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.

Continue reading “Bill Urquhart: A Footnote to a Footnote”

(Almost) Microbrewing in 1919

1914 Punch cartoon of a village pub.

Microbreweries as we know them today came into being in the 1960s or 1970s (see Brew Britannia for more on that) but did you know something along the same lines nearly emerged half a century earlier?

The Chelmsford Chronicle for 25 December 1914 carried the following story under a headline which gives us another term to throw into the jargon soup along with ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’: REVIVAL OF COTTAGE BREWING IN ESSEX VILLAGES.

One result of the additional tax of one penny per pint on beer and ale has seen a revival in the cottage brewing several Essex villages. The extra tax was of course put upon beer to help to pay the cost the war, and there was direct authority that the increase should be carried to the consumer by an extra halfpenny per glass, one penny per pint, on beer sold in licensed houses. This tax has incidentally led a notable return to the custom which prevailed in many Essex villages half a century ago of cottagers brewing their own beer. By law a cottager whose house is assessed at £8 or under per annum — most of the genuine rural cottages are assessed at about half that figure — can brew beer for his own consumption without paying any duty… In a town like Braintree, for instance, home brewing is practically unknown, but the country there has been just enough brewing at cottages or farms to keep the industry alive. So far the impetus to cottage brewing has been chiefly observed in villages Shalford and Stisted, where there are now several brews of Essex ale maturing for Christmas!

The article goes on to quote a local expert:

I have actually seen the brews being made in one place, and ascertained that there are eight cottagers waiting to use one copper which is supposed to make exceptionally good beer. Of course the home-brewed beer is not so nice-looking as good brewery beer, for the art of brewing has reached high perfection. The cottage beer that I have seen lacks sparkle and brightness of a nice bottled beer, but there is no doubt it is full of strength, and contains what the farm labourers call ‘plenty of bite.’

Cottage beer is strong, hazy and a bit chewy. That sounds familiar. He goes on:

The arrangements prevailing in Essex villages where I have seen ‘home’ beer being brewed is for the cottager to purchase malt, and hops, then to pay an experienced man in the Village 5s. to brew the beer to fill the cask, generally a hogshead.

That’s a fascinating arrangement — like the shared oven model for bread-making — but not quite what we’d recognise as microbrewing, i.e. a newly established small brewery producing beer for sale to the general public. A few years later, however, on 29 March 1919, the Licensed Trade News repeated much the same story of East Anglian cottage brewing but with an added twist. Citing an original article in the Evening Standard that we haven’t been able to track down, they reported that one social club in the London suburbs had been inspired by the home-brewing craze to consider applying for a licence to sell its own small batch, hand-crafted, artisanal products. (Our words, not theirs.)

As far as we know this didn’t go ahead (the big brewers weren’t happy and they tended to get their way, up to a point) but what would have happened if 1919 had seen the first new commercial ‘cottage brewery’? Might there have been ten by 1925, and 150 at the start of World War II?

UPDATE 05:32 24/08/2016

This newspaper report is a garbled account of the founding of the famous clubs breweries, isn’t it? The connection with East Anglian homebrewing is spurious.

SIBA Says This is Craft Beer

AIBCB logo.

While we were away SIBA announced a new certification scheme for British craft breweries – that is, a stamp of approval: ‘SIBA says this is Craft’. Having had chance now to get our heads round it a bit, here are some quick thoughts.

1. Our gut reactions to this are just on the positive side of neutral. Yes, it’s partly about SIBA attempting to seize control of the story and shore up its own status, which has seemed shaky in recent years, but they’re not doing anything evil, or that someone else (CAMRA, for example) couldn’t have done if they’d been bothered; and there are distinct benefits for both retailers and consumers.

2. As with the failed United Craft Brewers project, though, a lot will depend on whether anyone actually signs up. Many brewers who are, by almost any definition, ‘craft’ will not be able to afford the fee for accreditation. Others, meanwhile, have beef with SIBA over, for example, their middle-man wholesaler role. If a situation arises where certain outlets are inaccessible to breweries — we can imagine big pub/bar chains agreeing to sell only SIBA accredited craft, for example – then, yes, some holdouts might feel compelled to join, but others would feel even more resentful. SIBA will want to avoid the perception that it’s a way of bullying people to join.

Thornbridge, 2013.

3. SIBA’s definition of ‘craft’ is as valid as any other. We’ve long said that we’re quite happy with multiple overlapping definitions, and with working definitions designed for particular contexts. As it is SIBA’s definition…

* ‘Has agreed to abide by SIBA’s Manual of Good Brewing Practice’
* ‘Is truly independent of any larger controlling brewing interest’
* And brewing no more than 200,000hl per year.

…chimes very substantially with our own fairly broad Definition 1. That is, it allows for many traditional British brewers specialising in cask and isn’t just about the hip post-2005 keg-friendly scene. (Definition 2, same link.)

For confused licensees and retailers keen to do the right thing this may well be helpful, even if all they do is use SIBA’s definition, or react against it, to inform their buying decisions.

4. The flipside of the problem of some small brewers feeling financially excluded is that for once, the biggest multi-national brewers, however much money they have, cannot buy their way in. Independence and smallness are both blunt measures of ‘craft’-ness but they are something, and one that someone who doesn’t think about the politics of beer 24-7 might stand a chance of getting their head round. In fact, one of the best things about SIBA’s definition is that it reflects what the public think ‘craft’ means based on market research rather than attempting to dictate it to them:

46% of beer drinkers, by far the biggest group, regard craft beer as ‘made by small brewers rather than large corporations’, although one in ten beer drinkers are unsure what the term means. 35% regard craft breweries as ‘artisanal’ with 22% associating the term with ‘small’ and 14% with ‘local’.

5. It certainly moves the conversation forward – one that has been stuck in a loop since about 2009 – and, most importantly from our selfish perspective, gives us a solid answer to the question, ‘What is craft beer exactly?’ Being able to say, ‘Well, SIBA defines it as…’ will be much easier than the rambling and inconclusive lecture we’re currently obliged to give, and far more helpful than a baffled shrug.

Artyfacts from the Nyneties #4: Meet Pete

Pete's Wicked Ale ad, 1994.
Click to enlarge.

The advertisement above appeared in the Campaign for Real Ale’s monthly What’s Brewing in November 1994.

The year before, ‘Pete’s’ had sponsored the Bieres Sans Frontieres programme and it was on its way to becoming the best-known American brewery among British drinkers.

In the Daily Mirror on 27 January 1995, Nick Kent wrote:

THE coolest beers in America are hitting Britain – and some of them are OK when they’re warm! Microbrewery beers are fashionable in the US but may become an endangered species as hype and big business start to get a hold… Pete’s Wicked Lager is a fine example; hops predominate and it has a clean, sharp, dry taste even though it is on the strong side (4.8 per cent alcohol).

Then, on 21 July the same year, Kent announced an exciting competition:

HE’S loud, proud, thirsty-something, and he could be heading your way… American Pete Slosberg, founder of Pete’s Brewing Company, is coming to the British Beer Festival, and he wants a brace of Mirror readers to go with him… So prepare to be sloshed with Slosberg. It will be a swill party… Modest, quiet, polite, a tasteful dresser — Pete is none of these, as the two competition winners will soon discover… They will accompany Pete as he pint-ificates his way around the festival at London’s Olympia, on Thursday, August 3… Dispensing views on other people’s wares, he will be looking out for any beer daring to rival Pete’s Wicked Lager and Pete’s Wicked Ale for taste… Pete will also take his Mirror guests for a taste of the Belgian beer and food at Belgo Centraal… This top restaurant is the trendiest thing to come out of Belgium since Tintin.

By 1996, Pete’s beers were in Majestic, Waitrose, Tesco, Morrison’s and Oddbins (Independent on Sunday, 17 November).

The flagship beer was a brown ale, Pete’s Wicked Ale, which was reviewed by ‘Sparks’ for the Oxford Bottled Beer Database in around 1998:

This is one of the easier American breweries to get hold of in the UK… The beer is ruby-coloured with a thick, reasonably tenacious head. The nose is quite light, but with noticeable sugary malt notes and a little background hoppiness (aroma hops only). On the tongue, it is quite fizzy and fairly malty, but not as sweet as you might expect from the aroma – in fact it is much drier than many brown ales. There is burnt caramel in the back of the throat, becoming more pronounced towards the finish. The aftertaste is more hoppy, but also with bitter, burnt sugar flavours. This is a pleasant example of a brown ale, with a pleasing dryness not often encountered in the genre.

It doesn’t sound terribly exciting — as Jeff Alworth put it in 2011, ‘In the 1990s, lots and lots of people drank and enjoyed brown ales… I mean really, brown ales. What the … ?’ — but it had a whiff of the exotic about it, and was cleverly marketed with a big personality front-and-centre, e.g.

In the UK, it seems to have occupied a similar space to Newquay Steam Beer, come to think of it — a bit outside the narrative of the ‘craft beer revolution’ (unless we’re mistaken, the last 20 years hasn’t seen a ton of Pete’s Wicked clones among UK brewers, unlike, say, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) and different without being too different.

Another Award for Brew Britannia

On Saturday, the North American Guild of Beer Writers gave Brew Britannia the top prize in the history/technical category at their annual awards.

You can read the full list of winners in every category here — it includes blogger Bryan Roth, British journalist Will Hawkes, and quite a few people whose work we hadn’t come across before but now look forward to checking out.

A bit of background: as we’re not members, we had to pay to enter this competition — not something we’d usually do, but we figured that we might be in with a shot given Brew Britannia‘s performance at the British Guild awards in December.

Though of course it’s nice to have a pat on the back and our egos stroked, awards have a practical benefit: they are really useful when it comes to pitching books to publishers and, as there is another substantial book we’d really like to write, we need all the help we can get.

You can buy Brew Britannia in various places:

And there’s also a short ‘One Year On’ update available on the blog and as a free e-book.

The Age of Rail Ale, 1975-1980

During what the press called the ‘real ale craze’ of the late 1970s everyone got in on the act, including British Rail whose Travellers-Fare catering wing introduced cask-conditioned beer to around 50 station pubs.

We first came across mention of this trawling newspapers while researching Brew Britannia and, in an early draft, quoted this Daily Express report as evidence of how real ale drinkers were perceived at the time:

In the Shires Bar opposite Platform Six at London’s St Pancras Station, yesterday, groups of earnest young men sipped their pints with the assurance of wine tasters… There were nods of approval for the full bodied Sam Smith Old Brewery Bitter, and murmurs of delight at the nutty flavour of the Ruddles County Beer… [More than] half the customers drinking the five varieties of real ale in the Shires were not train travellers but people from the neighbourhood using the station as their local pub… In one corner sat for young men sipping foaming pints. They were members of CAMRA, the ginger group for beer brewed by natural means and prove their dedication by travelling three nights a week from Fulham in South West London — four miles away. One of them, 22-year-old accountant Michael Morris said: ‘This place just beats any of our local pubs.’

Twenty-something beer geeks travelling miles for good beer in a weird novelty bar rather than using their dodgy local boozer — you can file that under ‘nothing changes’.

Continue reading “The Age of Rail Ale, 1975-1980”

One Year On, One Month on

There have been a few developments on ‘the scene’ since we wrote our long post updating on Brew Britannia at the start of July.

The Kernel Brewery tap room, which gave birth to the ‘Bermondsey Beer Mile’, will no longer be opening on Saturdays from 5 September. Meanwhile, Manchester has gained its own weekend crawl — ‘The Piccadilly Beer Mile‘.

→ Matthew Curtis has managed to wheedle a little more information about the United Craft Brewers from its founders.

→ Management at Bateman’s of Lincolnshire have gone beyond complaining about Progressive Beer Duty: they’re planning (or at least threatening) to downsize to get under the threshold, as Roger Protz reported.

Harbour Brewing of Cornwall have their canning line up and running; Dark Star launched canned beers at the beginning of July; and Magic Rock have their canning line almost ready to go. Meanwhile, John Keeling of Fuller’s had this to say:

→ And, finally, anxiety over consolidation and predation was kept bubbling by Duvel Moortgat’s merger with (or take over of, or synergising with, or something) US brewery Firestone Walker.

* * *

Tempting as it is to follow this in seven days’ time with ‘One Year On, One Month On, One Week On’, we’ll resist the urge…

VIDEO: 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition

We’re very grateful to Steve AKA @untilnextyear for pointing this clip out to us. Do any of you CAMRA veterans recognise the participants, or perhaps even yourself? The hipster in the Washington University top wouldn’t look out of place at a craft beer festival in 2015.

PS. Our long article about Covent Garden ’75 features in the current edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine which is technically only available to members but is probably also knocking about a shelf in your local real ale pub.

The Good, the Bad & the Murky — Brew Britannia: One Year On

This piece is 11,000 words long so you might want to consider downloading it to read on your tablet or smartphone via Pocket, Instapaper or another offline reader. It is also available as a free e-book in various formats via Smashwords.

Contents

  • Introduction
  • A London Particular – why everyone is talking about ‘murky’ beer
  • I Can I Can’t? – the reinvention of the tinny
  • Crowds & Community – crowdfunding: exploitation or fan service?
  • On the Turn – signs of tension
  • Vertical Integration – breweries with bars, bars with breweries
  • Almost Too Wee – the rise of the micropub
  • Sorry, Ronnie! – craft beer on the high street
  • Breaking Away from the Peloton – United Craft Brewers
  • Perestroika & Glasnost – CAMRA hints at change
  • Poochie is One Outrageous Dude! – the big boys do craft beer
  • Approaching Total Beer – an afterword
  • Appendix – Where Are They Now?
  • Acknowledgements

New section.

Introduction

We submitted the text of our book, Brew Britannia: the strange rebirth of British beer, in October 2013 and it was published in June the following year. Because the ‘strange rebirth’ it described was still underway, it wasn’t possible to provide a satisfying full stop to our attempt to tell the story of how British beer got from Big Six monopoly of the early 1970s to the vibrant scene we currently enjoy. The purpose of this update is to summarise developments in the past 18 months, to explain how (if at all) they fit into the ongoing narrative, and perhaps also to see if a punchline might be in sight.

In doing so, we have considered the ongoing creep of ‘craft beer’ into the mainstream – or is it the mainstream annexing and absorbing ‘craft’? We have also identified points of stress and increasing tension in an industry in which there is a decreasing amount of elbow room.

Like the last couple of chapters of Brew Britannia, this is commentary rather than history. It is in many ways a greater challenge to squeeze the truth out of people who are running active businesses than it was to get 40-year-old gossip out of CAMRA veterans of pensionable age. Nonetheless, as with the book, we have tried where possible to track stories back to their sources, to pin down dates on the timeline, and to avoid making assumptions – ‘Sez who?’ has been our constant challenge to each other. In a handful of instances, however, the only answer has been, ‘Sez us’.

Continue reading “The Good, the Bad & the Murky — Brew Britannia: One Year On”

Session #100: The Return of Porter

It’s the 100th beer blogging session, hosted by Reuben Gray, on the subject of ‘resurrecting lost beer styles’.

Though he has asked for people to think specifically about the last ten years, and to choose ‘an obscure style you don’t find in very many places’, we couldn’t resist getting historical and looking at what was arguably the first such resurrection of the modern era: Porter.

In the mid-1970s, it had become extinct, having been hard to find for some decades before that, but was brought back to life by one of the first of the new band of what later came to be known as microbreweries. Because the 100th Session is a special occasion, and with the kind permission of our publishers, Aurum Press, we’ve decided to share a slightly edited extract from chapter four of our book Brew Britannia that tells the story.

* * *

Another sign that the ‘real ale revolution’ was seriously under way appeared with the arrival, also in 1977, of Britain’s first celebrity brewery. It was foreshadowed by the revelation, in the previous year, that two of Britain’s best-known entertainers, even then on the path to becoming ‘national treasures’, were real-ale devotees:

Two men who think that real ale is Something Completely Different are stalwart Monty Python writers and actors Terry Jones and Michael Palin . . . The busy pair . . . are lovers of traditional beer and always carry the Good Beer Guide with them . . . It is a much-thumbed document, for location shooting takes the team to some obscure parts of the country.

This should not have come as a surprise to anyone who had seen Palin in the famous 1974 ‘travel agent’ sketch in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which Eric Idle delivers a ranting monologue with repeated disparaging references to Watney’s Red Barrel. Of the two, Terry Jones was the more enthusiastic about beer. When his accountant, Michael Henshaw, introduced him to another of his clients, Richard Boston, they entered into partnership on two projects. First, an ‘alternative’ magazine, The Vole, to be edited by Boston; and second, a brewery, which they initially intended to open in Berkshire. Boston announced the project in What’s Brewing in January 1977:

There are a number of free houses in the area that might take our beer. We have found a farmhouse with sheds that could be converted into a brewery . . . We have got the capital and the place – all we need is a dissatisfied brewer working for some anonymous combine who would like to run and plan his own business, explore retail outlets and work with us to see if the scheme is viable.

[Peter Austin] saw Boston’s cry for help and abandoned a failing sea-angling business in Hampshire to design and build a brewery. By this time, Terry Jones had become acquainted with businessman Martin Griffiths, who in 1972 had bought a ramshackle medieval farmhouse, Penrhos Court in Herefordshire, for £5,000 and turned it into a successful restaurant. The plan to brew in Berkshire was abandoned, and Austin was set to work in the farm buildings at the back of the property.

I remember the first brew very well. It was five o’clock one morning with bats flying about as we got up. It was the last possible day for brewing because the grand opening had to be before Terry Jones went to America . . . We got the mash in at six. The plumbers were ahead of us connecting up the next vessel. By 8 a.m. we were in the copper – it took hours to get it to boil . . . It was a twenty-hour marathon in all, but we did it.

The brewery was officially opened on Saturday, 16 July 1977, with Michael Palin, a compulsive diarist with an eye for detail, in attendance.

At Hereford Station by one. A minibus drives us to Penrhos Court . . . The beer is tasted and found to be good. Jones’ First Ale it’s called – and at a specific gravity of 1050 it’s about as devastating as Abbot Ale. But the weather has decided to be kind to us and the collection of buildings that is Penrhos Court – basically a fine, but run-down sixteenth-century manor house with outbuildings housing the brewery, restaurant and Martin Griffiths’ office and living accommodation – look well in the sunshine and provide a very amenable background to the serious beer-drinking.

Jones’s primary contribution seems to have been publicity. He opened the 1977 CAMRA Great British Beer Festival at Alexandra Palace. In his opening address, he said that beer shouldn’t be tasted, like wine, before dumping six pints of beer over his own head. This ‘showing off’ won coverage in several newspapers and a front-page photo in What’s Brewing. Jones, a globally renowned film director and comedian, was by far the hippest celebrity to lend his name to the Campaign: subsequent festivals were opened, with rather less glamour, by Labour minister Roy Hattersley and TV naturalist David Bellamy.

Jones seems to have spent much of this period wearing a Penrhos Ale branded sweatshirt, and, by 1978, it had paid off, and he declared the brewery a success: ‘It can’t be all that bad . . . After all, we’ve only been going for six months and already fourteen pubs are buying the stuff from us. And selling it.’

Penrhos wasn’t just a bit of celebrity dabbling, though. For one thing, it gave Peter Austin the opportunity to test himself before building not only his own brewery, Ringwood, in 1978, but also many more in Britain and around the world. For another, it was the first brewery to revive a type of beer which had last been brewed in 1973 – porter, the dark beer upon which British brewing dynasties had been established in the eighteenth century and from which stout was descended. Being extinct gave porter a certain mystique, and its very name evoked a romantic image of the nineteenth century at a time when books such as Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld were best-sellers.

Porter also offered something different – it was black and robust when, back then, most ‘real ale’ was brown bitter. Penrhos’s ‘dark, pleasant’ example was the surprise hit of the 1978 Great British Beer Festival, and was soon followed by a much sweeter version by Timothy Taylor of Keighley in Yorkshire, based on an 1873 recipe. When a cask of that went on sale at the Eagle, the CAMRA Real Ale Investments pub in Leeds, it sold out in less than three days. The excitement with which these unusual beers were greeted signalled a long, slow return to diversity in British brewing.

* * *

Brew Britannia (cover)

“…an exhilarating read…” Roger Protz
“…a stunning book…” Craft Beer Channel

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