Beer history real ale

Big breweries confused, middling ones confusing

Watney's Red Barrel

Every day, we come across something from thirty or more years ago which chimes with present-day issues in the world of beer. Here are a couple of related notes.

Observation 1: big breweries in the 1970s struggled to find a satisfactory approach to the ‘real ale craze’ just as the ‘leisure beverage’ companies they became are grappling with how to get in on ‘craft beer’ today.

Watney’s approach to real ale has so far been muted. It has experimentally introduced at a few of its London pubs, at 35p a pint, cask-conditioned beer brewed in Norwich. (It says its real beer travels.) There has been no big promotional fuss, and it is hard to see how there could be for a product whose appeal is that of not being a big-brewery mass-produced beer.

The Economist, 10 July 1976, p99.

‘Real ale’ being more clearly defined than ‘craft beer’ meant big breweries could easily produce products that met the technical criteria, but what they couldn’t do was make beer geeks love them. It was certainly real ‘real ale’, rather than ‘faux craft’, and CAMRA gave wary nods of approval, but Watney certainly weren’t in from the cold. They’d been the baddies for too long, and their interest in real ale just didn’t seem sincere.

Observation 2: regional/family brewers have always muddied the water. How do you make sense of them as part of a vaguely hippyish smaller-is-better, stick-it-to-the-man ideology?

Mr Protz, a former member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, has been attacked by the far Left for his defence of the small independent breweries with their ‘often feudal labour relations.’… ‘The problem is that political people, including the Left in Britain, have not yet realised that politics and the Labour movement does not stop at the shop floor,’ Mr Protz argues. ‘Beer is part of the leisure industry, and the leisure industry, how people enjoy themselves, is about money and power and influence — just as much as a factory. The middleclass consumer and the working man have been getting a bad deal.’

The Guardian, 19 June 1978, p4.

The Big Six all had the DNA of family breweries, but had lost their humanity. Regional brewers, on the other hand, were only ever a step away from becoming bad guys themselves. A little growth spurt; a takeover here and a closure there; a little too heavy a hand with the brewery tie and… well, look at Greene King, who were heroes in the 1970s, but now seem to be villains.

Picture by Martin Deutsch, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License. It was taken at an exhibition on the work of the Design Research Unit which we saw when it stopped off at the Tate Gallery in St Ives.

10 replies on “Big breweries confused, middling ones confusing”

Abbot Ale seems to have had quite a cult following, mostly because it was strong, but I suppose Young’s might have been a better example.

Basically with Ron here – yes, Abbot was a fairly well-regarded beer, probably on account of its gravity, as you say, but I certainly don’t remember that Greene King were thought of as any different to many another regional/family brewery in those days.

Indeed, I waa around then as well and Greene King wree just one more family brewery – I would say that if there were three cult beers in the 1970s they would be Ruddles County, Theakstons Old Peculier and Boddingtons Bitter, with Holts Bitter coming up on the outside.

As for real heroes – I think that would have been Yorkshire Clubs Brewery before its demise.

Ah, crossed wires, perhaps: we’ve been picking up on the way that books and articles from the time treat the Big Six with contempt, but tend to give regional/family brewers an easier ride. As a collective, heroes with a small ‘h’, if you like. We weren’t suggesting Greene King were any cooler than any other regional, only that they were considered on the side of the righteous with their commitment (though it dwindled in the 70s) to cask ale.

Their beer was probably a sight better too. I recall being impressed by the intense bitterness of Greene King IPA when I first encountered it in a pub in Dover in the early 1990s. OK, I was young, but I’m not sure it would have the same effect on an inexperienced palate nowadays.

When I was doing my early Camra campaigning in the second half of the 1970s in North Herts, which was solid Greene King territory (after the t/o of the Baldock brewery), the company wasn’t particularly disliked, and IPA – which was only ever ordered as “bitter” – was regarded as a perfectly OK beer, though we were keener on the XX dark mild from the Biggleswade GK brewery and much, much keener on Rayment’s, the obscure little brewery GK owned in East Hertfordshire, which produced lovely beers. Alas, that was axed in the early 1980s.

In the 1970s Greene King beers were fairly well regarded but, according to the 1977 Good Beer Guide, 70% of GK pubs used top pressure. So halfway between heroes and villains.

Richard Boston says of Greene King in Beer and Skittles that they, along with other family brewers, ‘took the deliberate decision to stick to the traditional products they were proud of’ and quotes some inspirational words from the MD. That must be where we got the ‘heroes’ idea from.

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