Friday, 20 July 2018

Sense of place

We were recently discussing the idea of “destination beers”, that is either ones that you need to journey to experience at all, or which are best drunk in a particular location. I suggested a pint of Donnington BB or SBA in one of their beautiful Cotswold pubs. “Surely you must be joking,” came the reply, “Donnington beers really aren’t up to much, are they?” Maybe they’re not, but that’s not the point. These beers, and the small estate of characterful pubs in which they are sold, represent a unique beer-drinking experience. If the beers were replaced by Doom Bar, and the pubs subjected to a pastel-shaded gastro makeover, the world would be a poorer place.

When I first became interested in real ale in the late 1970s, perhaps what fascinated me most was how there was a patchwork of independent breweries the length and breadth of the country, ranging from regional giants such as Vaux and Wolverhampton & Dudley to tiny firms like Bathams and Burts. Each had its own territory, its own distinctive beers and very often its own style of pub. It was a lesson in geography, with strongholds, heartlands and outposts. Drinkers would speak of “Gales country” or “Jennings country”. Of course some of the beers were better than others, and some more to my own taste, but there was a tremendous variety of different characters, and virtually all were enjoyable when in good condition, although I might make an exception for Gibbs Mew.

To visit an area and sample the beers of one of the more obscure breweries for the first time was a journey of discovery. You could go to a city only fifty or sixty miles away and be presented with an entirely different selection of beers, such as Home and Shipstone in Nottingham and Mitchells and Yates & Jackson in Lancaster. Often one of the pleasures of going on holiday was sampling the local brew such as St Austell in Cornwall or Adnams in Suffolk. Progress on a long road journey was marked by the changing brewers’ names on the pub signs. The distribution was patchy, and some areas such as Devon and Norfolk were devoid of independent breweries, but in others, such as Dorset, Oxfordshire and Greater Manchester, they were thick on the ground.

It wasn’t confined to the independents, either. All the Big Six national brewers, to a greater or lesser extent, retained some kind of regional identity in their beer range and pub branding. Indeed, in the late 70s and early 80s we saw a revival of local names, something was especially marked with Allied Breweries, who created dedicated pub estates for old brewery brands such as Peter Walker, Holt, Plant & Deakin, Friary Meux and Benskins.

Of course it wasn’t perfect, and there were beer deserts and local monopolies and duopolies. But, in the greater scheme of things, it didn’t matter too much if most of the pubs in Henley-on-Thames were Brakspear, or Palmers in Bridport, and it added to the individual character of those places. Overall it provided a rich tapestry of local and regional identity in beer, with the locality being enriched by having its own distinctive brew, and the beer enhanced by the link with a particular place.

Since those days, the number of independent family breweries has more than halved, although it needs to be emphasised that the vast majority sold up voluntarily. In the North-West alone, we have lost Boddingtons, Oldham, Greenall Whitley, Burtonwood, Higsons, Border, Matthew Brown, Mitchells, Yates & Jackson and Hartleys. Very often, those that remain see themselves more as pub companies that happen to have an ale brewery as a sideline. As the market share of ale has declined, the sign on the gable end that says “Mudgington’s Noted Ales” becomes less and less of a draw to Carling or Peroni-drinking customers.

The disruption following the Beer Orders resulted in the transfer of the former tied estates of the Big Six to pub companies and the loss of their distinct identities. While an old livery may say Bass or Courage, it’s no guarantee that particular beer may be available, and nor is its absence a sign that it won’t be. Increasingly, pub company outlets have come to offer the market-leading beers regardless of supplier, so a bar lined with Carling, Stella, John Smith’s, Guinness and Strongbow has become almost a standard feature for many ordinary pubs. The drinker of mainstream kegs and lagers has markedly less choice overall than there was prior to 1990.

Against this has to be set the dramatic rise in the number of microbrewers, and in the sheer variety of beer styles being produced. In theory, there is more choice than ever before, and for many beer enthusiasts it has opened up a cornucopia of delights. But it’s not like Amazon where every single book in existence is available to order, as a pub is limited in the number of lines it can stock, especially of cask beer. And, all too often, what you’re actually going to find in the pub becomes a lottery. It’s impossible to exercise choice in a meaningful way if you don’t know what to expect, and have little hope of being able to make a repeat purchase the next week. In effect, “beer range varies” has in itself become a single option.

I’m certainly not averse to trying new things, but I don’t want to make every visit to the pub a journey into the unknown. Pubgoing should be primarily about relaxation and sociability, not beer sampling. I would probably count myself amongst the 0.1% of people most knowledgeable about beer, but I find it dispiriting when I wander into a pub and survey a row of unknown or vaguely familiar pumpclips on the bar to try and identify something that might suit my mood and palate. Some of the new generation of breweries have established a strong regular foothold in pubs – for example, last month I was down in Dorset where many pubs served Otter beers. But there’s no sign outside saying “This is an Otter House”, and thus the visible identification between brewery and pub is broken. In 1978, if you wanted to sample an obscure beer, you might have a long journey, but you could probably find it in one of its brewer’s pubs, whereas now it can all too easily become a wild goose chase.

Of course we have gained something through the massive increase in both the number of breweries and beer styles being produced. But we have also lost something valuable in the way the link between beer and place has been eroded through the decline of family brewers and their tied estates. We should treasure the continued existence of quirky, independent companies like Donnington.

On a brighter note, it is good to see the trend being reversed in a small way by brewers such as Joules, Titanic and Wye Valley building up their own pub estates, although a cautionary note must be sounded that a similar policy in the past has caused brewers such as Smiles, Archers and Copper Dragon to come to financial grief. Joules in particular have developed a very distinct and identifiable style of pub - if I see a Joules sign, I know pretty much what to expect. And of course that is exactly what BrewDog are doing by opening a chain of bars in big cities majoring on their own beers, although they do feature some guests. But they stick to a single format, so you’re not going to come across a BrewDog estate boozer or rural gastropub.

35 comments:

  1. The spirit lives on. I could go 10 minutes to a pub with Carling. Instead I often walk 20 minutes to a pub with Bud Light.

    Likewise, I'd drive an extra 10 minutes if a particular supermarket is flogging cheap slabs of the lout.

    Going that extra mile for the passion that is beer lives in all enthusiasts.

    I mean, even beardy hobbit folk get on trains to go sniff ale in a different soulless beer festival halls and micropubs around about.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie21 July 2018 at 15:51

      Cookie,
      But are you seriously suggesting that's as good as going 10 minutes to a Robinsons pub with Einhorn Lager or 20 minutes to a Hydes pub with Amboss Lager ?

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    2. When you take into account your exactitudes over the toilets too, doesn't that all get a bit complicated, Cookie?

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  2. An excellent and well-written article Mudge, and one which really strikes a chord with me. You have managed to capture the sheer joy of travelling around the country, and the sense of anticipation which went with visiting certain towns, or areas, knowing that the beers you were going to drink weren’t available anywhere else.

    Beer Agencies, “beer exhibition pubs” and the Beer Orders changed all that, and slowly, but surely, eroded the uniqueness that characterised the British beer scene. The decline in the numbers of independent family brewers, which you refer to, didn’t help either, and I look back to the mid 1970’s, which was when I first began taking a serious interest in beer, with a real fondness.

    We have definitely lost something that not only made travelling a fulfilling and pleasant experience, but also made the destination much more rewarding and enjoyable. I sometimes yearn for those days, particularly now when pub-going is such a lottery. Too much choice really does mean less!

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  3. You very much made me rethink my idea of destination beer. De Koninck Bolleke was on my list and I wasn't really sure it should be on the list. I honestly was not sure why it was on my list; The beer is likely not as great a beer as some of the others I listed. Your wider definition helped me realize why I included it. Drinking a Bolleke in Antwerp is a truly great experience. It isn't just the about the beer. The destination matters like you say. Really a nice post.

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    1. Yes, De Koninck in Antwerp is a classic example of how a beer helps define the identity of a city.

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    2. I've only just done that. Drink De Konink in Antwerp that is. You're right. It was wonderful, although the sublime weather helped!

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  4. Difficult to find Ossett/Fernandes outside of Yorkshire, or Marble or Holts outside of Greater Manchester. I think regionalism still exists to some degree..

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  5. The Stafford Mudgie21 July 2018 at 07:52

    That’s a lovely reminder of the “patchwork of independent breweries the length and breadth of the country” that had survived into the 1970s and that “to visit an area and sample the beers of one of the more obscure breweries for the first time was a journey of discovery”.
    My “journey of discovery” was during the summer of 1974 when I travelled the length and breadth of the country to have drunk beer from all eighty English and Welsh independent brewers and the four home brew pubs. After a weeks Midland rail rover ticket I hitch hiked, first days out northwards then five days across the south staying at Youth Hostels in Colchester, Brighton, Dorset and Penzance, and that’s when if they were ‘full’ a camp bed might be put in a corridor.
    About a third of the brewers have survived but while a few are little changed ( Bathams, Donnington, Holdens, Palmers ) others are ‘New Nationals’ ( Greene King, Marstons ) who now do more than anyone else to bring Real Ale to the masses.
    Back in 1974 virtually all pubs had an interior that had been changed little since being built, and so were nothing special, but as ‘Heritage Pubs’ with interiors of historic interest are now rare it is them, rather than any particular beer, that I tend to seek out now.

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    1. Yes, I was thinking of your handwritten list when I wrote that post.

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    2. Stafford Mudgie, you should seriously consider writing down your experiences of that “journey of discovery” from the summer of 1974. A friend and I contemplated doing something similar, that same summer, but he lost interest, and back then I lacked the confidence, as well as the money, to undertake such a trip on my own.

      I would therefore love to read how you planned your journey, the breweries you “ticked off”, the pubs you drank in and the experiences you had along the way.

      Do give this some serious thought, as we are talking living history here.

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie26 July 2018 at 14:07

      Paul,
      Never wait for a friend !
      As for planning it it all fell into place quite easily really with all the information, the breweries and where their pubs were, being in Frank Baillie's the Beer Drinker's Companion book.
      A few northern breweries had outposts in Staffordshire and Thwaites and Vaux supplied many Staffordshire clubs so I didn't need many days out hitch hiking up north, one of them to Lancaster for Mitchells, Yates & Jackson and Hartleys. I had already drunk Jennings and Workington Brewery under age while camping for a D of E expedition – thanks Phillip !
      Across the south I tried to use towns like Farringdon with outposts, from different directions, of two or three breweries. I had no idea how lucky I would be with lifts so had no idea of how many days it would take. I remember getting into the Nutley Hall at Reigate, King and Barnes’s most northerly pub, just as it was closing for the afternoon and a quick pint there meant three hours earlier into Brighton for the evening. Burts of Ventnor meant Portsmouth to Ryde and Yarmouth to Lymington ferries.
      Davenports was well known for “beer at home” but that was also the business of Cooks of Halstead and Hoskins of Leicester who I think each only had one “on” license.
      Having done them all imagine my disappointment a few days after arriving home reading in What’s Brewing that a new one had opened, the Miners Arms at Priddy in Somerset where I had passed quite close by.
      The cost had been four Youth Hostel overnights, from 39p to 48p, plus a bit more than I would normally spend on beer and food.
      Frank Baillie did much better than me though and apparently had drunk every beer, not just one from each brewer.

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  6. Another point is how you often find - in mainstream pubs, not specialist alehouses - beers from the other end of the country. When I was in Dorset I came across two pubs serving Black Sheep. Now, there's nothing wrong with Black Sheep, but couldn't they find anything from the South-West region? And I certainly don't travel two hundred miles just for the privilege of drinking Dizzy Blonde!

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie21 July 2018 at 08:58

      While we might like to blame taxation for the high price of a pint we should realise that there are other factors.
      During the 1970s a typical town like Stafford had just about all its beer, except Guinness, brewed within thirty miles but now I often see beers from two or three hundred miles away.
      when I worked in a brewery during the mid 1970s only four 'draught' beers were needed, Mild, Bitter, Lager and Guinness but now the distribution system of a brewer, such as we experienced in April, will have to cope with more like four dozen 'draught' beers.
      Many beer buffs enthuse over "beer range varies" free houses but it's US who pays for ten times the distance and ten times the choice - that's unless we seek out a brewer little changed since the 1970s and enjoy our Sam Smiths OBB at £2 a pint.

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    2. My wife and I went to Dumfries and Galloway about 4 years ago as part of a trip to Arran. We bookked to stay in the Selkirk Arms in Kirkcudbright, a choice of stay in no way influenced by the coincidental inclusion of the Selkirk in the GBG. 210 miles later after leaving Stockport, we checked in. I left my other half to fuss about in the bathroom while I slipped downstairs to book a table for dinner, the usual excuse for a crafty pint. " We have a nice beer coming on this evening!" enthused the Scots lass behind the bar: " It's Dizzy Blonde from Robinsons!"

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie29 July 2018 at 15:31

      JC,
      That reminds me of having gone from Stafford to the Crown Posada in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the 1980s and the guest beer was Ansells, and to Salisbury and the guest beer was from Burton Bridge.

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  7. Great piece Mudgie. I miss the times when someone suggested going to the Dog and Duck or wherever and someone else immediately piped up "Whose ale is it?"

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  8. My personal lost pleasure from the 1970s was living in Hertfordshire and being able to go into a national brewer's pub in a particular town and know which local brewery it probably once belonged to: a Whitbread pub in Hitchin, for example, was probably formerly Lucas of the Sun Street brewery, via JW Green of Luton and Flowers, while a Whitbread pub in Royston would probably have been Phillips of Royston, again via JW Green; an Ind Coope pub in Hoddesdon was probably Christie's, via the Cannon Brewery and Taylor Walker, while an Ind Coope pub in Watford was almost certainly formerly Benskin's. Geeky, I know, but …

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie21 July 2018 at 11:30

      Martyn,
      No, there's nothing "Geeky" about a bit of proper history like that.

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  9. Great piece. What a joy it was to be a young beer lover in those far off days. My local brews were Shep's and Fremlins from Faversham. And that was pretty much it, but the beer was ok and I was content. But for holidays or long weekends, my wife and I would book a cottage or holiday flat, and potter off to explore southern England in my unreliable Austin Allegro. The joy, allure, and mystery of seeing different brewery liveries as we travelled! I remember Badger, Gibbs Mew (Bishops Tipple on draught, wow) and Wadworth in Salisbury. Dorset was paradise, more Badger, also Eldridge Pope, Palmer's, and everywhere a rather sickly green colour which denoted a Devenish house. They must have had a wide estate, as I found a wonderful little pub of theirs in Bath, the Coeur de Lion i think, with delicious Wessex bitter, and a lovely smiling landlord with a really strong west country accent.
    I could go on. Yes, we have much more choice these days. But how I miss that thrill of exploring my country for the first time via our regional pubs and breweries.

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    1. And even the weather was better in those far off halcyon days.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie22 July 2018 at 11:15

      That just goes to show the different experiences we might have back then. You grew up in Kent and the Fremlins was "ok". I grew up on lightly hopped beers in the Midlands and while visiting my grandparents in Kent the Fremlins Bitter sold as Whitbread Trophy, I think on gravity in the Chestertons Oak, was my first proper taste of hops and I could scarcely believe a beer could be that good. I never got on so well with Shepherd Neame and think that Harveys Sussex Best Bitter today might be quite close to that Fremlins. Well hopped, and over hopped, beers are of course available across the country now but in the mid 1970s there was a proper reason to visit Kent or Sussex, apart from seeing my grandparents.

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    3. Austin Allegro? Luxury. I had an ex-GPO Morris 1000 van.

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    4. A van: sheer self indulgence. I had a bike

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    5. "Luxury, we lived in a shoe box in middle of't road." Sorry, wrong sketch, but couldn't resist it!

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  10. I do miss being able to tell what beer a pub sold just by looking at the sign outside, but I can't say I miss the lack of choice. When I started drinking it was mainly Courage and Allied (Friary Meux) pubs in my area. I wasn't a fan of Courage and I didn't like Friary Meux bitter so that only left Ind Coope Burton Ale. Which admittedly was great if kept well but I prefer the greater variety I can find nowadays.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie22 July 2018 at 20:17

      Yes, the brewery name on the pub sign, or across the front of the pub, was almost a badge of pride.
      The first brewery I remember NOT displaying its name was Watneys after CAMRA had given it so much bad publicity.
      It might be modesty that caused Humphrey to take "Samuel Smiths" off the front of his pubs much more recently !

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    2. I miss the lack of choice. 20 years ago you could visit say) Stamford and have beers from ten different family brewers in ten successive pubs, all in good condition if lacking in the oddity value beer tickers love. Nowadays , most towns will have far fewer pubs owned by brewers and will have far too many handpumps for the much reduce real ale turnover we're now seeing, leading to the sort of cask quality that turns young people off what we fought to protect. Martin.

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    3. The post recognises that there are pluses as well as minuses. But, as I said, you can't really exercise choice in a meaningful way if you don't know what you're going to find, and drinkers of mainstream kegs and lagers have less choice than they did in the late 70s.

      Plus I would say that a market in which there are 150 competitors, and the top four have a 50% market share, offers more genuine choice to the customer than one in which there are 1500 competitors, but the top four have a 90% market share. You have to consider market concentration as well as just the number of brands.

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    4. Martin and the author sum up a common problem. On the one hand I might be fortunate, 'cos my busy local climatises its cellar and takes care of its lines. So the three or four ever-rotating guest ales are generally in reasonable form. On the other though, after a few months, there will have been scores of them. I just don't remember which I had liked (the minority) and which not (the majority). The prospect of there being yet another three unknowns on a given visit just isn't an attraction then. So I now drink the fixed ale, Green King IPA, unless by good fortune there's a guest, of which I have heard, and also like. I assume that the well-intentioned are unaware, that they are quite probably losing the smaller breweries customers by such excessive variety?

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  11. 'ere, are you or any of your posters on the site thinking about going to the 41st CAMRA Peterborough Beer festival?

    http://www.peterborough-camra.org.uk/index.php?bf=1

    If you are we would love to see you where our beers are being sold. Look out for the Angles Ales banner. Feed-back good and bad (if any) always welcome. We have 6 on at the festival. It is indeed a very good place to sample a whole range of beers and ciders from across the country and bottles from around the world. The second biggest festival of beer in the UK. Will be there on the Thursday (trade day) and Friday. Look out for the Feral Nun who will be striking fear into all and the Head Goat Tosser mingling with the crowds.

    http://www.peterborough-camra.org.uk/index.php?bf=1

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  12. The Stafford Mudgie23 July 2018 at 22:11

    Matthew,
    1974 was when I first went to Stamford and as Melbournes Brewery was about to close I bought three bottles of their beer to bring home, and I've still got them.
    But Melbournes was bought by Sam Smiths so every cloud .....

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  13. "Pubgoing should be primarily about relaxation and sociability, not beer sampling"

    Indeed, but that's by far the prevailing view if you read CAMRA's publications which are all about beer range, start-up breweries and festivals whose beers you will NEVER see again.


    retired martin

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  14. A late reply, I like a good pub but am so glad of the beer choice today. Nostalgia's had its day.

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