Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

I came to beer relatively late in my drinking career thus far, having spent the years between fourteen and eighteen necking various different types of sugary, sticky rubbish. My eighteenth birthday was at the end of 2008, and my first legal purchase at the bar on that evening was, I believe, an Apple Sourz shot (Fast-forward five and a half years, and I’m still drinking sours, although these ones are rather different). It wasn’t until 2009, working behind the bar in a community-run pub, that I sampled the ale which led to my current beer geekery:┬áDark Star Hophead, for those of you who are curious. I was lucky to be discovering beer at this time. Exploring this brave new world which was unfolding in front of me, I had access to The Cask in Pimlico, I haunted North Bar in Leeds, I was able to join – and subsequently become president of – a well established university Real Ale Society, Brew Dog were making waves, and Boak and Bailey had already been blogging about beer for two years. I’ve found their blog to be an interesting and amusing source of beery info and opinion over the years, so when they popped up at Port Street as part of their book tour in May, I went along, bought a copy, and tried not to be too much of an awkward fangirl…

A bottle of Marks and Spencers Oakham Citra IPA, next to a copy of Boak and Bailey's Brew Britannia
The crafterati’s #trainbeer of choice, and a beer book… My fellow passengers were definitely jealous.

So really, my personal beer journey begins in the last couple of chapters of Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey’s book, Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer. This friendly, accessible, but very informative wander through the resurgence of British beer laid out before me a history of relatively recent years. Many people I know have lived, and been active beer drinkers, throughout much of the period detailed in this book, but I have merely gleaned a vague shape of the historical landscape from CAMRA publications, various blog posts, broader books such as Pete Brown’s Man Walks Into A Pub, and, of course, nostalgic tales, not always particularly positive: “Hah, a young lady drinking a pint! When I was young you weren’t allowed to do that”. Brew Britannia doesn’t just fill in the gaps in the landscape, it gets out its felt tips, adds trees, houses, and little cartoon dogs, then colours everything in very carefully without going over the lines.

From SPBW boozing in their marvellous ties, to the young, hipster-ish upstarts which CAMRA once were (no, really!), through early brewpubs, ‘beer exhibitions’, The Big Six, Michael Jackson, new world hopped beers tasting ‘weird’, and small independent brewers standing their ground, to gastropubs, the gentrification of beer, and the phrase ‘craft’ being around for far longer than one might expect, it’s an invaluable guide to what has gone before – and what we may see again. The names mentioned in the book vary from being entirely new to me, to having a mildly mythic status, and it’s enjoyable to see their characters and roles set out in context, although at some points I felt like I wanted to scribble some sort of tree diagram, to keep track of who knew who, who did what, and where! I suppose that’s the nature of the beer industry: it’s a very small world, and brewers are always hopping (groan, no pun intended) from place to place.

The last couple of chapters are concerned with history I am more familiar with, with Thornbridge being one of the breweries I initially fell in love with in 2009 – even then, they were very firmly established. Craft keg, Brett, schooners, unfined beer, new wave IPAs, Portman Group baiting, beer bars, IndyMan and CAMRGB, and we’re brought pretty firmly up to the moment… In ten years or so, it will be interesting to look back on the current craft boom we’re enjoying. As a beer enthusiast, I feel very spoiled and lucky by all of the choice I have – did the beer geeks of yore feel like this at the first CAMRA festivals? Will good(/craft/whatever you want to call it) beer continue to break into the mainstream? Some young brewers I know are now actively steering clear of brewing weird, niche beers for the craft wankers, instead focusing on brewing straight-forward pales for people who don’t particularly care about precisely which hops they are tasting. Will we really experience post-craft, a backlash against perceived pretentiousness and hipsterism? A recent ill-informed Grauniad comment piece seems to indicate that we may. And will CAMRA ever get their act together to move forward away from ignoring anything that isn’t cask-conditioned, or will they become an increasingly irrelevant drinking club? (For further thoughts on this last point, check out The Pub Curmudgeon’s recent “Opening Times” Column). Brew Britannia has, in exploring the past, got me thinking about the future – but aside from all of that, it’s a bloody enjoyable and interesting read, and one which I will dip back into for reference time and time again.

A signed copy of Brew Britannia from Boak and Bailey
So excited about having a signed copy! I am a big nerd.

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