Back to the Future of Beer

Two stories in the last four months pinpoint the turnaround in British brewing since the mid-1970s. The first, from The Telegraph, explains that about 1700 breweries currently operate, an 80-year high. The second, from The Guardian, states that lager sales have fallen below 50% and cask-conditioned ale has regained part of its historical dominance. The second story notes the continuation of the pub-closing phenomenon, but with 4,500 pubs still operating, the country won’t be denuded of pubs any time soon.

New pub openings, even if fewer than the closures and often offering quality rather than quantity, are a fair price to pay for a lower overall number.

In 1976 when beer writer Michael Jackson started his landmark work, lager had just over 15% of the market and, in his words, was a separate drink from beer in the Englishman’s mind. The remainder was top-fermented beers, mostly ale and sub-dividing to cask beer and various forms of keg and bottled beer. Lager grew from there to over 80% of the market but has scaled back under the resurgence of ale-drinking, which includes a small amount of stout and porter and now other styles such as wheat beers, sours, saison.

How does this compare to 1973 when Peter Rusbridge was defending traditional beer to a sunny Canberra audience? While the trend toward lager was well underway and keg beer was a force to be reckoned with, there was still an English beer culture.  Consider his explanation:

He sidles up to me in the bar. “How d’you like Australian beer?” he asks. “Very much indeed”. I reply, “It is a very refreshing drink”. He looks at me, speculatively. “Not like your Pom rubbish eh? — all flat and warm, with ‘stuff floating around in it!” I pause for a moment, and he sniffs the air distrustfully. “No”, I eventually reply, “It certainly isn’t like that”. He relaxes visibly; the point has been made. My friend has just made one of those facile statements, so bland in their utterance that they win immediate acceptance, but which are wrong, and which would take an hour of carefully reasoned argument to refute properly. He should be in television. The truth is that English beer is very different from Australian beer; that it is sometimes warm, sometimes flat, and sometimes cloudy; but that it is also sometimes very cold, sometimes frothy (not fizzy), and usually crystal clear. The chief interest in English beer is that it is always different. Somerset beer is different from Lincolnshire beer, and both are very different from Northern beers. There are pale beers, dark beers, hoppy beers, malty beers, beers that taste like soap, bitter beers with the tang of vinegar, sweet beers, heavy with the taste of yeast still working, mild beers and stouts. You must search for the beer that suits you best, and then you must find the landlord that knows how to store and serve it.

This variety of tastes was offered via “The Big Six”, the large brewers mostly formed by unceasing industry consolidation since the early 1900s, and a few score surviving old regional brewers. There were just four brewpubs in the country, remnants of the 1800s “beer house”. Given some of the Big Six had numerous plants, each of which might issue numerous brands, this permitted in total a few hundred ales, many still in cask form, with bottled and canned ales in addition.

This was nothing compared to 1900, when Hampshire county, say, had 80 breweries alone as Lynn Pearson wrote in 2010, but still represented a decent beer culture.

It was this variety which allowed Rusbridge to make the case he did, albeit he saw the risks from keg beer and closure of traditional pubs or their conversion to pub-restaurants attracting a flashy clientele.

In fact, everything he, CAMRA, Michael Jackson, Roger Protz, and other beer-aware factions wanted finally came. Despite the occasional flare-up of sensitivities, e.g., when an exemplar of the craft scene, Cloudwater Brewing in Manchester, recently announced cessation of cask sales, the current beer scene is a complete reversal of 1973’s trends. With no or a little trouble, even in more remote parts of the country anyone can have good beer.

Even if Cloudwater’s decision heralds a trend, and I think it won’t, the new keg beer can’t in any way be compared to the old. It is real beer – although I remain a supporter of CAMRA’s real ale remit – in any meaningful sense of the word. It is often all-malt and full of hops, including a pungent hop accent not available in 1973: the New World taste introduced by American brewers. 1973’s keg beer was full of adjunct, pasteurized, served cold and fizzy, and not very hoppy – much of it didn’t even taste like beer. I remember it from its “classic” era. A good description is Ovaltine-meets-cold-tea.

Lager has retreated despite the best efforts of the best marketing and ad minds in the world. Good lager has made inroads via availability of Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell, and many other fine imports. (International brewery consolidation has proved a beneficial factor here). There is also increasing craft production of good lager.

The purchase of some small breweries by large ones should not be a concern. First, it’s the beer that counts. No one in the 1970s cared that Directors Bitter, say, came from a large brewery. While some will always want to patronize small shops, which is certainly their right, most of the market will buy what tastes good at the right price.

Second, new breweries continue to open and will keep faux-craft “honest”.  We are in for a long period of extensive beer choice, in most Western countries now. This resulted from the campaigning efforts of very small numbers of people in the 1970s, people who loved beer and stood up for it when it wasn’t fashionable.

Of those names and I’ve mentioned a few in the last couple of posts, one has Olympian standing. Michael Jackson. When you re-read his early works, as I have recently, apart from the sheer quality of the writing, what comes across is his deep knowledge and love of beer. It can’t be over-estimated what influence he had on the rise of craft brewing here. The latter’s shake-up of the British brewing scene is therefore indirectly due in large part to his handiwork.

Many people shared that avidity, but he had the gift to explain it, in particular the traditional beer cultures of Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Czech lands, the United States, in a way no one has since.

Note re image: the image shown was taken by Trevor Ermel and is part of a series of evocative, 1970s photos in Gateshead included in a ChronicleLive page, here. All intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.