Thursday, 19 May 2016

No worlds left to conquer

This was originally going to be part of my Taste of Tradition post, but it developed a life of its own. Back in the early days of CAMRA, there were around a hundred independent breweries in the UK, plus perhaps thirty-five run by the Big Six. Between them they produced no more than a thousand brands of beer in total, and no more than four hundred in cask form. The launch of a new cask beer was unknown, and the withdrawal of brands was a regular event.

Compared with the current situation, when we have over a thousand breweries and ten thousand regularly-produced beer brands, this may on the face of it look like a very poor choice. However, in practice, choice is as much about availability and market concentration as the sheer number of products. It’s arguable that, for the customer, a market with 100 breweries and the Top 10 enjoying an 80% market share offers more meaningful choice than one with 1000 breweries, but the Top 10 enjoying a 95% market share.

The number of cask beers was such that you coulkd reasonably aim to tick them all off, as Frank Baillie, the author of the classic Beer Drinker’s Companion, claimed to have done. Contrary to popular myth, there was a great variety of different flavours and characters amongst the beers available, and there is some truth in the view that, over the years, some of the stronger and more distinctive tastes have been dumbed down. Seeking out different beers also involved a lot of exploration, as most were only available in their home territory, which often was very restricted. That, to my mind, only added to the interest. The multi-beer free house had scarcely begun to exist.

My legal drinking career didn’t start until 1977, a few years after CAMRA was formed but, armed with a student railcard, I managed to do a lot of beer and pub exploring in the late 70s. I managed to visit tied houses of the vast majority of the independent breweries that had survived into the CAMRA era, including long-gone rareties such as Burts, Eldridge Pope, Morrells, Border, Hull Brewery and Yates & Jackson, plus the “famous four” surviving home-brew pubs, all of which are fortunately still with us.

The only ones I missed of those still trading in 1977 tended to be fairly small and geographically remote from me. I think the list is confined to Belhaven, Paines of St Neots, Hoskins, Ridleys and Darleys. I never went in an Oldham Brewery pub until the day of the protest march over its closure in 1988. I’ve done both the Isle of Man ones, although none in the Channel Islands, which of course are not strictly speaking part of the UK.

Darleys is perhaps a particular regret, as the brewery did not close until 1986, although I did not live in the North between 1977 and late 1984. Their tied estate was also rather oddly distributed, with a concentraton of pubs in and arouhd Hull, and none in the centres of the major Yorkshire towns and cities. Had there been a Darleys pub in York I would certainly have ticked them off. The picture at the top is of Darley’s brewery gate in Thorne, Yorkshire, and below is a classic image of the brewery taken in 1975, from this website. That’s an interesting touchstone of people’s attitude to brewery heritage – some will say “Wow!” while others will say “Yawn!” Not entirely surprisingly, the pub on the corner – The North Eastern/Corner Pin – is now an ex-pub.

Clearly the rise of micro-breweries in the subsequent years has complete altered the situation, and “bagging them all” has long ceased to be a realistic aim. One of the criticisms levelled at beer tickers is that they never were going to get every single beer, as a train or bus spotter could potentially do, although, unless you are an obsessive completist, I don’t really see that as a problem with something that for many is an interesting hobby. It also should be remembered that established breweries never produced seasonal ales until after the Beer Orders – that was very much something that started in the 1990s.

While I don’t claim to be any kind of pub or beer ticker, I’ve certainly drunk in tied houses of all the remaining regional and family brewers, plus the “famous four” home-brew survivors. For someone who’s got into modern craft beer but wants to explore the traditional side a bit more, that would be an interesting and achievable exercise. Not too hard, but would involve a fair bit of travelling, as most of the smaller tied estates are very concentrated. Sadly, nowadays, you wouldn’t need to venture over the border into Scotland, and there are even Okells pubs on the mainland.

Then, if you wanted a bit more of a challenge, you could start ticking off all the pubs belonging to specific breweries. Given their small estates and concentration in and around the urban Black Country, Batham’s and Holden’s would be fairly easy to do, and then for a complete contrast you could move on to Donnington in the Cotswolds and Elgood’s in the Fens. “Curt Mattis does Donnington”¶ - now that would be worth reading!

The ultimate achievement for the tied house ticker must be to do Felinfoel. I don’t think any appear in the current Good Beer Guide. All are well off the beaten track in West Wales, plenty are a bit grotty and unappealing, and many only offer keg beers. But keg is cool now, right?

¶ for the avoidance of doubt, “Curt Mattis” is a fictional stereotype of an excitable crafty, just as “Mudgie Mudgington” is a fictional stereotype of a grumpy ailurophile brown beer drinker. Both exist only in the mind of Matthew Lawrenson, and any resemblance to actual persons, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

18 comments:

  1. I don't remember seeing a Randall's pub when we had a holiday on Guernsey (in 2003), although I did see their bottled beer all over the place - pub fridges included; it was good stuff, too.

    Pretty sure I've been in a Felinfoel pub; I've definitely got my tongue round ordering the Chwerw Gorau (then looked it up later & discovered it's the Welsh for 'best bitter').

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  2. Nice bit of nostalgia for one brought up in Hull and cut drinking teeth (officially - hem - 1975) on the likes of Hull Brewery and Darleys. Fondly remembered. Also went to Dundee University - Belhaven probably my favourite Scottish beer in the 70s.

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    1. Of course Hull Brewery stored lightly-filtered, unpasteurised beer in large ceramic cellar jars. This sounded like a pretty traditional system to me, and apparently dispensed good beer, but CAMRA in its wisdom decided it didn't count as "real ale".

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  3. Only ever had Felinfoel once and that was in a pub in Hove, of all places. However, I'm going to West Wales for a few days soon so I may rectify this.

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    1. Last year I stayed in the Boar's Head in Carmarthen, which was a nice olde-worlde hotel, but had (I think) keg Felinfoel ales on handpump :-(

      In recent years, Brains have been buying up quite a few of the more prominent pubs in Mid and West Wales.

      Some years ago, Double Dragon was one of the go-to beers in the free trade, but you don't see it much now.

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  4. I seem to recall Felinfoel being pronounced "feeling foul".

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  5. You should set yourself a challenge then write it up. Do all the grotty pubs with boring brown bitter, no food or families, just the echoes of despair. Then put it in a book.

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  6. Keg beer isn't cool with me. Its rubbish. I really enjoyed Ridleys when i lived in Essex. Trouble is i now live in Devizes and we have Wadworths so i'm spoilt !

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  7. I was a student in Southampton around 1980: Wadworth's producesd a beer called Old Timer for the winter months, not just a Christmas ale. It might be correct to say that brewers didn't generally produce seasonal ales but from my limited exposure I know of one.

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    1. Hi KJP.Wadworths still brew Old Timer in December/January.Its 5.8 abv. This year's was superb !

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  8. What I mean is they didn't produce Beer X for Jan/Feb, Beer Y for Mar/Apr etc. A lot of breweries, especially in the South, did produce special winter or "old" ales - Gales, Brakspear and King & Barnes being good examples. Not to mention barley wines like Old Tom :-)

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  9. Just looked on WhatPub for Felinfoel, Carmathen/Llanelli look very grim, though not much detail on there. Used to love DD (and Bulmastiff)

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  10. Yes, I remember back in mid-1970s being driven out to pub's like the Royal Oak at Long Bennington (by Ron Pattinson's brother) to try exotic beers like Marston's Pedigree.

    Must say I only tried Darley's a couple of times (once in one of their pubs in Beverley) but never really took to it. As for Felinfoel, well the late Rhys Jones always had some very choice words about that brewery and the way it's run.

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  11. Yes, I think I have been to a couple of Darley's pubs in Beverley, but probably after the brewery closed. I think Ward's continued to brew Thorne Best Bitter for a few years afterwards. Interestingly, in Local Brew by Mike Dunn (a book I would thoroughly recommend), he speculates that Vaux were more likely to close Ward's than Darley's, as the latter had a more spacious and convenient site.

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  12. Funnily enough I have just been reading Local Brew (needless to say I inherited it from Rhys). A very enjoyable read.

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  13. A very interesting post,
    I have always tried to do proper tied houses when pub crawling rater than free houses,very few in the 80s and the big six.
    I have done a few Darleys tied houses in the early 80s but to my surprise there were none in Doncaster which is fairly close to Thorne.
    Did you ever do a Maclays tied house,i think they only had about 28 pubs,i did one with the wife while doing a mammoth weeks pub crawl round Edinburgh over 170 done in the week,not just the tourist areas but the grotty areas as they were in the 80s,the pub we visited that was a Maclays tied house was the Southsider.
    I would rather have the old tied system with regional brewers that the way it is now,i may be showing my age by saying this.

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    1. Now I come to think of it, I did visit Beverley at some time in the late 80s and went in the Rose & Crown and Royal Standard, both excellent pubs. But I'm not sure whether it was before or after the brewery closed.

      There were a number of local monopolies, but in general I agree the pre-1990 tied house system was better. You knew what you were getting in a pub, and it was interesting to travel around the country and encounter all the different beers. Now, outside of specialist beer pubs, there's often in practice far less choice.

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  14. We used to say that you had not really sampled a beer unless you had drunk it in a brewery's tied house. That, of course, did not stop us seeking out Ruddles County in the mid seventies. Talking of Feeling Fowl DD, it was a standard beer in the Sun in Lambs Conduit St in the late seventies. One of the early free-houses with a huge blackboard showing what had been on tap. Who says those hipsters thought of everything! Still a pub - now The Perseverance - and yes, with its own micro-brewery!

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