Peter Rusbridge Calls for a Glass of the Best

Convincing Canberra Beer Could Be Special

This article describes the U.K. beer scene at a time of transition, 1973. Written that year by an English journalist, it explained his nation’s beer to (Australian) readers of The Canberra Times. The article is both a description of the best that exists and a plea to preserve it from encroaching change.

The piece is entitled The Pleasures of Warm Beer – now that’s edgy for the Australia of the mid-70s.

CAMRA, the influential cask beer lobby, had only existed for a couple of years. The writer seems influenced by CAMRA and lauded especially beer from the wood. He may have been a member of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood, a proto-CAMRA which still exists. He was a good example of the “real ale” fan, someone who gained consciousness that, as Michael Jackson put it in The English Pub (1976), “a detail of English life [was being] obliterated”.

The article expresses the new awareness that so-called keg beer – chilled, pressurized, pasteurized draft – was edging out the traditional, unfiltered and unpasteurized ales. It makes the case for a regional identity to beer, something still possible then as there were enough surviving regional breweries, and to preserve that legacy.

Michael Jackson most famously, but also Richard Boston, Roger Protz, and others later took the message to a national and (finally) international audience. Their message resonated and was amplified in the United States and Canada, whence the craft beer phenomenon which has rebounded to the U.K.

It is gratifying to note that the brewery Rusbridge mentioned as a charter member of the old school, Badger Brewery, is still going strong. Rusbridge, hopefully also still with us, must be very pleased and with how good beer has resurged in general. Of course there was the victory of mass market lager, which filled the role keg beer was designed for, but the proliferation of new small breweries and beer diversity including for cask ale is now assured.

Badger is called today Hall & Woodhouse, and run by the 7th generation of Woodhouses – it doesn’t get much more traditional. Indeed, a feature of our world 40 years on is that the local and old-established can also be international: the Fursty Ferret flagship of H&W is available in bottled form down the road from me at LCBO. I wish it had a more pronounced taste, but then bottled and draft beer are often two different things, and on its local turf I’m sure it is very nice.

The cask ale Rusbridge lyricised was probably Badger Original, no longer made. But there are plenty of newer Badger cask beers to entice the fan, as this page from the website shows.

Were the Aussie readers convinced? I doubt it, except for recent immigrants perhaps. In that period, Antipodeans had a deprecating view of the “Poms'” beer, which Rusbridge notes in the unaggressive way then typical of English journalism. (His last paragraph though digs the knife in, in the genteel old world way).

Today Australian and similar parochialism in beer is mostly a thing of the past. Even those who like beer but aren’t “beer literate” are hesitant to be chauvinistic. The Aussies were famously different a generation ago, even for beer outside their own state – the other stuff was all muck, generally.

Today too there is air conditioning everywhere, which allows full-bodied beers to be served at less than glacial temperatures and enjoyed even in hot countries. And, so, there is plenty of good beer in Australia including Canberra.

Finally, the traditional pub described by Rusbridge did not disappear. Many pubs keep the tradition going of unpretentious decor and service. True, the hipster side of the beer scene can change that, but overall there is more choice in beer and good places to drink it than 40 years ago. (And hipsters have a right to their establishments too, it’s a free country – still).

Raise a glass to Peter Rusbridge’s prescience and advocacy. It took backbone to stand up for real English beer to an audience inured to iced lager. But as often happens, those in the wilderness can be seen later as prophets.

We even have beer in the wood again, in particular the newer-style American oak-aged beers.