Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth Of British Beer (Book Review)

In North Bar on Monday evening, when Ray Bailey signed my review copy of Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth Of British Beer, he told me to be honest in my opinion of it.  In the end, there is no need to be anything other than candid: I haven’t devoured a book about beer so quickly and enjoyably since five years ago, when I read Pete Brown’s own social history of beer, Man Walks Into A Pub, sneaking off to read a couple of chapters in every lunch break.

Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey’s book traces the last fifty years of British beer, drawing together consumer organisations, brewers, writers, drinkers, pubs, restaurants, retailers, television personalities and politicians into a single narrative that is much more coherent and entertaining than anyone is entitled to expect.  The results of extensive archive research and unique interviews are communicated in a clear and concise writing style, resulting in a text that moves at quite a pace through history, dropping in nuggets of amusing trivia along the way.  I was grateful that they had waded through all those old newsletters so we don’t have to, but also regretted not having a pint with many of the interviewees.

Key actors, such as City gent and Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood founder Arthur Millard, ambitious Firkin entrepreneur David Bruce, restless brewing genius Brendan Dobbin and the canny, business-minded James Watt are sketched out in a delicate but wry manner that captures some aspect of their personality. The authors succeed in telling a story of fascinating and human characters, rather than what this might have been: a chronology of breweries, pubs and consumer organisations which started up, influenced the industry to one extent or another within a few years, then either collapsed or survived into varying degrees of irrelevance in a changed world, alongside more recent examples who have yet to do so.

photo-4

Apart from the general sweep of the book, tracing the development of British beer from something which was enjoyed passively by those who drank it through to the real ale revival, winification and the more recent craft keg and diversity of obscure styles, there are some interesting recurring themes.

One such theme is the impact of class and politics in the beer movement.  The gentleman piss artists of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood come together in the City of London, encouraged by the Financial Times’ beer journalism.  The founders of the next generation consumer group, CAMRA, comprised journalists of a 1970s left-wing bent, leading to divisive conflicts over capitalist or campaigning activities.  David Bruce, opening the Goose & Firkin in 1979, is determined to be a millionaire and achieves a profit of £2million on a sale of the chain in 1988, at the price of seeing it commoditised by the buyers.

The book should be appreciated by any reader with an interest in beer, regardless of prior knowledge.  Those beer geeks who might feel that most writing on the subject, when it consists of more than just collections of tasting notes, tends to resurrect the same arguments, restate the same dubious history or descend into technical detail that means little to them, will be satisfied by the rigour of the research and the freshness of the writing.  In particular I found that it corrected, tied together and placed in context disparate pieces of knowledge that I’d picked up from various sources, as well as including a great deal that was completely new to me, such the role of Jeremy Beadle in CAMRA or Oliver Peyton in the 1990s beer scene.

The book has a touching epilogue, revisiting the veterans of the SPBW, with the poignant final quote (which I won’t ruin for you) providing the apparent message of a book which otherwise maintains a tone of relative neutrality if not complete objectivity: that over 50 years successive generations have, often in very different ways, discovered what they believed to be “good beer” and valued it enough to do something about it.

The Marshal and Land Of Cartmel – Unsworth’s Yard Brewery, Cartmel, Cumbria

If you’ve seen The Trip or Restaurant Wars: The Battle For Manchester, you’ll be familiar with Simon Rogan and his two-Michelin starred restaurant L’Enclume.  L’Enclume is in Cartmel, a village in Cumbria also notable for its sticky toffee puddings and for Rogan’s increasing empire (second restaurant, hotel, pub), which has drawn comparisons with Rick Stein’s impact on Padstow.

L’Enclume deserves its praise, and as a result Cartmel has become a destination for foodies with disposable tuck money.  It therefore makes perfect sense to have a microbrewery there and, accordingly, Unsworth’s Yard Brewery was set up in January 2012. In accordance with L’Enclume’s emphasis on local ingredients and suppliers, Unsworth’s Yard’s beers have made it on to the drinks list at the restaurant and are also available in bottle or on cask from the brewery shop, in the village pubs and off licence.

photo-3

After a very special visit to L’Enclume, I picked up a couple of bottles from Hot Wines to try later.  The Land Of Cartmel is a 3.7% pale ale, available in bottles that do not appear to be bottle conditioned.  It’s golden, with only a slight hint of coffee in the aroma.  It has a good body for a 3.7% bottled beer, which could be down to the wheat in the recipe.  There’s a noticeable but not overpowering dry bitterness, tasting a little bit chalky or woody with even a hint of peat at the end.  Apart from that last note, it reminded me of both Coniston Bluebird and Butcombe Bitter.

The Marshal presents itself as a bit special.  It’s more expensive and comes numbered and dated (this one bottled on 8 October 2013) in a swing-top bottle.  A 6% strong pale ale, it has the rich brioche aroma of a Belgian blond.  The bitterness is wrapped delicately in a creamy mouthfeel and alcoholic warmth.  Once again there’s an earthiness that I would guess is attributable to English hops, although I expect the hop character would be significantly different in a younger bottle.  It’s reminiscent of some of the older, southern English breweries’ revivals of their traditional British IPA recipes, but also isn’t a million miles away from Orval (without the Brettanomyces).  Like Orval, it would go very well with cheese, perhaps from the cheese shop next door.

Kinnegar Brewing, Rathmullan, County Donegal

The island of Ireland was such a dystopia of beer choice in the early 1970s that a visit inspired four English visitors to band together and form a consumer group to save the remnants of English cask ale when they got back home.

20140503-225036.jpg

CAMRA lacked significant extraterritorial influence, so cask ale has not had a major resurgence since the 1970s on the island that inspired the campaign. However, as various seasoned Irish bloggers have documented, Ireland has a much more exciting and varied beer culture in the 21st century than it had in the last, but at the same time I didn’t expect a visit to rural Donegal to offer more in the way of beer than Guinness, Guinness or Guinness.

Accordingly, when I last visited Rathmullan for a fishing trip two years ago, there was no evidence of craft beer. But, since then, the small seaside town has acquired its own farmhouse brewery, Kinnegar Brewing, whose beers are available in bottles or on keg in a number of local pubs, including The Beachcomber Bar and The White Harte.

20140503-225121.jpg

Moreover, Kinnegar seems to be distinguished by a level of quality that most new English breweries fail to achieve. Scraggy Bay IPA in particular is an assertively bitter and citrussy but well-rounded New World-hopped IPA that would hold its own against Jaipur, Punk or Diablo.

After a long day’s fishing off Killybegs, marked by a shortage of actual fish, but the compensation of a pod of dolphins swimming with the boat, I was very happy to sit outside The White Harte, nursing an increasingly red forehead and watching the sun go down over Lough Swilly with a cold glass of a genuinely very good Irish IPA. In the same setting I would have suffered a Guinness too, but still.

20140503-225139.jpg

Kinnegar’s stockists are listed on its website and include bars and off licences throughout the island, including The Vineyard in Belfast and L Mulligans Grocers in Dublin.

Categories: Beer, Uncategorized

Marks & Spencer Mosaic Pale Ale and Amarillo Golden Ale

It did seem that the craft beer revolution had stopped being able to squeeze into its tight girl jeans and instead had pulled a nice comfy Blue Harbour rugby shirt over its growing paunch when Marks and Spencer started selling single-hopped beers, but Oakham Citra under M&S branding being so widely available to the poor huddled middle classes should not be shrugged at. The other beers (Elgood’s Sovereign, Crouch Vale’s Hallertau Brewers Gold and Castle Rock’s Cascade) were each interesting enough, but none were as well-rounded or exciting as Citra, which qualifies as a modern classic.

It seems that the initial experiment was successful enough for M&S to ask for more single-hopped beers from their favoured English breweries, and two new bottles, Mosaic Pale Ale from Adnams and Amarillo Golden Ale from Meantime, caught my eye this week.

photo-2

Both breweries have had good-to-excellent form in their previous offerings for M&S. Adnam’s Summer IPA and Winter IPA (rebadging their American Style IPA and Innovation respectively) are two of the most enjoyable beers that Marks and Spencer have stocked, and it seemed doubly bold of M&S to stock hoppy beers that exceeded 6%. I was less convinced by the rebadged Sole Star, but it was acceptable for a tax-efficient 2.7%. Meantime’s more expensive barrel-aged offerings have been less successful, but their Black IPA was solid, even if black IPA in M&S feels like Motörhead t-shirts in New Look.

Moving on to the new beers, Adnam’s Mosaic Pale Ale is copper blonde in colour with a slightly metallic aroma. The overall impression from the first taste is a thin mouthfeel and restrained dry bitterness without much depth. The metallic taste builds into a more rounded bitterness, but one characterised by that oniony quality that you get from Simcoe (from which Mosaic is derived). It’s a more pleasant drink than that sounds, perhaps one that will appeal to Brewdog fans given their signature use of Simcoe and which might go well with barbecued red meat.

The Meantime-brewed Amarillo Golden Ale is another story altogether: it’s straw coloured with a whiter, frothier head. A fuller, oilier mouthfeel sustains the flavours of apricots and flowers, with a little grapefruit. A more elegant beer than the Mosaic and an easier one to love, it would go well with light, spicy foods and mango salsa.

Both are pretty good for the barbecue season then, but I would recommend the Amarillo and the still-available Citra if your tastes are similar to mine.

Categories: Beer, Uncategorized Tags:

Good Vibrations and Bad Vibes: Amateur criticism and social media

April 19, 2014 1 comment

I recently read a Facebook post that appeared to be by Belfast record shop owner and label starter Terri Hooley.  The post drew attention to a mini-review of the film of his life, Good Vibrations.  The review was on a site called “Letterboxd” (a social networking/microblogging site for film fans) and only said:

The ultimate proof (if any more was needed after he put Saving Mr. Banks on his year-end top 10 list) that Mark Kermode has become an old, whiny, out-of-touch, middlebrow and sentimental fart.

Mark Kermode had named Good Vibrations, which is a lovely low budget film based on Terri’s own anecdotes about the liberating effect of punk on himself and the teenagers living through the worst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as one of the best of last year. In the Facebook post, Terri was angry about Mark suffering the “backlash” that he had expected from the film but hadn’t yet experienced.

Good Vibrations is not flawless as films go, not least because of its limited budget, but most people will find themselves swept along in its humour and amiability and appreciate Terri’s fundamental rightness in supporting music’s redemptive effect in a situation sorely lacking in redemption; a Northern Irish Twenty Four Hour Party People with less knowing playfulness but higher stakes.

But there will be exceptions and, in 2014, some of those people will decide to tell the internet when they didn’t like it.  When they decide to do so, they will tend not to consider the possibility that someone who invested more in the end product than the cost of an online rental might read it.  Like Terri, for example, for whom it is essentially the end product of his entire life, along with introducing John Peel to the Undertones (and selling me a Frank Zappa bootleg 14 years ago).

The reason that I’m writing this on a near-defunct beer blog is that it reminds me of the situation regarding beer.  The craft beer industry is full of people who have a really close connection to their product, take pride in their work, will be genuinely hurt by online criticism and consequently annoyed by it, especially when that criticism comes from people who appear not to know what they’re talking about.  Except it is also the case that the people who are criticising them aren’t usually claiming to express an expert opinion, but are merely venting the feeling that they didn’t get value for money from the beer they bought, which might have been an actual problem of quality, a misunderstanding about what the brewer was trying to achieve or possibly even an utter failure of palate.

I am in no position to criticise a brewer for what they are trying to do when occasionally they fail to achieve it, and consequently don’t have a lot to say these days.  I would be more willing to criticise a larger brewery for trying to piggy-back on the shoulders of many smaller brewers and launching “craft beers” that merely devalue that already-amorphous term, if the whole situation didn’t fill me with inertia.

But, I suppose, if there is a moral to be taken for brewers it is to listen to individual criticisms, be open to their validity, but also be prepared to dismiss them graciously and/or silently if they obviously have no merit.  The product will, over time, probably speak for itself.  The risk of the alternative is to be Ricky Gervais, railing against “critics” and turning everyone else against you in the process.

Finally, I would recommend that you watch Good Vibrations.  It’s a craft film if ever there was one.

Categories: Uncategorized

In Pictures: The Second Leeds International Beer Festival

September 6, 2013 5 comments

I went to the opening day of Leeds International Beer Festival yesterday evening. With the caveats that I’ve never been to Indy Man Beer Con, GBBF or the Copenhagen Beer Celebration, and the fact that I’m not actually that keen on traditional beer festivals, it was definitely the best beer festival experience I’ve had. It’s on a grander scale than last year and the organisers, bars and breweries involved have put a lot of effort into making it really special, as can be seen from the photos below.

IMG_9870

There was a greater use of the possibilities of the Town Hall this year, with the food vans, Friends of Ham’s teepee, the Brooklyn truck and Flying Dog caravan out front. One hidden gem was North Bar’s pop-up “Atomium” in the old cells under the Town Hall, where The Day The Earth Stood Still played on screen whilst drinkers downed shots of tequila and pickle juice.

IMG_9873

If you get a chance to attend over the weekend I would highly recommend it. Tickets can be purchased from the city centre box office.

IMG_9849

IMG_9851

IMG_9852

IMG_9856

IMG_9865

IMG_9866

IMG_9869

IMG_9877

IMG_9881

IMG_9882

IMG_9884

IMG_9887

IMG_9890

IMG_9893

IMG_9895

IMG_9896

IMG_9871

Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing: Howling Hops Oatmeal Pale Ale (3.5% ABV)

“3.5%” on a bottle label can be a depressing thing for the drinker to see.  If I know nothing else about a beer other than the ABV, if I see 3.5% I assume I’m in for something lacking in excitement.  A mild.  The most boring of brown bitters.  A thin stout.  Even where “New World hops” are advertised, you wonder if they wouldn’t rather be starring in something better, like a respected actor taking roles in artless films to pay a tax debt.

Image

There’s a small number of good examples of New World-hopped low ABV beers, but most are primarily cask beers and don’t carry over well to bottles, if they even try.  In particular they feel thin and dry, which can be fine, but not if you have a taste for big oily, sticky American IPAs. I’ve yet to try a passable 2.8% pale ale.

But sometimes you need something tasty in a bottle which will not challenge your sobriety.  For that I recommend Howling Hops Oatmeal Pale Ale.  I know, it sounds awful:  3.5% porridge pale.  An albino oatmeal stout.  From Hackney, no less.  But instead, what you get is a crisp citrus-hopped beer with a remarkable amount of body, and if you didn’t know better you might place it somewhere north of 5.5%.

I assume it’s down to the oatmeal.  If it is, perhaps oatmeal is the magic bullet for low ABV pale ales.  If it isn’t – and remember that I know less about the science of brewing than most people reading this – forget all of the above.  It’s still a really good little beer.

Categories: Beer Tags: , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 87 other followers

%d bloggers like this: