Dead Fox

From the Western Daily Press, 8 October 1975:

The Old Fox, Bristol’s newest old pub or oldest new pub, will be officially opened this afternoon, but the trouble is no one knows exactly how old it is… The people from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, whose laudable ambition is to keep alive the taste for beer from the wood, bought The Old Fox in Fox Road, Eastville, when it was due for demolition… And so far they have traced it back to 1758 when it was mentioned as being up for sale.

Landlord Peter Bull… with his wife Sylvia will be serving devotees with pints of strange sounding brews like Six X, Brakspears beers and South Wales United… Architect Edward Potter has created a pleasantly archaic black and white interior, a world away from rustic brick and plastic horse brasses and workmen put the final touches to his £25,000 renovation scheme yesterday.

Peter Bull.

From ‘All Things to All Men’, Financial Times, 7 April 1976:

The Old Fox, overlooking a dual-carriageway cut and a scrap-yard, may not be everyone’s idea of smart pub decor, but at least it is worth it for the quality of some of the beer it sells. It also reflects some of the tolerance traditionally shown in this most tolerant of cities.



From What’s Brewing, February 1982:

[The] Old Fox Inn in Bristol, one of [CAMRA Investments] smaller and less profitable houses, has been sold to Burton brewers Marstons for £120,000. It was felt to be badly sited in a city had many free houses… Investments managing director, Christopher Hutt, denied suggestions that the company was deliberately drawing back from being a national chain of free houses into a South East/East Anglia/East Midlands firm.


You can read more about the story of CAMRA Real Ale Investments in Brew Britannia and about the history of the Old Fox in this blog post by pub historian Andrew Swift.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 September 2017: Beavertown, Burials, Biggsy

Here’s everything beer- and pub-related that caught our eye in the last week, from viking funerals to mysterious pressure groups.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 September 2017: Beavertown, Burials, Biggsy”

A Not-so-Hot Take on the Great British Beer Festival

Over the last month we’ve been thinking about the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) and why it doesn’t quite seem to click in these days. What, if anything, might be done to give it back its mojo?

(First up, though, a bit of disclosure: we’ve had free trade day entry to GBBF for the last two years, but paid for our own beer, and we write fairly regularly for Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) publications.)

We resisted writing this because, frankly, every year brings a slew of blog posts and articles criticising GBBF, often repeating the same points; and also because few things seems to cause tempers to rise quite like criticism of CAMRA, even if it’s intended to be constructive. This year feels a bit different, though, and a couple of people asked us nicely to express a view, so here goes.

How is this year different? Well, more than one person with connections to CAMRA has whispered to us, off the record, that the Festival is struggling, not bringing in enough money to justify the difficulty of mounting such an event. Sometimes, you take these things with a pinch of salt — GBBF has had its ups and downs in the past but is still running after 40 years, and people are prone to fretting — but it does feel as if there might be something in it this time round what with CAMRA’s open acknowledgement of lower then expected income.

Pete Brown is right, of course, when he argues that, for all the moaning, GBBF retains its status as The Default Event for people within the industry, and (we think) it’s the only one that reliably makes the national news. (Though Beavertown’s bash last week trending on Twitter might be the social media age equivalent.) Ed’s observation is a good one, too: GBBF is the only chance some of the smaller breweries get to appear on the national stage. And plenty of people turn up and have a great time, both volunteers and drinkers, especially (we reckon) non-beer-geeks and tourists. (But even Tandleman, at that last link, acknowledges ‘that it wasn’t quite as busy’.)

Our gut feeling is that GBBF is suffering through competition. In 2007 it was more-or-less the only serious beer-focused festival in the game. Now there are lots of other festivals (and beer weeks, and pub/bar events) serving various niches in various corners of the country. In absolute terms, GBBF has improved in the past decade — the beer seems in better condition than ever and the crowd seems less homogeneous than it used to be, to pick just two ‘key performance indicators’. But the competition has raised the bar in various ways:

  • More attractive venues.
  • Better food.
  • Rarer, sexier, more exciting beer.
  • Tighter focus on specific sub-categories (regions, cultures, styles).
  • ‘Coolness’ (GBBF somehow contrives to feel both corporate and a bit like a church fete).

For us, the main stumbling block to really enjoying GBBF are two interconnected issues: the venue and the scale. Olympia is not a pub or anything like one. It’s draughty, overwhelming, tiring to schlep around, and dim — a soul-sapping indoor simulation of an overcast February afternoon. We would rather go to a pub, or on a pub crawl, any time — more so these days than even a few years ago when we first made this point.

What, if anything, can be done to give GBBF a shot in the arm? No doubt greater minds than ours, and which understand the logistical and financial issues from within, have already had and dismissed all of these ideas, but for what it’s worth…

1. Scale Back the Ambition

One of GBBF’s problems is surely the need to be Great. CAMRA can sometimes feel arrogant — it’s been winning battles and dominating the discourse for half a century, after all — and that perhaps comes across in GBBF in its current Imperial Star Destroyer mode. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor would be a jumbo fried breakfast bulked out with beans and dodgy sausages when it could be something smaller and more appetising. The sheer scale and spectacle draws people in and wins headlines but, at the same time, drags down the quality of the event. A more intimate venue, or several locations, perhaps even in different parts of the country, might make for a better atmosphere and a less arduous experience. At the same time, or instead, CAMRA might also…

2. Throw Itself Behind Local Festivals

Again, this is about giving up some of that central control. Insofar as we enjoy festivals (which is not much, generally) we’ve had more fun at local and regional events. They might feel scrappier, or less progressive again, but they’re often both more manageable and more lively. This might tie into…

3. The Olympic Model

What if GBBF was every four years so that it felt like a something really special? There’s been a lot of chat about how the best way to appreciate GBBF is to avoid attending every year and we think there’s something in that. This would also leave more oxygen in the room for local festivals (see above) and pubs (see below). The downside? The first year it didn’t happen would prompt Is This the End of CAMRA? thinkpieces and/or crowing from habitual CAMRA haters.

4. The Pub-Based Virtual Festival

One major criticism against festivals is that they take custom away from pubs which are already struggling and which CAMRA is supposed to be supporting. With that in mind, what if GBBF was more like the Wetherspoon’s festival? That is, a fortnight-long PR drive by CAMRA, with special and rare beers dispersed among a network of pubs in the Good Beer Guide or local Pubs of the Year, with organised crawls, maps and tasting notes. It could even be supported through sponsored buses or trains. It might even be an opportunity to encourage pubs that don’t usually engage with cask and CAMRA to give it a go. This would also address the complain that GBBF is a Londoncentric event.

5. Or, Just Some Bureaucratic Tweaks

Even if GBBF continues as it is, in the same venue, it would be good to see something done about the beer that gets selected. As one CAMRA veteran said to us, ‘I get sick of tasting beers at GBBF that have fundamental brewing faults.’ For our part, we focused on beers from Devon, for the sake of our Devon Life column, and while they were all fine they hardly did much to excite us or, if the conversations we had on Twitter are anything to go by, to get anyone else buzzing about Devon’s beer scene.

The current process, evolved over some years, means that only so many beers from each region make it to each bar; the breweries are suggested (not chosen) by local branches; and that each bar is expected to cover a range of style and strengths. We’d say, (a) scrap that latter restriction — if Devon is represented by eight pale ales, so be it, as long as they all taste great — and (b) balance those local recommendations with input from local ‘experts’, along the lines of the new Eurovision scoring system. So, in the case of Devon, listen to the local branch, but then ask, say, Adrian Tierney-Jones to vet the list. Sure, this would piss people off in all sorts of ways, but it would probably mean BETTER BEER ON THE BARS.

A few years ago, we were arguing for CAMRA to loosen up and find a way to accommodate the best of keg beer at GBBF, but that moment has probably passed. Perhaps now the best approach would be to officially partner with an existing keg-friendly festival, inviting them to run a bar or even a whole room at GBBF. This would send a signal while allowing CAMRA to maintain some distance.

* * *

So that’s our two penn’orth, expressed somewhat reluctantly, and with the best of intentions. If you’ve got ideas of your own do comment below.

The Original Beer Podcast, 1975

If you tuned the radio to BBC Leeds at 18:45 on a Wednesday in 1985 you’d hear What’s Brewing, a programme dedicated to beer and pubs.

It was established during the height of real ale mania, in 1975, by a local journalist and CAMRA activist, Barrie Pepper, who worked in the newsroom at Radio Leeds and would go on to become a well-known beer writer. In a later retrospective in the CAMRA newspaper, also called What’s Brewing, for March 1985, he recalled its origins:

[The radio show] made its first appearance… after pressure from members of the Leeds branch of CAMRA. In that programme, though to be a one-off, Tom Fincham and I made the first of our ‘rural rides’ in search of good ale, we defined real ale and Eddie Lawler sang his now famous ‘We’re all here for the real thing’.

‘Famous’ might be overstating it but Eddie Lawler told us in an email that he has performed the song at the CAMRA AGM. He was kind enough to share the version he recorded under the title ‘CAMRAnthem’ for his 2007 album The Baildon Sky Rocket with 1970s references to ‘big-busted barmaids’ and the ‘nattering spouse’ removed. As you might guess, it’s a folky pub singalong with a piano backing:

We’re all here for the Real Thing.
That’s why we’re singing this song, just to show all those
Fancy TV promotions
That the customer’s not always wrong, so you’d better not
Give us pale imitations
Or gas us with chemical beer.
So just give us a pint of the Real Thing landlord
’Cos that’s why we’re bloody well here.

Off the back of that first programme the producer, David Campbell, commissioned a year’s-worth of monthly programmes. In his 1985 retrospective Barrie Pepper described the difficulty in finding topics for discussion and, in particular, the challenge of finding a Pub of the Month every month. (The first was The Greyhound at Saxton.)

1970s portrait photograph, candid and grainy.
Barrie Pepper.

There was also a ‘real ale soap opera’ called Tap Room Tales written by Gerry Garside from Bradford which was representative of the ribald, pantomime humour that characterised early CAMRA culture. There’s an extract from the first episode, broadcast in August 1977, in Barrie Pepper’s 1990 anthology of beer writing The Bedside Book of Beer:

Episode one — the Price of a Pint

The scene is the tap room of The Plastered Parrot, a real ale pub in a working suburb of a West Riding town. The time is half an hour before closing time on a weekday evening.

Let me introduce you to the cast.

Nora Nockers is an occasional barmaid; Yorkie Bale is a retired shoddy merchant, Shufflem Round is the pub domino captain and Barum Hall is the landlord. Charlie Chock, Gordon Spile, Andrew Mallet and Peter Barrel are members of the Campaign for Real Ale. Girlington Gertie is an aging ex-chorus girl and we present Lars Torders, a Swedish Steel worker.

In his 1985 retrospective Barrie admitted that Tap Room Tales ‘might have seemed a bit facile… but it had a serious purpose and was great fun to take part in’.

From 1980 What’s Brewing went weekly and Barrie took over as producer with Mike Greenwood hosting. There was homebrew advice from Bob Blagboro, profiles of Yorkshire breweries, and campaigns against pub closures. ‘[In] the case of the Spring Close Tavern in East Leeds we were able to secure the reprieve by Leeds City Council live on our microphone,’ Barrie recalled in 1985.

Though Barrie insisted the show was independent of CAMRA he was at various points on the Campaign’s National Executive and it certainly seems to have given the local branch what amounted to a mouthpiece funded by the licence payer.

The last episode was broadcast in June 1986 for reasons Barrie explained in an email:

I moved on from the news room at BBC Radio Leeds to become Head of Press and Public Relations with Leeds City council. Ray Beaty, the station manager, wasn’t keen on a non-staffer producing — he didn’t mind a freelance (unpaid) presenter but worried about someone ‘speaking out of turn’ as he called it. In any case I couldn’t find anyone to do the job and the council wouldn’t allow me to do it.

So, that was that.

Thirty-odd years on, though BBC radio only touches on beer occasionally, in the current podcast boom there’s no shortage of beer-related audio. For example, we recently listened to Fermentation Radio for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. We’ll send Barrie Pepper the link.

Main image incorporates elements of ‘Philips Radio from the 1970s’ by David Martyn Hunt under Creative Commons via Flickr.

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”