I’m very happy to say that I learned a lot from Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey’s Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer, a thoroughly-researched, very well presented history of the last five decades of brewing, pub culture and beer in this green and pleasant land. It charts the fall, near-death and eventual rise (and rise, and rise…) of a substance that, if you’re reading this review at all, you probably have a deep and abiding interest in: real ale.
Or cask ale, or, yes, craft beer. Call it what you will, argue the semantics for as long as makes you happy. Boak and Bailey’s book isn’t directly concerned with current marketing fads and linguistic fisticuffs. But what it does do is chart the origins of current debates, in the dark days of the late ’60s and early ’70s; the days that birthed the organisations that came to spearhead the fight-back against the beer commodifiers: the major brewing conglomerates of the era.
Part one of
Along the way, we’re introduced to a cast of colourful characters, from small renegade brewers on a mission to break free of the shackles of the pasteurised, pressurised keg, to left-wing journos with anti-corporate axes to grind, to city boys with cash to flash and a penchant for a more traditional type of ale. And many more besides, each playing his or her part in the birth of what was to be hailed as one of Europe’s most effective consumer campaigning movements.
On to part two, in which CAMRA has firmly established itself in the British Beer landscape and seems to have the Big Bad Corporate Breweries by the adjunct-soaked short-and-curlies. Here things start to go a bit wobbly though, as internal divisions threaten to tear CAMRA asunder and the conglomerated behemoths start to fight back with their own “real” ales. But plucky CAMRA survives and eventually thrives against the odds (huzzah!) and in the meantime, interesting things are happening elsewhere. The maverick ‘Firkin’ chain of brew-pubs springs up and does things differently, a host of small new breweries take up the banner and join the fight, forming their own Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) along the way. We also learn how the latter organisation, punching impressively above its weight at the time, was instrumental in lobbying for the statutory measures that were dubbed the ‘beer orders‘ at the back end of the 1980s, limiting the power of the big players.
In part three, we reach the modern beer-era; the Craft Epoch, if you will. Now we’re talking about Meantime, Thornbridge, BrewDog, Magic Rock, Hardknott and co. – those famous pioneers of the current wave of hop-fuelled, punk-marketed beers that are packed to the foamy bits with innovation, passion and knowledge to spare. Not to mention the dozens of others who have appeared on the scene since the trailblazers did their thing.
It’s all rather neatly summed up by Boak and Bailey’s chapter-heading ‘The Cult of Craft Beer’; a passing phase to some, a beloved way of life to others. But (here we go…) is ‘craft beer’ just a cynical ploy dreamed up by the (oh, so evil) Marketing Department as a means of parting bearded hipsters from their hard-earned? Is it the future, arriving on the crest of a wave of sextuple-hopped Imperial IPAs (12% ABV, at least £4.99 a third, distilled otter’s tears a given)? Or is it simply a typical fad-bubble, one that die-hard lovers of ‘twiggy’ beers can’t wait to see go ‘pop’ in favour of the return to the sanity of a nice, safe pint of sensible session bitter (from cask, not keg! never keg… no matter how good the stuff might actually taste…) to the nation’s handpulls? You’ll have your own thoughts on the question, I’m sure.
As I said, I definitely learned a lot from Brew Britannia. The main revelation for me – although it surely won’t have been a surprise to many CAMRA members, particularly the longer-serving ones (waves at John, Peter and Pete) – is that the current ‘beer revolution’, that often feels like something that sprung up in the past five or six years, really isn’t new or revolutionary at all (no matter what BrewDog’s PR department would have us all believe).
The rise of ‘craft’ beer? Well, that probably started, in the U.K. at least, back in the late 1990s with the likes of Mash & Air here in Manchester and then the founding of London’s Meantime brewery. The current tsunami of microbrewery and brew-pub startups? It seems the same sort of thing happened from the 1980s onwards, for a while at least. Wild experimentation with ever-crazier beer styles? Actually, there was a lot of that going on as well, from round about the same time. It turns out there really is nothing new under the sign of the Rising Sun.
The main difference, of course, is that now we have The World Wide Web, a mass-communication tool and channel for ale-fuelled debate that the early pioneers of CAMRA would probably have given their right arms for (as long as that wasn’t their pint-raising arm, of course). Now we have websites stuffed to the rafters with information, news and special offers (well, if they’re managed properly, but that’s another blog post) and social media broadcast outlets with which to spread news, rumours, ticking tips and arguments across the globe. No longer is the real ale scene almost totally reliant on a local CAMRA newsletter as the sole source of relevant information (although I hasten to add that in many cases they’re still one of the very best ways to find out what’s going on ion your area). Now we have news sites (like this one), the aforementioned websites – run by breweries, beer festival organisers and of course, CAMRA branches – plus a plethora of beer blogs; endless sources of entertainment and enlightenment. And opinion. Lots and lots of opinion…
Which brings me to my one small, very personal criticism of this deeply researched, knowledgeably curated and highly readable volume, which is that there’s a strong element throughout of ‘just the facts, please’. I felt the book was perhaps missing an investigative thrust, or some sort of over-arcing narrative. Brew Britannia sits more comfortably alongside Martyn Cornell’s equally fascinating Amber, Gold and Black than, say, Pete Brown’s beery adventure yarns, which are always laced with personal touches and plenty of humorous anecdotes. There’s nothing wrong with the historical approach; always room for another well-documented history of our beloved beverage on my bookshelf and I’m sure that’s what the authors intended to produce all along. I just can’t help feeling that a little more exploration of just what it was that the authors found ‘strange’ about the rebirth of British Beer would have been the icing on the already hearty and tasty cake. Boak and Bailey are well-known beer bloggers in their own right after all, so they’ve played their part in the current wave of the beer revolution. I think I was hoping for more insight and opinion from the perspective of their own involvement in the scene.
As I say though, that probably wasn’t the intention. And perhaps, given that they’ve now won the Beer Writers of the Year award from the British Guild of Beer Writers and are casting about for a subject for their next major writing project, they’ll be tempted to focus in on this current golden age of beer and poke around a bit behind the scenes, see what interesting nuggets and anecdotes they can unearth? That sounds like a book that I for one would be very interested in reading.
Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer is published by Aurum Press and is available from all good bookstores and online retailers, r.r.p. £12.99. It would, of course, make an ideal Christmas or other Seasonal gift for the beer-lover in your life. Or for yourself, why not. See boakandbailey.com for various purchasing options.