Beer Geekery Inflation

Reading about the early days of beer-geekery in Britain has made us think about how spoiled we’ve become. Here’s an off-the-cuff attempt at charting, in the most general terms, the increasingly demanding nature of the British beer obsessive over the last forty years.

1971

Any bitter other than Watney’s (“’Grotney’s’ more like!”), ideally from a family brewer. (Keg not preferred but not completely taboo if ‘well flavoured’.)

1976

At least one cask-conditioned bitter (CCB), ideally from a family brewer. Sought-after Greene King, Ruddles County, Shepherd Neame or Thwaites a bonus.

1981

At least two CCBs, ideally from a family brewer. Sought-after Greene King, Ruddles County, Shepherd Neame or Thwaites ideal; microbrewery beer an exciting treat; but something from the local brewer will do.

1986

At least three CCBs, including one from a ‘microbrewery’ or at least from another county.

1991

Four CCBs, one golden, and perhaps a stout or mild.

1996

A range of, say, six cask-conditioned ales of various colours and strengths, from different breweries; and a Czech lager or Belgian beer.

2001

Several well-kept cask-conditioned ales of various colours and strengths, from different breweries; a range of foreign beer; Hoegaarden.

2006

Several well-kept cask-conditioned ales of various colours and strengths, mostly from small, obscure breweries; a range of foreign beer, including some rarities and some from the US.

2011

Four or five very well-kept cask ales including no more than one ‘boring brown bitter’, none of the ‘usual suspects’ and certainly NO GREENE KING! A huge range of bottles, ideally almost all rare, many sour or experimental; some canned beer; draught beer from the US, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium, Scandinavia. Presence of beer from multinationals an irritation.

Is it sad that we no longer feel excited by the sight of a single, unexpected handpump in a pub, as we would have done forty years ago? Or is it sadder that we ever got to that miserable state of affairs in the first place?

20 thoughts on “Beer Geekery Inflation”

  1. Spot on. I heard a great quote from Eddie Gadd a few months back: “What defines the English is that they love making clubs and then not letting anyone join them.”

  2. Back around 1977, when I was an active member of the North Herts Camra branch, we would have a fund-raising bottle auction, where beers by obscure family brewers from around the country brought back by branch members from their travels, such as Devenish (*gasp!*), Yates & Jackson (*double gasp!!*) and Darleys (*triple gasp!!!*) would be raffled off, amid great excitement, to raise money for branch funds. Even active Camra members might not have drunk the beers of more than 15 or 20 different brewers. And yes, it really was exciting to go into a previously keg or top-pressure only pub and spot a handpump newly installed in the bar.

  3. Where we are, it’s still a treat to find a pub with a wide range of CCBs, unless I go to the wrong pubs. I don’t really do town pubs. I must admit to loving a pub tied to a small family/local brewer, with the regular range available on HP or preferably, gravity.

  4. It’s a great post. With the multi tap boom, it is, in a way, similar to what is happening here. I love it, but then I got to beer minimalist pub and I really appreciate the simplicity of ordering not much more than “pivo”, knowing exactly what I’ll get.

  5. The trouble is, half the time you’ll see that single, unexpected hand pump, get all excited that it might be something new, perhaps a fairly local brew that you’ve not managed to try yet…. only to discover that it’s Doom Bar. Again.

    I guess it’s the same problem that leads to “NO GREENE KING!” – once something hits national success, it gets common and therefore boring.

      1. t wouldn’t be too long before Harvey’s Best and Tribute came to be dismissed as dull, boring and commonplace, though.

        It may just be subjective, but I would also say that the more widely available a beer is, the less well it is kept on average.

        1. I agree with Mudgie that the more commonplace a beer is, the worse it is kept. I remember when there was all that media hoo-ha about Timmy Taylor Landlord being Madonna’s favourite drop. Suddenly it was everywhere – and in my mind the beer became associated with mediocre pubs. Some years on, that has passed and I recognise it again (when well kept) as a super beer.

          That said, I’ve had very well kept GK IPA and never enjoyed it.

          1. Yes, in the early 90s Marston’s Pedigree was widely thought to have lost much of its former character, at much the same time as Marston’s had signed a deal to get it a lot of Whitbread pubs.

            There’s a whole raft of food-oriented pub company pubs that tend to have the fashionable beer of the day (currently Doom Bar) but never seem to keep it well. I had some really poor Landlord in such a pub recently, btw

  6. That’s the problem with geeks. Never happy with what they have. But they are right to demand more; there’s more about, after all.

    When Mcdonalds is serving a triple smoked gooseberry hefe, they’ll just want it with a side of extra isohumelone.

    I can say honestly that I get as big a kick out of finding a single wicket with well-kept Bass or Tribute or Adnams Bitter when I’m out in the sticks on a walk than I do in finding an uber-spooge brass-clad craft-beer-porn bar.

    Honest.

  7. John H — thanks for that. He’s a great philosopher of our age, Mr G.

    Martyn — we have this suspicion that, in the 70s, people were much more tolerant of bad beer and beer in bad condition than they are today. What do you reckon?

    Beer Nut — that’s interesting. Are you looking forward to 2011?

    PF — ‘beer minimalist pub’ is a nice turn of phrase — it implies a conscious decision to sell few beers, but good ones, in good nick.

    Pete — we’re not ashamed to admit that we’re suckers for novelty. We like Tribute, and we’re always happy to drink it, but that doesn’t mean we’re not excited when we find something else on offer. It’s an emotional rather than a logical thing.

    Simon — think we’re probably in the same boat, especially since moving to Cornwall. Wonder if a future version of this chart might show a return to a happy medium between multi-tap madness and Watneyesque monopoly?

  8. we have this suspicion that, in the 70s, people were much more tolerant of bad beer and beer in bad condition than they are today

    Hmmm – I’m not sure tolerance of bad beer generally has declined. But I’m not sure standards have improved, either: my recollection, looking back down four decades, is that in the early/mid 1970s, while choice was vastly poorer than today, where you found cask ale being served, it was more likely than in later times to be of reasonable quality, because the landlord had to actively want cask ale to get it from his supplier, rather than his supplier insisting he take it. Only when, eg, Watney/Grand Met acquired Ruddles and rammed cask beer into thousands of pubs did average standards decline sharply. That, however, may be an old git looking back at his youth through gold-coloured binoculars …

  9. we have this suspicion that, in the 70s, people were much more tolerant of bad beer and beer in bad condition than they are today

    Not at all. In the late 70s / early 80s cask beer was standard in the pubs of Allied, Bass, Courage, Greenalls and others. Can only really speak for the North, but a bad pint was rare indeed. Volume encouraged good beer. Whitbread who were much more laggardly in cask was where you’d sometimes get a bad pint as they didn’t have so much of it. When you got a bad pint then people would know it. I remember in a Higsons pub putting three pints of bitter down on the table only to have them snatched back by the landlord, who’d spotted a haze on the beer from the bar. End of the barrel – pints exchanged. There was generally higher standards of cellarmanship then.

    Apart from these observations, what Martyn says.

    1. Ah, yes, fair points.

      I think we were reflecting on our own experience in the early ’00s when we got the opportunity to drink, say, Harvey’s Sussex Best maybe twice a year, and so it took us ages to work out what it was meant to taste like and when it was off/on the turn. If you lived in London and only saw Thwaites as a guest beer at the Dive Bar every now and then, would you have known it was bad? And would you have been so excited to find something new you wouldn’t care much anyway?

      1. Considering I only started to drink in pubs in 1999/2000, from my anecdotal experience, the quality of cellarmanship has vastly improved. The biggest drive of this, I believe, has been Wetherspoons. In the late 90s/early 00s, Wetherspoons had an excellent reputation for range but a bloody awful reputation for conditioning. Since about 2005, they’ve clearly focussed relentlessly on cellar conditioning and the results speak for themselves. I’d always prefer a pubby pub over a Spoons, but I now go into a Spoons expecting a very well kept pint from an interesting range.

        But even elsewhere, I’ve noticed better quality. I wonder, to some degree, if increased interest in cask has pushed volumes in decent pubs. As we all know, and as Tandie says himself “volume encouraged good beer” – and good beer encourages volume. A virtuous circle.

    2. In the established venues, I agree with you. Much of the folk memory of poor cask beer stems from the early days of the “real ale revival” when it was put into lots of pubs that had no experience of serving it. Having said that, in the past ten years or so there has been a marked improvement in typical quality at the bar. Cask Marque must take some of the credit for that, and my local brewery Robinson’s have run a well-publicised cellar quality scheme. Going back to the 80s, Robinson’s were notorious for variable quality.

  10. I also wonder the effect of Cask Marque. I had a very cloak-and-dagger chat with a CM inspector a year or two ago in which he essentially suggested they gave out the accreditation willy-nilly to begin with (hence its reputation as being next to useless), but have increasingly been niggardly in re-awarding the status (with pubs not wishing to lose it, they follow the recommendations and the beer quality improves).

    I don’t know if this is true, but – again, anecdotally – I’ve noticed Cask Marque being more and more reliable as an indicator of quality after what was, all told, a shoddy start.

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