Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March/April 2019
We have lost something valuable with the erosion of the link between beer and locality
WHEN I first became interested in real ale, 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.
To visit an area and sample the beers of one of the more obscure breweries for the first time was a voyage 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 or Mitchells and Yates & Jackson in Lancaster. 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.
It wasn’t confined to the independents, either, as all the Big Six national brewers retained some kind of regional identity in their beer range and pub branding. Indeed, in the early 1980s we saw a revival of local names, something especially marked with Allied Breweries, who created dedicated pub estates for old brands such as Peter Walker, and Benskins. Overall it provided a rich tapestry of local and regional identity in beer.
Since those days, the number of independent family breweries has more than halved, with ten being lost in the North-West alone. Very often, those that remain see themselves more as pub companies that happen to have an ale brewery as a sideline. 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. Increasingly, pub company outlets have come to offer the market-leading beers regardless of supplier, and the drinker of mainstream kegs and lagers has 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 each pub is limited in the number of lines it can stock, especially of cask beer, and what you’re actually going to find in the pub often becomes a lottery. You can’t exercise choice in a meaningful way if you don’t know what to expect, and in effect, “beer range varies” has in itself become a single option.
Some of the new generation of breweries have established a strong regular foothold in pubs, but there’s no sign outside to say so, 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 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 tied estates.
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, And of course that is exactly what BrewDog are doing by opening a chain of bars in big cities majoring on their own beers.