Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.
In the November/December issue of UK brewing industry magazine The Grist Keith Thomas provided a technical breakdown of the typical strength, colour and bitterness of British beer styles. It is full of fascinating jewels of information but the most interesting parts are this graph…
… and this table which shows the measured colour (EBC) and bitterness (EBU) of a hundred beers with the numbers prescribed by CAMRA’s style guidelines beneath in brackets:
These offer a fairly precise snapshot of the reality of the situation in 1995–96 and that is somewhat interesting in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you discover that Dr Thomas and his colleagues at BrewLab in Sunderland have been checking in on these stats ever since.
They published a detailed report in 2006, sadly locked away behind paywalls (British Food Journal, Vol. 108, in case anyone has access) and have an update in the works. In the meantime, though, they have released a sort of trailer in the form of a press release, which states (our emphasis)…
[The] features of many styles remained similar to the parameters summarized in 2006. However, when considered overall some differences are evident. Average alcohol levels are down by 3% on average. This did vary by style and was mainly due to old ales being weaker. More extensive differences are evident in beer colour and bitterness. While bitterness overall has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%. This is particularly evident in the darker beers – milds, porters and stouts. In general, it appears that beers are becoming lighter but more bitter.… It was particularly interesting to see that standard beers are retaining their character but also that darker beers appear to be evolving. The introduction of blond and golden beers has had an impact on the market and possibly influenced changes in other styles.
Yesterday we stumbled upon a 2006 ‘top ten bottled British ales’ listicle by Pete Brown which we shared on Twitter, and which reminded us of something we found during research on Brew Britannia: a list of 101 bottled reviewed by Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s for an article in British tabloid the People in 1994.
It appeared in the Sunday edition for 21 August that year and offers an excellent snapshot of what was then readily available in British shops.
It’s from just the moment when Premium Bottled Ales were coming into existence in their almost-a-pint bottles and at around pub strength, shoving aside traditional half-pint brown and light ales.
There are some surprises but, generally, we think, it brings home how far things have come.
Jackson subscribed to the view that it was a waste of time to write bad reviews when you could focus on things you’d enjoyed but in this exercise was essentially forced to give a short note for each beer, some of which were uncharacteristically stinging. Carlsberg Special Brew, for example, he found “sweet and yucky” and Scorpion Dry prompted him to ask: “Where’s the sting? More like cabbage water.”
On the whole, though, he remained quite gentle, even finding diplomatic words to say about some fairly bland lagers such as Rolling Rock with its touch of “new-mown hay”.
The asterisked beers are those he particularly recommended – quite a high bar, evidently.
In the summer of 1991 The Times’s food critic, Jonathan Meades, took a break from visiting upmarket restaurants to investigate a new eatery that was generating a strange amount of buzz.
He found it ‘chaotic-looking and very noisy’ and was lukewarm about the informal set-up: no bookings, order at the bar, lunge for any available seat before anyone else took it. The customers around him were young, though, and seemed to like this kind of thing. The food wasn’t refined but it was good value, generously portioned, very much in line with the ‘rustic’ style then in fashion. He duly filed a review of the Eagle in Farringdon Road, North London, which was not far from glowing.  Something interesting was afoot but, for the moment, the language lacked a word to describe this collision of gastronomy and the public house.
The founders of what is generally recognised as the first gastropub were Michael Belben and David Eyre. They had worked together at several restaurants, mostly recently Mélange in Covent Garden, Eyre as a cook, Belben in management. In a portrait photo taken in 1990 they look like members of a synth pop group – slim, moody, Belben in a dark suit, Eyre in cotton shirtsleeves.  Belben is older, born in 1952, while Eyre, born in 1961, grew up largely in Mozambique and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), moving to Britain to attend university. 
They were both keen to start out on their own but, in the meantime, absorbed culinary influences, struggling to reconcile their taste in fine food with their limited funds. Eyre got married in 1989, but came out of that short-lived relationship after 20 months with very little except an idea, given to him by his ex-wife’s aunt: with a recession imminent, opening a restaurant would be foolish, she argued, so why not run a pub? She hadn’t meant a pub with food, but it was the spark Eyre and Belben needed. Why not open a pub with decent food, catering to people like them who longed, but couldn’t afford, to eat at places like the then super-hip River Café?
Fortunately for them, a catastrophic change to the British pub ownership model was underway. In 1989 the UK government passed a bill which meant that breweries owning more than 2,000 pubs would be required to dispose of half of the excess. This act, known informally as the Beer Orders, meant in the first instance that the largest brewers had no choice but to dump a large number of their worst-performing pubs on to the open market, or sell them en bloc to other firms. In this respect, as food critic Jay Rayner has said, ‘the gastro pub movement is a pure product of Thatcherism’.
The Eagle was an unremarkable Victorian corner pub in Farringdon, then a rather unfashionable part of London, and was owned by the astonishingly unfashionable brewery Watney’s. For a brief time in the 1980s it was a freakish hangover from the theme pub era – a ‘fun pub’ decorated with metal furniture, exposed pipes and bare breeze-blocking so as to resemble a nuclear bunker.  (Fun indeed.) When it was unloaded by the brewery in response to the Beer Orders, Belben and Eyre took it on, describing it as ‘the first and cheapest dead pub we found… But beneath the sad grime we could see an attractive, if small, room with huge windows and maple floor’. 
They paid for it with a combination of bank loans and money borrowed from family, got the keys on 18 December 1990, and undertook renovation work themselves, scrubbing it back to an almost bare minimalism and letting the light flood in. Michael Belben fitted it out with, as food writer Diana Henry recalled in 2003, ‘mismatched china, battered furniture, sagging sofas and a few lamps with wobbly shades’.  They operated at first, from 16 January 1991, with an 8 by 5 foot kitchen containing a microwave, fridge, grill, two burners and a sink, none of professional standard. In the flat above the pub, where Eyre also lived, they used an oven to prepare one or two shareable dishes in pots, such as casseroles. Twenty years on, Eyre recalled their working relationship:
Mad Mike. Mike was prone to be a bit crazed at any time. But you see, he did get it and he was very good at… [pause] I got all the glory, but he was very good at trudging down to the bank and getting the float and spending hours and hours in the office… Not the best people person sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. I mean, we did have some blinding arguments… But we were good. It was that kind of opposites thing.
Belben and Eyre have always emphasised their democratic intentions, underlining what to them were key signs that the Eagle was still a pub:
It was important that a table could be used by people in muddy boots drinking lager as much as by people who’d come to the best place to eat ribollita. It was very egalitarian – a great leveller. You’d have the editor of the Guardian next to a builder, next to a fresh-out-of-school graphic designer. 
There were no reservations for tables, no dress code and, they insisted when challenged, customers could just turn up for a drink – dining was not compulsory. ‘It was the Anti-Restaurant Thing that we sort of embraced wholeheartedly,’ Eyre would recall in a series of recordings made in 2011 by Niamh Dillon for an oral history project:
No uniforms, chefs wore fisherman’s smocks… Mismatched plates, the no starters, the no desserts, the one-course eating, the old fashioned portions of the food, the fact that there was no service – if you wanted to tip a member of staff you bought them a drink. 
The comedian and broadcaster Graham Norton worked with Eyre and Belben at Mélange and considered Belben ‘one of the most heterosexual men I had ever come across’ but ‘impossible to work for’,411 a friend and a mentor. He joined the waiting staff at the Eagle where, freed from the obligation to kiss-up to earn tips, he enjoyed being rude to customers:
‘A smile costs nothing,’ a customer who’d been ordering in dribs and drabs and therefore irritating me would say.
‘And intelligence can’t be bought,’ I’d retort. Why nobody rabbit-punched me I don’t know. 
From the customers’ perspective this kind of thing meant that the Eagle could sometimes be faintly intimidating, despite its founders’ avowed desire to create warmth and conviviality.
In the same 2011 recording Eyre explained that the Eagle was able to operate with a lower mark-up on food than restaurants proper – 60 per cent gross profit rather than 70 or 75 – because there was no air-conditioning, no linen, and the kitchen staff, having less formal training, would work for less. Until 1997 even the most expensive items on the menu cost no more than £10 (about £20 in today’s money) and, Eyre said, students or younger office workers could go to the Eagle and have something substantial and well-made for only ‘twice the price of a sandwich in a sandwich shop’.
At its best, the atmosphere was lively and, at its worst, when hype brought crowds of would-be diners into a venue with no table bookings, it could be loud and chaotic. The background music was directed by Eyre’s older brother Robert, who worked there for a time and had a large, quirky record collection: ‘I really do believe my brother was the first person to buy Buena Vista Social Club.’ There was world music, jazz, blues, but definitely, pointedly, no guitar-heavy classic rock.
There was a problem with all this. In a January 2016 interview with Susie Mesure marking the 25th anniversary of the Eagle’s opening Eyre said: ‘We weren’t really pub-going people, because pubs didn’t seem to answer our needs’.  And therein perhaps lies the source of much of the irritation that gastropubs would go on to generate in the decade that followed among those who were dedicated ‘pub-going people’: they were seen by many as middle- class colonisers taking over pubs and, in the process, denuding them of their essential ‘pubness’. In practice, to drinkers, the Eagle looked like an informal restaurant rather than a pub with food and, even if it was theoretically possible to turn up and just have a drink, the pub soon became so hip it was impossible to get in the door anyway.
Jay Rayner, reflecting on gastropubs in 2001, said, ‘It is hard to overstate the importance of The Eagle… When it launched in the early 90s, the idea was extraordinary, if not bizarre.’ He also pointed out that, though much of what the Eagle did had by then become to seem clichéd, in 1991 it seemed ‘nigh on revolutionary’, inspiring many imitators, often founded by people who had themselves worked at the Eagle. 
 ‘Popped in, pigged out’, The Times, 3 August 1991, Saturday Review supplement, p.27.
 Reproduced in the Independent, 9 January 2016, pp.20–21.
 Biographical details for Mike Belben from Debrett’s, retrieved 26 May 2016; and for David Eyre from 2011 oral history recordings, ‘Eyre, David (1 of 10)’, Niamh Dillon, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.
 Correspondence with veteran pub-goer Ian Worden, 14 June 2016.
 Big Flavours, Rough Edges, David Eyre, 2001, p.8.
 The Gastro Pub Cookbook, p.6.
 ‘20 Years of the Eagle Interview’, Liz Edwards, Clerkenwell Post, 2011.
 ‘Eyre, David (6 of 10)’, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.
 So Me, 2004, pp.74–75.
 ‘The Eagle: Britain’s first gastropub celebrates its 25th birthday’, Susie Mesure, Independent, 9 January 2016, retrieved 17 March 2016.
 ‘Fox Hunting’, Observer Magazine, 22 July 2001, p.49.
Researching Brew Britannia some of our best sources were early online chat rooms archived comprehensively, if clunkily, by Google. The big one, alt.beer, was founded (as far as we can tell) in July of 1991, long before Amazon, or Google itself, or any of our other sinister tech overlords. In fact, before the first website had ever been created – alt.beer existed as threads of text. Here’s the charter posted around the time of its establishment by one Dan Brown:
Alt.beer was created for the purpose of discussing the various aspects of that fine malted beverage generally referred to as beer. Welcome here are discussions of rare and interesting beers, reviews of brewpubs and breweries, suggestions about where to shop for beer, and tips for making your own.…
Not welcome are the plethora of tales of drunken stupidity that usually go something like, ‘I guzzeled 5 cases of X beer, drunkenly made a fool of myself in front of a large number of people, of whom I was desparately trying to impress a certain one, and then spent the rest of the night alternately driving a porceline bus, and looking like road kill on the bathroom floor.’ Almost everyone has heard or experienced this, or something similar, at one time or another.
(Does anyone know Mr Brown? It would be interesting to, ahem, chat to him.)
The question we’ve got is, how did appreciating beer ever work without the internet? To some extent enjoying beer in the 21st Century is a job of recording, cataloguing and sharing information, and the internet is better at that than floppy discs in the post, or letters, or CB radio.
We’re not quite digital natives – we remember the internet arriving and struggling to work out what to do with it once we’d looked at the handful of websites that existed in the mid-1990s – but by the time we got into beer we were fully immersed in online culture and looked there for advice and guidance. We’ve written before about some early sources of beer information that no longer exist, notably the Oxford Bottled Beer Database (1996-c.2010). These websites – all text, frames, striped backgrounds and under construction GIFs – told us which pubs to visit in strange towns, which beers to buy from the bewildering selection at Utobeer, and (not always accurately) explained why certain beers tasted the way they did.
The fact is, in 2017, online and offline aren’t distinct spaces – the former is integrated into everyday life. When we go to the pub and see a strange beer on offer, we look it up on our smartphones. We might take a picture and share it on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (hint hint) or write it up here. Sometimes, we choose a pub based purely on intel we’ve picked up on the internet – or, rather, that we’ve subconsciously absorbed from the ambient blur of shared information that acts as background noise in our lives. And often, online relationships translate into pints shared in person with people we might otherwise never have known existed.
And, for all the problems with online information – FAKENEWS! – it’s much harder to be a beer bullshitter now than 40 years ago because if you make a ludicrous claim someone can just look it up.
Has anything been lost? Perhaps insofar as the internet enabled the Global Republic of Craftonia at the expense of the concept of the Local Scene. Martyn Cornell has written about a time in the 1970s when, having tried something like 14 different beers from not only Hertfordshire but also several other counties, he considered himself quite adventurous. Back then, the infrastructure of beer appreciation manifested itself in local festivals, local newsletters, and tips shared in the pub.
But this isn’t just a challenge for the beer world – working out a way to reap the benefits of global connections without the loss of regional cultures is a much bigger human issue.
I think we can define ‘craft’ relatively loosely and ‘important’ in a similar way to our US colleagues: It’s one that either changed consumer tastes or how breweries approach making beer. There are a few obvious ones: Punk IPA by Brewdog, Jaipur by Thornbridge, ESB by Fullers.
There’s a survey you can respond to including space to make your own suggestions but here’s some food for thought from us.
Arguably the very first ‘microbrewery’ was Traquair House which commenced production in 1965. It demonstrated that it was possible for small breweries to be opened despite prevailing industry trends, and also that small independent breweries could often do more interesting things than their bitter- and lager-focused Big Six peers – this beer was (and is) at a hefty ABV and very rich.
2. Litchborough Bitter (1974)
Another brewery with a strong claim to being the first microbrewery was Bill Urquhart’s Litchborough based in the village of that name near Northampton. The beer itself doesn’t seem to have been especially exciting but the business model, and Mr Urquhart’s mentoring/consultancy, directly inspired the microbrewery boom that followed.