Beer history

Subtopian Beer

Having come across several mentions of an influential article on beer by Ian Nairn which appeared in the Sunday Times in the early 70s (some sources said 1972, others ’74), last week, we finally managed to track down a copy at the British Library Newspaper Archive at Colindale. It was worth the wait.

‘The Best Beers of Our Lives’ is more essay than article and just begging to be anthologised in some kind ‘beer reader’. Here’s what he has to say on the disappearance of local breweries during the Big Six takeover binge of the 1960s:

…to extinguish a local flavour, which is what has happened a hundred times in the last ten years, is like abolishing the Beaujolais: it is red and alcoholic, might as well make it in a Eurocity to an agreed Common Market recipe…. the peasants wouldn’t know the difference . . . but the peasants are fighting back.

Though he’d been raging for almost twenty years against Subtopia — ‘the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’ (Outrage, 1955) — this is the first time, as far as we are aware, that he had explicity applied that idea to beer.

And here’s what he has to say about being part of a niche market:

The choice. As a consumer, that’s all I ask. You can brew bland brand X until it runs out of your conditioned reflexes as long as you give me the choice. Otherwise I’ll drink Guinness, and there may be tens of thousands of others with the same calibre of unsatisfied throat.

Yes! Exactly! (Well, not exactly — Guinness isn’t much cop these days either.) He was right on numbers, too: the week after this article appeared, Michael Hardman told us, CAMRA received another thousand or so membership applications in an overwhelming deluge.

If you want to read it yourself, first check whether your local library service has signed up for this trial of the digitised Sunday Times archive. If the answer is ‘no’, then don your best moth-eaten tweed jacket, half-moon glasses and bicycle clips; get yourself to the Colindale microfilm readers; and wind your way on to page 33 of the 30 June 1974 edition of the paper.

8 replies on “Subtopian Beer”

I do vaguely remember from that time that many of the really big-volume beer drinkers would drink Guinness in preference to keg as it was smoother and went down quicker.

Got a post half-drafted on this, but the bit in Roger Protz’s autobiography/memoir when he recounts his first taste of Guinness on Fleet Street is interesting: ‘I always disliked keg beer with one exception — draught Guinness’. He goes on to quote Barrie Pepper saying that if all keg beer had been ‘as good as draught Guinness’, CAMRA wouldn’t have got off the ground.

Thinking about it, Guinness probably did very well in comparison to the handful of sweet/nourishing/milk stouts on the UK market in the mid- to late-seventies. It must have seemed really bitter and intense, any dumbing-down since nothwithstanding.

I wrote to Richard Boston once – I would have been about fifteen, not that that mattered much back then – asking him a whole string of beer questions, the way you do when you’re an inquisitive kid with a hero. (I also wrote to James Cameron, John Peel, Jill Tweedie and, er, Kate Bush. Jill Tweedie wrote back, essentially saying “never mind about any of the stuff you asked me about, but do keep writing”. Which was nice.)

Anyway, one of the idiot questions I asked Richard B. was “this Guinness stuff – is it real, or is it sort of real-ish, or do those criteria not apply in some way?” It definitely had the aura of being the beer you’d drink if there wasn’t any real ale on the bar; I never did work out why.

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