Beer history Brew Britannia

Bill Urquhart: A Footnote to a Footnote

Urquhart in glasses and flat cap raising a pint.
Adapted from ‘Bill Urquhart at Litchborough’, via Wikimedia Commons.

In our recent trawl of the Sunday Times archive we found something we could have done with three years ago: a killer quote from Britain’s first microbrewer.

Well, sort of first — terms and conditions apply, and the ins and outs are all in Chapter Four of Brew Britannia. At any rate, when Bill Urquhart founded the Litchborough Brewery in 1974 he helped kick off a revolution.

In his splendid and essential 1988 book New Beer Guide published in 1988, Brian Glover (not that one, the beer one) used a wonderful quote from Mr Urquhart that would have fit perfectly into our narrative of the birth of the small-is-beautiful, anti-corporate tendency in the alternative strand of British brewing:

Brewers have been edged aside in favour of people who talk about economics rather than beer. Everyone now has to be trained in the concept of marginal profits. They’ve swamped out the people who want to make good beer. Once the head brewers used to decide what the beer would be. Now they make what they are told.

He cited its source as the Northampton Chronicle which we in 2013 duly called up from the stacks at the British Library’s newspaper library, then based at Colindale in North London. We read several years worth of issues, several times and… Nothing. (Though we followed a couple of grim murder cases with interest.) Either Mr Glover got the name of the paper wrong or there was some other confusion.

We contacted Mr Glover directly but his notes were left with CAMRA and have since gone missing, and he couldn’t remember any further details.

Finally, a bit glum at hours of wasted time, we sought the advice of one of our mentors who said our instincts were right: without a source, we shouldn’t use it. With a sigh, we agreed, and didn’t.

Well, now, if not that exact quote, we’ve found something very similar that would have done the job, from an article entitled ‘What We Want is Bill’s Bitter’ published in the Sunday Times on 20 October 1974. It’s a bit of novelty space-filler, really, but comes with a splendid portrait of Mr Urquhart, beaming, with a cask under each arm. (It’s not the pic above, the ultimate source of which we don’t know, and which seems to have through neglect effectively entered into the public domain.)

There are also a couple of nice details in the reporter’s prose. ‘What has given him great satisfaction is that he now feels he is a creative brewer once more’ sounds very ‘craft’ — passion, artistry and all that. For the amateur etymologists there’s also a phrase that is almost microbrewery but not quite: mini-brewery.

Here’s the soundbite we could have used: ‘It had got to the stage in the industry where we were brewing by committee… The market research men said what they wanted, then the accountants and everyone else.’

He is also reported as saying (but not quoted) that before starting his own brewery he had all but given up drinking beer because he couldn’t find any he liked but that, at the same time, ‘the beer-from-the-wood brigade sometimes forget in their nostalgia the cloudy and “off” pints that frequently came from the barrels’.

We might need to an update a footnote in the book, too, because we’ve a feeling it was this article and not the one in the Sunday People with the same headline that Peter Mauldon recalled reading with his breakfast in bed back in 1974. He remembered it as being in the Sunday Telegraph, where we could find no trace, but it’s easier to imagine him confusing one broadsheet for another than a tabloid for the Telegraph.

* * *

It’s odd still to be thinking and talking about Brew Britannia so many years on but it is our baby and we’ll probably never stop researching it, even if it’s too late to do anything with the new material. We understand the current print run is about to sell out, by the way, so if you’ve been putting off getting a paper copy, now might be your last chance.

5 replies on “Bill Urquhart: A Footnote to a Footnote”

The People may have still been a broadsheet in 1974 – the News of the Screws certainly remained a broadsheet until 1984.

An interesting reminder that other people as well as the nascent CAMRA were concerned about beer traditions and quality in the early 1970s, and were prepared to do something about it. Of course, SPBW also predated CAMRA by 8 years.

This set me thinking “how long did it take then, for a microbrewery to be a pivot of a 1970’s sitcom, starring, I think, Matthew Kelly”?

The answer is six years, making it (just) an 80’s sitcom, “Holding The Fort” starring Peter Davidson (as househusband and microbrewer Russell), Patricia Hodge (Army Captain and Russell’s wife, Penny,) and Matthew Kelly (PD’s sidekick and brewery employee, Fitz).

The microbrewery as I recall was a niche but not outlandish plot point, the underlying idea being that by this time, off the back of homebrewing, starting a small scale commercial brewery was just the thing that someone might do.

Looking for footage, this came up: Series 3, Episode 1. In response to Penny’s suggestion that, to lower the amount of duty they were paying, they brew weaker beer, Russell stands up, and delivers these lines:

“Brewing is my craft. I will stand or fall on the quality and strength of my bitter.”

Hello Brewdog, you were 25 years late.

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