Before beer blogging, there was Boston on Beer

Detail from a poor-quality scan of Richard Boston portrait in the Guardian.

Richard Boston’s first weekly Boston on Beer column appeared in The Guardian on 11 August 1973. In an article marking its first anniversary (6 July 1974) he said a few things that might chime with beer bloggers.

This column has been going for nearly a year, and whereas when I started I thought I had enough material for about three weeks, having now written some 50,000 words I have enough to keep me going indefinitely.

He  also describes tottering stacks of ‘notes and rough drafts for articles on subjects ranging from canal-side pubs to beer glasses (why they have handles and dimples in the south and are clear and straight-sided in the north), as well as the results of the search for the best Gents’ and ‘amazing revelations about the awfulness of American beer’.

Every week, he came up with something to say, even if the occasional column seemed rather contrived under the pressure of a deadline.

Thirty years later (Guardian, 23 March 1989) he recalled the column’s success: ‘I had never heard of Camra… but just mentioning them in the Guardian and giving their address caused a surge in their membership so great that they had to take on extra staff in order to cope.’ This seems to be true: when his column went to print, CAMRA had c.2700 members; by September, it was approaching c.5000, by our reckoning.

In the same piece, he recalls why the column ended in 1975: ‘I became bored of the sound of my own voice going on about beer and pubs.’ Hmm. We know that feeling.

We’re ashamed to say we’d never read Richard Boston until Des de Moor told us about Beer and Skittles (1976), a book adapted from the Guardian columns. You can get a copy fairly cheaply through Amazon, or read the original columns in the online archive of The Guardian if your local library provides access.

See also: Orwell’s Beer Blog and this strange nineteenth century exercise in proto-blogging.

Wretched Hives of Scum and Villainy

Illustration by Andrew Young for the Beverage Report by Derek Cooper.

Derek Cooper’s The Beverage Report (1970) has an entire chapter dedicated to detailing the various ways those working behind the bar can rip-off their employers and customers; how landlords can rip-off the brewery and customers; how draymen can rip-off landlords and the brewery; and even how customers, given half a chance, can rip-off the bar staff, the landlord and the brewery.

Here’s one example:

A barman of some experience told me: “Say you’ve only got one bar and one cash register. Right! You take an order for a round of drinks, it may come to 8s 6d. The customer gives you a pound. Now two simple fiddles are workable here. Either you decided to cheat the till of cheat the customer. If you’re going to cheat the till you have to be careful. You mustn’t let the customer see you ringing up less than 8s 6d. So you may ring up 6d, almost instantaneously correct yourself openly — you say something like ‘Oh, I’m going mad — that was 8s 6d wasn’t it’ and then you ring up 3s 6d. See what I’m driving at? He’s rung up only 3s 6d so he can pocket 5s 0d. The customer gets the right change, the till gets the right change and he gets the difference.”

The bar staff interviewed reported that they especially prized the kind of customers who didn’t count their change, thus marking themselves out as well-off and careless. You won’t be surprised to hear, though, that they also claimed to reserve their nastiest tricks for the rudest and most annoying characters.

Of course, it goes both ways. Cooper has several stories of pubs being cleaned out by light-fingered customers, and we once saw with our own eyes a three man team pull a perfect short change con with distractions in the Pembury Tavern about five years ago.

The moral? No-one on either side of the bar should trust anyone or relax, even for a moment. Er, wait, that can’t be right…

Fantastic period iIllustration by Andrew Young scanned from our copy of  The Beverage Report.

Look For Dates, Find Stories

Advert for the Barley Mow pub, St Albans, 1983.

In trying to pin down some more dates for our list of key points in the development of Britain’s alternative beer culture, we’ve found some fascinating stories and subjects for further exploration.

First, thanks to some very helpful input from commenters on the original post, Twitterers and the Pub Curmudgeon, we started looking into the Barley Mow in St Albans as an early, if not the first, ‘real ale pub’. That’s not a pub that has some real ale on offer, but a pub which specialiases in, and sells itself on the strength of, having lots of real ale. We now know, thanks to CAMRA Hertfordshire’s complete online archive of newsletters dating back to 1976, the full story of the Barley Mow and its various landlords and landladies (link to PDF).

Another name in the frame as an early ‘beer exhibition’ was the Hole in the Wall in Waterloo. This blog post gives us some personal recollections and a quote from the 1975 Good Beer Guide, but if anyone can point us to a CAMRA newsletter or any other source with dates and details, we’d be grateful.

One of the commenters on the original post mentioned the Litchborough Brewery founded in Northamptonshire by Bill Urquhart in 1974. Mr Urquhart’s story, from what we’ve been able to find so far, is fascinating and familiar: he worked for a big regional brewer which was taken over and closed but he wasn’t ready to hang up his wellies and so founded his own small brewery. He later acted as a consultant to other small breweries which followed in his wake. But, pioneering as he was, he certainly wasn’t a young, dangerous maverick on a mission to shake things up: the beer he brewed was a clone of the brown bitter he’d previously brewed at Phipps.

(The current outfit producing beers under the Phipps name, by the way, appears to be dedicated to brewing historic recipes. Anyone tried them?)

Finally, we were astonished to discover that the first completely new brewery to open in Britain in fifty years was Westbury Ales in Somerset, in 1973. (Selby, in 1972, was a re-opening.) A pilgrimage may be in order next time we go to visit Bailey’s folks.

CAMRA’s Own Pub Chain

Detail from the cover of the 1978 CAMRA Good Beer Guide.

Update 09/05/2019: this ended up being one of the seeds for our book Brew Britannia where the saga of CAMRAIL is covered in detail.

Our copy of the 1978 CAMRA Good Beer Guide (thanks, Bailey’s parents!) is full of interesting tit-bits, not least the page setting out the details of CAMRA’s investments.

The objective of CAMRA (Real Ale) Investments Limited is to acquire and run a chain of public houses offering a range of traditional draught beers in simply and unfussy surrounding.

In 1978, the company owned five pubs — the Old Fox in Bristol, the Salisbury Arms in Cambridge, the Nag’s Head in Hampstead, the White Gates in Manchester and the Eagle in Leeds — and was ‘on the look out for more’.

Across the chain there were beers from Marston, Crown (formerly the South Wales and Monmouthshire United Clubs Brewery), Wadworth, Courage (Bristol), Samuel Smith, Bateman, Adnams, Wells, Greene King, Brakspear, Boddingtons, Thwaites, Pollard and Theakston. Only one of those, Pollard, was a ‘new wave’ brewery.

The Nag’s Head we are told “is enormously popular among young people in North London and has made hundreds, possibly thousands, of converts to real ale in the lager generation”. All kinds of interesting language there.

Can anyone point us to an article explaining what happened to these pubs and the CAMRA investments chain?  And does anyone remember visiting any of them under the benevolent rule of the Campaign?