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.

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