Britain’s position in northern Europe makes it natural beer and cider country. It’s all to do with the weather. Even though southern English vineyards like Nyetimber, Ridgeview, and Rathfinney have recently achieved spectacular success, our climate is better suited to growing barley and hops. That’s why the UK, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Poland brew the best beers in the world; and why France, Italy, Australia and South Africa are generally known for their sublime wines.
A good beer is a wonderful thing. I can’t think of a better meal than a pint of spectacularly good real ale – such as Harvey’s Sussex Best, Timothy Taylor Landlord or Caledonian Deuchars IPA – served with slices hewn from a crusty freshly-baked cob, and a chunk of proper cheese. The thing cheese has over other sources of protein is that it’s gentle on the teeth. No bones, no hard seeds, and no need to find a dentist after taking a bite.
When it comes to cheese, greasy supermarket cheddars and plasticine pre-packed portions just will not do. It’s got to be something great: a crumbly Hawes Wensleydale, a proper Farmhouse Double Gloucester or even a smear of Stinking Bishop. At the moment, I’m addicted to a crunchy Belton Farm Red Leicester made exclusively for Waitrose. As there’s no Waitrose supermarket within an easy gallop, it means a bit of a trek for me. The full, mellow flavour and salt crystal crunch make it a worthwhile journey.
Natural accompaniments to our meal of ale and cheese include a flavoursome red tomato, a few slithers of English onion and maybe a touch of homemade chutney. The important thing is to complement the beer, not batter it into submission.
People outside the loop simply cannot understand why so-called “real ale” – or cask-conditioned ale, to give it its proper title – is in a class apart from keg bitters and mass-produced lagers. Unfortunately, these people usually include the accountants and strivers who make decisions for breweries, pub companies, and eating establishments.
Up to a decade ago, I used to write about beer and pubs for London’s Time Out magazine. It was a great part-time job, even if it didn’t pay enough to get drunk on. It was quite usual in those days for me to visit a bar relaunching itself as a gastropub, to find a range of beers similar to those in a boozer on a housing estate. Sometimes there’d be an expensive European lager to help boost the bottom line and appease the trendies.
Wine lists would invariably be out of this world and contain rare delights from every continent. The food was usually prepared with care and skill, but at the bar you’d be limited to the usual range of keg lagers and bitters. If you were lucky, there might be a single pump serving “bog standard” house bitter. It was like going to a restaurant striving for a Michelin Star who’d sourced their vegetables from cans in the Tesco Value Range.
What Is Real Ale?
The very best beer can and should be compared to the finest wine. Drinks writer Oz Clarke may be known for being a wine expert, but I happen to know that when given the choice, he’s happiest sitting in a corner of a quiet British pub, sampling the local real ales.
Real ale comes in two forms: as a pint of living, breathing draught beer in a pub, and as bottle-conditioned. In both cases, the beer contains live yeast. Up to around 1960, nearly every British pub sold only real ale. The problem is this: good beer requires a little knowledge, care and attention. The best of them can easily be ruined by not being properly cared for. It’s not surprising that business-orientated breweries sought to standardise the quality of their beers.
Watneys’ Brewery in south-west London had developed a solution years before. Back in the hot summer of 1936, members of the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club had a major problem. Most players used the club at the weekend, and in the intervening five days the beer in the bar was going off. Luckily for them, one of their members was Bert Hussey, the Watneys’ Master Brewer.
He developed a premium export bitter that was then filtered and pasteurised to kill off the yeast. The name comes about because workers at the brewery painted the special barrels red to differentiate them from those containing lesser liquids. To replace the yeast’s sparkle, Bert came up with the idea of connecting the barrels to a small tank of carbon dioxide. This provided the fizz, and propelled the beer from cellar to the bar, meaning there was no need for traditional beer pumps. The result was a great-looking pint, served cold and fizzy.
Red Barrel was a great hit with the members of the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club, and it became available elsewhere as a premium product. Because the gas kept escaping from wooden barrels, this type of beer was soon shipped out in metal kegs. It’s thought that Flowers’ Brewery – later to be swallowed up by Whitbread – were the first to market the new, more expensive product as “keg bitter”.
Keg bitter took hold in the UK in the 1960s. The rise of commercial television and the need for a uniform product was too tempting a prospect for brewery accountants to ignore. Perversely, the likes of Red Barrel, Double Diamond, Worthing E, Youngers Tartan, Ben Truman, Whitbread Tankard, and Courage Tavern, were brewed with more expensive ingredients and promoted as premium products over the few cask-conditioned ales that survived.
The poor quality of pub beer at the time had led to a general trend towards bottled beers after the Second World War. By 1958, bottled beers amounted for 37% of the revenue of pubs operated by English brewers. Keg provided a cheaper and more deliverable alternative.
Canned beer had existed in the USA since the end of Prohibition, and in Britain since December 1935, when Llanelli brewers, Felinfoel, launched their own beer in a can. Despite the general availability of huge cans of beer like Watney’s Party Seven, the trend for “tinnies” didn’t take off until the 1980s onwards, when major supermarkets aggressively attacked the market.
One of the tactics national brewers used to promote keg bitters was to downgrade the quality of the ingredients and strengths of cask-conditioned versions. The desire for standardisation, combined with the rise of lager served in the same manner as keg bitters, made commercial sense to do away with everything else.
The way big brewers downgraded cask-conditioned ales eventually led a fightback. Lovers of real ale recognised the undoubted value of their favourite tipple and, in 1971, CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded. From small beginnings, do mighty acorns grow. What started out as a small pressure group snowballed and now almost every pub in Britain worth its salt sells at least one cask-conditioned ale.
Now, many fine real ales are brewed in a legion of small independent breweries across the UK. The major brewers effectively accounted themselves out of business, and the one or two that still exist mostly brew just lager. There are some sad stories. Whitbread, who began brewing in 1742, stopped producing beer in 2001, and is now in the cut-price hotel and pizza business. Young’s, whose Ram Brewery at Wandsworth was claimed to be Britain’s oldest continuous brewing centre is now just a pub company. Property company Minerva plc, who now own the brewery site have built a microbrewery in the old lab so as to keep up the claim of the “oldest British brewery”.
There are now estimated to be 800 breweries in the UK, most of which are small, independently-owned microbreweries. That’s more than twice as many as existed when CAMRA was formed.
Several long-established regional breweries have survived repeated rounds of corporate pass the parcel. The best of these include Charles Wells (now called Wells & Young’s, of Bedford, 1876); Fuller’s Brewery (Grifin Brewery at Chiswick in London, 1845); Timothy Taylor, (Keighley, 1858); and Hall & Woodhouse, (Badger Brewery at Blandford St. Mary in Dorset, 1777). Long may these and all the others continue producing unique British ales we can be proud of.
Anyone who thinks that lager is better for Britain that real ale should watch this video from the regional news on BBC North: