Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A Book At Beertime: Britain's Lost Breweries And Beers

(In the interests of transparency, I was contacted by the publishers of this book, Aurum, and offered a review copy, which I accepted)

Chris Arnot seems to be fond of finding lost things. He's written about lost cricket grounds and, more recently, football fields. In 'Britain's Lost Breweries And Beers', he selects 30 gone-but-not-forgotten breweries and meanders across the UK to find their remnants, both human and built, recording oral histories of their time, the impact on their communities, and the beers they brewed. What he has delivered is a potted history of the past 40 years of British brewing. A time marked by dumbed-down beer, wrong turns, greed, boardroom-level betrayal, hubris and carpet-bagging which led to the closure of iconic breweries and the loss of some classic beers.

Across the series of stories he relates, I was fascinated by the impact of things I'd only heard about. I got serious about beer around 1991, and started going to festivals a couple of years later. The 'Tour Of Destruction' was of peripheral interest, as three of my cousins had working lives at Wethereds of Marlow cut short by Whitbread's takeover, and I was a Guinness drinker when the Beer Orders came in, but the Big Six and the massive consolidation of the industry happened when I was a kid. Once I started drinking, I just knew Kennington had one of each brewery's pubs. (Aside: Arnot lived around here in the early 70's, as he relates in his chapter on Charrington. I found myself wondering whether he was drinking their cask beer at The Roebuck, now long-gone and re-badged as The Dog House.)

Beer as I was experiencing it in the 90's was politicised by the fall-out from a perceived betrayal delivered in the Beer Orders, and schadenfreude when the big national brewers were themselves devoured when they wandered onto the radar of the multinational conglomerates, so maybe after all there was some good in those Beer Orders. I'd never experienced the kind of community where the local brewery supplied all the local pubs, except in Germany, where the Waldniel-based Schloss Brauerei supplied virtually every pub and restaurant in the area - when a new bar opened selling 'foreign' beer (Bitburger) locals were dumbfounded.

However, as Arnot narrates his adventures, there's little in the way of rancor, the sound of grinding axes, or glee. There are some funny coincidences, too. I recalled Matt Wickham telling me that, during a refurbishment of the Evening Star in Brighton a couple of years back, a load of breweriana was discovered in the attic. Turns out the Star was once a Tamplin's house, and the stuff must have lain there for over 40 years. I wonder if Arnot knew about that when wrote about Tamplin's?

While this book isn't a forensic examination of the decline of the small brewer in the late 20th Century, neither does it wallow in dewy-eyed nostalgia. It does relate the human cost of brewery closures which to be fair I imagine CAMRA would have been pointing out when they were campaigning against the later loss of brewers like Vaux. He also manages to nod towards the new brewing scene, which in some cases has been a result of brewery staff dumped from their jobs starting from scratch out of a belief in local beer.

Of course, British brewing will probably never again be the exclusive domain of huge, often family-operated businesses with tied estates running into hundreds of pubs. The challenges to the new brewers seem to be more about selling a massively taxed product to hard-to-access markets, and the neo-prohibitionist attack on drinking. It's hard to imagine any of the new brewers wanting to emulate a Young's, or Gales or Tetley. So this book is a useful reminder of what we lost, and maybe a caution to be careful what we wish for.

'Britain's Lost Breweries And Beers'
By Chris Arnot
Published by Aurum Press, 194pp
ISBN: 978-1-78131-002-1
RRP: £25, but Amazon (assuming you aren't boycotting them) have it for £16.99 at the moment.

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