Tag Archives: CAMRA

Dissecting a 1984 Local Beer Guide

What can we learn from the small book Real Ale in Devon published by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1984?

Book cover: Real Ale in Devon, 1984.1. It is evidence of the increasing availability of ‘real ale’ in this period. With a hundred pages, this volume is as big as the first edition of the national Good Beer Guide, published ten years earlier. The introduction notes a huge boom in the number of ‘real ale outlets’ since the previous edition, and there 1050 listed in total.

2. Beer agencies were important players in the development of a beer geek culture. That is, distributors (middle men) who brought interesting outside beer into the region (Samuel Smith, Wadworth, Fuller’s, Theakston) at a price. Businesses of this type still exist, notably supplying kegged beer to the emerging ‘craft beer’ market currently neglected, or misunderstood, by larger distributors.

Vintage Sheppard & Mason beer agency advert.
Note cut-and-paste Letraset fail at bottom right… And here’s Mr Sheppard on Twitter.

3. Bass is an honorary West Country beer. Since veteran observer the Pub Curmudgeon pointed it out to us, we’ve seen lots of evidence to support the idea that, beyond Bristol, Draught Bass was the traditional ‘premium’ alternative to poor quality locally brewed beers. This book describes it as ‘one of the commonest real ales in Devon’.

4. It was easier to get strong dark beer than pale’n’hoppy. There are several ‘strong winter’ ales listed, but nothing described as straw/golden coloured. Small brewers back then seem to have staked their reputations on producing heavier, headier beer than the thin, weak products turned out by big brewers. Marston’s Owd Roger old ale/barley wine had people rather excited.

5. There were several stand-out exhibition pubs. Where most pubs in the guide hada single real ale on offer (e.g. Whitbread Bitter), several leap out of the text with long lists. The Royal Inn at Horsebridge had nine ales, including some brewed on the premises; and the Peter Tavy at, er, Peter Tavy, has fourteen in its listing. There are quite a few others with similar numbers, and many more with six or seven.

6. The phrase ‘guest beers’, so important in the 1990s, was in use by this time. It is the antidote to the big brewery tied house model and an expression of a certain type of beer geekery, perhaps stimulated more by novelty and variety than a simple ‘decent pint‘.

7. We need to think a bit more about cider and its place in the ‘real ale revolution’. Devon’s CAMRA activists were evidently particularly keen to defend and promote ‘real cider’, but, by this stage, seem to have had more success bringing beer from Yorkshire and London than in preserving the true native drinking tradition.

8. Blackawton was the trendiest brewery in the county. It was Devon’s first microbrewery, and one of the first in the country, founded in 1977. We wonder if the presence of Blackawton beer in a pub wasn’t a kind of Bat Signal for beer geeks, rather as a Magic Rock pump clip is today.

9. If you didn’t like Courage, Plymouth was not the city for you. See also: Bristol.

(And a personal footnote: Bailey’s parents’ pub in Exeter sold Whitbread Bitter on hand-pump. Described as a ‘Town local’ in the text, it also, sadly, features in the addendum: “[The] following pubs should now be deleted…”)

We’re very grateful to Neil Bowness (@neil_bowness) for sending us a copy of this book which he tells us his mum bought for 20p at a church fair. Bargain!

Do We Owe a Debt to the Regionals?

Harvey's brewery, Lewes, by Chris Parfitt.
Harvey’s, Lewes, by Chris Parfitt, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

An opinion piece by former CAMRA chairman and microbrewer James Lynch in the latest issue of the Campaign for Real Ale newspaper, What’s Brewing, argues that we beer geeks owe a debt of thanks to breweries such as Arkell’s, Harvey’s and Palmer’s.

These regional brewers, he argues, kept the flame of cask-conditioned ale burning through the dark days of the Big Six era, but are now all but ignored in all the excitement around trendy new breweries. He urges us to support them by drinking their beer.

We have to admit that, when we first started taking an interest in beer a decade or so ago, we formed the view that the UK’s regional brewers were part of the problem — conservative, unimaginative, and prone to producing little but variations on ‘boring brown bitter’ (BBB).

Having become better at detecting and appreciating subtle flavours, we’ve all but stopped thinking in terms of BBB  – there’s some character to appreciate in almost all of them — and if we use the phrase at all these days, it’s as a term of endearment.

We have also gained a new appreciation of the cultural significance of this kind of brewery through our recent studies, and share Mr Lynch’s sadness at the loss (in all but name) of breweries such as Young & Co of South London.

What we can’t quite agree with is the idea that these breweries are owed something.

For one thing, we aren’t convinced all of those he lists ‘fought’ for real ale — many, we suspect, just couldn’t afford to go over to kegging, or were simply slow to act. Some were in the process of abandoning cask when CAMRA came along in the 1970s and revived the market for real ale. They weren’t sentimental, or principled — they followed the money.

(Young & Co might be an exception, of which more, perhaps, in a long blog post at some point soon.)

Secondly, we don’t believe that consumers can be expected to choose what they drink because a company ‘did the right thing’ 40 years ago: drinking beer, like going to the pub, should be a pleasure, not some kind of grim duty undertaken out of a sense of obligation. If these breweries want to survive another 100 years, they need to look long and hard at the beers they make and ensure that they are a joy to drink.