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)