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Beer: please don't frighten the ponies

Added: Monday, May 6th 2024

Batemans MD

Britain is a great brewing country but, shush, please keep quiet about it. It’s not something spoken about in polite company.

In late April I joined several hundred brewers, fellow beer writers and retailers to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Bateman’s in Wainfleet, Lincolnshire.

It was an inspirational event and we raised a glass – several of them, to be truthful – to a brewery that has survived wars and a family split, come back from the abyss and continue to produce superb cask beer.

The main speakers at the long and liquid lunch were former Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi and Keith Bott, the founder of Titanic Brewery in Stoke-on-Trent. They both had the same message: the need for team effort and for all independent breweries to work in harmony in order to survive.

At a time when many, too many, breweries are closing, the theme of co-operation and survival was a vital one. You might think it would tickle the fancy of the media but the cameras and microphones were in short supply.

If this were a brewery in Belgium or Germany or a revered vineyard in France, the media would be out in force but it was notable by its absence at Bateman’s. Wainfleet is just a few miles from the resort of Skegness, a major tourist spot in the BBC’s Look North region.

The 150th anniversary of a proudly independent brewery in its area should surely interest the BBC but no such luck. Had the Beeb bothered to attend it could have interviewed not only Akabusi and Bott but Stuart and Jaclyn Bateman, the fourth generation to run the company (pictured above).

They would have spotted pumps on the bar for a new beer called 5G that points to the fact that Stuart’s two sons and a daughter are being trained to take over in due course – not that Stuart plans to pack away his mashing fork just yet.

And the reporter could have had a few words with another famous brewer from the region, Simon Theakston from Masham in Yorkshire. Also in attendance, and with some history on their side, were Jonathan Neame of Shepherd Neame, which dates from 1698, Oliver and William Robinson from Robinson’s of Stockport (1838), Fergus McMullen of McMullen of Hertford (1827) and Miles Jenner from Harvey’s of Lewes (1790).

For a more modern interpretation of the brewing industry, as well as Keith Bott there was Duncan Sambrook of Sambrooks, founded in 2008 and now occupying the former Young’s brewery site in Wandsworth, South London.

For his views as both a consumer champion and brewery founder, the media could have spoken to Chris Holmes, CAMRA chairman in the late 1970s. He went on to found the Castle Rock Brewery in Nottingham along with such fine pubs as the Vat & Fiddle in that city.

All that experience and history were available but there were no media takers. It reminded me of the occasion a few years ago when a special beer was brewed for sale at St Albans Abbey. I phoned the BBC’s London region office, which covers Hertfordshire, and said the beer recalled the time when monks at the abbey had brewed their own ale.

“We would never cover a story like that,” I was sniffily told. I had a similar response when I attempted to get the London Evening Standard to cover the Great British Beer Festival, right under their nose.

“Beer?” was the response. “Do you seriously think readers of the Standard have any interest in beer?” Yes, actually. If you go into most London pubs you are likely to find people drinking beer and reading the local paper.

But, shush, it’s not polite to talk about it.

It doesn’t get any better. Just last month, the Guardian’s wine correspondent, Fiona Beckett, recommended wines to accompany asparagus and said Germans consumed both red and white wines with dishes cooked with the plant.

My first-hand experience is quite different. Germans drink a lot of beer with asparagus. When I was in Bamberg I had a pub lunch that consisted of asparagus soup followed by steamed asparagus with a choice of beers that included the local speciality, Rauch beer, made with malt cured over beech wood fires.

But, heavens to Betsy, you mustn’t mention beer in the hallowed pages of the Guardian. Don’t frighten the ponies.

Against the odds, Bateman’s has survived and lives to brew another day. “We’re good at cask – that’s our heritage,” Stuart Bateman says. “We need to shout about the delights of cask.”

Carry on shouting, Stuart. You never know, the media may pay attention one day.

First published What’s Brewing, May 2024.