Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The world turned upside down

Nothing whatsoever to do with beer, but if you look at maps of the distribution of electoral votes in the US Presidential elections of 1896 and 2000, it’s very striking how the party representation has been pretty much exactly reversed. Red states have become blue, and blue red. And it seems to me that something similar, although maybe not quite so drastic, has happened to the availability of real ale in Britain, at least south of the Scottish border.

Although the organisation rapidly spread throughout the country, the four founder members of CAMRA were London-based journalists, and certainly in the early 1970s the situation for real ale in and around London was pretty bleak. The 1977 Good Beer Guide says that “Greater London is no longer one of the worst counties in England for real ale”, which suggests that a few years previously it had been. Most of the pubs were owned by the “Big Six” national brewers, and the vast majority only sold pressurised beer. Apart from Young’s pubs, all of which sold real ale, there was only a scattering of outlets, and even Fuller’s, who have outlasted Young’s and are now one of the most respected family brewers, sold pressurised beers in most of their pubs. As late as 1977, only 16 out of 111 had real ale.

Outside the capital, the situation was often little better, if at all. The 1977 Guide still describes North Devon and much of Norfolk as “beer deserts”, and says that, apart from the handful of pubs it lists, there’s little to be found in any of Norfolk. In the whole of Cornwall, which must have had getting on for a thousand pubs, only 120 had real ale.

In contrast, across large swathes of the industrial Midlands and North, there were major independent breweries who sold real ale in all or virtually all their pubs – Banks’s & Hansons in the Black Country, Hardy’s & Hanson’s, Home and Shipstone’s in Nottingham, and Boddington’s, Holt’s, Hyde’s, Lees and Robinson’s in and around Manchester. Added to this, there were still massive tied estates belonging to members of the Big Six which were mostly real, such as Bass Mitchells & Butlers across the Midlands and Tetley’s in Yorkshire and on Merseyside. Much of this beer was served by electric pump, so it may not have been immediately obvious that it actually was real until you looked into it more closely. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if in 1975 half the real ale sold in the country (by volume, if not by number of outlets) used electric dispense.

You still sometimes hear it said that when CAMRA was founded, real ale was on the point of disappearing in Britain. In and around London, that may not have been far from the truth, but across the country as a whole the situation was in fact rather healthier. This helped encourage the always rather mistaken view that real ale was something of a proletarian drink.

Fast-forward forty years, and things have been turned on their head. London is enjoying an unprecedented boom in specialist beer pubs and craft beer bars. Across all the rural counties of the South and East, from Cornwall to Norfolk, you would be hard-pressed to find any prominent pub that didn’t serve real ale. The only keg-only outlets would be youth-oriented bars and a few back-street and estate pubs in places like Camborne and Great Yarmouth. Counties like Surrey and Buckinghamshire report over 95% of all pubs selling real ale.

On the other hand, many of the independent brewers in operation in the 1970s have been taken over and their estates scattered to the four winds, Nottingham having suffered especially badly. The Big Six brewers have been broken up and their pubs largely transferred to pub companies which in the 1990s started the systematic removal of real ale except where they saw a clear commercial justification. Most of the surviving backstreet and estate pubs owned by pubcos now only have keg beer – indeed it’s now almost seen as a defining feature of the classic estate pub. I can remember when a pub crawl of Levenshulme in South Manchester included twelve or so pubs with real ale; now there are only two, and none on the main road. Yet a few miles down the road in Didsbury and Chorlton, new bars have opened up and it’s pretty much ubiquitous.

In my home town of Runcorn, as late as the mid-80s, most of the pubs sold real ale, predominantly Greenall’s, and most of those sold mild as well as bitter. Now, with the exception of Wetherspoon’s, there’s virtually none at all except in a few food-oriented pubs on the periphery. Much the same is true of many other industrial towns in the North and Midlands.

So it’s an interesting reversal of fortune how, in many cases, the areas where real ale was once sparse now have it in abundance, and where it was once plentiful it is now rare. And, of course, for at least twenty years the preferred drink of the typical “working man” has been cooking lager, not mild or bitter.


  1. Real Ale, as beards define it, is very much a middle class affectation. It ought to come with a warning. "may induce a desire to read the on line guardian"

    Us prols neck Carling. Are you saying that was not always the case? That back when all this was fields middle class people drank sherry and us prols drank pongy bitter?

  2. Whats more middle class then, real ale or craft beer?

    Anyway, I thought wine was middle class and beer was working class? Or is only shit beer that counts as working class nowadays?

    Perhaps even taking an interest in effeminate concepts like flavour is itself a middle class preoccupation?

  3. It constantly needs stressing that the first generation of Camra members were a rarety among young people in their 20s in the 1970s, most of whom were drinking lager. As that generation rose up the age rankings, and was followed by more lager-drinkers, so mild, bitter and cask ale plummeted, and lager boomed. Demographics meant no market for cask ale on estate pubs, not nasty pubcos, who were following the market, not leading it. And I'm sure that's still true today.

  4. Liverpool city centre is rightly celebrated for its great pubs, but it is ringed by working class suburbs that are almost entirely cask-free. This wasn't the case as recently as 1990 when there loads of locals serving one or two real ales from the brewery that owned them.

    The much-mourned Higsons produced great beer, but it was real in less than half of the outlets. When Boddingtons took Higsons over, it put real ale in all the pubs, thus disprovong the Higsons' claim that many of the pub cellars were unsuitable for real ale. Yes, apparently they built pubs unsuitable for real ale a century ago.

    I'm unsure of the value of trying to link types of drinks with class; there are too many exceptions to any rule you may devise, thus making the exercise pointless.

  5. Craft beer is young middle class, real ale old codger middle class. Wine is middle class too except Asti Spumante which is working class. More than one drink can be middle class or working class. Concerning yourself with flavour is both middle class and slightly effeminate. It is effeminate to be middle class so they are synonymous. Being working class is manly and tough. Even if you’re a lass. Gritting your teeth and getting it down you is working class as is calling someone a posh poof if they don’t. You’re welcome.

  6. Martin: my experience doesn't match your statement. I went to college in the 1970s, and most of my friends and I drank bitter, mild, or one of these mixed with a bottle of light or brown ale. Not only that, you'd still often hear the scornful assertion that "lager is a woman's drink".

  7. "Demographics meant no market for cask ale on estate pubs, not nasty pubcos"

    Not entirely - where the family brewers still own estate pubs, they still tend to sell cask ale, and often quite a lot of it.

    I would also echo Nev in saying that it wasn't until the late 70s at the very earliest that young "ordinary blokes" started to drink lager rather than bitter.

  8. Christopher Hutt suggested to us that the North West was out of step in the sixties and seventies. His shock at discovering how bad beer was in the East/South East when he went to university, having grown up with cask ale as the norm, echoed the experience of Michael Hardman and Graham Lees on moving to London/St Albans. The contrast, he reckons, is what prompted the founding of CAMRA, the writing of his book, and explains why CAMRA's first four chairs were from the North West.

  9. @Bailey - good point, and helps explain why it was such a culture shock.

    On the other hand, the traditional Northern prejudice against "Southern beer" was not that it was fizzy, but that it was flat and lacked a decent head.

    This wasn't really intended to be a post about class - it's more how the unthinking default option for pubs and drinkers has moved from cask to keg and cooking lager.

  10. Moving it back then, would the generation that started drinking in the late 70's be the first generation that were unaware of and had not been subject to the 60's advertising of lager as a lighter woman's drink?

  11. I started drinking in the 70s in Scotland and most of us drank ale. McEwan's Export or Tartan Special and in my case, when I could, Diamond Heavy from Alloa.

    We'd drink lager too sometimes, but I bet then it was about 50/50 overall. We were around 18 then.

    Good piece this Mudgie and good comments too.

  12. I started using pubs in the late 1970s in my home town of Wrexham, which at that time housed the Border Brewery, a fairly major regional player with a tied estate across North Wales and into Cheshire and Shropshire. At that time it owned upwards of 75% of the pubs in Wrexham, the rest being owned by Bass, Ansells, Burtonwood and one by J W Lees. You could count the number of Border pubs that sold real ale on the fingers of one hand. My mates and I used to make a special trip to the Nag's Head which was effectively the brewery tap, where the beer was excellent. Otherwise, you were better off in the Bass pubs, most of which sold real ale. I don't recall there being any kind of class divide but maybe that's because there weren't many posh pubs. (Not a posh town, Wrexham)
    Border was eventually taken over by Marston's who promised to keep the brewery open and then promptly closed it down. However, they did put real ale into all the former Border pubs and now there are very few pubs there which don't offer it.
    I now live in Bristol (the Soft South) and apart from clubs and a few youth and sport oriented bars, I can't think of many pubs with no real ale. However, this may be because a lot of the 50s and 60s estate pubs in less well-off areas have closed. We do however have a brand new BrewDog bar in the centre of town offering insane beers at insane prices. There's no bugger in there.

  13. @Bill, by concidence, Pubs then and Now today featured Ye Olde Custom House, Border's outpost in Chester, which I used to visit with friends thirty or more years ago.

    Border were guilty of taking real ale out of pubs just as other brewers were putting it back in. I'd bet half their estate at the time of the Marston's takeover is now closed.

  14. God, Ye Olde Custom House, I'd forgotten about that place. Decent pub in its day.
    Couldn't say how much of the former Border estate is closed now. I can think of quite a few pubs in Wrexham town centre which have gone; The Horns, The Castle, The Red Cow among others but these went back in the 90s before the smoking ban etc. Most are still going but I couldn't say how many outside the town are still on the go.
    You're quite right to say that Border were taking real ale out of pubs when other breweries were putting it back in. I remember a lovely old pub called The Old Swan in Wrexham which had a bank of four hand pumps but all you could get was keg! (We used to go there anyway for the cheap pool table and juke box) Went back there recently and it's been completely transformed into some sort of style bar. With real ale though.
    Best pub in Wrexham now is The Royal Oak, AKA The Embassy, on the High Street which is now run by the utterly wonderful Joules.

  15. Martin, Cambridge17 April 2013 at 21:59

    Are the pubs in Levenshulme and Reddish (largely keg) much different in customer to the Holts pubs in Swinton and Pendlebury (mostly real, although lager is biggest seller) ?. As noted, class, whatever that is, doesn't explain the differences alone.

  16. Not really familiar enough with them to comment on that. Subjectively, I'd say there was a slight difference, with the clientele in the long-established real pubs being a bit older, more traditional working class, that in the keg pubs a bit younger, more scally, but that may be bollocks. Robbies' have of course got rid of a lot of the bottom end of their estate in the past few years.


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