Tuesday, 18 February 2020

In praise of boring brown beer

It’s common to hear people refer disparagingly to “boring brown beer” and dismiss it as all much of a muchness. However, as former Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling argues in this article, that is very far from the truth.

Yes, now of course there is much more choice of beer styles in absolute terms, but in practice there’s often much less variety across mainstream pubs, and we have lost the contrast provided by distinctive tied estates owned by a range of brewers, and the fascination of discovering new beers that had their own territory in limited areas.

...one of the joys of travelling through the country was to try the local version of bitter. In fact, being `a born and bred Mancunian’ meant it was not difficult to find different versions. I grew up on Boddingtons, Robinsons, Holts, Hyde’s, and Oldham Brewery.
He forgets Lees, and within the Manchester area there was also plenty of real ale from independent brewers such as Marston’s, Higson’s, Thwaites and Samuel Smith, plus Big Six offshoots such as Tetley’s and Wilson’s, plus Bass and Whitbread to a limited extent. All the bitters, and milds, produced by these companies, had their own distinctive character and were often very different from one another. In no way was the drinking experience dull or samey. There was also far more real ale around in total than is often imagined, or than there is now, although availability was much patchier and it was very thin on the ground in London, thus leading CAMRA’s “Founding Four” to imagine that it was on the brink of disappearing.

It should also be remembered that, back then, the pubs were much busier, had a wider social mix of customers and often, despite the supposed introduction of “all-day opening”, were open for longer hours than they are now.

He also makes the important point that “CAMRA was formed to save the great beer that was being brewed and not to get people to brew great beer.” It’s often claimed today that CAMRA’s primary objective was increasing choice, but in fact this represents an attempt to rewrite history. In the early days, this was definitely not the case. Real ale was felt to be under threat, and so the core purpose was a preservationist one, to champion the beers that were already in existence, encourage people to drink them and spread the word about where they could be found.

The main focus of change was to persuade breweries to swap keg or top-pressure dispense for cask on the beers they already sold, not to add new ones. The days of microbreweries and multi-beer free houses, except in penny numbers, were still well in the future. Even new beers were virtually unheard of – the first major new beer launch of the “Real Ale Revolution” was Ind Coope Burton Ale, which didn’t come along until 1976.

Looking through the 1975 Good Beer Guide, all the entries on the page including Stockport were just selling standard beers, bitter and usually mild, from the likes of Ind Coope, Wilson’s, Whitbread, Boddington’s and Robinson’s. No premium beers (apart from one with Bass) and nowhere with more than three different ones on the bar. Of course there was choice, and there was plenty in Cheshire, but it was found across the tied houses of different brewers, rather than within individual pubs.

It may seem quaint now, but one of CAMRA’s main campaigning planks in its early years was the ending of local quasi-monopolies in the tied house market, which eventually triggered some half-hearted pub swaps between the major brewers in the late 1970s. Now, of course, the post-Beer Orders break-up of the erstwhile “Big Six” has pretty much entirely swept that local dominance away.

While CAMRA undoubtedly played an important role, it is probable that many of the changes in the beer market that it is linked with would have happened anyway to some degree with the change in emphasis from the glossy modernism of the 1960s to the more natural, traditional, “small-is-beautiful” ethos of the 1970s.

18 comments:

  1. What gets me is the curtailment of decent ABVs because of beer duty and the scales currently in use. Had a pint of Nelson's Revenge the other day (two actually) and was disappointed to see it was 4.5%. It used to be 5%. As for IPA I only know of one strong enough to get to India by ship and that's the one I brewed.7.4% I saw one today in a bottle at 6.5% which isn't bad but still not strong enough.

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    1. You may have been misinformed about beer duty - there are only three steps: 1.2% to 2.8% (£8.42 per hectolitre = about 15p per pint); "General Beer Duty" (£19.08 per hectolitre = about 34p per pint); above 7.5% (£27.50 per hectolitre = about 48p per pint). See this link to the government website (updated to 1/02/2019): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rates-and-allowance-excise-duty-alcohol-duty/alcohol-duty-rates-from-24-march-2014.

      So there's no advantage in terms of beer duty in reducing a beer from 5% to 4.5%.

      There may be an advantage in terms of increased sales to people who prefer not to drink beers at 5%, or reduction in the cost of ingredients, or sucking up to the anti-alcohol lobby; just not with regard to beer duty.

      Your IPA at 7.4% would attract the same amount of beer duty as a 3.0% mild!

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    2. No, it's £19.08 per hectolitre for every litre of pure alcohol, i.e. for every 1% of strength. Therefore there would a proportionate reduction of 10% in the amount of duty paid if a brewer reduced the strength of a beer from 5% to 4.5%.

      Cider and wine are taxed at a flat rate within broad strength bands, beer and spirits proportionate to the alcohol content.

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    3. My bad. I misunderstood the meaning of "Rate per hectolitre per cent of alcohol in the beer", or rather, didn't take the time to read it properly!

      Thanks for the clarification.

      So, the beer duty on a pint of 5% abv beer is 54.2 pence; on a 4.5% beer it would be 48.8 pence, a saving of 5.4 pence per pint, or 43.4 pence per gallon, or about £3.90 per firkin.

      To correct my flippant remark about the 7.4% IPA, the duty on a pint of that would in fact be 80 pence, on the 3.0% mild nearly 33 pence. Hope I've got this right now.

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  2. I always believe the phrase "boring brown bitter" should really read "subtle brown bitter."

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    1. Exactly. There are no boring beers. Each is interesting in its own way. The vilest beer you ever drank is interesting because it is the vilest.

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  3. I always thought Ind Coope was a very strange name.

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  4. Mr Ind and Mr Coope. Peter Ind was still working at Allied Breweries in the late 80s.

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  5. These days the craft lot are falling over themselves to say "I love a classic English bitter, actually", but it's always Harveys & Taylors that get mentioned for some reason (see here for instance: https://affinitybrewco.com/cask2020.html). Why these two and not Hook Norton or McMullens or Holts etc etc?

    AP

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    1. Yes, it all comes across as a bit "some of my best friends are Jews". They may also mention Adnams, but after that the trail goes a bit cold. You never hear anyone gushing over Wadworth's, Palmer's or Bateman's.

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    2. Speaking of Taylors, I see they've just launched their first keg beer - Hopical Storm.

      You'd think 'craft' aficionados and the CAMRAistas would actually be falling over themselves about a beer that's brewed traditionally with whole hops in slate, in cask form only conditioned and sold from oak casks, and outside London only costs £2 a pint. Seriously though, I think the reason that the smaller family brewers are ignored is because they have no or little national distribution so the crafties have never heard of them.

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    3. They weren't ignored in the 70s, though, despite having no national distribution or publicity.

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    4. They didn't need to constantly be posting on Twitter or Instagram to raise their profile then though. They were pretty much revered for not only their distinctive beers, but the character of their entire companies, especially most of those lost in the last three decades or so. The only one I haven't missed one bit was Vaux.

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  6. Loved this blog Mudgie �� a great source of background knowledge for me....recent day in belper lots of pale ales but best beer, bizarrely was a rugby based BBB from wychwood.
    Still love a solid bitter and enough people still do

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  7. I essentially agree with your argument that there is no such thing as boring brown bitter. I first started going to pubs in the Leeds/Bradford area from around 1980. Tetley bitter brewed in Leeds was nothing less than sensational. We of course also had Taylors and Theakstons if we were prepared to search out those pubs that stocked them. There was even a "micro-brewer" called Trough who had a small tied estate near me.

    But we also had Websters with their Pennine Bitter (later called Yorkshire Bitter). Yes it was distinctive and maybe not boring, but it was also dire. The market did its thing and thankfully this particular beer is consigned to history.

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    1. Funny thing about Websters is that I remember drinking it in Rochdale and Halifax before the football and being quite impressed as a Cambridge lad mainly familiar with Greene King.

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  8. Living in Leeds for a couple of years around 79/80, there was very little cask Websters but I don't remember anything wrong with what there was. Where it could often be bad was around London, with Watneys selling it there from about 1981 (?). I did get to go on a trip around the brewery at that time and, again, no issues there. I do wonder whether putting it into pubs around London which hadn't sold cask for years may have been part of the quality issues, plus it was trunked down in tankers for putting in barrels at Mortlake - the tankers wen back with some Mortlake brewed keg beer (possibly Budweiser?) and traces of that could have remained in the tanks, besides the effects of a long shaking up on the journey down not being good for any beer.

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    1. After the closure of Wilsons brewery, Websters Bitter largely replaced Wilsons in Grand Met pubs in the Manchester area in the late 80s and early 90s, but was generally considered a much inferior brew, bland and lacking in bitterness. They also produced a stronger, maltier bitter called Websters Choice.

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