Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

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Plum Porter: Dividing Opinion

A plum.

We were a bit excited to come across Titanic Plum Porter in the pub last night, a beer many people worship and others despise.

We can’t say we’ve drunk it often enough to form a really solid view on how it is meant to be but have always enjoyed it. The first time we recall encountering it (that is, when we were paying attention) was at the Castle Hotel in Manchester where it struck us a heavy, rich porter with a fruity twist. At the Wellington in Bristol it seemed lighter in both colour and body and more like a British answer to a Belgian kriek or framboise — tart, and dominated by the hot crumble flavours of bruised fruit. Even at five quid a pint (yikes!) we had to stop for a second round.

When we Tweeted about it, acknowledging what we understood to be its mixed reputation, here’s some of what people said in response:

  • “When it’s good, it’s very good; when it’s bad, it’s horrid. Consistency seems dubious.” — @olliedearn
  • “WHAT?! In what world is it divide opinion? Everyone I know loves it.” — @Jon_BOA
  • “My bete noire, was always dubious about it (even though I love other Titanic brews) – perhaps I need to revisit…” — @beertoday
  • “Having lived in Stoke + covered the Potteries beer scene I’d say it’s a good advert (flagship, I dare say!) for local beers, despite flaws.” — @LiamapBarnes

So, pretty balanced, from Ugh! to Wow!

Over the years we’ve seen yet harsher comments, though, some of which struck us as more about Titanic’s place on the scene than about this beer in particular. In general, we find Titanic’s beer rather middling — not bad, not great — but it is nonetheless a major presence in the Midlands and North West, and on supermarket shelves nationwide, and ubiquity breeds contempt. For some time, too, its owner Keith Bott was chairman of increasingly controversial industry body SIBA, so perhaps the beer tastes a bit of politics, the nastiest off-flavour of all.

This made us think about other beers that strike us as fundamentally decent but whose reputations might be similarly weighed down. Copper Dragon Golden Pippin, for example, is a beer we’ve always enjoyed — good value, straightforward, but with a bit more peachy zing than some others in the same category. When we expressed this enthusiasm a while ago, though, there seemed to be a suggestion that we shouldn’t enjoy it because the brewery has engaged in some complicated and newsworthy business practices.

And St Austell Tribute is a beer we’ll always stick up for. At the Nags Head in Walthamstow c.2009 we drank tons of it and found it every bit as good as, almost interchangeable with, the exemplary Timothy Taylor Landlord sold in the same pub. (Further reading: ‘The Landlord Test’.) But these days, even though Tribute is probably  better than its ever been in technical terms, it elicits groans from many enthusiasts. That’s because it’s become one of those beers you find in pubs that aren’t very interested in beer, pushed into the wrong bits of the country by keen sales teams and big distribution deals; and on trains, in hotel bars, under random rocks you pick up deep in the woods, and so on. That in-your-face national presence is not only annoying in its own right but also makes it harder to find a pint that has truly been cared for. But, as a beer, on its own terms… It can still taste great, and interesting with it.

The flipside of all this, of course, is that some mediocre or even bad beers get a free pass because the people that make them are good eggs, or underdogs, or have a good story to tell; or because they’re scarce, so that nobody ever really gets to know them, and is too excited when they do find them in the wild to be objectively critical.

It’s impossible to be objective, obviously, but it’s good to try — to attempt to blank out everything else and have a moment where it’s just you and the beer.

The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we interviewed Michael Hardman, one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordinary. ‘It used to have an intense bitterness that was almost too much for some people,’ he said. A good beer tasting note will trigger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief comment, delivered with such passion, and as straightforward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordinary had become a shadow of its 1970s self. Having worked for the brewery as a PR executive for 30 years Hardman watched with sadness as, first, the brand lost its great champion, the company’s eccentric chairman John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the historic Wandsworth facility ceased brewing and moved production to Charles Wells at Bedford.

For London ale drinkers this was a ravens departing the Tower moment, leaving London with a mere handful of breweries and only Fuller’s as an independent of any size. There were reassurances that extensive testing had been carried out to assure continuity and even rumours that the last batches of Wandsworth-brewed Ordinary were being blended with the new version to ease the transition. But Wells could point at specification sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and people who drank it regularly knew it.

Bedford-brewed Ordinary wasn’t terrible – we drank plenty and enjoyed it – but veteran drinkers would push it away, shaking their heads at its sheer… ordinariness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew something like Young’s Ordinary but could not breathe into the essential spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s London pubs, for so long a kind of defensive line against modernity, were also sold off and became a separate company. They generally continued to serve Young’s branded beers, however, so that, superficially at least, not much changed beyond a general ‘smartening up’. On trips to London we would invariably end up in one or another, either out of convenience or nostalgia, and check in on Ordinary. This was a sad, fruitless habit until the summer of 2014 when, suddenly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, drier, and more vigorous than we’d ever known it. But we doubted ourselves – perhaps it was a one-off? Or wishful thinking?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got better every time we’ve encountered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale earlier this year and now, after making a point of trying it in multiple pubs in four corners of London, and also in Exeter and Bristol, we want to underline this point: the sickness has gone and Young’s Ordinary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to London at the Flask in Hampstead — a gorgeous Victorian pub whose discreet partitions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a little more interesting — we drank luminous, comically foaming pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers perfumed with pine, citrus, mango or green onion. There’s barely a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a suggestion of minerals and lemon peel. But it has the austere structural elegance of a Victorian railway terminus, with a snatch of tame funkiness for seasoning.

We’ve been telling people the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells selling up to Marston’s, this resurgence might not last.

Where Can We Buy Your Beer?

The cover of the Beer Map of Great Britain, 1970s.

With (give or take — counts vary) something like 1,600 breweries currently operating in the UK a common complaint is the difficulty for smaller operators of getting those beers to consumers.

Big pub companies, chains and supermarkets dominate the market, buying beer from a chosen few breweries willing to meet their demanding terms. In many regions one or two large players (e.g. St Austell) control many of the pubs leaving a fistful of freehouses to fight over. And, so we gather from interviews and off-the-record chat, new small breweries can sometimes find themselves muscled out by better-established players of more or less the same size.

Yesterday we got involved in some Twitter chat about beer from Devon (there’s a poll, actually, if you feel like voting) and a version of what seems to us to be a common conversation unfurled. To paraphrase:

A: There’s no good beer in [PLACE]!

B: Yes there is — breweries X, Y and Z are awesome!

A: But I’ve never actually seen those beers for sale anywhere.

B: Ah.

In this context we’re beginning to think the single most important bit of information a small brewery can share is intelligence on where we can actually buy their beer, if it’s anything other than fairly ubiquitous.

It might be in the farmers’ market in Fulchester every third Sunday of the month; it might be in the delicatessen in Dufton; the bottle shop in Barchester; or the Coach & Horses in Casterbridge. We will go out of our way (a bit) to find a beer that sounds interesting, or to try something new on our beat, but we need a few hints, ideally without having to email or direct message the brewery. (And sometimes, even when we do that, we get ‘No idea, sorry’, or ‘It’s should be in a few pubs round Borsetshire this month’.)

A daily updated page on the brewery website, Facebook page or Twitter would probably work best.

We certainly appreciate that in the case of cask ale, even if a brewery knows a pub has taken delivery, it can be hard to say exactly when it’s going to go on or, equally, if it’s already sold out. Even so, wouldn’t a quick exchange of info between publican and brewer — a text message or social media nudge — be mutually beneficial here?

But perhaps there are good reasons why this doesn’t often seem to happen.

In the meantime, if you don’t know where your beer is on sale, and can’t tell people who want to buy it, then it almost might as well not exist.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 27 May 2017: Breweries, Books and the Bass Stink

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related reading we’ve particularly enjoyed in the last week, with a connecting thread about the fate of family brewers.

Commentators have now had time to digest the news of the sales of the Charles Wells brewery to Marston’s. Our pick of the analysis is this piece by Roger Protz in which he argues that we should be worried about this development, and the threat of more to come:

In a fast-changing beer world, family brewers feel crushed between the national brewers and the growing army of craft beer makers… Belinda Sutton, née Elgood, managing director of Elgood’s in Wisbech, told me in an interview that she was under intense pressure from Adnams and Greene King along with a number of new micro-breweries in the Fenland region. Elgood’s qualifies for Progressive Beer Duty: family brewers who don’t benefit from duty relief are really under the cosh.

For balance, though, there’s a similarly authoritative view from Martyn Cornell who argues that there isn’t much to worry about in this particular case:

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve…

Our view, in case you’re interested, is that it’s right to be wary per Mr Protz. Breweries in this category can feel dominant and even come across as bullies at a local level but they’re actually often rather vulnerable to predators. It wouldn’t take much for the last few to topple leaving us with complete polarisation between post-1970s microbreweries and national or multi-national giants. This middle ground  — breweries with chimneys and dray horses — is an important strand of British beer culture and it would be a shame to see it disappear.

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