Reflections on our Northern Tour

Revitalisation beer pump clip.

Last week’s visit to the north of England (Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield) was actually as near as we’re getting to a holiday this year.

We figured that, even if we didn’t get chance to plug Brew Britannia, we’d at least have fun drinking decent beer in great pubs and bars, and seeing the sights. But, as it happened, we were invited to appear and/or speak at a few venues.

psbh

At Port Street Beer House on Sunday afternoon, we were in competition with blazing sunlight which had turned Manchester into a dead ringer for Barcelona. Nonetheless, several people turned up to share a beer with us and buy advance copies of the book.

It was great to meet everyone, but we have to admit that we were especially pleased to make the acquaintance of Len, a reader who usually ‘lurks’, and who settled our nerves with a few kind words in the first few minutes.

We also found ourselves thinking that someone — maybe us — ought to write a proper portrait piece about 6TownsMart, whose commitment to, and first-hand knowledge of, Belgian beer is awe-inspiring. ‘Brewers as rock stars’ is a well-worn angle, but dedicated drinkers deserve some attention too.

At North Bar in Leeds on Monday, we got to try the Kirkstall Brewery beer Revitalisation, thoughtfully developed by Matt Lovatt from some vague thoughts we put in an email. We drank lots of it, and it prompted plenty of conversation among the Leeds crafterati, as well as finding favour with a few of the locals with more conservative tastes. We’ll write more about it in a substantial post about Boddington’s to follow in the next week or so.

We did our best to give a reading, but our puny voices struggled a bit against the non-stop partying which characterises the venue. Someone made us drink tequila, and Ghost Drinker plied us with wonderful, wonderful gueuze. We signed and sold a lot of copies of the book, which saved us lugging any back to Manchester, though the 20 copies of The Grist we acquired were heavier and more awkwardly shaped.

We had two engagements in Sheffield. First, at the Thornbridge-owned Hallamshire House, on Wednesday night. This was the first actual ‘talk’ we gave. Forty or so people, many of them actually there for a German student’s birthday drinks, listened politely as we spoke about the origins of the term ‘craft beer’. Some sidled up with questions, including, to our delight, the German birthday boy, who wanted to know why porter was so hard to find: “Ah,” he said on hearing our off-the-cuff answer. “This is the same as with Dortmund Export.”

We were delighted to meet Jim Harrison, one of the founders of Thornbridge — he is a very charming man — but cringed as we watched he and his wife read what we’d written about them in the book from across the room. They didn’t take offence, but seemed perhaps a little hurt that we’d portrayed them as ‘lordly’: “I came on the bus tonight.”

As the crowd thinned, we were joined by Thornbridge brewers Rob Lovatt and Will Inman, who indulged our naive questions about processes and yeast, and politely disagreed with a couple of our thoughts on Thornbridge’s beer. Very civilised.

The cafe next door to the Hop Hideout.

We finished on a real high note with a ticketed talk at the Hop Hideout on Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. It is a tiny but lovingly-managed specialist beer shop in the corner of a larger unit selling vintage… stuff, so the talk actually took place in the cafe next door. With blinds drawn, it felt like a lock-in or speakeasy, and talking to a crowd who wanted to be there was a real treat.

Over the course of a couple of hours, we tasted:

  • John Smith’s Bitter — a ‘palate cleanser’ and reminder of the ‘bad old days’.
  • Chimay Rouge — the first ‘world beer’ to hit the UK, in 1974.
  • Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — highly influential on the use of hops in British brewing.
  • Marble Dobber — the kind of beer British brewers made once they’d ‘got’ New World hops, and with a tentative connection to Brendan Dobbin.
  • Camden Hells — exemplifying the post-1990s trend for ‘craft lager’, and exploring questions of provenance.
  • Wild Beer Co Ninkasi — exploring the ‘outer limits’ of diversity in British beer, and finishing on a showstopper.

Most people seemed to agree that Chimay was cruelly overlooked these days; that SNPA was still a really good beer; that Dobber was on fantastically good form; and that Ninkasi was extremely complex and interesting. Watching someone smell the Cascade aroma of SNPA for the first time was a treat, too.

We’ll be in London in the week commencing 16 June and will hopefully be able to announce a programme of appearances in the coming days. We’re also at Beer Wolf in Falmouth, Cornwall, on 28 June from 4pm. Come and see us somewhere, at some time!

Archive Round-up: CAMRA and Real Ale

One of the fun things about working on Brew Britannia was thinking aloud on the blog as we conducted our research.

We wrote quite a few posts about the pre-Campaign for Real Ale era and the early years of CAMRA, and we find ourselves sharing the links fairly frequently.

With that in mind, and to give the undecided a taster of what they might be getting in the book, we thought we’d corral them in one place.

Pub User's Preservation Society memorabilia.

First, there was a series of posts about the organisations that pre-dated the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) and CAMRA. First we discovered the Ancient Order of Frothblowers and the Pub Users’ Protection Society; then the National Society for the Promotion of Pure Beer; and, finally, Young & Co’s 135 Association, inspired by a precursor to CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide.

Cover of Monopolies Commission report on beer, 1969.

Trying to trace the development of the language around beer, we found a 1934 reference to cask ale as ‘the real thing’, and considered how that kind of general use eventually led to the more technical term ‘real ale’. We also discovered the role of civil servants in fixing the way we use the words ‘draught’, ‘cask’ and ‘keg’ today:

We use the description ‘draught’ beer to include any beer which is supplied to the retailer in bulk containers and drawn to order in the pub for each customer. All the large brewers and many smaller ones now brew a kind of draught beer which has become known as ‘keg’ beer. Although the word ‘draught’ is sometimes used to distinguish traditional draught from keg beer, for the purposes of this report we call the former ‘cask’ beer. [B&B’s emphasis.]

And here’s what we discovered about CAMRA’s flirtation with the rhetoric of the ‘whole food’ movement and ‘natural beer’.

John Simpson's depiction of middle class student CAMRA members, 1975.

Finally, we considered the culture and image of CAMRA in its early years. At first, no-one seemed sure if the typical CAMRA member was a blazer-wearing young ‘trendy’, a bearded hippy, or a burly bloke with a beer belly.  The beard-and-sandals image, which CAMRA has spent decades trying to shake, seems really to have taken hold after David Bellamy opened the 1979 Great British Beer Festival.

Quite apart from how members looked, the question of how CAMRA was perceived also interests us. We put together a brief history of ‘CAMRA bashing’ which reflected the impatience some early supporters, such as Richard Boston, felt over the boring technical debates about dispense methods which ravaged the Campaign during 1977.

We also noted that bickering among members on the letters page of What’s Brewing (a) started early and (b) hasn’t changed much in 40+ years.

(*Ahem*.)

Brew Britannia has Landed

Selfie

Until copies arrived by courier today, there was a lingering suspicion in our minds that Brew Britannia might be a dream, or perhaps a cruel prank.

But, no, it really exists, and we’re cooing over it like new parents. Look at the spot varnish on its wittle cover — awww!  It’s a good job they sent two so we can each hold one. (And, yes, we did smell them — top marks for aroma.)

Detail of a page from Brew Britannia.

Now the hard bit: selling it

Writing it was fun; selling it does not come naturally, but it has to be done.

There’s no reason why you should help, of course, especially as you haven’t read it yet, but if you do feel inclined…

1. Though the book will no doubt mostly interest beer geeks, we also hope it will be a good read for foodies, wine lovers and ‘normals’. If you feel like sharing a link with your pals, especially those outside the beer geek bubble, then that’d be lovely.

2. If you’re intending to pick a copy up at some point, it’s really helpful if you pre-order it online. Pre-orders help to demonstrate to Amazon and Waterstones that there’s demand and increases the chances of them giving it a bit of a push at their end. It also helps it stand out here. (If you’ve already pre-ordered, thank you!)

Screenshot: Amazon 'hot new releases'.

3. If you don’t like ordering from big chains, you could ask your local independent bookshop to get one in for you instead. If enough people ask, it might convince them to get a few copies and put it on display where impulse purchasers will see it.

4. If you run a website, magazine, fanzine, podcast or video blog and would like us to write/record/draw/sculpt you a guest article/interview/mime, gratis and free of charge, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do.

Psst! Psst! Wanna signed book?

Even though the launch date is 19 June, we’ll also have a limited number of copies to sell and sign in Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield later this month.

VIDEO: The Miner’s Arms, Priddy

Bloody typical — we could have done with this before Brew Britannia went off to print.

We’re still exploring the recent release of British Pathé documentary footage to YouTube. Our most recent discovery, above, includes the only images, still or moving, that we’ve come across of the interior of the Miners Arms at Priddy, Somerset.

Paul Leyton — the tall, grey-haired patrician character who buys the bucket of snails from the old feller in the footage above — was a former pilot who lived with his family aboard a converted double-decker bus for a time after World War II. He went on to be a leading figure in Britain’s space programme, left in a huff, and took on the Miner’s Arms in the early sixties. Snail farming and frozen food were his main obsessions, and he didn’t start brewing until 1973.

The Miners Arms brewery was among the first of the new wave that kicked off what we’ve called the ‘rebirth of British beer’.

At which point, we are obliged to suggest that — ahemyou ought to order a copy of our book to find out more.

The Return of Dogbolter

What's Brewing magazine, Winter 1980/81, featuring David Bruce.

When we interviewed David ‘Firkin’ Bruce last summer, he told us about his new role as Chairman of the West Berkshire Brewery.

Last week, that rather belatedly triggered an idea: maybe, with a brewery at hand, he might be convinced, for the first time since the 1980s, to personally brew a beer to an original Firkin recipe.

He responded enthusiastically to the idea and is going to dig out his original 1979 recipe for the famous Dogbolter (all grain, no malt extract) and recreate it in the brewhouse at WBB.

It should be available on draught in time for the launch of Brew Britannia in June. There will also be a nationally-marketed bottled version available at some point afterwards.

UPDATE 23/04/2014: David Bruce says —

The WBB will be brewing 30 brewers’ barrels of my original Dogbolter (full-mash grist at 1060° O.G.) at 7:30 am on Wednesday 21st May.  This will be packaged to produce 40 firkins and c. 6,000 commemorative bottles, all to be available nationally from 2nd Jun.

Having spent so much time and effort researching the rise and fall of the Firkin brewpubs, we’re really excited at the prospect of actually tasting it.**

In fact, with the ‘1970s bitter’ currently being tinkered with at Kirkstall in Leeds, and talk of an anniversary batch of Litchborough Bitter at Phipps NBC, it’s going to be an interesting couple of months for we who lust after long gone beers.

We’ll post more details on availability when we have them.

** We have, of course, tasted the Ramsgate Brewery beer of the same name. Let’s hope this doesn’t turn into one of those trademark disputes everyone hates.