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 ‘We have just withdrawn from supplying London (and the West Country) on a regular basis,’ said John Featherby.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.

Holding the Fort: a Sitcom With Added Beer

From 1980 to 1982 one of London Weekend Television’s top-rated sitcoms was Holding the Fort in which Peter Davison played a microbrewer. We spoke to the writers, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, to find out more.

We were first tipped off to the existence of Holding the Fort by a comment from ‘Dvorak’ on something we posted back in September. We watched as much as we could find on YouTube and were amazed by how accurately it portrayed the then embryonic British microbrewing scene. On the off-chance, we emailed Marks & Gran via their website just as the success of their revival of Goodnight Sweetheart hit them and they became very busy. We heard nothing until this week when we got an apologetic reply and an invitation to phone them at their office.

Because the way the timing worked out Bailey made the call, speaking to Laurence Marks while Maurice Gran made muffled interjections somewhere in the background. We’ve slightly edited the transcript for clarity and to remove some umm-ing and er-ing.

Two young men with facial hair.
Laurence Marks (right) and Maurice Gran in the 1970s. SOURCE: Marks & Gran.

From what we’ve been able to see Holding the Fort is a pretty accurate portrayal of what was going on in British brewing at the time.

Microbrewing had just started and we had met the man… What was his name? This was 40 years ago, our very first commissioned sitcom, so it’s hard to remember. He was the man who started a chain of pubs… What were they called?

David Bruce — the Firkin chain?

That’s him! He was always our adviser on brewing and, in fact, he provided all the brewing equipment for the production which was in the basement of our fictional brewer’s house in Tufnell Park, North London.

Our central character, our male central character, who we join in the first episode, is a brewer. The brewery where he works is closing and moving to the North. He and his wife, played by Patricia Hodge, have just had a little baby and they don’t want to move North, so she goes back to her old job as an Army Captain and he decides he can run a small brewery from his house.

And his assistant, played by Matthew Kelly, he’s a kind of stereotypical real ale drinker with the beard and so on.

No, Fitz, he’s not a brewer — he’s just kind of a layabout, but he starts to learn to brew. Peter Davison, who’s the brewer, is very clean cut. David Bruce always looked alright to me! Very smart.

Peter Davison was in Doctor Who at the same time you were making this series — is that right?

Well, yes and no. We made the first series in 1980 then he got cast as Doctor Who between series, so he was alternating between our series at LWT and Doctor Who at the BBC.

It’s odd that you’re so well-known but that this show is so obscure — we’d never heard of it and it’s quite hard to get to see. But there were three series so it must have been popular.

Oh, yes — hugely successful. It was, at one time, LWT’s top-rated comedy show. I have no idea why it’s out of circulation — I don’t understand the machinations of TV networks.

Were you into beer yourselves? Were you CAMRA members or anything like that?

I was a journalist at the time, in the mid-1970s, and was invited along to the first CAMRA beer festival at Covent Garden in 1975. I went along to what is now the London Transport Museum and there was every beer in the entire country, barrels everywhere. People were walking around vomiting, falling over… It was the closest we’d come to the Munich Oktoberfest, I suppose.

I was with a friend who was a much more learned beer drinker than me, and we worked our way round deciding which was the best beer there. We both agreed it was Hook Norton. In fact, we loved it so much, we found out where the brewery was, took a day off work and drove out there. There were three pubs near the brewery, supplied directly, and we drank in all of them. And funnily enough, it’s now my local brewer.

* * *

Marks & Gran are still writing together. You can read more about their long career at their website, Marks & Gran, and they are also on Twitter @marksandgran.

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”

(Almost) Microbrewing in 1919

1914 Punch cartoon of a village pub.

Microbreweries as we know them today came into being in the 1960s or 1970s (see Brew Britannia for more on that) but did you know something along the same lines nearly emerged half a century earlier?

The Chelmsford Chronicle for 25 December 1914 carried the following story under a headline which gives us another term to throw into the jargon soup along with ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’: REVIVAL OF COTTAGE BREWING IN ESSEX VILLAGES.

One result of the additional tax of one penny per pint on beer and ale has seen a revival in the cottage brewing several Essex villages. The extra tax was of course put upon beer to help to pay the cost the war, and there was direct authority that the increase should be carried to the consumer by an extra halfpenny per glass, one penny per pint, on beer sold in licensed houses. This tax has incidentally led a notable return to the custom which prevailed in many Essex villages half a century ago of cottagers brewing their own beer. By law a cottager whose house is assessed at £8 or under per annum — most of the genuine rural cottages are assessed at about half that figure — can brew beer for his own consumption without paying any duty… In a town like Braintree, for instance, home brewing is practically unknown, but the country there has been just enough brewing at cottages or farms to keep the industry alive. So far the impetus to cottage brewing has been chiefly observed in villages Shalford and Stisted, where there are now several brews of Essex ale maturing for Christmas!

The article goes on to quote a local expert:

I have actually seen the brews being made in one place, and ascertained that there are eight cottagers waiting to use one copper which is supposed to make exceptionally good beer. Of course the home-brewed beer is not so nice-looking as good brewery beer, for the art of brewing has reached high perfection. The cottage beer that I have seen lacks sparkle and brightness of a nice bottled beer, but there is no doubt it is full of strength, and contains what the farm labourers call ‘plenty of bite.’

Cottage beer is strong, hazy and a bit chewy. That sounds familiar. He goes on:

The arrangements prevailing in Essex villages where I have seen ‘home’ beer being brewed is for the cottager to purchase malt, and hops, then to pay an experienced man in the Village 5s. to brew the beer to fill the cask, generally a hogshead.

That’s a fascinating arrangement — like the shared oven model for bread-making — but not quite what we’d recognise as microbrewing, i.e. a newly established small brewery producing beer for sale to the general public. A few years later, however, on 29 March 1919, the Licensed Trade News repeated much the same story of East Anglian cottage brewing but with an added twist. Citing an original article in the Evening Standard that we haven’t been able to track down, they reported that one social club in the London suburbs had been inspired by the home-brewing craze to consider applying for a licence to sell its own small batch, hand-crafted, artisanal products. (Our words, not theirs.)

As far as we know this didn’t go ahead (the big brewers weren’t happy and they tended to get their way, up to a point) but what would have happened if 1919 had seen the first new commercial ‘cottage brewery’? Might there have been ten by 1925, and 150 at the start of World War II?

UPDATE 05:32 24/08/2016

This newspaper report is a garbled account of the founding of the famous clubs breweries, isn’t it? The connection with East Anglian homebrewing is spurious.

Brodie's Beers, Leyton

The Sweet William Brewery in Leyton

A while back, we were excited to discover that the Sweet William brewery in Leyton/Walthamstow had reopened. Last night, in search of a dartboard for Bailey’s Mum and Dad, we ended up back at the William IV (the brewery tap) and took the opportunity to try a few more “Brodie’s Beers” while they chucked some arrers.

The range of beers on offer is expanding. In fact, it’s getting silly. We’re full of admiration for their adventurousness (Jamaican stout! 7.2% porter!) although, like a lot of smaller breweries operating without state-of-the-art, robotically controlled, artificially intelligent equipment from Munich, they have the odd quality control issue.

In the case of their bottled London Lager, poor quality control created a happy accident — a sour, cloudy beer that should have been called London Geuze. Delicious.

The bottled wheat beer (called simply Wit) was the star of the night, though. It poured with a huge ice-cream-like head that lasted, and lasted, and lasted. We didn’t pick up particularly on Cascade aromas, but they perhaps created some of the authentically continental fruity aromas? It’s a real beer geek’s product — one for everyone who’s ever said: “I love German wheat beer, but I wish it was a bit more bitter.” We got through quite a few.

The photo above is from Brodie’s Beers’ website, which is another thing they’ve done a good job putting together.