In its 44 years of existence, the Campaign for Real Ale has had a more complicated relationship with lager than cries of ‘fizzy piss’ from some members might have you believe.
In the early 1970s, no-one in the Campaign was thinking much about lager at all, its energy being focused almost entirely on battling keg bitters from Watneys et al. The very first issue of What’s Brewing (WB), however, did carry an advertisement for an excursion to the Munich Oktoberfest organised by one of the founders, the bespectacled and hawkish Graham Lees.
Another keen traveller with a far from parochial attitude was Richard Boston, the author, from 1973 onward, of a weekly column about beer in the Guardian. Though highly supportive of CAMRA, at least at first, he also made a point of acknowledging his love of good lager, as in this passage from his 1976 book Beer & Skittles in which he recounts one of his formative experiences:
Some time around 1965 I went for a holiday which took me by train through Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria… To me [Prague] seemed delightful… The food was stodgy, low in taste and protein, but my God the beer was good. I had only intended to stay in Prague for two days: I knew no one there, I hadn’t much money and there was little to do. I stayed nearly a week, going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the good soldier Svejk.
We’ve been blogging since 2007 and this post summarises what we’ve learned in that time.
We got the nerve to write it after asking subscribers to our email newsletter if they thought it was a good idea, and after our online communication award from the British Guild of Beer Writers in 2014.
If you’re thinking of starting a beer blog, reviving an old one, or are struggling to keep one going, we hope you’ll find it useful.
This is how we’d go about starting a beer blog from scratch today.
Lay solid foundations. Write 5-10 good posts on a range of subjects in your area of interest of 200-800 words each, posting at least once a week. Hardly anyone will be reading them but it doesn’t matter – you’ll be finding a voice, getting into the groove, learning your blogging software, and preparing for the next stage. (And if you can’t manage five posts, then maybe blogging isn’t for you.) Don’t make your first post ‘So, I’ve decided to start a blog! Let’s hope this goes well!’ Just plunge in with proper content.
Get a Twitter account and/or Facebook page. Include the term ‘beer blogger’ and a link to your blog (lots of people, oddly, don’t do this) in your bio. Then follow/like other beer bloggers. Hopefully, they’ll do what we do and check out your link, where they’ll find a month or two’s worth of decent content which suggests you’re worth keeping an eye on. By all means follow the big ones like Pete Brown – he’s always interesting – but you might get a more immediate response from others who are at a similar stage in the process to you. Don’t mither people: ‘I’ve just started a blog – please take a look and Retweet!’
‘An Introduction to Beer in Essex’ by Justin Mason 2200 words
The co-founder of the Beer East Anglia project summarises the history of brewing in his home county and gives a view of the state it’s in today, with conservative drinkers and publicans rubbing up against brewers interested in pushing the boundaries.
This would usually be where we’d set a date for next time but we’ve decided that this will be the last round of #BeeryLongReads for the time being, for various reasons. Thanks to everyone who’s taken part since September 2013, and to those who’ve found the time to reward writers’ efforts by reading their work.
The quintessentially Scottish brewery Williams Bros began its life in 1988 when an elderly woman walked into a home-brewing supply shop in Glasgow and approached the young man behind the counter with the recipe for a long lost style of beer with a legendary status – heather ale.
A famous poem by Robert Louis Stevenson tells the story of how the Picts, defeated by a Scottish king, took to their graves ‘the secret of the drink’ – a brew ‘sweeter far than honey… stronger far than wine’, with semi-magical properties. It concludes:
But now in vain is the torture, Fire shall never avail: Here dies in my bosom The secret of Heather Ale.
In a 1903 book The Heather in Lyric, Lore and Lay, Alexander Wallace considered various stories and tales of heather ale – ‘a liquour greatly superior to our common ale’ – dating back to 1526. If it had not died out, he concluded, then it had become hard-to-find, with only a handful of doubtful reports from people who claimed to have tasted it in the latter half of the 19th century, as brewed by ‘shepherds on the moor’. He also cited, for balance, the view of one authority that heather ale might never have existed at all.
And yet, there she was, the wise old woman, with the secret in her hand, and Bruce Williams, the young man behind the shop counter, was intrigued.
Once again, our fears that we would be going it alone on #BeeryLongReads day proved to be unfounded — thanks, everyone, for taking part. Here are all the posts that we’ve spotted or been told about.
→ Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Seven — Brakspears of Henley-on-Thames by Paul Bailey (no relation) recounts the history of a brewery and the author’s own long experience of drinking its beer: “I had learnt of the company’s existence late in 1973 after reading Christopher Hutt’s excellent and pioneering book, The Death of the English Pub… [but]it was not until the spring of 1975, during my student days, that I first had the chance to sample them.”
We’d been wanting to go to Southwold for almost a decade but, when we lived in London, could never quite find the occasion – it was inconvenient for a weekend jaunt, but too close for a full-on holiday. There’s a perverse logic in the fact that we finally made the trip to Suffolk, England’s most easterly county, only after coming to live within ten miles of Land’s End in the far west.
We were prompted to act, first, by my family history: having learned that many of my ancestors in the 19th century spent their lives in and around a handful of towns and villages in the county, I felt a powerful urge to retrace their steps.
Chris Hall on hipster-bashing in British beer(March 2014) — “You won’t see any of them bloody hipsters in my pub trying the real ales, though. They’re all in them bloody BrewDog bars, forking out a fiver a pint for that murky rubbish.”
Stan Hieronymus on how getting it right takes time(November 2013) — “Not long after Geoff Larson dumped the thirteenth batch of what would eventually be the first brand Alaskan Brewing sold he poured out the fourteenth. Then the fifteenth, and the sixteenth.”
Here’s the deal if you want to join in on 29/11/2014:
Write something longer than usual. (Our standard posts are 300-700 words long, so we aim for at least 1500 before we consider it a ‘long read’.)
You could just stretch a normal post out by adding lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of unnecessary words, phrases, sentences, and indeed paragraphs. But that’s not quite the point. Instead, choose a subject which requires more words.
We’re not in charge and there are no ‘rules’; you can write what you like, post when you like; and you don’t have to mention us or link to this blog in your post. (Though of course it would be nice.)
If you want us to include your contribution in our round-up, let us know. The simplest way is by Tweeting a link with the hashtag #beerylongreads.
TIP: think of something you want to read but that doesn’t seem to exist — an interview with a particular brewer, the history of beer in a specific town, the story of a famous pub — and then write it.
Drop us a line if you want advice or just to run your idea past someone.
These are all the responses to our call to ‘go long’ that we know about so far. If we missed yours, comment below, and we’ll add any stragglers to this list and when we find out about them either in the comments below or through Twitter.
[This] is the abridged history of a local beer that was discontinued before I was born but holds my interest for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It might be the notion of brewing beer in Brisbane’s inner riverside suburbs, something that has only recently become a thing again. It might be the romantic filter through which I view late nineteenth century Brisbane. It might just be the name: Bulimba Gold Top.
My first arrival to La Paz made for a weird epiphany, but a revelation nonetheless. Of course, head-pounding and dehydrated is not quite a state of mind that screams for beer. Nonetheless, we headed for what to any beer-minded person was the promisingly-named Adventure Brew Hostel, although the cranky oldhead lurking in me was a tad wary.
I suspect that many of you, as I have done, gazed uninterestedly out of the window as your Eurostar train pulled into Lille station, a seemingly unnecessary stop on your way to Brussels and maybe beyond, with your head full of all the good things that Belgium, where beer is almost a religion, will have in store for you.
What London beer city did was create an environment that made beer more accessible to everyone else. I watched onlookers, stragglers and casual passers by not only stop and look what was going on but wander in and start a beer journey of their very own.
Article taken from telegraph.com (3rd March 2034): Viewing Lord Dickie today, it’s hard to imagine him as the flat-cap wearing firebrand enfant-terrible of British Brewing. Reposing on an antique Chesterfield, dressed head-to-toe in tweed, he looks every inch the middle-aged Scottish country gent.
Unlike a number of other journos, I didn’t bother writing anything for the paper because I knew it was nothing special. I knew the media release headline “Aussie barons brew ale revolution” was simply not true.
Papazian is exactly right. A craft brewer is a subjective idea, something nebulous left to each of us to define as relates to our own experiences and values. But Papazian’s organization defines it anyway.
This was by no means a deluge. You could almost count the early morning raindrops hitting the tent roof. There’s one where Orion would be located, a couple by the Big Dipper. Rain and wind can be a very bad thing at a hop farm this time of year. A few days earlier rain and wind in Washington and southern Idaho had knocked down about 140 acres of hop trellises.
Back in May when Chris Marchbanks gave a talk on brewing history he gave out a list of books he recommended. Here’s the list with comments and some suggestions of my own. I’ve provided links for the books which in some cases link will take you to the complete book online, in others it’s to an online retailer. Some of the books are dirt cheap and some are dead expensive.
I asked various Beer People I know what they would ask BrewDog if they had the same chance as me… What follows is a series of questions put to James Watt on Friday 22 August, some from me, some from other people.
On February 15, 1700, one of the church’s poor died. She was Ryseck, the widow of Gerrit Swart… There were more than a few expenses in addition to the cost of the coffin and the fee paid Hendrick Roseboom, the doodgraver. In addition to 150 sugar cakes and sufficient tobacco and pipes… twenty-seven guilders were paid by the congregation for a half vat and an anker of good beer.
The tension between new world and old school is being played out at Spingo Ales in sleepy Helston, Cornwall, but which side has the upper hand?
A brewery has operated from the rear of the Blue Anchor, a rambling granite-built pub on Helston’s main drag, since at least the turn of the 20th century, and to say it has a cult reputation among enthusiasts of traditional British beer would be an understatement.
It was as we were winding up an afternoon drinking session that we first met the head brewer, Tim Sears, in the back yard of the pub and asked whether he would mind telling us which variety of hops were used in Spingo Jubilee IPA. (We were obsessing over East Kent Goldings at the time.)
“Amarillo,” he said, with a just-noticeable curl of his lip.
An American variety noted for its pungent pop-art tangerine aroma, Amarillo was first released to the market in 2000. There are pint glasses at the Blue Anchor that have been in service longer.
“That’s Gareth’s doing,” he continued. “He’s the brewery manager. See those sacks of spent hops?” He pointed to a corner by the gents’ toilets. “That little one’s mine; his is overflowing! I tell him he uses too many.”
“Fascinating,” we thought, Spock-like.
A few weeks later, we got hold of Tim’s email address and explained that we were interested in finding out more. “Tension is a bit strong!” he replied, “but I know what you mean.” And so, on a paint-peelingly hot afternoon in July, Bailey took a trip to the brewery.
* * *
As he lives in Penzance, Tim agreed to pick me up and save me a bus fare, “As long as you don’t mind me smoking and Dutch music… Gezondheid, tot dinsdag!”
Sure enough, as we hurtled along the coast road, weaving around tractors and convoys of German tourists, the car stereo played a stream of oompah-ing Nederlandse pop-rock.
“What’s the Dutch connection?” I asked.
“Belgian beer,” he replied. “About ten… twelve… ten or twelve years ago, we went on a trip, a coach trip, to Belgium, and I loved it. I got on well with the bloke who ran the hotel where we were staying and now he’s sort of a pen pal. I write to him every week, in Dutch.”
Tim isn’t a native Cornishman but has been brewing Spingo Ales at the Blue Anchor in Helston since 1981. “I’d been home brewing for a while and winning awards,” he said, lifting a hand from the steering wheel to circle his cigar in air for emphasis, “so when I saw that they were advertising for a new brewer I said, ‘Yes, please! I’ll have some of that.’” The landlord gave him a six week trial: “I never did find out if I’d got the job.”
People sometimes talk about the Blue Anchor as if it’s been exactly the same, and brewing the same beer, for 400 years. It’s more complicated than that, but ‘Middle’, its flagship beer, is certainly nearing its 100th birthday, having first been brewed to celebrate the return of Helston boys from the First World War, in 1919. “As far as I know, it’s the same recipe,” Tim said, “but the original paperwork isn’t available. It’s been 1050 OG, Goldings, as long as I’ve been brewing it.”
Elsewhere, there have been tweaks: Spingo Special went from 1060 to 1066 to celebrate the marriage of Charles and Diana in 1981, and at some point, crystal malt got added to the recipe. “Devenish [a defunct regional brewery] used to supply the malt and they weren’t too careful cleaning out the chutes for our order, so we got pale malt with a bit of crystal mixed in, which I used for specials. Nowadays, we mix it ourselves.”
To put some space between it and the amped-up Special, Christmas Special went up to 1076. (It’s now back down to 1074, to avoid the higher duty bracket.) Spingo Best, too close in gravity to Middle, got quietly dropped, as did a 1033 ‘Ordinary’: “We called that Mrs Bond, because she was the only one that drank it.”
Tim is clear about his own tastes: “I don’t like a hoppy beer. I prefer that malty sweetness – that sort of Cornish traditional taste.”
(We have long felt that West Country ale is almost a style in its own right — less attenuated, heavier in body, with barely any discernible hop character. If you’ve tried the bland, sweet Sharp’s Doom Bar, or St Austell’s HSD, then you’d recognise Spingo Middle from the family resemblance, though it’s less smooth, and less consistent, than either of those bigger brewery brands.)
“Obviously, you’ve got to have hops,” he conceded, “but they’re there for bitterness. They shouldn’t make your beer smell of fruit. I can’t stand when people say they can smell lemon or citrus or passion fruit, or whatever.”
“I can’t stand when people say they can smell lemon or citrus or passion fruit…”
A couple of years ago, his colleague Gareth, and Ben, a son of the Blue Anchor’s licensees, went on a three-week course at Brewlab in Sunderland. They came back with new ideas. The stout Ben designed for his coursework is now a regular at the pub, and is called, obviously, Ben’s Stout. Cornwall isn’t stout-drinking country, but it ticks over. “Ben doesn’t drink it, though,” said Tim. “He drinks my Bragget – no hops, malt, honey, apple juice, first brewed to commemorate the town’s charter, granted by King John in 1201.”
But it was Gareth upon whom the course had the most profound effect. “The IPA, that was my beer originally, brewed for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002. But then Gareth got hold of it and now it’s all–” A faint shake of the head. “Amarillo.”
At the pub, Tim, in sleeveless T-shirt and wellies, disappeared up the granite staircase into the steam of a brewery which is cramped and hot on the best of days, and handed me over to Gareth, who was just concluding his morning shift.
We had developed a picture of a maverick young hipster obsessed with ‘craft beer’, perhaps riding around the brewery on a skateboard. In fact, though he is younger than Tim by some years, he is softly-spoken, practically-minded, and, in his black working t-shirt, more mechanic than artist. A Helston local, he worked his way up to the post of brewery manager from cleaning barrels and the occasional stint behind the bar.
“I do like hoppy beers,” he said, sipping instant coffee from a chipped mug at a plastic table in the pub’s garden, “but I mostly drink more mellow things, if I’m honest. Middle, St Austell HSD – things like that.”
“I mostly drink more mellow things, if I’m honest.”
This did not bode well for our hopes of finding a British version of the feuding Bjergso brothers: Tim and Gareth do not hate each other. They are definitely not ‘at war’. So I decided to poke the nest with a stick: what did Gareth think of Tim’s assertion that hops should really only be used to add bitterness?
“I disagree with him about that,” he said, with something just approaching roused passion. “Hops should be there to give flavour. Definitely.”
Another new Spingo ale for which Gareth takes the credit (or perhaps the blame, from Tim’s perspective) is the 4% golden Flora Daze. When we first tried it on the weekend it was launched, in March 2012, it seemed startlingly different to its stable-mates, and we observed conservative regulars at the bar recoiling at its lemon-zestiness.
“We have our beer distributed through Jolly’s – LWC – and they wanted something lighter and hoppier,” Gareth said. “I’d just learned recipe formulation at Brewlab and Flora Daze is what I came up with.”
A short while later, we all three reconvened at the top of the steps by the brew-house, where Tim was stirring the mash with a wooden brewer’s paddle. He finished it by swinging a great wooden lid onto the blue-painted tun dating from the 1920s, and covered that with eight old malt sacks, for insulation.
Perspiring and out of breath, he leaned on the stable door and took a long draught from a cool pint of Spingo Middle. “Jolly’s wanted something under 4%,” he said, picking up the Flora Daze story, “but we just can’t go that low. Spingo Ales are strong – that’s what makes them special.” He admitted, though, that he did roll his eyes on first seeing the recipe. “Gareth usually brews it, but I can do it, and have. I follow the recipe and stick to the spec.” He paused before delivering the punchline: “I just don’t drink the stuff.”
In the quiet tug of war, Tim seems to be slowly getting his own way, and Gareth acknowledged that both the re-vamped IPA and Flora Daze have, at Tim’s urging, become less intensely hoppy. “I’m happier with them as they are, though,” Gareth said. “They’re more in balance now.”
Gareth’s real influence is in the pursuit of consistency, as he explained showing me around the crowded pub cellar which doubles as a home for six hot-tub-sized fermenting vessels. “Our beer is slightly different every time,” he acknowledged, with a mix of pride and anxiety. “It’s a small brew-house, we do everything by hand, and the malt and hops vary from batch to batch. The weather, too — that can have an awful effect. Oh, yeah – a big effect.”
But he is working on this problem and has instituted lots of small changes. In the last year, for example, he has taken the radical step of having lids fitted to the fermenting vessels, so that the beer is no longer exposed to the air. Nothing fancy, though – just sheets of Perspex. There’s a sense that, with too much steel and precision, it would cease to be Spingo.
But perhaps this most traditional of British breweries will see more change yet. Tim, not perhaps as conservative as we thought, confessed that he had sometimes wondered about brewing something to reflect his interest in Belgian beer. And Gareth, somewhat wistfully, and almost embarrassed, muttered: “I have… Well, I have thought about a single-hop beer, Amarillo – something a bit stronger.”
A US-inspired Spingo IPA?
“Yeah, I suppose that’s the kind of style I’d be going for…” He shook his head. “But, no, we’ve got enough different beers for now.”
* * *
In the end, what we found at the Blue Anchor wasn’t high drama or a bitter feud, but a kind of dialogue, and our original choice of word, tension, feels about right. We suspect that similar debates are occurring in traditional breweries up and down the country, and around the world, perhaps not always in such a civilised manner.
If you enjoyed this, check out the #beerylongreads hashtag on Twitter for other people’s contributions, and also (need we say it?) get hold of a copy of our book, Brew Britannia, to which this is something of a companion piece.
An early food writer — the Jay Rayner of his day — ‘The Colonel’ wrote reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette as well as several books such as Where And How to Dine in London.
We are especially grateful to him for having taken the time and space to write at length about one of London’s 19th century ‘lager beer’ saloons. He described what was seen on entering, the light, the clientèle, the glassware, the food, the pictures on the walls, the floorboards, seating, taxidermy, staff, proprietor, food, and, most importantly, the beer itself.
Many other such establishments were beneath the attention of writers and so might as well never have existed for all that we can find out about them beyond their street address and the date on which their owners went bankrupt. (They always went bankrupt.)
It was much the same in trying to find out about pubs from the 1970s while working on Brew Britannia, Becky’s Dive Bar being an exception as it was too bizarre not to write about.
If you’re stuck for an idea ahead of ‘going long’ on Saturday (30 August), why not look long and hard at a pub or bar of your acquaintance — especially if it doesn’t get much attention — and write an excessively detailed description of it?
Zoom in. Get out your microscope. Examine its pores.