Something stirring in the attic – Part 2

Derby CAMRA 1979 Beer Festival ProgrammeIn the first part of this article I explained how when exploring the deepest recesses of our attic I came across my programme of the Derby CAMRA Beer Festival of 1979. And that, for me, reading the programme highlighted issues very relevant to the current world of British beer and brewing. Part one went on to talk about changes in beers and breweries. Here, in part two, I want to address the thorny subject of the cask verses keg row that is troubling CAMRA today, and how the festival programme’s introduction notes provide a perspective on the debate.

Part Two: What’s it all about?

After the nostalgia trip reading the festival programme’s brewery notes and remembering the beers and atmosphere of 1979, I turned to read the CAMRA Derby Branch’s introduction page.

Derby CAMRA 1979 Beer Festival Programme Introduction

Naturally, the author wrote about CAMRA as an organisation, what it was doing locally, and how readers could join the campaign. What I see as a key point is how the piece describes CAMRA as fighting ‘to preserve and promote real ale in real pubs especially in areas which suffer from a surfeit of keg beer’. The piece also refers to the Derby Branch producing its own Good Beer Guide ‘to publicise the pubs selling traditional cask conditioned beers in our area’.

The above comments are important as they describe very clearly what CAMRA was already know for and, I believe, has consistently been best known for since its creation in the 1970s.

There are arguments in and around CAMRA at the moment about how the organisation should recognise and respond to the revival of kegged beer (often associated with ‘craft’ beer). One case made for allowing the new keg beers into the CAMRA fold is that CAMRA was originally set up as the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale to promote high quality in beer. The argument follows that whereas in the seventies beer quality could be defined easily in terms of cask conditioned as opposed to mass-produced kegs (pasteurised and carbonated), today things are different as many brewers now brew nice tasting keg beers, and some cask conditioned beers are not kept or served well.

There are many ways to answer this argument, but here I’m going to go back to the comments from the 1979 festival programme. Despite what some of the founders of CAMRA may have originally intended back in 1971, from 1973 CAMRA has been the Campaign for Real Ale. And, despite whatever nuances the founders saw in terms of the campaign’s role, I suggest it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t always been widely seen as promoting cask conditioning as the key feature of British brewing. Therefore, it seems completely consistent that CAMRA should focus on cask conditioned beer and work towards highlighting and encouraging good cellar and bar management, in tandem with discouraging all less than good examples of both.

Today there are keg beers that taste nice and there are keg beers that offer a variety of experiences that attract a modern consumer; just as there have always been excellent foreign beers to compete with British real ale. The new wave of keg beers don’t need CAMRA to thrive and it benefits no-one for CAMRA to try and hang onto the coat tails of this current fashion. I believe it is completely justifiable, and valid, for CAMRA to campaign strongly for GOOD cask conditioned beer without bringing the new keg beers into the mix and so muddy the waters.

Campaigning for the survival of good pubs and for good real cider and perry, alongside good, well delivered, cask conditioned beer seems completely in keeping the organisation’s ethos. Can campaigning for keg beer really be said to have any connection, purpose, or relevance?

Some of those that want change worry about CAMRA losing its relevance in the face of the new beer revolution. CAMRA will lose its relevance if it dilutes itself and looses sight of what its always been famous for.

Good cask conditioned beer is a wonderful part of British tradition, heritage, identity, or however you want to put it. Surely it’s important that CAMRA concentrate and focus, clearly, on ensuring we all have access to the best of this national treasure!

Something stirring in the attic – Part 1

During a recent trip into the deepest recesses of our attic I came across a box of souvenirs from my younger days. The box contained a large quantity of old football programmes which, of course, I had to flick through to avoid getting on with the task in hand. As I relived the football memories something different dropped out of the pile and caught my eye. I’d found my programme of the Derby CAMRA Beer Festival of 1979.

Derby CAMRA 1979 Beer Festival Programme

Given my life-long love affair with cask conditioned beer, and my recent return to CAMRA membership, this was a special discovery. I re-read the programme from cover to cover and took myself back to that April evening in the King’s Hall, Derby when I was in my early twenties. I still remember much of the experience of that festival, and although the modern-day city festivals are much bigger, and brasher, I don’t think they’re any more enjoyable than that early example.

Aside from pure nostalgia, reading the festival programme highlighted a couple of issues salient to the current world of British beer and brewing. In order to look at these issues properly I’ll split this article in two. Here I’ll talk about the changes in beers and breweries demonstrated by the line-up at the festival. In part two I’ll spend some time on the more thorny subject of the cask verses keg row that is troubling CAMRA today, and how the festival programme’s introduction notes provide a useful perspective on the debate.

Part One: Where have they gone?

Layout of Breweries at the 1979 festival
Breweries at the festival. Ticks show those sampled during a busy Friday night!

1979 saw the second annual Derby Beer Festival. There were twenty breweries, each providing from one to four different beers. Most of the beers were Bitters but there was a good selection of Milds and a few Strong/Winter Brews. For readers of this article under about, say, thirty five I think I ought to point out that beers that were categorised as Bitter in the seventies ranged in style from what is still called Bitter to the less exotic end of modern-day Pale Ale spectrum. In those days one didn’t turn one’s nose up at a Bitter, as many do now, one relished the seductive body, mouthfeel, and aftertaste!

It’s sad to count how many breweries at that festival no longer exist. Even some of those whose names live on it is only their names, and their beer is now brewed many miles away by one brewing conglomerate or other. The fact that only eight out of twenty breweries still brew beer is, unfortunately, not surprising. And, as someone raised in the East Midlands, I find the changes that have taken place in Nottingham a good example of brewery troubles of the seventies and subsequent decades.

By the time I started drinking, my hometown of Derby had already lost all its indigenous breweries, but neighbouring Nottingham still had its three relatively big local players. Hardys & Hansons (known as Kimberley’s), Home, and Shipstone’s breweries supplied a wide area around Nottingham and even had pubs in Derby, where I got to know them. Each of these breweries was at the 1979 festival but relatively soon afterwards each was lost to take-over and subsequent closure. I have to say that these breweries produced quite idiosyncratic brews that took getting used to, but ‘local taste’, different from region to region, is something I feel we’ve almost lost today, and that really is a great shame.

As in most cities, new breweries have set-up in Nottingham over the last couple of decades, especially as part of the recent new wave brewing renaissance.  And, late last year a new Shipstone’s brewery began brewing in Nottingham after a determined individual, Richard Neale, bought the Shipstone’s name and original recipes. Richard’s objective seems to be to revive the traditional taste of the old Nottingham favourite. I wish him well and look forward to checking if their Bitter is as I remember it!

The list of lost breweries from the 1979 festival line-up includes Ward’s from Sheffield, which many in the city remember with affection. Ward’s brought both Sheffield Best Bitter and Best Mild for their stall; and the selection of Milds offered from across the breweries there is indication of how tastes were quite different to those of today. Yet, it strikes me that it’s not just simply tastes that have changed over the last forty years; the current developments in beer stem from evolved attitudes to not only beer as a drink but also the entire role of pub drinking. Mild drinking had been shrinking for very many decades, into its industrial and regional strongholds (especially the Midlands), but it seems to me that modern demands for certain strong and varied areas of taste (and lots of them) in beer have finally consigned Mild to a museum piece ‘heritage’ style for special occasions.

Looking into the marginalisation of Mild can lead to a wider exploration of the changing role of beer, but I think that is best kept for a future article where I can give it the room it deserves.

Another now extinct brewery from the Derby festival was Pollard’s, from Stockport, who especially grabbed my attention when research for this article uncovered an excellent piece in Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog entitled ‘Only a Northern Brewer’. Little did I realise as I sampled Pollard’s John Barleycorn Bitter back in 1979 that I was enjoying a drink from a forerunner of modern-day micro-breweries. Pollard’s didn’t survive far into the eighties but their model took root and, thankfully, lives on.

Homebrew in the community

Being a bit of a homebrew enthusiast myself, I was intrigued when I heard that Sheffield’s On the Edge Brewery was having one of its own beer festivals in a community centre just a mile away. On the Edge Brewery is the passion of one man who has taken homebrewing to a level where he can supply casks to pubs and organise his own mini-festivals to publicise his produce. The brewery’s fifth birthday was a perfect reason for a celebratory festival and so Tom, the brewer, prepared nine pins (four and a half gallons) of different beers and set-up in the hall of the Old Junior School in Sharrow. This was an unmissable opportunity for me to experience a very inspirational venture, and, of course, taste a few beers.

Walking in to the old school hall I was struck by the really good atmosphere. There was very much a local community feel about the place, with groups of all ages and families with children all enjoying a relaxed night out with good beer……and cake. Being a birthday celebration friends of the brewery had baked a range of lovely cakes to give a party feel to the evening. Unfortunately, we’d been slow getting over to the festival and missed the early evening pie and peas, which was quite a shame as it’s always such a perfect accompaniment to beer.

My wife and I tried almost the full range of beers. My wife having those advertised as wheat beers or ‘spicy’, whilst I kept mostly to the variously hopped pale ales but making an exception for one of the dark offerings.

Tom, and his partner Lu, were great hosts and I could see everyone, like us, really enjoyed the evening. Tom was also good enough to give me a few useful homebrewing tips which I’ll be thinking about next time I set about a brew.

Whilst, I really admire Tom’s brewing skills and passion, I came away from the festival a little sad that I hadn’t found a bitter beer in his range. On the Edge Brewery appears to follow the widespread trend towards beers with little bitterness but heavily hopped for ‘fruity’ flavours. I know this is a national trend/fashion but it seems to be one that is particularly prevalent in the Sheffield area. Elsewhere in this blog (Me? I’m not bitter) I write of the lack of good bitter beers in Sheffield, and it is a real concern for me. That being said, I don’t want to detract from the obvious skill and enterprise of Tom and On the Edge Brewery. I look forward to the next mini-festival, and I suggest any Sheffielders reading this should do the same.

We do NOT have WARM beer!

A couple of summers ago my wife and I spent some time at a beautiful agriturismo (le mole sul farfa) in the Sabine Hills north east of Rome. Stefano at the farm was a wonderful host, guide, farmer, and chef but he blotted his copybook whilst driving us to the station for our train back to Rome. As we chatted in the car about this and that the subject of beer came up and immediately he joked about British ‘warm’ beer. This myth has always been something of a ‘red rag to a bull’ for me, so I had to politely correct his misunderstanding and do my bit towards a wider appreciation of British ale drinking tradition and culture. I’m glad to say Stefano and I stayed friends and I’m sure if ever Elisabeth, Stefano’s Belgian wife, mocks English beer over the dinner table he’ll be able to defend our corner for us!

British beer should only be warm if it has not been kept properly, or if it’s an unusually hot day in a pub garden and a drinker hasn’t supped his or her pint quickly enough. More seriously, the argument is really over the definition of what is warm, and that is why it’s such a bad word to use in this context. It’s always annoyed me that we don’t properly challenge the use of the term warm, and sadly, there are even those from our islands that use the word themselves. No-one says that red wine is served warm, yet generally wines are drunk a few degrees above beer’s traditional ideal range. Warm is far too subjective a term; the same can be said for ‘room-temperature’, although given Britain’s weather this is probably a slightly better description to use for our beer. Better still is ‘cellar temperature’. Cellar temperature will, of course, vary a little from pub to pub and season to season, but far less than the average pub bar-room and so works better. To my mind, a cool beer brought from the cellar via a hand-pump to a British room-temperature glass in a British room-temperature pub usually provides the perfect temperature pint for a traditional British drinker.

Readers may not think exploring the use of the word warm in relation to British beers is very controversial. However, I do think it’s a relevant introduction to comment on a worrying current trend. Much as I really do not want to be offered truly warm beer, I dislike even more being presented with a glass with condensation forming on the outside that threatens frost bite to the touch. Unfortunately, I’ve come across a growth in the practice of cooling ale on its way to the pump. Of course it is often necessary to cool barrels when they’re in environments where the ambient temperature could cause the contents to be too warm, in real terms. But there have been times in a several pubs, especially one very close to me, where I have had to wrap my hands around my pint for 5 minutes or more before I could take a sip of the chilled ale. One, progressive, local brewery appears to lean towards cold ale; although some of its pubs seem to serve colder than others. I’m sure the argument is that the new style ales benefit from being drunk cold. Maybe it’s true that many of the beers have moved so far from the traditional British drink that they need similar treatment to lagers. Whatever is behind the trend it’s not something I welcome. There’s a time and a place for a cold lager, but in my local pub I need my local ale at a temperature that allows all the flavours and aromas to come to the fore, and that doesn’t anaesthetise the back of the throat on its way down. British beer should not be warm but, please, let’s keep ale from getting too cold!

And as for putting bottled ales in the fridge……well, let’s not go there (for now).

Me? I’m not bitter.

Sheffield is a great place to drink beer. Many small, independent breweries and many excellent pubs serving a wide selection of local, and not so local, beers. When I came to Sheffield the drinking scene was dominated by Tetley’s, Ward’s and Stone’s Bitters and depending on where you went each of these could be good (occasionally very good). Now those beers have all gone and Sheffield’s new breed of breweries are very keen on their Pale Ales. The changeover to Pale Ales has come alongside the very welcome boom in the availability of Real Ale not just in traditional pubs but also in bars and restaurants across the city. Kelham Island and Abbeydale are two of the most long standing current Sheffield breweries, and their flagship brews of ‘Pale Rider’ and ‘Easy Rider’ (Kelham Island) and ‘Moonshine’ (Abbeydale) are Pale Ales that stand out as delicious examples of the local offerings.

However, for me, there is something missing in the beers that are coming out of the local area. It may be that the move towards the new generation Pale Ales is (to varying degrees) a national trend, but I have found that other regions still develop good traditional style Bitters to provide a balanced range of options at the bar. Looking beyond classics such as Timothy Taylor’s ‘Landlord’ and focusing on small breweries, a favourite Bitter of mine is the excellent ‘The Usual’ brewed at the Brunswick Inn in Derby. Further afield, ‘Gem’ from Bath Ales in Bristol is a good Bitter beer from a modern-day brewery. Coming back more close to home, I’ve recently tasted very good Bitters that are part of the range from the Marble Brewery, Manchester (e.g. ‘Manchester Bitter’ and ‘Pint’). In fact, Marble provides a good example of how a modern brewery with innovative ales for the modern trend can still provide high quality more traditional options for the likes of me.

I know most of the local breweries that supply the Sheffield area do brew Bitters, but to me it seems as if their hearts are not really in that style of beer. At best the local Bitters are uninspiring, and it’s sad that there isn’t as much enthusiasm in getting Bitter right as there is in experimenting with blending hops from around the world for a new tang to a Pale Ale variation. Sorry if a little bitterness slipped out there but it would be nice to have access to a good Sheffield Bitter rather than having to look out for the likes of Marble’s ‘Manchester Bitter’ guesting at my local!

Introducing an exploration of beer in Britain

There are many issues surrounding beer and pubs that have been spinning round in my head for a long time. Many times I’ve promised (threatened) friends that I’m going to start a blog one day and put the world to right. Now, after much procrastination, I’ve got this site started and it’s time to put thoughts into words. At the same time as talking about beer (and pubs, etc.) I’ll be working on the look and feel of the website to give it some degree of visual appeal and ease of use. Its look will improve!

The idea of the exercise is to have some fun and promote the positives of the world of British beer; but there will be some gripes and I am keen to encourage a counter-revolution against some developments of recent years. For now, I’ll just say there’s nothing wrong with innovation as long as we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The occasional hint of grapefruit (etc.) is fine, as long as I can still choose a pint of the style of beer I’ve grown up with. Two of the key things I intend to explore in these pages are beer styles and choice (or lack of it). This will demand a great deal of research but I’m sure the pleasures will outnumber disappointments, and I’m happy to pursue the subject indefinitely.

I live in Sheffield; a city that’s given birth to many new small breweries and become a centre for the development of a modern style of beer. Sheffield is now an interesting place to be and interest in beer in Sheffield seems to be booming. Sheffield beers and Sheffield’s apparent attitude towards beer will provide plenty of source material for my articles. As will Derby (my home city), and many other cities and regions across Britain, whose great beer drinking histories will be a pleasure to examine. The articles will be kept short, but will hopefully initiate debate and discussion, and I can perhaps dream that they may have some small influence on how the future will be for beer drinkers across Britain.

A final word for now is to say that although this introduction has focussed on beer, I do see pubs and pub culture as being intrinsically linked to beer and, to me, are just as important in their own right. Pubs will have their own set of articles, as will breweries and my allied interest in the art (or science) of home-brewing.