The History of Home-brewing in the UK

This article first appeared in issue 9 of Hop & Barley magazine, a home-brewing special published in 2018, and available to buy at £10 from the website.

Before 1963 if you wanted to make your own beer in Britain you either had to pay the government for the privilege, or do it secretly, thanks to the lingering effects of Victorian legislation.

In 1880 Prime Minister William Gladstone, seeking to appease the farming lobby and urgently raise money, replaced the longstanding malt tax with a duty on the finished product – beer. As a side effect, households that brewed their own beer for ‘domestic use’ (that didn’t sell it) were suddenly subject to registration, regulation and inspection, and were required to pay for a licence.

This didn’t stop home-brewing altogether, especially not in cases where it was part of community life, as at Blaxhall in Suffolk where, according to the recollections of one elderly villager, almost every housewife brewed her own beer before World War I. They shared equipment and formed a ‘yeast chain’ with each woman collecting yeast from whichever of her neighbours had brewed most recently. [1]

But as the 20th century wore on, and people were dragged into court for making beer at home without licences, home-brewing as a vital tradition all but disappeared. Official numbers suggested that by 1961-62 only 250 people in the entire country had licences to brew beer at home. [2]

Of course there was plenty going on without licence behind closed doors and one 1963 newspaper column described a home brewer ‘who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons’ running a substantial brewery out of his garage to which ‘the Customs and Excise have never found their way’.  [3]

The cost of investigating and prosecuting hardly seemed worth the effort which is why, on 3 April 1963, Conservative Chancellor Reginald Maudling announced the abolition of the 1880 law, with its ragged Victorian trousers, in his budget speech to the House of Commons. On the day of Reginald Maudling’s announcement, the garage home-brewer mentioned above drank a toast to the Chancellor, raising a mug of his own strong ale. Freedom, at last.

Continue reading “The History of Home-brewing in the UK”

Another Round of #BeeryLongreads: 18 Dec 2015

We’re going to post something longer than usual (1,500+ words) on Friday 18 December, to give our readers something to chew on over the Christmas lull.

If any other beer bloggers fancy joining us, that’d be great — just post on or around the same date.

We won’t be putting together a round-up this time but will be sharing links on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #BeeryLongReads.

Also, by way of encouragement, we’re going to send the best UK-based entry this pile of goodies:

Prize bundle feat. Mikkeller book, Brew Britannia, Watney's half-pint glass, BrewDog keyring &c.

And, because of the cost of postage, the best from outside the UK will get an Amazon voucher or similar.

We’ll decide the winners entirely subjectively and our decision will be final.

PS. Alan at A Good Beer Blog is running a writing competition at his blog; if you also want to submit your #BeeryLongRead as your entry for that, make sure it is more than 2,500 words long and meets the requirements set out at the link above. He’ll be formally launching the contest, along with his annual photo competition, fairly soon — we’ll update this post when the announcement goes live.

Continue reading “Another Round of #BeeryLongreads: 18 Dec 2015”

The Lure of Luxury, The Call of Craft?

Why do people buy ‘fancy beer’ — because it tastes better, or because it ‘signals’ status?

Psychologist Paul Bloom’s article ‘The Lure of Luxury‘ mentions beer only in passing — ‘the attractive stranger in a bar is aroused by your choice of beer’ — but anyone who’s been called a snob for drinking a £6 pint, or rolled their eyes at the glitzy packaging of a limited edition IPA, will get the relevance.

Dr Bloom sets out two opposing points of view:

  1. People want luxury goods because they look, feel or taste good — they give pleasure in and of themselves.
  2. Luxury goods are status symbol designed to impress others and signal ‘intelligence, ambition, and power’.

The truth, he argues, lies somewhere in between:

Now, only a philistine would deny Postrel’s point that some consumer preferences are aesthetic, even sensual. And only a rube would doubt that some people buy some luxury items to impress colleagues, competitors, spouses, and lovers. Perhaps we can divvy up the consumer world. An appreciation of beauty explains certain accessible and universal consumer pleasures—Postrel begins her book in Kabul after the Taliban fell, describing how the women there reveled in their freedom to possess burkas of different colors and to paint their nails—while signaling theory applies to the more extravagant purchases. A crimson burka? Aesthetics. A $30,000 watch? Signaling. Aristotle Onassis’s choice to upholster the bar stools in his yacht with whale foreskin? Definitely signaling.

He goes on to consider why an exact replica of an object isn’t as desirable as the real thing; why when people buy a celebrity’s jumper in a charity auction they don’t want it dry-cleaned first; and whether anyone needs six mechanical wrists to automatically wind their collection of Rolex watches.

Let’s attempt to translate those questions: Why do people continue to hunt down and pay through the nose for Westvleteren 12 when none but the most refined palates can tell it from St Bernardus Abt 12? Why is beer brewed under contract less appealing than otherwise? Does anyone need a £168 six-pack of beer?

When you choose a beer is it really ‘about flavour’ — the defensive cry of the craft beer drinker accused of extravagance — or something else? And, of course, something else might be fine, depending on your values, and the pleasure it brings is just as real.

We found Dr Bloom’s article via BoingBoing.com. If you can’t be bothered to read it you can see him speaking on related topics at the TED Talks website.

All the #BeeryLongReads from November 2014

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.”

Continue reading “All the #BeeryLongReads from November 2014”

Beery Long Reads, August 2014

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.

Bulimba Gold Top

A Brief History of Bulimba Gold Top

by Drunken Speculation (@DrunkSpec)

[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.

[Read more at Drunken Speculation…]

[ezcol_1third]Bolivian Flag (detail)[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Cerveza at 11,000 feet in Bolivia

by Brewolero

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.

[Read more at Brewolero…][/ezcol_2third_end]
[ezcol_1third]Beer in Lille.[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Lille: a Beer Odyssey and Much More

by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY)

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.

[Read more at Get Beer, Drink Beer…][/ezcol_2third_end]

[ezcol_1third]London Beer City.[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]London Beer People

by Matthew Curtis (@TotalCurtis)

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.

[Read more at Total Ales…][/ezcol_2third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Brewdog beers.[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Interview with Baron Dickie of Ellon

by Matthew Lawrenson (@seethelizards)

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.

[Read more at Seeing the Lizards][/ezcol_2third_end]

[ezcol_1third]BeerBud[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]BeerBud Beer Club

by Glen Humphries (@26bear)

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.

[Read more at Beer is Your Friend…][/ezcol_2third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Vintage beer glass illustration.[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Who Will Save the Idea of Craft Beer?

by Alan McCormick (@GrowlerFills)

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.

[Read more at Growler Fills…][/ezcol_2third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Hop farming in Idaho.[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Farming Hops, Idaho Style

by Stan Hieronymus (@StanHieronymus)

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.

[Read more at Appellation Beer…][/ezcol_2third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Some beer books that we've used for research.[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Recommended Brewing History Books

by Ed Wray (@TheBeerFather)

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.

[Read more at Ed’s Beer Site…][/ezcol_2third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Gareth (left) and Tim, at the brewery door.[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Mellow Brown vs. the Amarillo Kid?

by Boak & Bailey (@boakandbailey)

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?

[Read more…][/ezcol_2third_end]

ADDED 31/08/2014

[ezcol_1third]James Watt of Brewdog.[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Interview with BrewDog’s James Watt

by Chris Hall (@cshallwriter)

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.

[Read more at the Beer Diary…][/ezcol_2third_end]

[ezcol_1third]Upper Hudson Valley Beer cover (detail)[/ezcol_1third][ezcol_2third_end]Upper Hudson Beer From 1700 to 1750

by Alan McLeod (@agoodbeerblog)

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.

[Read more at A Good Beer Blog…][/ezcol_2third_end]

Mellow Brown vs. the Amarillo Kid?

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.

* * *

Poster for the Bruges Beer Festival at the Blue Anchor.
Poster for the Bruges Beer Festival at the Blue Anchor.

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.”

Ye Olde Special Brew.

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.”

Gareth (left) and Tim, at the brewery door.
Gareth (left) and Tim, at the brewery door.

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.

Fermenting vessels at the Spingo brewery.
Fermenting vessels at the Spingo brewery.

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.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 12/07/2014

The Connoisseur. (Of whisky, not beer.)
From 1905. Sadly, he’s drinking whisky, not beer, but we like the image too much not to share it.

It’s time for our weekly round-up of interesting stuff from around the internet. Don’t take it too serious — not many do. Read between the lines and you’ll find the truth.

The schedule for London Beer Week (9-16 August) looks pretty impressive. If you’re a beer geek planning to visit the UK, this might help you decide where to stay and when. (Are there politics behind the fact that the site doesn’t mention this is also the week of the Great British Beer Festival…?)

→ Their beer coverage isn’t always particularly deep but this piece from Serious Eats on how beer prices are set has lots to chew on: “Typically, in a restaurant, you want to keep your food costs and so forth at 33 percent… So, a lot people simply multiply [the product cost] by 3.”

‘How To Blow $9 Billion: The Fallen Stroh Family’, from Forbes magazine. (2000 words; via Tim Holt.)

→ Back in 2011, local historian Patrick Carroll attempted to sift facts from the mass of myths and outright fibs surrounding the history of the legendary Blue Anchor pub at Helston, Cornwall. (3,500 words.)

Derek Dellinger argues that beer styles should be taken less seriously while seeming to take them quite seriously: When I pick up a bottle and there’s no style or description at all, nothing but a cute name and a government warning, I become so annoyed that I will almost never buy that beerGive me at least an idea of what the beer is — however you want to do that.” (1600 words.)

→ Emma has written about the apparently sensitive subject of women drinking alone in pubs and the harassment they sometimes experience.

Tangential pub content, but a good read anyway:

For 30 years, the Ripley Road was the go-to destination for the smart set of the day: young, athletic gentlemen at first; radical, bloomer-wearing ladies later. The ten miles between the Angel Inn at Thames Ditton and the Anchor hotel at Ripley were world-famous, and busy with cyclists on all manner of machines.

Hayley Flynn explored a well-preserved 1960’s shopping arcade in Manchester but couldn’t get into the locked-up and dormant El Patio pub. (via Pubs of Manchester Twitter | Web)

→ And, finally, does anyone know if this is actually legal..?

Where the Boddies is Buried

In its heyday, Boddington’s Bitter was among the most highly-regarded of British beers, and the pride of its home city of Manchester. These days, it is rather unloved and rootless. Where did it all go wrong?

Michael Hardman, one of the founders of CAMRA, mentioned it, alongside Young’s Ordinary, as typifying the ‘intense bitterness’ that, as a young man, he sought in a pint of ale: it was what those early campaigners were fighting for.

Beer writer and CAMRA stalwart Roger Protz has similarly rosy memories: “The first time I drank it, in a pub in Hyde, Cheshire, I thought I had died and gone to heaven: I couldn’t believe beer could taste that good.”

John Keeling, head brewer at Fuller’s and a native Mancunian, named it as his number one ‘desert island beer’: “In 1974 at the start of my brewing career there was no better drinking beer than Boddington’s.”

And the blogoshire’s very own Tandleman told us in an email:

It was a very dry beer, yet intensely bitter throughout, though not greatly hoppy. I’m guessing early hop additions to give that intensity of bitterness throughout. Good mouthfeel too – not thin at all.

But it isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. Contemporary sources note, albeit without waxing lyrical, that Boddington’s was ‘well hopped’ (Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Companion, 1973), ‘One of the best’ (the first edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1974) and ‘exceptionally bitter’ (GBG 1977).

A highly evocative description of how Boddington’s tasted in its prime comes from a letter to What’s Brewing from Mike Field of Batley, published in May 1984: “[It had a] bitterness that clawed at the back of the throat and took you back to the bar for another one.”

It owed some part of its reputation to what the 1978 Good Beer Guide called its ‘distinctive straw colour’, and Ewart Boddington, brewery chairman from 1970 to 1989, is said (by Mr Field) to have put the beer’s popularity down to the fact that it ‘looked like lager’.

Boddington's bee logo c.1979.Somewhere along the line, however, even as Britain was in the midst of the late-1970s ‘real ale craze’, Boddington’s edge began to grow blunt. The story is told by the brief entries in successive editions of the Good Beer Guide: by 1983, it had ceased to be ‘exceptionally bitter’ and had become, instead, ‘A popular light quaffing bitter’, and the 1984 edition noted that ‘locals are concerned that the bitter has lost some of its distinctive character’.

While it is possible that politics might have coloured local perceptions to an extent– when Boddington’s took over the nearby Oldham Brewery in 1982, it caused a serious falling-out with CAMRA — there are many accounts like this one from blogger Paul Bailey (no relation):

[As] far back as the late 1970s, when I was still living in Manchester, rumours abounded that Boddington’s had reduced the hopping rate of their most famous product to make it less aggressively bitter (blander), so as to increase its appeal to a wider audience. This was confirmed by someone we knew who worked at the brewery, although the company strenuously denied it  (they would, wouldn’t they?). We ended up voting with our feet and switched to drinking in Holts’ pubs, where the bitter still tasted like bitter, and was also quite a bit cheaper as well!

Mike Field’s letter to What’s Brewing quoted above, along with complaints at the 1984 AGM, prompted the brewery liaison officer, microbiologist Kevin Buckley, to look into the matter. In a report in the April 1984 edition of What’s Brewing, he concluded as follows:

The traditional bitter was fermented to a very low final gravity — around 1000 — removing all fermentable sugars. Now fermentation is allowed to stop at an earlier stage… This affects the palate of the beer, increasing the ‘palate fullness’ or ‘body’ of the beer, so the light, slightly thin palate becomes smoother… In combination with the reduction in ‘bitterness’ and the use of less fragrant hop, the net effect is to produce a beer with a ‘smoother mouthfeel’, less after-palate, less alcohol and less hop-aroma…. The colour of the beer has also apparently increased — to mimic the more commonly accepted ‘national’ bitters.

And it worked, eventually: ‘blanded out’, Boddington’s did indeed become a national brand in the 1990s, after the brewery was sold to Whitbread. Launched in cans in 1990, it was the best selling canned bitter for almost a decade, supported by glossy but self-mocking adverts capitalising on its Mancunian roots in the era of the Happy Mondays and Oasis.

But it wasn’t really Boddington’s — it was an impostor, especially when, after 2004, new owners Interbrew moved production out of the City. Some Mancunians continued to drink it out of habit or nostalgia, while CAMRA members and other beer geeks wouldn’t be seen dead with a pint of its ‘smooth’ keg incarnation.

They weren’t interested in ‘creaminess’ — instead, they yearned for that dry, golden, truly bitter beer of 30 years before.

Filling a Boddington’s-Shaped Hole

Marble Manchester Bitter.The first brewery to attempt to plug the gap was Marble who launched ‘Manchester Bitter’ in (we think) around 2001. Never intended as a clone, MMB started from the idea that Boddington’s Bitter in its prime was actually a single expression of a localised style. In 2011, head brewer James Campbell was quoted by journalist Will Hawkes: “It’s a pale, mid-strength, hoppy bitter beer, as was drunk in Manchester 30 years ago. That’s the tradition here.”

Clone or not, how close does it come to its inspiration? Tandleman:

It does reflect… the dryness and colour of the original Boddington’s Bitter, but not the strength — it is much stronger.

When we drank it at the gorgeously tiled Marble Arch pub last week, we found it hard to distinguish from any number of other ‘pale’n’hoppy’ beers from the north of England, though perhaps less flowery or perfumed than some examples. If we could arrange for a pint of 1970s Boddington’s Bitter to be transported through time and space, would it strike us the same way? We suspect so.

Lees MPA poster, Manchester.

In 2013, another Manchester brewery released a beer inspired, at least to some degree, by Boddington’s. J.W. Lees is a large family concern founded in 1828, with a rather conservative image. Their Manchester Pale Ale (MPA) at 3.7% on cask is an attempt to do something that, by their standards, is a bit ‘out there’, i.e. not brown. MPA is the name of this particular beer, but, again, seems to imply that there might once have been an entire set of beers in this style — golden, dry, and ‘sessionable’.

Perhaps partly because we’re suckers for context and cues provided by packaging and branding, we fell hard for MPA as consumed in a Manchester pub. While its bitterness didn’t claw at the back of our throats, it did trigger that pleasant chain reaction: pint-thirsty-pint-thirsty-pint… The crusty-bread character we’ve previously noted in the same brewery’s bitter is present and correct, but complemented with more and brighter hops. It won’t excite green-nostriled lupulin addicts frantically seeking their next fix, but as a beer to settle on for a few hours, it would be hard to beat.

Our own contribution to this nascent sub-style was a set of notes emailed to Matt Lovatt at Kirkstall Brewery who produced a beer under the name Revitalisation! for our appearance at North Bar in Leeds. We referenced this recipe from Ron Pattinson and Kristen England to suggest all pale malt and a bit of sugar, and then lots of Goldings hops to achieve dry bitterness without much aroma.

Matt put a lot of thought into interpreting our suggestions and came up with a beer that, as a beer inspired by Michael Hardman’s memories of Boddington’s or Young’s, was probably not quite right. It was, however, very clean, pleasingly austere, and extremely drinkable — we would have stayed on it all night if we’d been allowed.

The Cream of Manchester

We couldn’t leave the north without drinking at least one pint of the real thing — or at least, the beer that bears the brand of the real thing these days. We found ‘smooth’ keg Boddington’s Bitter on offer at a pub in central Manchester alongside a ‘super cold’ variant, though the standard version makes your teeth chatter. It came with an inch of shaving foam on top — weird-looking even in a part of the world where a ‘tight creamy head’ is the norm — and bubbles clustered on the inside of the apparently slightly grubby glass. It tasted… well, not bad, really. Extremely bland, of course, with a touch of sweetcorn, and reminiscent of, say, Estrella Damm, but not terrible.

None of the beers mentioned above are the best or most exciting you will find in Manchester — it is a city crammed with great bars and pubs — but we think they do tell you something about its culture and history, and drinking three beers that aren’t Boddington’s can help you discern its outline.

A final tip from Tandleman: “If you want a beer that tastes pretty much as I recall the original Boddington’s Bitter, I’d suggest Linfit Gold Medal from the Sair Inn near Huddersfield.  It is a near as I’ve ever had.  Quite a lot stronger though at 4.2%.”

We’re sure we read something somewhere at some point about the Boddington’s yeast strain being ‘cleaned up’ in the 1980s — if you can think where, let us know in the comments below.

UPDATE 02/09/2015: Another possible explanation for the decline of Boddington’s Bitter in the 1980s has come to light through the April 1993 edition of CAMRA’s What’s Brewing. When quizzed by Roger Protz, Boddington’s brewing manager Peter Laws and general manage Ian Kendal suggested that the change might be the result of a change in priming sugars: ‘The brewery had used a blend of of cane sugar and a variety called Ambrose… When [Tate & Lyle] phased it out Boddington’s switched to another blend from the same company called DAS… Kendel and Laws think that stands for “dark ale syrup”, a singularly inappropriate name for Boddington’s Bitter.’

Going Long in August 2014

Reading in the pub (illustration)

We’re writing something longer than usual (1500+ words) for Saturday 30 August 2014. Join us!

Our last attempt to nudge the Blogoshire into providing us with meatier reading material was on 1 March, following on from similar exercises in November and September last year.

This time, to give people time to recuperate and work on their masterpieces, we thought we’d set a longer deadline, hence 30 August.

Here’s the deal if you want to join in:

  • 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 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.

Last time we did this, we had a flurry of messages from people saying: ‘I didn’t know this was happening!’ We’ll issue a few reminders at tactical intervals but, in the meantime, put it in your diaries!

We haven’t decided what we’re going to write about yet. If you have any suggestions (our Newquay Steam Beer post was prompted by an email from a reader) let us know in the comments below.

Beery Long Reads, March 2014

'I Deny Being A Hipster Who Denies Being A Hipster' by Lorena Cupcake, from Flickr Creative Commons.
SOURCE: Lorena Cupcake, Flickr Creative Commons.

Hipsters

by Chris Hall (@cshallwriter)

For a long time, I’ve used the word affectionately, referring to hipsters in the same way I might say ‘Oh Morrissey, you silly Quorn sausage.’ I see people doing things that seem naive or gullible, fashion-following or amusingly trendy, and I think, somewhat patronisingly, oh, hipsters, shaking my head in fatherly amusement/disapproval. In the past year or so though, I have become increasingly aware and sensitive to the use of the word hipster in a decidedly non-affectionate way.

[Read more at the Beer Diary…]

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[/ezcol_1third]Birmingham Beer Bash logo.[ezcol_2third_end]My, How We’ve Changed

by David Shipman (@othertonaleman)

I don’t know any more where (or who) it came from, or how it got shared, but initially sensible discussions fuelled by beer became bolder. A vision was born. Only an outline at first, blurred but recognisable. We created the Birmingham Beer Bash.

[Read more at Othertonales…][/ezcol_2third_end]

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[/ezcol_1third]Kona Brewing logo.[ezcol_2third_end]Nineteen ninety-five: beer change afoot

by Stan Hieronymus (@stanhieronymus)

Fifteen years after Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi began selling their Sierra Nevada beers in 1980 America’s beer renaissance demanded attention.

[Read more at Appellation Beer..][/ezcol_2third_end]

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[/ezcol_1third]Banana Bread Beer bottle.[ezcol_2third_end]Banana Bread Beer: an enduring oddity

by Leigh Linley (@LeighGoodStuff)

The aroma is the first thing you notice. You try to stop yourself thinking ‘Well it does smell like Banana’, but you can’t. It’s there all right; sweet and almost cloying, recalling those foam banana sweets.

[Read more at The Good Stuff…][/ezcol_2third_end]

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[/ezcol_1third]Cardboard beer mats.[ezcol_2third_end]Cardboard Stupid — more box than beer

by Justin Mason (@1970sboy)

Cardboard, a heavy duty paper in all its forms, from the box your latest online order came in to the handy beer mat you scribbled that telephone number on in a hurry has had a long association with beer and our drinking habits…

[Read more at Get Beer. Drink Beer.][/ezcol_2third_end]

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[/ezcol_1third]Detail from a photo by Dianne Tanner: bottled beer.[ezcol_2third_end]The Price of Craft Beer

by Matt Curtis (@totalcurtis)

My more avid Twitter followers will have recently witnessed a brief tirade against what I felt was an excessively high price for imported cans of Oskar Blues Deviant Dale’s IPA, one of my very favourite double IPA’s. The cheapest price I could find was £6.49 for a single 455ml/16oz can…

[Read more at Total Ales…][/ezcol_2third_end]

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[/ezcol_1third]Ontario Beer Label.[ezcol_2third_end]Your Sunday Morning 1940s Ontario Beer Update

by Alan McLeod (@agoodbeerblog)

I give you excerpts from a late draft of Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay. Final tweaks continue…

[Read more at A Good Beer Blog…][/ezcol_2third_end]

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[/ezcol_1third]Small Beer Illustration.[ezcol_2third_end]Has The Brewery Boom Made Beer Worse?

by Connor Murphy (@likethemurphys)

With so many nascent breweries now in operation, it’s fair to say there’s been a net decrease in experience throughout the brewing trade and, given the appeal of craft, there has been an increase in those keen to cash in on demand… That’s not to say the boom has been bad for beer but the current state of flux has caused quality to waver over the last couple of years.

[Read more at Beer Battered…][/ezcol_2third_end]

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[/ezcol_1third]Detail from the cover of Home Brewing Without Failures by H.E. Bravery.[ezcol_2third_end]Homebrewing in the UK

by David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer)

It’s my opinion that the boom-and-boom of homebrewing is symbiotic with the general surge of interest in beer… 2013 was another good year for homebrewing, and 2014 is already full of promise.

[Read more at Broadfordbrewer…][/ezcol_2third_end]

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[/ezcol_1third]The Golden Heart, Spitalfields.[ezcol_2third_end]The Snug Bar Preservation Society

by Boak & Bailey (@boakandbailey) with pictures by Ten Inch Wheels (@teninchwheels)

Nowadays, the idea of a community campaign to save a pub hardly seems remarkable — they are seen as an endangered species, the cruel property developers’ harpoons glancing off their leathery old skin — but a hundred years ago, thing were very different. Then, a cull was underway. [Read more…][/ezcol_2third_end]

We’ll add any stragglers to this list and when we find out about them either in the comments below or through Twitter.