In their own words: the development of the Leeds beer scene

A while ago someone on Twitter said they’d like to read a history of the Leeds beer scene. We wanted to read one, too, but didn’t feel it was our place to write it. Then we recalled the success of a couple of pieces we’d written ‘in their own words’ and decided that at least we could facilitate.

What follows is based on emails and interviews, some dating as far back as 2013 (John Gyngell and Christian Townsley), others from the past month or so, with light editing for sense and clarity.

We’ve also used a quote from Richard Coldwell’s blog because we get the impression he wouldn’t want the mere fact that he sadly died in July stop him contributing on a subject about which he was so passionate.

Ian Garrett Drinker and CAMRA activist
I first drank in Leeds in the early 1970s, when I was a student in Bradford and visited the city to go to gigs at the University. The only pubs that beer lovers talked about were The Victoria Family and Commercial Hotel, and The Whitelocks. Leeds was awash with Tetley pubs and I remember when doing a PGCE in Leeds the wonderful aromas wafting over the city centre as they mashed in. I guess the ‘beer scene’ in Leeds had a few faltering starts. There was the CAMRA owned pub The Eagle which always seemed to be struggling whenever I ventured there. Then, in the 1980s, The Fox & Newt brewpub opened and, of course, The Felon & Firkin where Dave Sanders first plied his trade.

Barrie Pepper Beer writer and veteran CAMRA activist
Leeds had a beer explosion came around the turn of the century. I think Ian Fozard – now the Chairman of SIBA – had quite a bit to do with it. The amazing success of his Market Town Taverns company, which he started in the mid-1990s with the Long Boat in Skipton, like Topsy, just grew and grew. His policy was to sell a good selection of cask beer in pleasant surroundings to accompany good food. There were also continental beers and a fine wine list. The estate grew to ten pubs – all in Yorkshire, five in Leeds – and by the issue of the 2008 Good Beer Guide, every one of the ten pubs was in it. There were some other factors of course. Tetley’s opened a few brew pubs and was developing its Feast group and some Festival pubs which had guest beers on their bars. Other breweries followed suit. A couple of small breweries located at pubs opened with prize-winning ales. The city’s drinkers had an impressive choice.

Having fun behind the bar.
Christian Townsley (left) and John Gyngell at North Bar c.1997.

Zak Avery Beer writer and retailer
John Gyngell and Christian Townsley from North Bar were pioneers, doing the beer thing before craft beer existed.

John Gyngell Co-founder of North Bar
People thought we were making a mistake opening a bar on Briggate. This was kebab alley. I remember driving past here with my Mum and showing her the site and she just said: “What the hell are you doing?”

Christian Townsley Co-founder of North Bar
I was 22 when we opened on 26 June 1997; John was a bit older. It was really quiet for the first six months, or something like that. At first, the beer wasn’t anything special, largely because of the brewery loan from John Smith’s. Back then, that was really the only way to finance something like this, if you didn’t have a rich mummy and daddy.

John Gyngell
I can’t remember if we approached James Clay or they approached us, but that’s how we started getting more interesting beer. We’ve always had a great relationship with them, and we became more-or-less their brewery tap. Brooklyn, Goose Island, that kind of thing.

Christian Townsley
Erdinger Weissbier was an early one. We were the first place in the UK to sell it and I guess we’re a bit proud of that. In bottles, we had the Chimays, Duvel and Anchor Liberty, when they were pretty hard to find. We’d been drinking Liberty at the Atlantic and at Mash. That was a real landmark beer – probably where, for me, something clicked.

North Bar

Matt Gorecki Owner of Zapato brewery, industry ‘face’
The first Belgian beer I had was a Hoegaarden in some terrible pub down lower Briggate and I almost smashed a tooth on the huge glass. The same night I was introduced to North Bar by a friend and marvelled at the freely flowing pints of Erdinger. When I started working at The Cross Keys [part of the North chain] I was educated by Mr Christian Townsley in the beauty and subtlety of some of the imported US, Belgian and German beers that were available at the time from James Clay. Leeds at that point had a few stand-out venues but interesting cask ale was only really just starting to take hold. My first ever beer purchase as manager was casks of Marble Ginger – the first time over the Pennines!

Ian Garrett
Special mention must go to the original BeerRitz which was a wholesale-retail warehouse where it was possible to pick up some great Belgian beers by the bottle or case.

Zak Avery
After university, I was working on a PhD with the Open University and also writing music. I was living in Headingley just round the corner from BeerRitz and one day in 2000 they put up a sign advertising for a part time shop assistant. Eighteen months in, I was managing the shop and a couple of years after that had launched thebeerboy.co.uk to host beer tastings as corporate events. The shop went from strength to strength – best independent beer retailer 2003 – and I started writing beer-related website content. In my mind, it was before blogging was really a thing, but I might be wrong about that. From 2008, I started doing video beer reviews – I’ve been blamed for the whole phenomenon by various people – and get chosen as Beer Writer of the Year by The British Guild of Beer Writers. 2009 saw the blog Are You Tasting The Pith? launch and in 2011 my business partner and I bought out Beer Paradise and BeerRitz.

Neil Walker Blogger, later employed by CAMRA and now SIBA
Dean at Mr Foley’s was the guy that dragged Mr Foley’s into the 21st century, got good keg beers on the bar and modernised what they were all about. It was always a good ale bar but 2011 was when it started to get really interesting.

Dean Pugh Head of European bar operations for BrewDog
I moved to Leeds for university in 2003 and was working part time at Wetherspoons. I had a shift manager there who taught me everything about cask ales and cellar management. I moved into management and different Wetherspoon locations in Leeds, always taking on the responsibility of the cellar and organising real ale festivals. I had a friend who was running the tap room at York Brewery and they were purchasing a bar on the Headrow called Dr Okells. I joined as general manager and the bar was rebranded as Mr Foley’s, opening in 2007. My initial aim when opening Foley’s was to become the best cask ale pub in the city, and we were named Leeds CAMRA pub of the year in 2008. Around the same time I joined Foley’s in 2007 I was also discovering American craft beer, mostly through visits to North Bar. I remember Brooklyn Chocolate Stout being one of the first beers that really grabbed my attention and showed me a different side to beer. I brought this back to Foley’s, beginning with an extended bottle list, but soon convinced my bosses to hand over that draft lines too.

Neil Walker
Mr Foley’s felt like the common room for the Leeds beer scene. Its ample space and relative cheapness made it ideal for events and beer-gatherings – bottle-shares, beer launches and so on. We even had a beer dinner there with Garrett Oliver [of Brooklyn Brewery] pouring Ghost bottles of wine-lees aged saison paired with buffalo chicken wings and pulled pork prepared by Tyler Kiley.

Dean Pugh
I think towards the end of my time at Foley’s we had around six to eight rotating taps for craft beer, two BrewDog taps, ten cask ales, bag-in-a-box real cider and probably up to a hundred bottled and canned beers.

Neil Walker
One of the early, key moments for me was IPADay in 2011. It felt like an important moment – everyone seemed to be there and everyone remembers it. As well as the international beer list there were some great offerings from British brewers and I remember Zak Avery and Dave from Hardknott making impassioned and semi-incomprehensible speeches on the style. My first memory of feeling like I was in a beer scene was the Brewdog IPA is Dead launch at North Bar. There were just so many bloggers there and at that time it felt a little bit competitive, albeit in a friendly way, and I remember writing up my tasting notes at about 6 am the next morning to make sure I was first to press.

Zak Avery
I was shit broke in 2010, really struggling to make ends meet, managing the shop, trying to go freelance, a new parent. I was selling things to meet mortgage payments. I wrote a really well-paid advertorial for Guinness. It wasn’t all totes craft amazeballs, you know?

Tetley's sign on a pub.

Mike Hampshire Former local CAMRA chair, owner of Mike’s Tap Room
The single key turning point in Leeds beer has been the closure of Tetley’s Brewery in 2011. As sad and difficult as it was, it effectively hit the reset button on the Leeds beer scene. The US craft revolution was well underway and lots of micro-breweries started popping up, seeing the huge gap in the Leeds market for traditional ales and US-influenced modern styles.

Ian Garrett
In its heyday, Tetley’s was one of the biggest breweries in the UK, Tetley’s Bitter was the best selling beer in the UK, Leeds drinkers knew what to expect from a good pint of Tetley’s, and they drank it by the gallon.

Leigh Linley Retired blogger, author of Great Yorkshire Beer
The buzz around the first Leeds International Beer Festival in 2012 was fantastic. A real independent beer festival in Leeds, a shift toward keg being not only accepted but expected.

Maria Estibaliz Organiser of the Leeds International Beer Festival
We wanted to create a festival that celebrated and embraced the independent craft scene in the UK as existing beer events weren’t really recognising the amazing things that were going on in the industry and a lot of new, great breweries were being overlooked. We also wanted to create something that was a lot more accessible and inclusive for younger audiences, particularly women in this age group, as the industry and festivals at the time were incredibly male dominated. We also wanted the brewers themselves to attend the festival, meet audiences and talk about their beer – and at the same time we encouraged audiences not be afraid to ask the brewers questions.

Leigh Linley
I recall sitting behind my desk at work eavesdropping on a group of colleagues who had no prior interest in beer who had got tickets for the Festival excitingly detailing what beers they were going to try. That felt different, for sure.

Leeds town hall

Zak Avery
The first LIBF, held in the city centre at the glorious town hall, marked a point where the scene started to properly cross over into the mainstream.

Leigh Linley
Leeds hosted the European Beer Bloggers Conference in 2012 – an event that probably passed a lot of non-bloggers by but the importance of having that many journalists, bloggers, writers and retailers in the city can’t be overstated. I think a lot of influential writers went away rethinking what Leeds was about. We did the city proud.

Friends of Ham

Gareth Pettman Blogger
Friends of Ham opening in 2012 was the game changer for me – one of those ideas that a lot of us had dreams of, but not the ability to execute. Tyler Kiley took over as head beer buyer there and under the Kitchings it was unbelievably rammed almost every night of the week.

Leigh Linley
Here was a bar that embraced beer culture but offered something totally different. It was a tiny, well-put-together bar with good beer but also more than that. It bridged the gap between beer and food (although it really wasn’t beercentric – it sold plenty of wine and sherry, too) in a way that really shook up the bar scene. And it did it in a ratty part of Leeds that’s thriving now, due to keystone businesses like FoH.

Richard Brownhill Little Leeds Beer House, Brownhill & Co
Claire and [Anthony ‘Kitch’ Kitching] really raised the bar in terms of quality in Leeds when they opened. It coincided with my move to Leeds and their focus on service and the originality of their concept was a real scene-setter at the time.

Zak Avery
Even though Friends of Ham has been through ‘financial restructuring’ which left a bad taste in a lot of mouths (metaphorically rather than literally, of course) I don’t think their importance can be overstated in changing the Leeds beer scene. It was qualitatively different from anything that had gone before, and set the blueprint for much that followed

Richard Brownhill
It was a real shame what happened with Friends Of Ham. I think their struggles just show the fragility of small independent businesses, regardless of reputation or standing in the industry. It’s an ever crowded market out there and it’s very easy for offerings to become diluted. It’s great that they managed to strike a deal to stay operating, and it’s starting to get back to it’s best – they have some great new people in there who have a real passion for the product.

Gareth Pettman
I arrived quite late to the scene itself and without friends who shared my burgeoning interest in beer, it wasn’t until Simon Girt, AKA ‘Leeds Beer Wolf’, organised a Twissup in 2014 that I actually made an effort to get to know people in Leeds and beyond. So for me, personally, the period between 2014-2016 was when the scene was at its peak, with regular bottleshares, mostly organised by Rob Derbyshire, AKA Hopzine, and held at Little Leeds Beer House or Northern Monk. The opening of Northern Monk was the next big leap forward in itself – without a significant number of breweries in Leeds this was probably the kick up the arse that others needed.

Russell Bisset Northern Monk Brew Co.
I started Northern Monk in a parent’s cellar in 2013, launching at The Sparrow in Bradford the summer of that year. Originally operating as a cuckoo brewery, we built our own brewery in a listed mill just outside the centre of Leeds, which launched in October 2014.

Matt Gorecki
Northern Monk are absolutely up there and their rate of growth and mastery of the market has been astonishing. Their beers have helped put the UK on the map across the rest of the world and especially in the US. Kirkstall’s cask offering and extremely solid expanding range of beers has been quietly winning hearts all over the place. Kirkstall have also breathed life into two pubs that had gone to the dogs and managed the importation of so many of the gateway brands and exciting US beers – the entire scene owes a lot to Steve Holt and Dave Sanders. There are also scene leaders and crossover successes like Bundobust, Little Leeds Beerhouse and the team behind Whitelocks – Ed Mason of Five Points and Ash Kollakowski – who’ve put this venerable pub back at the heart of the scene.

Beer at Bundobust.

Richard Brownhill
Leeds Beer Week was started by myself, Matt Gorecki and James Ockelford from Refold Design in 2016 – both to complement the very popular Leeds International Beer Festival but also to have a week where the many venues of Leeds were all under one umbrella and in the spotlight. I had found as both as manager of Tapped Leeds in 2014 and at the fledgling Little Leeds Beerhouse in 2015 that although LIBF brought many people to the festival at the town hall, the impact was quite insular. The first couple of years were tough but we’ve now expanded the team to include more than ten people and it is 100% independently funded. We have so many amazing venues in Leeds who sponsor the week financially every year, and James produces world class design for our yearly guide which promotes all venues, big or small. I am particularly proud that we have built a model which is not for profit – we are paid a little for our time each year, and we pay our committed team, but every other penny from sponsorship, advertising and merchandise goes back into the festival to help it grow each year. Which is a good job as Matt’s bunting fetish knows no bounds.

Ian Garrett
Today’s scene, for me, is overcrowded as all the new bars try to entice the same handful of people. I tend to stick to a handful where I know there’s either excellent cask, well-kept, or a decent choice. Too many have eight varieties of IPA but that seems a common practice. It still looks like a healthy beer scene and new bars still appear, Brownhill & Co being a recent addition trying to do something a little different.

Richard Brownhill
Brownhill & Co is a blueprint for everything Bryony and I love about the drinking experience and is focused on providing relaxed, simple table service in a chilled environment. Ten taps of quality, no filler, and balanced with all sorts of styles – a rotating lager line and rotating cask beers. Many years of visiting Belgium had us wondering why the UK is allergic to table service in pubs and bars. I personally can’t think of anything better than not moving all day while a nice, friendly, knowledgeable person brings me lots of beer. We’re delighted to have been selected to host this year’s Cantillon Zwanze Day.

Leigh Linley
Leeds is still Leeds – there’s still a pub for all tastes within walking distance and the majority of the classic places are still there, doing well. There’s even more choice and it’s hard to not encounter ‘craft’ in most places now, like in any major city. At the risk of sounding like an old man, it’s getting increasingly expensive to drink in the city centre, but the scene itself is thriving – beer is mainstream, there’s no need to guide people anymore. There’s a new generation of drinkers discovering beer and enjoying some incredible venues that we’d have been over the moon to have enjoyed back in the early 2000s.

Richard Coldwell Blogger
There’s no doubt in my mind that Leeds is one of the premier beer cities in the UK and that includes making the stuff as well as consuming it. We just need to shout out and make our mark. I often think Leeds is a bit slow to catch on to self promotion. (2016.)

Matt Gorecki
There’s always something going on and a number of quality breweries are coming through, pushing things forward. Venues are higher quality and you’re starting to see some really good quality and curated selections rather than just a list of questionable hype beers that taste roughly similar. Leeds is at its peak right now.


Photo credits: All ours except the one based on ‘Leeds Town Hall at Night’ by Enchufla Con Clave via Wikimedia Commons and the picture of John Gyngell and Christian Townsley which they kindly supplied to us in 2013.


We’re very grateful to everyone who found time to respond to our questions so fully and frankly, but especially Zak Avery and Leigh Linley. This post was supported by Patreon subscribers like Will Jordan and Peter Sidwell. Please consider signing up, or just buy us a one-off pint via Ko-Fi. Alternatively, you can give us a boost by buying one of our books, or just by sharing something we’ve written on social media. Cheers! Ray & Jess. 

From Suffolk to Burton in search of work, c.1880-1931

Interviewing farm-workers in East Anglia the folklorist and oral historian George Ewart Evans discovered what in publishing blurbs would be trumpeted as an ‘untold story’: the mass movement of men from Suffolk to Burton on Trent to work in the brewing industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His book Where Beards Wag All is simultaneously a collection of essays highlighting specific narratives arising from oral history research and a defence of oral history as a discipline. Its message is that without oral history – without talking to working people, and mining their memories – we lose great chunks of history that weren’t recorded in official papers or covered in the news.

Having spent a chunk of the past few years researching and writing about pubs, we can’t agree enough. Pubs, being seen as prosaic and unsavoury, weren’t well recorded, and it is only through oral history that much sense of the habits of drinkers and publicans really emerges from the fog of the past.

The story of the Suffolk maltsters Evans uncovered is particularly fascinating and begins like this:

The search to collect evidence started after a chance remark made by a farm horseman while I was collecting information about his experiences on the Suffolk farms. I found that it was not the first occasion on which a remark made on the margin of another and totally different enquiry proved – when followed up – to be more fruitful than the subject I was investigating at the time… [The] horseman was giving an outline of his life on the farm: “I recollect,” he said, “that were the year I went to Burton. I went up for two seasons, missed a season, then went for another two – and then I got married.”

Evans continued to hear variations on this story until, he writes, “it became clear in my own mind that there had been a fairly widespread movement of young farm-workers who followed the barley they had grown in East Anglia to Burton on Trent where they worked as maltsters, helping to convert the malt to be used in the brewing of beer”.

For more than 50 years

This migration, Evans was able to work out, began at least as early as 1880 (possibly as far back as 1860) and continued until 1931 when unemployment in Burton triggered a backlash against imported labour.

What prompted this pattern of working to emerge was the seasonal nature of farm work. Once the corn and hay had been harvested, lots of fit, able young men found themselves unemployed. Some spent winter living off their families or charity; others joined the fishing fleet; but lots went to Burton, because just after the harvest happened to be exactly when broad-shouldered maltsters were most in demand.

Evans recounts his struggle to find documentary evidence and the eventual emergence of paperwork from Bass which recorded the names of Suffolk and Norfolk men on the payroll during 1904-05 and 1926-27. In 1904, the documents revealed, 169 men went to Burton from Suffolk, making up a little over half of the workforce during that malting season.

Then comes a heartbreaking detail: when Evans went to Burton in 1968 intending to interview Suffolk men who had settled there he found that Bass had just moved offices and in so doing, destroyed the labour books. Yet another archives-in-the-skip story to make researchers weep.

Had it not been for the efforts of industrial historian Colin Owen, who transcribed and summarised many of these records, nothing would survive. As it is, Evans was able to include Owen’s work as an appendix to his book. It takes the form of a list of workers from East Anglia in the 1890-91 season, with names, home villages and the railway stations from which they embarked, via Peterborough, to reach Burton. Edgar Spall, Obediah Mortlock, Arthur Panment, William Titshall, George Fenn, Charles Flatt… There are also lists of names for later seasons.

The old men Evans interviewed told him how the recruitment process worked:

At the end of August and the beginning of September the Burton brewers sent agents down to various centres in East Anglia to engage the young farm-workers. Bass and Company sent a circular letter to each malting worker who had been employed during the previous season – if he had proved satisfactory. The letter gave the date when the agent would be in a particular locality. The place was usually a public house – The Station Hotel, Ipswich, Framlingham Crown and so on.

“They used to sign us up at the Crown. The agent was a man called Johnny Clubs, a good owd bloke, and later a Mr Whitehart come down. You went into a room and he looked you up and down to see if you could do the work, see if you were well set up. Then he asked you the name of your last master so he could get a character. Then you signed the paper.”

One interviewee, Albert Love of Wortwell in Norfolk, describes men gathering at the local station ready to depart “like soldiers”. They were given one-way tickets and Evans includes a second-hand account of one worker making his way back to Suffolk from Burton on foot, pushing a child in a pram. It wasn’t a cushy life and it’s hard not to read into it echoes of modern slavery.

Hard work and free beer

As well as a chapter on the recruitment and migration, Evans also gives a detailed account of the work itself, from lugging 16-stone sacks of malt to hurling hot malt against screens to filter out “the muck”: “When you come out of there you was drunk from the dust of the malt – without having nawthen to drink!”

And, of course, there are the tales of free beer, including this from Will Gosling, a man born and brought up in Burton but whose father migrated there from Suffolk in the 1890s:

In all steel-works and in every job like that where men lose a lot of sweat it has to be replaced with five pints of something – whether it’s water, tea, milk or beer. They used to supply us with allowance beer. Five pints in my time; we used to have a pint at six o’clock, a pint at ten, another pint at midday and another two pints during the afternoon. Then if you had to come back after tea to turn the kiln you had another pint for that. In between times you was given two pints of beer called lack. They called it lack because it was lacking a lot of things. It was a very mild beer, but it was wet: it was moisture.

Living and working in Burton

Finally, there are two entire chapters on life in Burton for migrants from East Anglia. Evans interviewed William Denny (1882-1968), who worked four seasons in Burton around the turn of the century, and gave a brilliant account of the social lives of young workers:

After coming home from work and having some tea we’d go round the town, having a pint at one pub and then at another. There was The Wheatsheaf, Punch Bowl, Golden Ball and many more. We were a crowd together and we used to enjoy ourselves. We used to sing, and one thing we used to do up there was step dance on top of a barrel. In all the pubs up there you could get a free clay-pipe at that time – with the pub’s name on it. After my first season I recollect I brought ninety clay-pipes home with me.

Evans paints a picture of “Suffolk Jims” as hard-drinking, hard-working men living in lodgings, scrapping in pubs, and making themselves conspicuous in Burton by their unusual taste in clothing and peculiar accents. When they went home, it was often in a fancy new Burton suit, or wearing braided belts that were a speciality of Burton; and bearing fancy teapots as gifts for their mothers or landladies.

One specific branded beer also gets a brief mention in this context – the 1902 King’s Ale, bottles of which are amazingly still in circulation. This is Will Denny again:

It cost a lot o’money, about a shilling a pint as far as I can recollect. Some of the boys brought a gallon of the Royal Ale hoom with them. My mate did.

Although this story was forgotten when Evans wrote Where Beards Wag All, and was questioned at the time, it has since become an accepted part of the narrative of brewing in Burton, being referenced by multiple academic works on the subject.

And these days, even amateurs can find documentary evidence with a few clicks: if you have access to ancestry.co.uk, search the 1901 census for people born in Suffolk, living in Burton, with ‘maltster’ as a keyword, and you’ll see for yourself how real this was.

We bought our copy of Where Beards Wag All for £5 in a bookshop but used editions are available online for less. There’s also a Faber print-on-demand edition available at £20.

Main image: Suffolk maltsters in Burton, one of several old photographs reproduced in Evans’s book.

Not as Local as it Looks

You might think that a brewery called Camden Town makes all its beer in London, but some of it is actually brewed in continental Europe.

When we drank a pint of Camden Hells lager on Sunday, we enjoyed it enormously, having not previously been huge fans. We Tweeted about it, and got several interesting responses along the lines of this one:

When we asked for more information, we were pointed towards this article by Nicholas Lander on the Financial Times website from September last year (sometimes behind a paywall, sometimes not):

 Hells Lager, is now so popular with British drinkers that each week an extra 50,000 pints are trucked back from a brewery outside Munich… A 40-strong team brews 80,000 pints a week supplemented by the beer imported from Germany.

Camden Hells logo.

We sought corroboration on the Camden Town website but couldn’t find anything. Both the point of sale information (the keg font) and the website give the distinct impression that all Camden Hells is brewed in London: ‘Great beer brewed in Camden Town’; ‘Inspired by Germany, delivered for London’, and so on.

The Facts in the Case

The best way to clarify the situation was, we decided, to speak to someone at Camden Town. That someone turned out to be Jasper Cuppaidge, the brewery’s owner and founder. He seemed surprised that there might be confusion, and felt that he’d been quite open about the overseas brewing arrangement in interviews, but was happy to explain the details (our emphases):

The only beer that we ever brew in Europe is kegged Camden Hells. Pale Ale, Ink, everything else, is brewed at HQ, and all small packaged beers including Hells is brewed and packed at Camden

Right now, because it’s a quiet time of year for sales, none of it is being brewed abroad. In the summer, when it’s really busy, yes, a small proportion might come from overseas. It doesn’t come in big tankers every single week. We pull from our warehouse and pallets might contain some kegs of European-brewed Hells, and some from London.

It’s our recipe, using the same suppliers of malt from Europe and hops that we use for UK-made beer, and we always have one of our brewers there to supervise

It’s not about cost-cutting — it’s actually expensive, and we can’t really afford to do it, but it is important to maintain supply to bars and pubs. We want to be making the change and not riding it.

We worked with a small family brewery in Bavaria from summer last year till November this year and, recently, after running trials for three months, moved to a similar brewery in Belgium, a lot closer to home, and so easier for getting to and from for us as a team. We work with them because they’re the best and can make the beer taste exactly like it does when we brew it here.

We don’t declare it on the keg font because we don’t want to confuse consumers, but we are going to improve the FAQ on our website, because we’re not ashamed of this — we’re proud of it — and we came into this business with the intention of being transparent and honest.

Though he was reluctant to specify how much Camden Hells is brewed abroad at peak times because it can vary, the very vague ballpark figure of 25 per cent was mentioned. So, between, say, May and September 2014, there will be a something like a one-in-four chance that pint of Hells you drink will have been brewed in Belgium.

(The very tasty pint we drank was, it turns out, definitely brewed in London.)

Does it really matter, and why?

We asked our readers this question in a poll which ran for 26 hours, closing at 5 p.m. today:

Do you think it is important for a brewery to declare where a beer is made?

Of the 207 people who responded, 125 said it was essential to know; 79 said it was good to know; and only 7 people — about 3 per cent — said they didn’t care.

That confirmed our suspicion: that provenance is important, at least to beer geeks. They want to know where the beer they’re drinking has been made.

More specifically, the comments under that poll and discussions on Twitter suggest that people really don’t like the idea that a beer bearing the name of a specific place might or might not come from another country.

Reasons vary. Some feel that if a brewery isn’t honest about provenance, they can’t be trusted in other areas; others want to support the local economy; and some, presumably, just like the idea of lager from London because it’s cool.

For us, it’s about the balance of power. Even if the continental-European-brewed Hells looks, smells and tastes identical to the UK product, withholding information about its manufacture exploits consumers.

Where is the ‘premium’?

At first, we thought of it as an inversion of the Big Beer practice of brewing foreign brands under license in the UK. But it isn’t an inversion — it’s exactly the same. Where is the ‘premium’ right now? In the 1980s, it was with Continental beers, so everything was presented as Continental, even if it was actually made in Northampton. Now, the market demands local, so continental European beer is presented as British.

What should have happened instead?

Breweries thinking of following Camden’s suit and having some of their beer brewed elsewhere have, as we see it, three choices:

  1. Do it and hope no-one notices; be prepared for some finger-wagging (like this post…) if word gets out.
  2. Be completely, pre-emptively honest about it: turn it into a good news story about partnership, quality control, and serving the needs of your customers. (Mr Cuppaidge told exactly this story when we spoke to him, and it sounded good.)
  3. If you can’t face explaining it to people, pre-emptively or during that backlash, that might mean you are about to do something that, in your heart of hearts, you are ashamed of. So don’t do it.

We would, of course, always advocate option 2 — complete honesty and transparency. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with contract (‘partnership’) brewing, as long as it’s done openly.

Conclusion

We’re glad to hear Camden Town are updating their online FAQ — information like this should be easy to find and unambiguous, if only for the sake of avoiding rumours which over-state the case. (Camden don’t brew ‘all their beer’ in Germany; and they’re not buying some dodgy Bavarian supermarket brand and relabelling it.)

Ideally, there also ought to be some information at the point of sale that indicates whether the specific pint a customer is about to drink is British or German, but how to do that elegantly is beyond us.

Main image based on a photograph by Les Chatfield, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

Falling in Love

This weekend, we visited two ‘craft beer’ bars which were new to us, and failed to ‘fall in love’ with either of them.

That doesn’t mean we hated them — far from it — but nor did we react as we did to the Sandford Park Alehouse in Cheltenham the other week: they didn’t lure is into staying for just one more, or cause us to sigh with satisfaction. We couldn’t settle.

Settling is what happens when we can get really cosy, or the atmosphere is so good we don’t care about being comfortable. (It’s nice to get both.) Great beer is important, but we don’t tend to fall in love on the basis of beer alone.

That last conclusion we reached at the Fat Pig brewpub, the third new place we visited, on Saturday afternoon. The beer didn’t strike us as amazing — variations on honey-sweet blonde ale in the main, though we were impressed with a wonderfully dry stout — but the pub made us feel happy. The Fat Pig, there and then, had it.

Was it something to do with the quality of the light through the big frosted windows? The well worn bare wood surfaces? Good food didn’t hurt. If we lived nearby, we thought, we’d be happy to have it as our local.

But it is the definition of subjective: you might go there on a wet Wednesday evening and wonder what on earth we saw in the place.

We’re hoping to write about the Beer Cellars (Exeter) and the Teign Cellars (Newton Abbot) in more detail in a future post fairly soon, when we’ve had chance to pay return visits. Perhaps in a different month/week/day/hour, there will be more chemistry.

Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke

“When I was a kid we used to go to my uncle’s house in London… The heat and light crackling sound of the fire, mixed with the smell of his oak-panelled room, his tobacco and the whisky by his leather chair, always bring Christmas of my childhood strongly to my thoughts… We created a dish… based on the memory… We set the frozen apple sorbet on fire with a whisky blend, while dry ice bellows from the leather plate carrying the smell of leather, wood, fire, tobacco and whisky. We even have the crackling sound of the burning logs coming from the dish.”

Heston Blumenthal

The very idea of a beer based on a historic recipe — the chance to share a sensory experience with our ancestors — gets us excited.

Packaging alone can build expectation, suggesting a swirl of fog, soot in the air, and the distant piping of a barrel organ, with a few tricks of typography and the prominent placement of an evocative date: 1913, 1891, 1884, 1880… (Like the dashboard on Rod Taylor’s time Machine.)

How historic are some of these recipes? Many are merely ‘inspired by’ something from the archives, while others are painstaking recreations. While we prefer the latter, we’re also more than willing to play along with the former, just as we would be with Heston Blumenthal’s sensory manipulations.

Read our tasting notes after the jump →