English Heritage/Brewery History Society, June 2014, 256 pages, large format paperback, £25, ISBN 9781848022386
Just when you think there are no new angles from which to approach the subject of British beer, along comes Lynn Pearson with a book which focuses not on the products or the people, but on bricks and mortar, copper and iron, stone and steel. In so doing, she has created something which combines the rigour of a scholarly reference work with the ‘dippability’ of a coffee table book.
It would be easy to overlook this volume – the cover features one of the least exciting images in the book, and English Heritage’s off-the-peg guidebook design template renders it rather bland. Inside, however, the barrage of arresting imagery begins at once with a photograph of a brewery worker tending to mash tuns at Shipstone’s in Nottingham c.1900, and doesn’t let up thereafter. There are multiple images on every page – plans, sketches, paintings, photographs. Because she has made good use of the English Heritage archive and her own original photography, most of them are new to us, despite the increasing availability online of major picture archives.
Among our favourites are a 1954 shot of a newly formed Morris dancing troop performing in front of a row of thatched cottages, framed in the foreground by a hand holding a ten-sided pint glass full of pale ale. We couldn’t stop looking at an 1873 photograph of the management of the Star Brewery in Romford standing around their vast new 1000 barrel copper, like Brunel and team under the hull of a new steam ship. And a postcard image of the Meux Brewery at Tottenham Court Road is the best we’ve seen, with a vivid quality of virtual reality.
The text doesn’t quite invite beginning-to-end reading, lacking an overarching narrative – or, rather, providing that narrative in the very readable third chapter, and then repeating it with different emphases (construction and design, power, Burton-upon-Trent) in each chapter that follows. Nonetheless, the prose is never less than clear, and is certainly thorough, with some nugget of information or anecdote that makes every page worth perusing. (Even the obligatory section on how beer is made.) It is also properly referenced using reliable sources, and with some reassuringly authoritative names (e.g Ray Anderson) mentioned in the acknowledgements.
Pearson is particularly adept at conveying the scale of British brewing in its 18th and 19th century pomp, using both prose and imagery to bring to life monumental structures, great canyons of brick, and towers (such as the one at Bentley’s in Rotherham) which brought vigorous verticality to towns and cities:
Their blank walls and louvres were a substantial presence in the London townscape; it was not only their towering height but the vast floor areas of the new beer factories that impressed: ‘The immensity of the Brewery astonished me’ as an awestruck observer said of Southwark’s Anchor Brewery in 1773.
She also highlights the emergence of the elaborately decorated, architecturally frilly ‘ornamental brewery’ in the late 19th century – as much concerned with ‘brand building’ as function, and the kind of brewery people are most likely to have seen at first hand on organised tours of established regional breweries.
Given the involvement of English Heritage, there is also a substantial amount of material on the preservation of historic brewery buildings. There is, Pearson suggests, some good news: while efforts at preservation in 20th century redevelopment projects ‘tended to the small scale’ (i.e. they were tokenistic, as at the Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton), the 21st century has seen more ambitious conversions of old brewery buildings, with serious thought given to preserving what is most interesting or unique even as the structures become office blocks or flats. A couple, Pearson points out, even now house breweries, such as the Ashton Gate Brewery in Bristol, now home to the Bristol Beer Factory.
We strongly recommend this book, along with the late Norman Barber’s Century of British Brewers and Martyn Cornell’s Amber, Gold & Black, as the core of a reference library for anyone with an ongoing interest in the history of beer.
PS. We’ve never read her 1999 book, British Breweries: an architectural history, but assume it covers similar ground. Intelligence welcome in comments below.