Brew Britannia: the strange rebirth of British beer
by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey
Aurum Press, 2014
I’m a bit of a history geek. History brings us perspective, and this book is a much welcomed perspective for those of us who love British beer, but weren’t around to see the birth of the modern British beer scene, in all its wonderful diversity.
Back in the mid-1960s, things were quite different. Small breweries were dying out and the big brewers were flexing their muscles. Interesting beers were disappearing and consumers were left with little choice from the tied brewery pubs. Real cask-matured ales were being squeezed out by boring keg bitters. Things got worse through the 1970s, to the point that by 1976 there were 147 brewers across the UK, owned by 82 companies. Beer was officially rubbish and in danger of dying out.
That sounds quite a lot: I can’t name you 147 brewers now. (Not anywhere close.) But it isn’t, not compared with today. In 2012, for the first time since before the first world war, the number of breweries exceeded 1000. We now have much more choice in beer styles. We are truly living in a new golden age of beer.
This book, by bloggers Boak and Bailey, is a detailed history of how this transformation took place. It’s quite scholarly, even, with lots of sources quoted in detail. It may lack a strong narrative theme, but there’s perhaps a raw honesty that comes with this lack of polish. Here are lots of facts, and you can take them away and make of it what you will. It deals at length with the role of CAMRA in being a vocal activist speaking out for interesting beer, but doesn’t shy away from the political issues that have arisen now that the battle has been won, the door has been opened, and CAMRA seemingly can’t get its head that interesting beer should be judged on its merits, and not on the method of its production.
One question I have: how much of this shift in beer is attributable to CAMRA, and how much to general societal changes that have taken place since the mid-1970s? Food has got more interesting, in the absence of a campaign for real food. Was CAMRA a manifestation of changing times that quite naturally appeared as people were looking for more interesting food and drink, or was it causal in any way?
I enjoyed reading this book, and if you have a strong interest in the modern British beer scene, you should probably buy a copy (and read it with sitting in an armchair with your sandals and cardigan on – only joking!).
This book on Amazon.co.uk: Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer