The Shake Out, 1983-84

We’re intending to spend a bit more time pondering the health of the UK beer industry in 2016 but, for perspective, here’s a bit of history around the first micro-brewery ‘shake out’ which happened back in the 1980s.

Brian Glover wrote for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper for many years providing a running commentary on the rise of the microbrewery which would eventually form the basis of his essential 1988 New Beer Guide. In 1982 he produced a multi-page report on the microbrewery boom cheering on the then 100 or so new breweries that had flowered since the mid-1970s. The tone was triumphant with only one closure to report, though a profile of Bourne Valley Brewery run by James Lynch (former CAMRA chair turned brewer) and John Featherby highlighted some challenges:

Back at the brewery, they are drawing in their horns to weather the recession. ‘We have just withdrawn from supplying London (and the West Country) on a regular basis,’ said John Featherby. ‘We are restricting our trading area… to cut our transport costs.’

Featherby also admitted that the brewery hadn’t made any money in its three years of trading and said, ‘In fact, we would not set up a brewery now. We could not afford to.’

Then, throughout 1983, there were rumblings, such as an article that appeared in What’s Brewing in April that year headlined THE GREAT BEER CRASH. It reported on the collapse of a London-based distributor, Roger Berman’s B&W, taking with it the associated micro-brewery, Union. In December, Brian Glover was observing that Devon’s micro-brewery scene was thriving with five then operating in the county.

But it could soon turn sour if they crowd each other out… ‘It’s certainly getting tight in the free trade around here,’ admitted Paul Bigrig [of the Mill Brewery], ‘especially with the appearance of Summerskills and Bates.’ Already Swimbridge Brewery in North Devon has gone under this year.

Then, in February 1984, in another special supplement, Glover called it: SMALL BEER CRASH.

The expected ‘shakeout’ of new small breweries has finally arrived with 12 having closed since July [1983]… All were free trade brewers, most struggling to sell their beer without the protection of their own pubs… The only surprise is that so many survived for so long, given the harsh recession, stiff competition and dearth of genuine freehouses…

The most famous of the failed breweries was Penrhos, founded by Richard Boston and Monty Python star Terry Jones in 1977 and run by Martin Griffiths. (His computer brain didn’t work out.) Griffiths reckoned he and Jones had lost £70,000 (going on for a quarter of a million quid in today’s money) over the course of the brewery’s life.

Another brewer, Geoff Patton of Swimbridge in Devon, cited aggressive discounting by larger breweries. The owners of Swannells in Hertfordshire acknowledged that poor quality control and marketing had contributed to its failure. Tisbury fell when its sister pub chain, on which it relied for the bulk of its sales, went into receivership.

Brian Glover said, in conclusion, ‘The small brewery boom… looks to be over.’ His final prediction?

The future, it would seem, lies in the consolidation of the surviving free trade brewers; an expanding number of [brew pubs] — and increasing involvement in small-scale brewing by the major brewers… A few new independent free trade brewers will appear in the next couple of years. But sadly, they will almost certainly be outweighed by the number that give up the unequal struggle.

As it happened, the paltry c.100 micro-breweries of 1984 have become c.1,500 in 2016, which just goes to show how difficult it can be to predict anything.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 31 December 2016: Kids, Krakow and Koelschips

We took last week off for obvious reasons so here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that got us thinking or smiling in the past fourteen days.

First, a bit of news that got rather lost in the fuss around Christmas: Heineken has taken over a large chunk of pub company Punch’s estate, as reflected upon by the Pub Curmudgeon:

The Beer Orders were revoked in 2003, so since then there was been nothing to prevent the major international brewers rebuilding tied estates in the UK. However, the dire state of pub company finances has probably put them off until now. Heineken retained the rump of the former Scottish & Newcastle pub operation under the banner of Star Pubs and Bars, and so were always the best placed to make a move. Selling out to a brewer with deep pockets is probably going to be the best exit strategy for long-suffering pubco investors.


A baby in the pub.

Here’s one to bookmark if you have kids, or friends with kids — a practical guide, both general and specific, to child-friendly pubs in East London, from the ever-thoughtful Bearded Housewife:

Sometimes it’s just not appropriate, for the feel of the pub as much as anything, to have kids there. For instance, I once had a bit of time to kill in central London and tried to take the progeny into the Harp, near Covent Garden. As I attempted to wrestle the buggy back out the narrow door after being politely rebuffed by the staff, I wondered what I’d been thinking. It’s hard to elucidate clearly why exactly this would have been a bad idea, but children in a pub like the Harp is an incongruous conjunction, like a rave in a library, not bad in the sense of wrong, or selfish, or unjust, but rather more like an uncomfortable juxtaposition.

(See also this post on ‘The New East London Pub Crawl’ from Rebecca Pate.)


Weathered wood with cyrillic text: KBAC.

Via Zach Fowle for Draft magazine the obscure semi-beer kvass rears its ugly head once again — will 2017 finally be the year our terrible prediction that it’s The Next Big Thing comes good?

To make their kvass, Scratch’s brewers soak toasted leftover loaves in hot water overnight. In the morning, the liquid is separated from the soggy bread, moved into a mash tun and combined with standard brewing malt (unlike most historical versions). From there, it’s treated like a typical beer, though brewers don’t add hops and they ferment the wort with the same sourdough yeast culture used in Scratch’s bread.


Various books and magazine from the last 40+ years of CAMRA.

On Twitter John West has given some bloggers a nudge: where’s the commentary on CAMRA’s Revitalisation report? We haven’t got round to it yet, partly because of weariness with the subject and the lack of anything much new to say, but Jeff Alworth, who has been observing British and world beer for years, brings an outsider’s perspective:

Beer has become something like a sacred beverage to people all over the globe. And of course, any time you have something sacred, it means there’s a vast world out there of the profane. Beer must be made and consumed in a particular way. To do anything else violates this sense of the sacred. This dichotomy doesn’t emerge arbitrarily, though. Sacred things are those which protect and nurture the group; profane ones endanger it. In the case of cask ale, CAMRA issued an edict about the nature of British beer. They did this to create a very clear inner circle of protection: this is the thing we’re talking about, and these are the things that endanger it.

(The exchange between Jeff and Nick in the comments is also worth your attention.)


A beer menu in Krakow.

Martin Taylor reports from Krakow where craft beer is fast becoming ‘a thing’. This especially caught our eye because, for one reason or another, we spent a fair bit of time in Krakow between 2000-2003, before we were especially into beer, and remember when C.K. Browar was the cool place in town — the equivalent of Mash in London, we guess.


Here’s some serious historic brewing from Ron Pattinson: a recipe for a Truman’s 1917 Government Ale, AKA Lloyd George’s Beer, which Ron observes was actually somewhat improved by rationing as its malt content was boosted in lieu of hard-to-get sugar.


Mark Tranter

Here’s one that we probably should have included in our last round-up but somehow missed in the early morning bleurgh when these things are mostly put together: an interview with Mark Tranter of Burning Sky by James Beeson for Beeson on Beer. It’s interesting primarily because it contains a genuine scoop about a development which Chris Hall, among others, has suggested is a defining moment in British brewing:

‘When’s this piece going out again?’ He asks, pausing as if weighing up a decision in his head, ‘Oh, and we’re installing a coolship in Janaury.’ Exhaling deeply, he leans back in the rickety wooden chair on which he is sitting. ‘That’s the first time I’ve told anyone that.’


Finally, here’s an image to enjoy, via @iamreddave:

News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 December 2016: Revitalisation, Raw Ale, Rebel

For this final news and links round-up before Christmas we’ve got stories about CAMRA, Indian street food and historic pubs from around the beer blogs and beyond.

First, some very substantial reading, though not necessarily terribly entertaining — the Campaign for Real Ale’s Revitalisation Project has reported, with recommendations for how CAMRA can, might and should change:

There is no doubt that, on the market today, there exist some keg and other non-cask beers that are high-quality products – brewed with first-class ingredients, often matured over long periods, unfiltered and unpasteurised. In some cases, keg beer contains live yeast and is subject to secondary fermentation in the container. It is, to all intents and purposes, real ale up to the point that carbon dioxide pressure is applied in the cellar… Some of these products, by most measures, are far superior to some of the lower-quality, mass produced cask beer common in pubs – some of which, it is alleged, may be subject to very minimal, if any, secondary fermentation despite being marketed as real ale. Yet today, in accordance with its policies, CAMRA champions the latter over the former.

We’re still digesting it but, as we expected, it is a careful compromise designed to appeal to moderates on both sides of the keg/cask divide. Some will bridle at the suggestion that, even while permitting quality keg beer at festivals, CAMRA should make sure to communicate the inherent superiority of cask, but we get it. Cask is the jewel in the crown, the USP, the quirk that sets us apart.

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Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

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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.

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