Brew Britannia – The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

This book has a bizarre effect on me that some pubs have – it makes me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t around in. In some cases, it’s also about things I do remember but was too young to experience like the Firkin pub chain started by David Bruce in chapter seven. I was old enough but unaware of the origins of Thornbridge. I was ignorant of the art of publicity as honed by Brewdog. This volume could easily be enjoyed by those who have no interest in beer as it charts a soap opera full of characters and intrigue. 

It’s unusual to hear about the humans rather than the beer at the centre of the changes that took place from the 1970s. This book isn’t partisan and has no ulterior motive. It doesn’t try and sell the benefits of anything traditional, real or craft over anything else. It’s about the journalism and what happened, the people that got involved and their recollections. For example, Watney’s Red Barrel is notorious in the vocal history of CAMRA. Ted Handel was in charge of Watney’s public affairs group but is fondly remembered by those that knew him. It’s refreshing that despite the dubious beer, he isn’t depicted as a tyrant. Tracking down some of the cast from the 1970’s, there’s often a feeling of a hangover from the night before – times when the rebels might have gone too far or been over-exploitative in hindsight. Boak and Bailey have tried to interview as many of the cast as possible to present a balanced account of the inception of CAMRA but the book is about much more than that. 

My favourite chapter is chapter eight: Taste the Difference because I read and write about beer’s feel, its aroma and its taste. This evidently used to be nobody’s passion. To the modern beer geek it’s quite disheartening to find that this most elemental attribute of beer – though it can verge on pretension – was until recently completely neglected. Pioneering brewer Sean Franklin relates that early descriptions of American hops were said to have a “cat’s pee quality”. Even worse, a technical journal described the Cascade hop’s aroma as mild “American!” The characteristics I take for granted from hops and the different malts roasted to varying degrees and the current craze for fermentation be it wild, with Brett yeast, Saison yeast etc were all completely ignored. Taste and aroma didn’t seem to register at all until recently. It seems people (including writers on the subject) were indifferent to the taste of beer. I found this fascinating.

This book would be invaluable to a non-British audience as it tracks the parallel histories of “real ale” and “craft beer” in Britain. It explains CAMRA’s amazing ascent but also the next generation’s attempts to distance itself from what was then seen as dogma. In many ways, it was superseded by its own success. The two terms – real ale and craft beer – though compatible (the former under the latter) still grate among many people and there is finally a concise history that explains the origins of this crepitus in Britain

There’s a poignant picture of the remaining members of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and its 331 (mostly absent) members. It predates CAMRA and I wonder whether it might be prescient for the future of real ale fundamentalists. It illustrates the isolation of a faith over one type of beer and storage/dispense method being innately superior to all others. It’s the final chapter and I read it in sepia with plodding piano notes in the background.

Some badly needed visuals come in at the end to describe things too detailed for words. There’s the Kelham Island Brewery family tree, a chronological list of breweries before the modern boom, acres of notes, a recommended bibliography and a hard working index. My only quibble with this work is with the grainy illustrations. They look like they took some graft to find but their production doesn’t live up to the work and quality that went into the text.

The book ends as beer starts to fulfil its potential, diversify (through breweries such as the Wild Beer Co) and come into the mainstream. Images and demographics change and branding becomes artwork. I hope Jessica and Ray write a follow-up to this book documenting what came after but I suspect it would now have to be in 5 or 10 – year volumes as it’s now kicking off everywhere and at once. “Yeah, people are gonna want to know…… it all went down” – said one of the cast of the sci-fi film Cloverfield but the quote comes to me as I look back through Brew Britannia. Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey have written an objective and thoroughly researched history.

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