Key Points in the Birth of British Alterno-beer?

More on how British beer got from where it was to where it is with this attempt to iden­ti­fy some key points in the devel­op­ment of what we’re begin­ning to think of as an ‘alter­no-beer’ cul­ture. (That is, beer and pubs for awk­ward sods.)

We’re sure there are lots of points to add and that some of those we’ve come up with aren’t per­haps as sig­nif­i­cant as we imag­ine them to be: addi­tions and cor­rec­tions very wel­come, as always. Be gen­tle with us.

  • Does any­one else see a sto­ry of some­thing tak­ing hold out­side Lon­don and work­ing its way in?
  • For us, the birth of CAMRA and the devel­op­ment in the 1970s-90s of the ‘real ale Mec­ca’ – pubs with more than three real ales, often from micro­brew­eries – is the direct ances­tor of ‘craft beer’.
  • Or did the brown and dusty real ale pub mate with the chromed style bar to cre­ate ‘craft beer bars’?
  • So many of the ear­ly micro­brew­eries, brew­pubs and ‘craft beer’ bars did­n’t make it: they were before their time.
  • Please excuse us includ­ing the found­ing of a beer blog as an impor­tant event, but we think it was, alright? Back off.

And some gaps:

  • When did UK super­mar­kets start sell­ing US and Bel­gian beer?
  • Where was Britain’s first Bel­gian beer bar and when did it open? The Dove­tail opened in around 2000, we think. Any ear­li­er?

Updates 12/07/2012 in red. Updates 19/07/2012 in blue. Updates 24/08/2012 in green.

1963 Home­brew­ing legalised.
1963 Soci­ety for the Preser­va­tion of Beers from the Wood found­ed in Epsom.
First ‘good beer’/anti-Big Five cam­paign group.
1971 CAMRA found­ed. Presents an alter­na­tive to ‘monop­oly beers’.
1973 Dur­den Park Beer Cir­cle found­ed by Dr John Har­ri­son and oth­ers. Home­brew­ing cul­ture insti­tu­tion­alised.
1972 Sel­by Brew­ery, North York­shire, re-opens after eigh­teen year hia­tus. First British brew­ing com­pa­ny to open since at least World War II.
1973 West­bury Ales begins brew­ing at the Min­ers Arms in Prid­dy, Som­er­set. First new brew­ery.
1974 The Big Book of Brew­ing by Dave Line pub­lished. First real­ly use­ful home­brew­ing man­u­al.
1974 Litch­bor­ough Brew­ery found­ed in Northamp­ton­shire by Bill Urquhart. First new brew­ery sell­ing to the free trade.
1975 Pollard’s Brew­ery found­ed in Stock­port by David Pol­lard. Ear­ly micro­brew­ery.
1976 The Hole in the Wall, Water­loo, makes a name as a spe­cial­ist real ale pub. Ear­ly ‘beer exhi­bi­tion’ real ale spe­cial­ist pub.
1976 Old British Beers and How to Make Them pub­lished by the Dur­den Park Beer Cir­cle. Inspi­ra­tional recipes for his­toric beer styles.
1976 John and Bet­ty Black­well take over the Bar­ley Mow, St Albans, even­tu­al­ly sell­ing 18 real ales. Ear­ly (the first?) ‘beer exhi­bi­tion’, must-vis­it real ale pub.
1977 God­son’s brew­ery opens in Clap­ton. First new Lon­don brew­ery.
1977 The World Guide to Beer by Michael Jack­son pub­lished. Inspi­ra­tional beer Bible.
1978 Ring­wood Brew­ery found­ed by Peter Austin. Ear­ly micro­brew­ery.
1978 Brew­ing Beers Like Those You Buy by Dave Line pub­lished. Inspi­ra­tional recipes for cloning com­mer­cial beers.
1979 Firkin brew­pub chain found­ed by David Bruce. Ear­ly microbreweries/new British brew­pubs.
1979 Mar­ler’s Bar opened by Tim Mar­tin. First Wether­spoon’s pub.
1979 But­combe Brew­ery found­ed. Ear­ly micro­brew­ery.
1980 Two Brew­ers Off Licence, Pit­field Street, Lon­don opens. Makes avail­able Ger­man and Bel­gian beer.
1980 Franklin’s found­ed by Sean Franklin. Ear­ly micro­brew­ery; use of exot­ic hops.
1982 Pit­field Brew­ery found­ed. Revival of his­toric styles and recipes.
1987 Sum­mer Light­ning launched. Ear­ly (suc­cess­ful) ‘blonde’ British ale.
1989? West Coast Brew­ing found­ed by Bren­dan Dob­bin. ‘Hop-for­ward’, open­ly US-influ­enced British ale fea­tur­ing ‘new world’ hops.
1990 Alas­tair Hook sets up Pack­horse Brew­ing in Ash­ford, Kent. First ‘craft keg’ brew­ery.
1990 Kel­ham Island found­ed by Dave Wick­ett. Influ­en­tial in devel­op­ment of ‘craft beer’ cul­ture in the UK.
1990 Michael Jackson’s The Beer Hunter shown on Chan­nel 4. Bel­gian, Ger­man and US beer treat­ed with respect and admi­ra­tion.
1992 Bel­go opens in Lon­don. Bel­gian beer in a trendy bar/restaurant.
1993 Rooster’s found­ed by Sean Franklin. Yet more ‘hop-for­ward’ British ale.
1994 Dark Star Brew­ery found­ed by Rob Jones. Influ­en­tial in devel­op­ment of ‘craft beer’ cul­ture in the UK.
1994 Free­dom Brew­ery found­ed. First UK ‘craft lager’ pro­duc­er with wide dis­tri­b­u­tion.
1996 Mark Dor­ber takes over at the White Horse. First (?) ‘craft beer’ pub/bar in the UK.
1997 North Bar opens in Leeds. Ear­ly ‘craft beer’ bar.
1999 Mean­time Brew­ing found­ed by Alis­tair Hook. Ger­man-inspired UK lager and wheat beer pro­duc­tion; attempts to revive his­toric British styles.
2000 Zero Degrees brew­pub opens in Black­heath, Lon­don. Lager brew­ing; style-bar and beer geek des­ti­na­tion.
2001 Micro­bar opens in Lon­don. Ear­ly ‘craft beer’ bar.
2002 Pro­gres­sive Beer Duty intro­duced by the Gov­ern­ment. Makes opening/running small­er brew­eries more finan­cial­ly viable.
2004 Thorn­bridge found­ed. Ear­ly prod­uct of ‘noughties’ brew­ing explo­sion.
2006 Rake Bar opened. Cen­tre of ‘noughties’ ‘craft beer’ explo­sion.
2007 Stonch’s beer blog found­ed. First wide­ly-read UK beer blog.
2007 Brew­dog found­ed. Self-iden­ti­fied ‘craft’ brew­ery.
2008–2012 Lon­don brew­ing explo­sion. 7 brew­eries in Lon­don in 2007; 25 open or announced in 2011.
2009 Cask opens in Pim­li­co. Sign that Lon­don might sup­port more than one ‘craft beer’ pub.

Cor, blimey – we’ve used so many dis­tanc­ing quote marks in that, we might as well have put the whole thing in one big pair.

23 thoughts on “Key Points in the Birth of British Alterno-beer?”

    1. Good spot, thanks, Steve.

      We’ve just clocked that Bel­go opened in Lon­don in 1992. Wait­ing to see if the Twit­ter­shire can come up with any­thing ear­li­er.

  1. There were a few “beer exhi­bi­tion” pubs in the late 70s, the Bar­ley Mow at Tyt­ten­hang­er Green in Hert­ford­shire being one of the most famous.

    I would say the Beer Orders – for bet­ter or worse – were a cat­a­lyst in the process you describe.

    1. Thanks for this extra info. Got a link to some­thing that explains what you mean by beer exhi­bi­tion pubs? Or care to elab­o­rate your­self?

      1. Sim­ply a pub that is not tied to one par­tic­u­lar brew­ery and offers a range of beers from dif­fer­ent brew­ers. In the 1979 Good Beer Guide the Bar­ley Mow offered Greene King (Big­gleswade) KK, Abbot; Paines EG; Rud­dles Coun­ty; Fullers ESB; Courage (Lon­don) Direc­tors; Adnams Bit­ter; Brak­s­pear Pale Ale, Spe­cial Bit­ter; Draught Bass; Samual Smith OBB; Ever­ards Old Orig­i­nal; Theak­ston (Masham) Old Peculi­er, and is described as “A per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion, always pop­u­lar”.

        The Duck on the Hagley Road in Birm­ing­ham was anoth­er, offer­ing 9 beers in the same Guide.

  2. I would say that the first well known blonde beer was Bod­ding­tons. It was dis­tinc­tive and straw coloured from a from God knows when, but first men­tioned as such in the 1978 GBG, but straw coloured for many years before that I believe. In the new wave, it was more like­ly Exmoor Gold, found­ed in 1986. Archer’s Gold­en was around in 1982, but maybe not wide­ly avail­able, but at least as avail­able as Sum­mer Light­ning was in 1987.

    The Beer House in Man­ches­ter was sell­ing draught Bel­gians includ­ing Kriek, Leffe and Hoe­gaar­den, plus bot­tles in 1997 and prob­a­bly ear­li­er.

    Being gen­tle as request­ed, you could prob­a­bly pick quite a few things in the North to fill the gaps between 1999 and 2006 when Lon­don start­ed to pick up.

    But I need my tea. Oops sup­per. Umm.

    1. Thanks. We weren’t sure about Sum­mer Light­ning but strug­gled to find a decent ref­er­ence. Michael Jack­son is prob­a­bly where to look.

      Will be inter­est­ing to hear your sug­ges­tions when you’ve had your tea..

      After a cer­tain point, indi­vid­ual brew­eries aren’t big news unless they have a par­tic­u­lar influ­ence on ‘the scene’. We did won­der about men­tion­ing Mar­ble, though. (1998?)

      Pivni in York, maybe? Need to check when that opened.

      And can you tell us more about the Beer House?

      1. Mar­tyn Cor­nel­l’s Gold, Amber and Black is very good on the devel­op­ment of pale, hop­py “Sum­mer” ales.

  3. Major omis­sion – 1977, pub­li­ca­tion of Michael Jack­son’s World Guide to Beer. Prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant event in the his­to­ry of open­ing peo­ple’s minds in the UK to oth­er types of beer.

    On the sub­ject of Gold­en Ale, (sor­ry, self pro­mo­tion alert), I explored this at length in Amber Gold and Black: you can find beers called “gold­en ale” in the UK as ear­ly as 1842, and yes, Exmoor Gold was the first mod­ern exam­ple, in 1986, but with­out a doubt the beer that cre­at­ed the cat­e­go­ry was Sum­mer Light­ning, after its suc­cess at the (IIRC) 1989 GBBF in Leeds, when it won the ‘new brew­ery cham­pi­on beer’ title, and the 1992 GBBF, when it won the Best Strong Beer title. There were very few “gold­en ales” in 1990, and more than 40 “gold­en ales” and “sum­mer ales” by 1994.

    The Pit­field Brew­ery was equalled in impor­tance, if not actu­al­ly topped, by its asso­ci­at­ed off-licence in Pit­field Street, N1, which start­ed life as the Two Brew­ers off-licence around 1980, and was a vital source for beers from Bel­gium, espe­cial­ly, but also Ger­many, the US and else­where at a time when such beers were almost impos­si­ble to find in the UK.

    Also (ahem), while David Bruce (founder of the Firkin chain) undoubt­ed­ly deserves a namecheck, I think Tim Mar­tin, founder of Wether­spoons, also needs a wave: sure­ly he’s the man that made the “beer exhi­bi­tion” pub a High Street reg­u­lar rather than a rur­al rarety.

    1. You beat me to it Mar­tyn. 1977 World Guide to Beer. Incread­i­bly impor­tant for “Craft Beer” on both side of the Atlantic.

  4. Great arti­cle, inter­est­ing take on the ‘alter­no-beer cul­ture. I would­n’t agree that the birth of CAMRA was the ‘direct descen­dant of craft beer’. I joined CAMRA in the ear­ly 70s because I’d moved from NW Eng­land where real ale was plen­ti­ful to Hamp­shire, where it was very hard to find. I bought a local CAMRA Hamp­shire beer guide so I could find beers like Gales, Devenish, Brick­woods, Wad­worths, Hall & Wood­house in some pret­ty out of the way places. Micro­brew­eries weren’t unheard of even then. I have fond mem­o­ries of the Three Tuns at Bish­op’s Cas­tle and the All Nations Brew­ery in Made­ley (both Shrop­shire). There was also the Blue Anchor at Hel­ston, as I remem­ber.

    Bod­ding­tons was indeed a pale bit­ter back as far as my mem­o­ry goes, prob­a­bly about 1971. I remem­ber it being described in an ear­ly CAMRA nation­al guide as ‘one of the strongest beers by alco­hol con­tent in the coun­try’ despite an Orig­i­nal Grav­i­ty of around 1036, as it was so bit­ter. We did­n’t have %ABV in those days. The Beer House in Man­ches­ter had a huge range of beers and was a local insti­tu­tion in the late 80’s. It also had the best juke­box ever, a healthy stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, cheap cur­ries and its famous ‘Dock­er’s Wedge’ a very rea­son­ably priced ‘sand­wich’ made from half a loaf of bread!

  5. Ear­ly/mid-90s Odd­bins and Thresh­er (+ some super­mar­kets) began to car­ry a lot of US micros – Anchor, Sam Adams, Pete’s Wicked Ale, Brook­lyn Lager – bold flavours, cool brand­ing etc = More influ­ence on cur­rent UK micro­brew­eries than CAMRA?

  6. Mar­tyn’s your man. Fun­ny though how Bod­dies is glossed over. As Dave says, it was a great beer back then.

    I think before I have time to add any­thing more, you’ll have moved on to some­thing else though. I’ll just men­tion that gap briefly though. Think of the explo­sion of York­shire and GM/Manchester/ Cum­bria in that space, many of which pro­vid­ed some­thing dif­fer­ent to brown bit­ters and only now are Lon­don Brew­eries latch­ing on. Many still do the brown thing far too much. Plus pio­neers of micro bot­tling such as Ham­ble­ton.

    And in my hum­ble view Bren­dan was pio­neer­ing hops way before and way bet­ter than Sean Franklin. Sean’s forte (again in my opin­ion) was the pro­mo­tion of seri­ous beer tast­ing and how to do it.

    1. Thanks, TM. So we’re talk­ing Mar­ble, Pic­tish and… any oth­er par­tic­u­lar brew­eries you’d asso­ciate with that boom? (We’re prob­a­bly going to keep work­ing on this post for a few days at least.)

      Any­road­up, that’s an equiv­a­lent explo­sion to the Lon­don one but sev­er­al years ear­li­er, and per­haps less obvi­ous because the start­ing base for the num­ber of brew­eries was­n’t as weird­ly low as Lon­don in 2007.

  7. Well Mar­ble came lat­er and were prob­a­bly best known for the fact their beer was all organ­ic though that has changed since. I believe only one or two are just now. I am more think­ing of Phoenix, Con­is­ton, Kitchen (famous for its veg­etable beers such as Tor­ment­ed Turnip, Tub­by Tan­ger­ine, Car­rot Crunch­er, Raisin Stout etc. all bril­liant I recall), Goose Eye, Lin­fit, Ossett.Tiger Tops, Barge and Bar­rel which were all brew­ing huge diverse beer while Lon­don was still feast­ing main­ly on Courage Best.

    Pale hop­py beers were emerg­ing from those as well as clas­sic stouts (Englsh Guineas from Lin­fi for exam­ple) bar­ley wines, old ales etc. Most of these led the move from mild, bit­ter, best bit­ter.

  8. That’s great, thanks very much. Haven’t heard of most of those brew­eries! (We are still learn­ing, not ashamed to admit it.)

  9. I would say that the key tip­ping point in the devel­op­ment of the “craft beer” move­ment came when beer enthu­si­asts on a large scale start­ed brew­ing new and dif­fer­ent beers for them­selves rather than sim­ply tak­ing an inter­est in what was already there. Which hap­pened first in the US. For many years, the vast major­i­ty of British micro brew­ers sim­ply pro­duced beers in the estab­lished British styles.

  10. Love­ly post, and immac­u­late­ly put togeth­er. Thanks, guys. Love T’man’s Franklin point…I did­n’t know about Bren­dan til I read his post. Not sure about the Stonch bit though! (only kid­ding).
    Beer Exhi­bi­tion pubs, eh? Inter­est­ing…

  11. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject and if I were retired then it would be a great project for a book (the inter­net is too ephemer­al to pro­vide reli­able his­to­ry). You should try and get a copy of ‘New Beer Guide’ pub­lished by CAMRA in 1988 and writ­ten by Bri­an Glover, who was edi­tor of What’s Brew­ing for a few years. He gives the first new inde­pen­dent as Sel­by in 1972, although as this was a re-open­ing he class­es the first ‘new wave’ brew­eries as the Min­ers Arms (Prid­dy) in 1973 and the Masons Arms (South Leigh) in 1974. These only sold on their own premis­es, with the first free-trade brew­ery being Litch­bor­ough in 1974, then fol­lowed by Pol­lard.

    Inci­den­tal­ly the book men­tions that Wiltshire/Tisbury had the agency for Spat­en – no date giv­en but looks like 1986/7.

    I lived in Nor­wich over 1974–9 and when I went there it had c3 (sources vary) real ale pubs. I have the 1977 local beer guide which lists 22 includ­ing a few with over 4 beers – rev­o­lu­tion­ary at the time! The Ten Bells was a favourite in my lat­er years there and I remem­ber that the own­er used to go round the Mid­lands reg­u­lar­ly in a van, col­lect­ing rare beers to sell in the pub – ‘rare’ then would be some­thing like Bate­mans. The near­by Gold­en Star was I think the first brew­pub in the area, prob­a­bly around 1977. It launched with Wifebeat­er Bit­ter, a name that was quick­ly changed.

    1. Ian – this is real­ly use­ful stuff, thanks, espe­cial­ly re: Sel­by, Litch­bor­ough et al.

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