: The 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition”

Tony’s Pre-1970 Boddington’s Clone Recipe

Tony Leach is a home brewer based in Stockport and got in touch with us a while back for input on his attempts to clone Golden Age Boddington’s.

He had alread hashed it out pretty thoroughly on the Jim’s Beer Kit messageboard, including comments from Ron Pattinson, before we exchanged a few emails debating hop varieties, whether it was necessary to use any brewing sugars, and so on. He also spoke to someone who used to work at the brewery (on the phone, having been put through by the pub landlord) who advised him to use Nottingham dried yeast rather than the liquid strain that is supposedly the Boddington’s strain.

Boddington's clone just before fermenting.
A sample of Tony’s clone after cooling, before fermenting. SOURCE: Tony Leach.

Here’s the recipe Tony eventually came up with:

Old Boddies Pre-1970
English Pale Ale

Recipe Specs
------------

Batch Size (litres): 23
Total Grain (kg): 3.425
Total Hops (g): 54
Original Gravity: 1.036
Final Gravity: 1.006
Alcohol by Volume: 3.93%
Colour (SRM/EBC): 6.6/13
Bitterness (IBU): 28.7
Efficiency: 75%
Boil Time: 75 mins

Grain
-----
2.5 kg Maris Otter Malt (73%)
0.5 kg Pilsner Malt (14.6%)
0.2 kg Golden Syrup (5.8%)
80g Carapils (Dextrine) (2.3%)
80g Torrefied Wheat (2.3%)
60g Flaked Corn (1.9%)

Hops
----
24g Northern Brewer (7.8% Alpha) @ 75 mins
24g Goldings (5.5% Alpha) @ 15 mins
6g Goldings (5.5% Alpha) for dry hop

Misc
----
Single-step infusion mash at 65°C for 90 mins; mash PH adjusted to 5.3.
Fermented at 18°C with Danstar Nottingham dried yeast
Water: 'Stockport corporation pop dechlorinated with a crushy.'

This is his interpretation of the information at hand with some tweaks to suit modern materials and methods, with the primary success criterion being not complete historical verisimilitude but something more practical: the approval of some local drinkers who remembered Boddington’s at its best.

He brewed batches aiming for 28 and 30 IBUs but says:

Had the 28 IBU brew on at my local last night. For some reason it was only around 98% bright but that did not put people off having a go. Generally, it went down very well and brought some memories back for a few of the older boys. It’s dry — very dry, leaves you thirsty. Twenty-eight IBU is perfect, I would not go more. The dryness gets you and the bitterness hits the throat just right.

He’s keen for others to give his recipe a go; we will certainly be doing so later in the year.