Tuesday 3 June 2014

Brew Britannia - Book Review

The early 1970s was a time when not only was British Beer at a nadir, but it was starting to be recognised as such and importantly, a few people were starting to do something about it.  The rather chummy, but none too serious Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) was giving way to a much more purposeful and aggressive organisation, the Campaign for Real Ale, which sent shock waves through the whole brewing industry and facilitated to a very large extent, the changes that moved British Brewing from one of homogenisation, to one of huge diversity.

This particularly British tale is engagingly tale is told in a pretty sure footed way by well known beer bloggers, Boak and Bailey,  in their first book, The Strange Rebirth of British Beer.  Although a history, this, in part at least, is a character driven book, because the fightback against the standardisation and bastardisation of British beer is one of individuals, operating singly, but all with a burning view that the bland, fizzy, weak, lookalike beers foisted on the public by the then big brewers, was something they were going to do something about, albeit in individual and unconnected ways. People like David Bruce with his chain of brewpubs, drinkers such as Christopher Hutt, whose book The Death of the English Pub was a clarion call to the British drinker that something was wrong and the four founders of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), are well known and rightly given their place, but the authors have delved into less known cases of early pioneers of beery diversity in the delightfully named chapter Lilacs Out of the Dead Land. Outposts of rebellion in places such as Selby in Yorkshire and Priddy in Wales are discussed, as is the case of Godsons, a new brewery and wholesaler who took London by storm long before the present crop of London brewers were born, though sadly, we are not told why "everything that could go wrong did."

Inevitably there had to be something that pulled all this together and the golden thread running through the early part of the narrative of change in the brewing landscape is the emergence and dominance of the Campaign for Real Ale.  Interviews with many CAMRA worthies bring this to life and for an old hand like me, the book reminds me that CAMRA was a much more swashbuckling organisation than it is now.   And quite possibly much more left wing.  It may not be intentional, but the book clearly illustrates that CAMRA took the feeling of "something wrong",  into a movement that not only annoyed the big brewers, but by campaigning against them and what they stood for, arguably, swept them into the dustbin of history.  For those unfamiliar with this history, the role that  CAMRA played might well be quite a revelation.

The emergence of a new wave of brewers and more importantly, beers and beer styles as well as the new wave of craft beer bars, is the sort of second half of the book, but here you feel the authors are somewhat less sure of themselves.  What about the current changes that in some ways mirror, or at least replicate the situation CAMRA found in the 1970s?  Is there a broad feeling that there is a need for step change around?  You get an idea there might be, but the book doesn't really go there. They do not get into the soul of what the new wave of craft brewers is about - no major interviews - though they do rightly identify BrewDog and Thornbridge as key players. They do make a more convincing job of bars, with an interesting delve into North Bar Leeds, which they postulate is a template for all yet to come and a fascinating reminder of Mash and Air in Manchester as well as others.  But overall there is a strong impression that not only are the writers more meticulous about the past, but the writing of this complicated history is where their main interest lies.  In fairness the emergence of the new "craft movement" is a muddled one and not yet fully formed.  Perhaps Boak and Bailey could let that one ferment for twenty years or so and then turn their skills to it? 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is clearly written, straightforward in style, captures the essence of the issues that faced British drinkers and what was then done about it.  The history is meticulously researched.  It is weaker in its second half, though this is redeemed by a skilful weaving (doubtless intentional and maybe in recognition of the relative weakness) of the past and present and is studded throughout with attractive stories and slightly bonkers people. One criticism is perhaps more about who wasn't interviewed as who was. Given the nature of the book, it might have been useful to seek the views of someone who was there throughout and is still there now, such as Tony Allen of Phoenix Brewery. There are no doubt others.  Of course in any book there are only so many characters that can be fitted in and they have in such luminaries as Brendan Dobbin and Sean Franklin, chosen some of the best.  Later inclusions though seem somewhat whimsical at times, such as the mention of the Campaign for Really Good Beer.  Perhaps the authors elliptically allude thereby to the somewhat feckless SPBW (for whom they seem to have an abiding fondness) and their "drinking club" status?

To this writer, where the book excels is in  the pulling together of  a non linear story of change into a narrative of characters, key people and events.  Those that are familiar with the story and those that are not and those that have even the most passing interest in British beer and brewing will equally find fascinating and educational. I would particularly recommend it to those that feel they are breaking new ground in brewing, drinking or being "different" or in a fancy bar with fancier prices.  While the characters, the pubs, bars and beers have changed, the principles haven't. This book tells you in an easy to read way, that to a large extent, it has all been done before.

If you wonder how we in the UK got where we are today beerwise, I recommend that you buy it.

Brew Britannia. The Strange Rebirth of British Beer is, as they say, available from all good bookshops and on line.


Cooking Lager said...

When it's turned into a movie I'm thinking Pacino/DeNiro/Hoffman/Eastwood as the 4 CAMRA founders looking back to their younger selves as Damon/Affleck/Gyllenhaal/Gosling in an inspirational ensemble piece like say "The Right Stuff"

It could end with a torch being passed onto Gerard Butler as the Tandleman to a stirring theme by Vangelis with a ponderous hope that the next generation of crafties keep the fire alive.

Only be a couple of hours too, so shorter than reading it.

Curmudgeon said...

I've been sent a review copy of this and will be putting something together once the dust has settled from the Stockport Beer Festival.

I'd agree it's an excellent book - always well-written and interesting.

But I'd also formed the conclusion that it drops off a little in the post-Beer Orders era. There's a bit of a loss of overall context so that it comes across as a series of individual case studies, although possibly as you say it is too early to be able to see the wider view.

A number of current issues like the rise of craft keg and the dubious embrace of cloudy beer are handled lucidly and fairly, though.

I believe Harry Enfield has already played me as one of the "Old Gits".

Coxy said...

If they are giving away free copies to bloggers, who is actually going to buy it? I couldn't imagine reading a whole book on the subject!
Can I have a Like button for Cooking Lager's comment please, a man who certainly has the normal persons attitude to beer & pubs.

Tandleman said...

Coxy: Nobody obviously. Why on earth did they bother? It would only have sold 50 copies.


PS: You and Cookie? Normal? If you say so.

Anonymous said...

Not read this blog so no comment.

ABrewHaHa said...

currently reading the book and I agree it's a good attempt to pull together what is a very wide ranging and familiar story. No doubt they were overwhelmed by the amount of information they got from a wide range of sources, both email, telephone & in person interviews plus printed archive.
It certainly puts the current 'scene' into some perspective and maybe serves as gentle reminder that good beer was almost lost if not for the actions and activity of a handful of dedicated beer lovers.

Anonymous said...

There have been a goodly number of books written about the pubs and brewing sector's history from the dawn of time to about the 1950s. Brandwood, Davison, Slaughter, Jephcote, Girouard (Victorian Pubs), Williams and Brake, Gutzke (Pubs & Progressives) and the like. The best recent writing on the subject is the well-informed yet eminently readable Pete Brown. An encouraging number of students are also writing masters dissertations on the subject too (4 that have contacted me), but I have yet to see anything which offers the kind of really detailed insight Williams & Brake gave us in their 1982 The English Public House in Transition. It's worthy and packed with statistics which does not make for easy reading, but as a source of knowledge, it's invaluable. I've corresponded with B&B and read their blog from time to time, so I'll read it but someone does need to capture the brewing zeitgeist for the benefit of future commentators and historians. I'd offer, but I'm busy with my own worthy tomes on 1930s pub architecture and the biography of Sidney Clark, chief architect to Hoare & Co and Charrington's 1924-59. There are some compensations for spending less time on the front line of pubs campaigning and research is certainly one of them. Attention by writers to the pubs protection cause is long overdue with some commentators claiming that the battle for real ale has been won and unless we do something about the pubs crisis, "all we'll be doing 20 years from now is standing around discussing the merits of various bottled ales" James Watson, 2014. He's right. So, Boak & Bailey and/or Pete Brown, how about it?

Anonymous said...

Apologies. Posted "There have been a goodly..." as anonymous without signing. Dale Ingram, London. Historic buildings and planning consultant, London. And sometime pub campaigner.

Curmudgeon said...

I mentioned in my review the apparent paradox that there is more interest in beer, and more variety of beer available, than at any time in the past forty-odd years, but at the same time we are drinking less of the stuff than at any time during that period, and especially less in pubs.

This can't be treated as a criticism, as that's not the objective of the book, but it is a question that needs to be addressed.