Monday, 7 September 2015

Limelight and shadow

I recently wrote about how some in the contemporary “craft beer movement” had set themselves up in opposition to the achievements of CAMRA and British microbreweries between about 1973 and 2005. Obviously in reality things are more nuanced, and it’s very noticeable how it’s difficult to find even the most hardline crafty who will say a bad word against Harveys of Lewes, a classic example of the traditional family brewer.

In the early 1980s, I had a spell living in the South-East, and at that time Harveys were very much considered also-rans. The star independent breweries were King & Barnes, Gales and Brakspears, plus of course Fullers and Youngs in London. Harveys brewed some decent beer, but they were an obscure company with a very small tied estate and a bizarre co-brewing arrangement with Beards. Since then, they haven’t really done anything different – they’ve stuck to the knitting, slowly expanded their pub estate, avoided any risky forays into trendy urban bars or wacky craft sub-branding and, lo and behold, Sussex Best is rightly celebrated as perhaps the archetype of the classic English “brown bitter”.

Another brewery that seems to have emerged blinking into the spotlight is Bathams, who brew the same beers they did forty years ago and have a small tied estate of resolutely traditional boozers. They may not tick any of the current “craft” boxes but they are genuinely artisanal in the proper sense of the word. To be honest, if I was marooned on a desert island, if my beer supply was limited to Harveys Sussex Best and Bathams Best I wouldn’t be too unhappy.

Their near neighbours Holdens are another small Black Country concern that has recently been gaining a lot of love, maybe to some extent on Bathams’ coat-tails, although their beer and pubs stand up in their own right. Timothy Taylors continue to be very highly regarded, even if Landlord is widely distributed and often not served in optimum condition. Their own tied estate is mostly ordinary little pubs in and around Keighley. And breweries like St Austell, Fullers and Adnams gain a lot of respect both for the standard of their core range and their willingness to experiment with bottled and seasonal beers. St Austell Proper Job and Adnams Ghost Ship are arguably the best examples of “new-style” beers produced by established companies.

Not surprisingly, the beers produced by the giants of independent brewing, Marstons and Greene King, are often dismissed as dull and bland, although there is a definite element of “tall poppy syndrome” at work here. Charles Wells don’t seem to attract the same opprobrium, possibly because their pub estate is much less prominent. Bombardier is also one of those beers that many people think they won’t like but are pleasantly surprised when they actually taste it. While they have produced some excellent special bottled beers, many people don’t seem to have much good to say about Shepheard Neame’s regular range. And local Stockport brewers Robinsons, in terms of size of tied estate still one of the biggest, are often (in my view unjustly) dismissed as brewers of bland, samey beer.

In the past, there were a number of family breweries that may have had their local fans, but rarely got much national attention. Obvious examples include the pre-Michael Cannon Devenish, Buckleys, Border, Burtonwood, Mitchells of Lancaster, Morrells, Ridleys and North Country Breweries of Hull. All gone now, and don’t really have grown men crying into their beer. Probably the only one where beer lovers genuinely muttered “good riddance” was Gibbs Mew of Salisbury whose beer was notoriously dull.

However, there remains a stratum of breweries that seem happy to plough their own furrow and get little wider recognition. A couple of years ago, a contributor to the CAMRA forum called curMUDGEon did an analysis of Good Beer Guide entries which showed many of them coming off very poorly. Felinfoel had no entries whatsoever, Arkells of Swindon only 3 out of 78, Mc Mullen none in Hertfordshire, and Donnington one one out of 17. Others that come into this category include Palmers of Bridport and Elgoods of Wisbech. Everards Tiger continues to be widely available in the free trade, but as a brewery and pub-owner they have a very low profile, and while Badger beers are big-sellers in bottle, Hall & Woodhouse have stopped selling them in draught form outside their own tied estate.

Some people said at the time that a reason for this could be that they brewed lacklustre beer, something that specifically applied to Felinfoel and Arkells, although I don’t really have enough experience of either to comment. Donnington in particular seem to have fallen from grace, as they have a very picturesque and again truly artisanal brewery in the Gloucestershire countryside, and going back a few decades their estate of characterful Cotswold pubs featured heavily in the Good Beer Guide.

The survival of any family brewery is ultimately down to whether the family want to keep it going. Many have understandably cashed in due to a lack of heirs or a lack of interest. I’m sure many will point out that all of these breweries are very enterprising in their local areas and are certainly not just going through the motions. Donnington, for example, now have a website, and have started buying one or two new pubs on the fringes of their trading area. But it’s interesting how these companies continue to operate with so little attention from beer writers or the media in general.

(By the way, Sam Smith’s don’t count, as they have a high-profile London estate, are so much out of line that it’s noteworthy, and also have a wide and well-respected range of bottled beers)

27 comments:

  1. The late Rhys Jones was always very rude about Felinfoel.

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  2. Yes, I think I remember discussing the subject with Rhys. Only half the pubs have handpumps and many that do keep beer under pressure.

    When I was in Carmarthen recently I stayed at a Felinfoel-owned hotel which had a very congenial bar, but the beer wasn't up to much.

    Time was when Double Dragon was a go-to beer, but no longer.

    While they'd mostly gone by the time CAMRA was formed, quite a few of the old family brewers produced poor beer and weren't much mourned. Swales's Swill, anyone?

    Although their demise is lamented by many, I got the impression that in the last few years before the Robinsons takeover, Hartleys had pretty much given up - inconsistent beer and a tatty, underinvested pub estate.

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  3. I've been walking the Ridgeway and every pub in Wiltshire seemed to sell Arkells Beer. I never had a good pint - it was invariably cloudy and didn't taste that good. I was genuinely interested in whether I had just struck unlucky or whether it was garbage beer. I never did find the answer, but the beer along the Ridgeway improved after Goring.

    Palmers was a total revelation. Found a pint in a pub in Glastonbury that is (I believe) their only distribution outlet outside Dorset. Found myself holidaying in Dorset later this year and every pub seemed to be a Palmers pub. Their 500 is superb - that good that I popped into their brewery in Bridport and exported a crate back to the Midlands.

    Everards - I have only seen in one place - in the Jewellery Quarter in BRM - really enjoyed that. Just don't get to Leicestershire that often.

    Donnington - don't really care about the quality of the beer but they have created a "long distance path" - The Donnington Way, which I see when walking the Cotswolds. This is very definitely on my to-do list for next year.

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  4. Most of those breweries you mention did produce a decent drop of beer - apart from Gibbs Mew which was pretty grim. When the brewery closed there was a letter in What's Brewing saying feelings were running high in Salisbury, Rhys (again!) memorably suggested that must have meant they were having street parties.

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  5. I'm thrilled to be calling in at the Timothy Taylor's brewery tap the Boltmakers Arms in Keighley in a few days and as I walk through the Dales we'll inevitably talk about the joy of a pint of TT Best at the Falcon at Arncliffe. However I tend to avoid Landlord down south. Sad how a beer gets a poor reputation as it spreads across the country. Re-Harveys even when I've bought a polypin of Best to be delivered 100 miles away it's been excellent.

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  6. An excellent article Mudge, and as someone who’s been drinking for probably a similar amount of time as yourself, and done a fair bit of travelling round the country, there is much here I can empathise with.

    It’s rather late in the evening now, so I will come back in greater depth probably tomorrow; but I would agree that in our rush to embrace the new and the different, we often fail to appreciate the gems which lie at our feet. Good solid, family-owned breweries; often with a tradition going back many years.

    Harvey’s are obviously one of the jewels here, but I know what you mean about them being overshadowed by King & Barnes, back in the early 1980’s. Donnington having a website though; now that is a turn up for the books!

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  7. Among the unlamented losses, I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Shipstone's. Last time I was in Nottingham I read a bizarre piece in the local CAMRA mag, in which the author reminisced about his younger days working as a barman in a Shippo's pub. Soon after he started, he was smitten with chronic gut pains; he thought he was developing an ulcer or appendicitis, and was about to go to the doctor when an old hand at the pub let him into a secret. "You know when punters get a round in and offer to get you a half? Don't drink it - just take the money!" He stopped drinking the beer and the pain stopped overnight. Nothing like nostalgia...

    I have drunk beer from Mitchell's in my time - original home of Lancaster Bomber - but I don't remember a thing about it. But I have got very fond memories of Buckley's, which I was pleased to find were revived by Evan Evans (a newish brewery run by one of the Buckley family). Also Felinfoel - although to be honest it was so hard to find in the part of Wales I used to visit that I may just have been going off image and scarcity value.

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  8. Shipstones did have something of a reputation, though, and its takeover by Greenalls was a long-running source of grievance in CAMRA. In fact they kept the brewery going for a surprisingly long time and it even for a while brewed Wem ales.

    The anecdote you mention reminds me that their beer used to be known as "straight-through Shippos".

    Possibly the least-recognised Nottingham brewery was Home, which greatly expanded in the 50s council estates, but was then hit hard by the 80s recession and closure of coal mines. It never went in for anything fancy, and even at the time of the S&N takeover most of its pubs were still serving mild and bitter via electric meters. The Newmarket in Nottingham was a classic Home pub - inter-wars, from the look of it.

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  9. I had Donnington Best Bitter in the Falkland Arms in Great Tew in the early 90's and still think of it as one of the best pints I've ever drunk, although I suspect if I tried it again it might not quite live up to the memory.

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  10. I remember we had Donnington Mild on sale at the first ever Stockport Beer Festival and people formed a queue to drink it. Tried more than a few years later at a Worcester Beer Fest and it was pretty drab and uninspiring stuff.

    I tried their new Gold the other week in the Midland in Stockport. Not one for the hopheads but certainly the sort of beer you'd happily drink all night if the need arose.

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  11. 'Probably the only one where beer lovers genuinely muttered “good riddance” was Gibbs Mew of Salisbury whose beer was notoriously dull'

    I nominate Vaux as the real 'Good riddance' brewery - Gibbs Mew was excellent by comparison.

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  12. I've been drinking real ale since 1970. I remember the hard battle we had to keep it going in the early 70's. Certain brewers like Youngs and Wadworth always kept the flag flying and Camra were happy to support them. However recent Camra Good Beer Guides have been a farce. As an example I quote Devizes where I live. There are a good number of Wadworth pubs in the town and the beer is consistently excellent in them. However in the 2015 Guide not one Wadworth pub in Devizes featured. A similar position is shown when you look for a Sam Smith pub in the Yorkshire section. The local Devizes branch fell over themselves to put a so called micro pub in the Guide which only serves very second rate so called 'craft beers'. This is the same Camra which made no effort to demand the option of a smoking room in pubs when the 2007 Smoking Ban came in and which resulted in a huge number of pubs closing.

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  13. I think 'Mudge' mentioned that some branches were not including pubs with cask breathers and if these are used across much of a brewery's estate then it wouldn't have much GBG recognition. I remember that when Hydes closed their brewery you had a post calculating average cask sales per pub on the basis of the capacity of the replacement micro kit and it was a surprisingly small figure, which makes me wonder for how long the company will stay in brewing (without cask breathers).

    Poor beer quality from a regional has sometimes preceded closure with an example local to me being Youngs. It might be that people at the brewery know or sense what is likely to happen and lose interest. I tend to think that there are two main reasons for closure although these are probably interlinked; one is that the shareholdings have become widely spread around a family leaving few holders with any real interest beyond their dividends and the other is that when capital expenditure is needed (possibly to restore quality) they are unwilling to put up the money. Beards is a case in point since I understand that when Mr. Beard died in 1958 the brewery was quite run down and his heirs were unwilling to invest (economic conditions can't have been all that great) but were happy to keep the estate, so a supply deal with Harveys made sense. A quick look round some local history sources on the internet suggests that the deal may have saved Harveys given the extra volume that it brought.

    Beer writers don't seem to look much at beers not available in London or other places that are easy to reach. But in any case, an article headed "Batham's Bitter as good as it was in 1980" probably won't get much editorial attention nowadays.

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  14. @electricpics - Vaux acquired a number of pubs around here in the late 80s and early 90s, and I always thought their beer was reasonable although not one you would go out of your way to drink. And their subsidiary Wards of Sheffield produced an excellent and truly distinctive bitter.

    @Ian - I understand that the Yorkshire branches took a collective decision not to include any Sam Smith's pubs because of uncertainty over the cask breather issue. The Boar's Head in Stockport, which is in the 2016 GBG, certainly doesn't use cask breathers as we have been down in the cellar to check. I tend to think "don't ask, don't tell" is the best approach on this - I'm sure there are hundreds of pubs in the GBG that do use cask breathers on some or all of their beers.

    Hydes seem to be doing fine at present, and their Beer Studio range of small-batch specials has been very well received. They have also recently invested a lot of money in refurbishments and new pub acquisitions.

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  15. McMullens beers are resolutely old fashioned (although none the worse for that) and lack a firm sense of identity - in particular AK which can't decide whether it's a mild or bitter. They often do well at local festivals, which again suggests it's the breather issue that accounts for their poor showing in the GBG.

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  16. Breweries I wasn't sorry to say goodbye to include Greenall Whitley, Matthew Brown, and Tetleys. Tetleys used to be reasonable, even in its Warrington form (I always thought the superiority of Leeds Tetley was overstated), but when the Warrington brewery closed down and all production came from Leeds, I thought the beer became considerably worse than either of the two previous versions.

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  17. I don't think Tolly Cobbold was much mourned either.

    However, as with pub closures, even a poor brewery has room for improvement, a closed one is gone for ever.

    And Greenalls' Wem brewery was certainly much missed.

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  18. I had a bad experience with Tolly Cobbold. Years ago I went to Ipswich Beer Festival and had a few beers around town. The GBG told me one pub was the only one in town to sell Tolly Cobbold on gravity (and I'm guessing that's why it was in the GBG...). So I roll up and am told by the (quite old) licensee that while the brewery people tell him to cool the beer he believes it should be sold at room temperature whatever the weather. It was rather warm at the time. I don't need to tell you what the beer was like...

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  19. Can't believe Arkells are still in business....has always been a dreadful pint and I assumed it kept going because the locals in Swindon had never ventured far afield and tasted anything that resembled decent beer....

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  20. I joined CAMRA in 1976 in a Ridley's tied house. Their bitter was excellent, but the mild was bitter with added caramel. Greene King was the other local beer and was quite good then, the IPA tasted nothing like it does today. I think a yeast problem around 78 or 79 started a downward trend. I remember Tolly Cobbold - I only used their pubs in winter when you could get Old Strong - the bitters were poor. Adnams beer was fantastic in and around Southwold but it really didn't travel well. And who remembers Paine's of St Neots? Their beers were OK if inconsistent at times. I also remember an early Beer Festival in Chelmsford (1980?) where they advertised they had beer from Wadworths. When I arrived the 6X had sold out already, the IPA sold out whilst I was in the (long) queue so I had to have something called PA (a boys' bitter). How times have changed, I can't stand Wadworth's beers now. An no-one has mentioned Eldridge Pope, their beers were always good, decent range, available in London when I lived there and a sad day when they closed.

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  21. Interesting how people's views differ. I adore Bathams and have drunk Wadworth for 45 years and still love it. We still have our working drayhorses in town too although I was very disappointed they have phased out wood now that the cooper has moved back to Yorkshire.

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  22. Just let me know if you want someone to say bad things about Harveys.

    I generally find their beers incredibly dull and unadventurous, with a biscuitty malt character that I dislike, and I can't stand the faux-wooden pumpclip for their best that looks like something from the 70s.

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  23. @Ben - Harveys is an excellent beer, but maybe not the supreme example it is often portrayed as

    Bathams, on the other hand, is actually the nectar of the gods

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  24. Apart from a few exceptions, I managed to get round nearly all the breweries in CAMRA’s 1974 Good Beer Guide. Some of the beers were sampled at beer festivals, but in most cases it was necessary to travel to the location where the brewery was situated in order to drink the beers. This, of course, was part of the fun, back in the early days of CAMRA.

    Looking back at that ground-breaking publication, it’s a real eye-opener to see how many of these firms have disappeared over the last 40 years. As several of your correspondents point out, some aren’t exactly missed. However, many were wonderful old traditional Victorian breweries, and in the right hands, combined with a little investment, they could have turned out some half decent beer. The tragedy is many of these delightful old buildings have been razed to the ground.

    Breweries whose beers I particularly miss include Eldridge Pope, Morrell’s, Rayments, Ridleys, Simpkiss and Yates & Jackson. The breweries whose beers I never got to sample were Burts, Castletown, Cooks (available only through their own off-licences), Hull, Melbourn and Workington.

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  25. Even someone like me, a foreign beer tourist who's spent only a total of a few months in England, can attest to how crappy Arkell's is. We stayed a few nights in an inn of theirs near Oxford a few years ago...barely drinkable.

    As someone who's spent considerable time this past year in Shepherd Neame country, and who is hoping to actually move there, I have to wonder about them. Yes, I've had a couple of their bottled beers be genuinely good. And a seasonal (summer) beer of theirs was drinkable on cask last month. But otherwise, it seems to me, as good as Harvey's is at being the "classic (light?) brown bitter", so execrable is Master Brew at it.

    But what a treasure of pubs, restaurants, and hotels they have. Pity about the beer. Such potential.

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  26. Don't understand lack of love for Sheps; had some great Master Brew in several Faversham pubs and Thanet over the years. Very different beer to Harvey's but with own merits. Suspect quite a few Sheps pubs not in Beer Guide have low real ale turnover compared to Harvey's.

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  27. Martin, I loved my first pint or two of Master Brew. It was quenching. And then suddenly it struck me how *empty* it is. It just lacks too much.

    I'm overdue for a revisit of Holt's, Hyde's, and Robinsons, as it's been a few years, and I've discovered a few traditional SE beers in the interim, both from traditional and new breweries. Sadly, no feasible plans to visit Manchester & Stockport in the foreseeable future.

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