Trip down nostalgia lane to find the great beers and their breweries of yesteryear
Added: Sunday, November 4th 2012
The Lost Beers & Breweries of Britain, Brian Glover, Amberley Publishing, £15.99
Britain’s Lost Breweries and Beers, Chris Arnot, Aurum Press, £25
You wait 20 years for a book on lost beers and breweries, then two come along together. Both books will appeal to beer lovers who recall the great ales of yesteryear. But they should be of interest to drinkers of all ages who can see how a mix of stupidity and greed, as well as natural attrition, destroyed great companies and deprived their customers of much-loved beers.
The approach of the authors is radically different but they combine to show how Britain was once a power-house of brewing. Such producers as Bass and Truman’s were among the biggest brewers in the world. Truman’s in East London was producing between 400,000 and 600,000 barrels a year in the 1960s, a phenomenal amount. And yet a decade later it was gutted and closed by the global drinks group Grand Metropolitan in order to cash in on the value of the brewery’s pubs.
It was precisely at this time that Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath coined the expression” the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”. He was describing the activities of Lonrho in Africa but it served equally well to sum up the role of the spivs, profiteers and chancers who destroyed the bed-rock of British brewing.
Brian and Chris are both seasoned journalists and they have used their skills to dig into the histories of the breweries they have chosen. Brian is a beer writer of repute, who worked on regional papers before editing CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper and wrote the first major book on the small brewery revolution, the New Beer Guide, in 1988. (There’s a photo of a young David Bruce, founder of the Firkin brewpubs, on the cover: there’s another trip down nostalgia lane.) Brian brings to his book, therefore, a wealth of experience and passion for the subject.
Chris is an established freelance who writes for the Guardian, the Independent and the Telegraph on a wide range of subjects, including the arts and education. His previous book for Aurum followed a similar theme – Britain’s Lost Cricket Grounds. He enjoys a pint but approaches his subject more dispassionately than Brian.
Brian has chosen 50 breweries, Chris 30. Remarkably, there’s little crossover. Both cover Bass – you could scarcely ignore Britain’s biggest brewer – and Carlisle. Brian, given his CAMRA roots and experience, surprisingly ignores Boddingtons, save for a short mention in his introduction. Chris on the other hand devotes a long section to the “cream of Manchester”. He says that when he first encountered “Boddies” in the 1960s it was “the finest beer that I’d tasted in my comparatively short life”. I had a similar experience in a pub in Hythe in the 1970s: I refused to leave on the grounds that the beer was liquid paradise. Its ruination at the hands of Whitbread and InBev is a story that needs to be told and handed on.
The Carlisle State Management Scheme involved the nationalisation of all the breweries and pubs in Carlisle and neighbouring Gretna in 1916 – a state takeover, as Brian notes, one year before the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The aim was to counter the alleged drunken behaviour of workers in the key munitions factories in the area. I find the coverage in both books disappointing. Brian and Chris accept at face value the stories of rampant drunkenness, though other writers on the subject say the claims were exaggerated and fed the frenzy of Lloyd George, the Minister for Munitions. If he had had his way, Lloyd George would have nationalised the entire British brewing industry: he made the ludicrous claim in 1915 that “drink was doing more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together”. He was not teetotal but he had a visceral hatred of the big brewers who, with the exception the Bass family, were keen and generous supporters of the Tory party.
Both Brian and Chris refer to the architect Harry Redfern who designed the pubs where munitions workers were encouraged to drink the beer from the Carlisle State Brewery. The pubs were a radical departure from spartan drinking shops of the period and it’s necessary to look into Redfern’s background to appreciate both his thinking and its impact elsewhere. He was more than a mere architect. He was a passionate disciple of William Morris’s Arts & Crafts movement that wanted well-designed, warm and comfortable buildings for the working class. Redfern’s pubs provided fires, ample seating, an insistence on hot food, as well as good living conditions and wages for the staff. The Carlisle scheme was not privatised until the 1970s and the brewery was briefly run by Theakston’s of Yorkshire. But between the First World War and the period following the Second World War, many brewers, notably Mitchells & Butlers and Whitbread, took note of Redfern’s work and redesigned their pubs as places where women and families were welcome.
Brian Glover’s approach is to tell a potted history of his chosen breweries and to single out the more interesting beers they produced. Chris Arnot follows a different path. He uses his journalist’s skills to winkle out former brewery executives and workers and listen to their stories. Chris’s efforts are impressive. As well as interviewing the likes of Ewart Boddington, the former boss of the Manchester brewery, he found some old brewery workers with wonderful stories to tell, such as Eddie Green, who joined the Carlisle Brewery at the age of 15 in 1928 and who had to adjust his hearing aid when Chris asked his questions.
Brian’s method singles out such fascinating beers as Allsopp’s IPA, the first beer brewed in Burton-on-Trent for the India trade, Arctic Ale, designed for explorers in the snowy wastes, Chancellor Ale, brewed in Oxford University on equipment dating from the 14th century, and Manx Oyster Stout brewed with real oysters.
He includes Russian Imperial Stout, a beer brewed by Thrale’s of Southwark, which became Barclay Perkins and finally Courage when the two neighbouring breweries on the south bank of the Thames merged.
Chris Arnot chooses four London brewers – Charrington, Manns, Truman and Young’s – but ignores Barclays and Courage. This is surprising as the story of the two breweries is well-documented. It has a powerful link with Dr Samuel Johnson, and Barclays in its prime was the biggest brewery in London. Oddly, both writers, except in passing, ignore Watney’s, another large London brewer. Its decline and fall as a result of dismal mismanagement and corporate stupidity is a story surely worth telling. But Chris makes up for this by detailing the tragic loss of Tetley’s in Leeds. The symbol of fine Yorkshire brewing was traduced in 2011 when Carlsberg closed the enormous site, pensioned off the famous dray horses, and moved production to the iconic Yorkshire town of Wolverhampton. The reason was the value of the site for private accommodation. From Grand Met to Carlsberg, global giants mimic the French Bourbons: they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
The books are penny plain and twopence coloured. Brian’s looks as if it were designed by an early version of desk-top publishing and is printed on the sort of paper that usually comes on a roll with perforations. Chris’s is beautifully designed on quality paper – as the cover price proves. But both are packed with superb illustrations of old breweries, advertising promotions and beer mats. They will bring a tear to the hardest of hearts, a memento mori of a period when British beer ruled the world.
One curiosity: the black and white photo on the back of Chris Arnot’s book shows a man in a cloth cap rolling a giant wooden cask. He is surrounded by other casks with single-storey buildings in the background. The distinctive shape of both casks and buildings say “whisky distillery” not brewery. Perhaps it’s a teaser for Chris’s next book, The Lost Distilleries of Scotland. That should keep him busy for a few years.