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.

HELP: Wetherspoon’s, Manchester, August 1995

Stained glass window.
Stained glass at the Moon Under Water, taken on our visit in February 2016.

This is very specific: we want to talk to anyone who recalls attending the opening of The Moon Under Water on Deansgate, Manchester, on 15 August 1995.

We’ve heard from people who went not long after — memories of mannequins in the former cinema stalls, and awe at the sheer size of the place — but no-one seems to remember day one.

There must have been a ribbon-cutting ceremony — Eddie Gershon, who does PR for Wetherspoon’s, reckons it was covered in the Manchester Evening News though he doesn’t have any clippings or photos.

If you were there, get in touch. If you have a vague memory of your mate having gone along, or your cousin working behind the bar, give ’em a nudge. We’re contact@boakandbailey.com and any memory, however small or apparently insignificant, might be just what we need.

Also feel free to share on Facebook or wherever else you fancy.

HELP US: Gastropubs in the 1990s

Did you drink, eat, work at or run a gastropub between 1990-1998? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

We’re especially interested in diary entries, letters, articles, emails or other records you might have made at the time — nothing is too scrappy or too minor.

But memories are helpful too.

We’ve got lots of facts, dates and figures: what we want to know is, how did these places feel?

Like journalist Kathryn Flett, a great champion of gastropubs in the 1990s, did you appreciate their un-blokey atmosphere and rustic chic? Did you welcome the opportunity to enjoy good food without having to dress, mind your table manners and take out a small bank loan?

Or perhaps you’re with Patrick Harveson who, in 1995, wrote an article in the Times calling for The Campaign for Real Pubs. Did your local became somewhere you no longer felt you could pop in for a pint? Maybe you saw the very idea of the gastropub as dangerous — a threat to the very idea of what pubs are meant to be.

The Eagle in Clerkenwell, London, generally given credit as the original gastropub after its 1991 reinvention, is one we’re particularly focusing on but we’d be happy to hear about any others you think are notable or interesting.

You can comment below but it’d be much more useful if you could email us via contact@boakandbailey.com.

Thanks!

Main image adapted from ‘Eagle, Clerkenwell, EC1’ by Ewan Munro (Pubology.co.uk) via Flickr under Creative Commons.

Artyfacts from the Nyneties #4: Meet Pete

Pete's Wicked Ale ad, 1994.
Click to enlarge.

The advertisement above appeared in the Campaign for Real Ale’s monthly What’s Brewing in November 1994.

The year before, ‘Pete’s’ had sponsored the Bieres Sans Frontieres programme and it was on its way to becoming the best-known American brewery among British drinkers.

In the Daily Mirror on 27 January 1995, Nick Kent wrote:

THE coolest beers in America are hitting Britain – and some of them are OK when they’re warm! Microbrewery beers are fashionable in the US but may become an endangered species as hype and big business start to get a hold… Pete’s Wicked Lager is a fine example; hops predominate and it has a clean, sharp, dry taste even though it is on the strong side (4.8 per cent alcohol).

Then, on 21 July the same year, Kent announced an exciting competition:

HE’S loud, proud, thirsty-something, and he could be heading your way… American Pete Slosberg, founder of Pete’s Brewing Company, is coming to the British Beer Festival, and he wants a brace of Mirror readers to go with him… So prepare to be sloshed with Slosberg. It will be a swill party… Modest, quiet, polite, a tasteful dresser — Pete is none of these, as the two competition winners will soon discover… They will accompany Pete as he pint-ificates his way around the festival at London’s Olympia, on Thursday, August 3… Dispensing views on other people’s wares, he will be looking out for any beer daring to rival Pete’s Wicked Lager and Pete’s Wicked Ale for taste… Pete will also take his Mirror guests for a taste of the Belgian beer and food at Belgo Centraal… This top restaurant is the trendiest thing to come out of Belgium since Tintin.

By 1996, Pete’s beers were in Majestic, Waitrose, Tesco, Morrison’s and Oddbins (Independent on Sunday, 17 November).

The flagship beer was a brown ale, Pete’s Wicked Ale, which was reviewed by ‘Sparks’ for the Oxford Bottled Beer Database in around 1998:

This is one of the easier American breweries to get hold of in the UK… The beer is ruby-coloured with a thick, reasonably tenacious head. The nose is quite light, but with noticeable sugary malt notes and a little background hoppiness (aroma hops only). On the tongue, it is quite fizzy and fairly malty, but not as sweet as you might expect from the aroma – in fact it is much drier than many brown ales. There is burnt caramel in the back of the throat, becoming more pronounced towards the finish. The aftertaste is more hoppy, but also with bitter, burnt sugar flavours. This is a pleasant example of a brown ale, with a pleasing dryness not often encountered in the genre.

It doesn’t sound terribly exciting — as Jeff Alworth put it in 2011, ‘In the 1990s, lots and lots of people drank and enjoyed brown ales… I mean really, brown ales. What the … ?’ — but it had a whiff of the exotic about it, and was cleverly marketed with a big personality front-and-centre, e.g.

In the UK, it seems to have occupied a similar space to Newquay Steam Beer, come to think of it — a bit outside the narrative of the ‘craft beer revolution’ (unless we’re mistaken, the last 20 years hasn’t seen a ton of Pete’s Wicked clones among UK brewers, unlike, say, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) and different without being too different.