Beer history opinion

Do We Owe a Debt to the Regionals?

Harvey's brewery, Lewes, by Chris Parfitt.
Harvey’s, Lewes, by Chris Parfitt, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

An opinion piece by former CAMRA chairman and microbrewer James Lynch in the latest issue of the Campaign for Real Ale newspaper, What’s Brewing, argues that we beer geeks owe a debt of thanks to breweries such as Arkell’s, Harvey’s and Palmer’s.

These regional brewers, he argues, kept the flame of cask-conditioned ale burning through the dark days of the Big Six era, but are now all but ignored in all the excitement around trendy new breweries. He urges us to support them by drinking their beer.

We have to admit that, when we first started taking an interest in beer a decade or so ago, we formed the view that the UK’s regional brewers were part of the problem — conservative, unimaginative, and prone to producing little but variations on ‘boring brown bitter’ (BBB).

Having become better at detecting and appreciating subtle flavours, we’ve all but stopped thinking in terms of BBB  — there’s some character to appreciate in almost all of them — and if we use the phrase at all these days, it’s as a term of endearment.

We have also gained a new appreciation of the cultural significance of this kind of brewery through our recent studies, and share Mr Lynch’s sadness at the loss (in all but name) of breweries such as Young & Co of South London.

What we can’t quite agree with is the idea that these breweries are owed something.

For one thing, we aren’t convinced all of those he lists ‘fought’ for real ale — many, we suspect, just couldn’t afford to go over to kegging, or were simply slow to act. Some were in the process of abandoning cask when CAMRA came along in the 1970s and revived the market for real ale. They weren’t sentimental, or principled — they followed the money.

(Young & Co might be an exception, of which more, perhaps, in a long blog post at some point soon.)

Secondly, we don’t believe that consumers can be expected to choose what they drink because a company ‘did the right thing’ 40 years ago: drinking beer, like going to the pub, should be a pleasure, not some kind of grim duty undertaken out of a sense of obligation. If these breweries want to survive another 100 years, they need to look long and hard at the beers they make and ensure that they are a joy to drink.

5 replies on “Do We Owe a Debt to the Regionals?”

But we can all agree Harvey’s is craft, right?* 😉

* Cos it’s nice and I like it.

“Cos it’s nice and I like it” – just about the only definition that works.

I think what we owe them is a bit of respect. It’s not an argument that’s likely to persuade many people, though – those who do respect them (like me &, I think, our hosts) don’t need persuading, and those who don’t respect them won’t like being told that they ought to.

While they may not have supported cask beer for ideological reasons, many of them continued to produce it out of a kind of bloodyminded rejection of “modernity” and “progress” which at the end of the day adds up to much the same thing. No doubt pretty much all of them would at one time have received an “offer they couldn’t refuse” from Bass or Whitbread. The fact that they turned down short-term financial gain is deserving of respect. They believed in their product and their business in much the same way as a railway arch brewer does.

Of course nobody should be expected to buy beer or any other consumer product out of sentiment or recognition of past glories. However, I feel many present-day beer enthusiasts are too inclined to sneer at them and fail to appreciate that, without them, the modern beer movement in the UK would have been starting from a much lower base.

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