Beer Matters

Transport of Delight – or Bad Hare Dray?

I opined in my last column that beer is a seasonal thing. It is also, or was, very much a local thing. A century or more ago, there were thousands of breweries in England, every place of any size having at least one. By the time I began drinking ale (a predictable consequence of taking up bellringing), there were barely a hundred left and most brewing was in the hands of half a dozen national conglomerates churning out for the most part bland, pasteurised and disgustingly fizzy beers. Thankfully, during the last thirty years a host of new micro-breweries have sprung up and many of the regionals who survived the 60s and 70s have gone from strength to strength *.

Yet the local dimension is still largely absent. Once, the brewer’s dray trundled sedately round a few villages, the draymen stopping at every pub to unload a few casks and take refreshment (a fine tradition - I would have dismissed William Hague as a political nerd had it not been for the “14 pints” revelation). Now, however, thousands of barrels are travelling the length and breadth of the country at high velocity every day. This may well be inevitable in a culture where the average supermarket vegetable has travelled 2,200 miles (a truly appalling statistic) but, quite apart from the contribution to road congestion and pollution, is it a good thing?

Firstly, is this excessive transportation deleterious to “real” ale or the microflora which give it its character? It is often said of certain beers - notably Adnams - that they “don’t travel well”. Such judgements are of necessity subjective and there is evidence for and against (for example, I have had exceedingly good pints of Adnams in London and poor ones in Southwold - at the Sole Bay Inn, no less). I think we must conclude that the jury is still out on that question. One thing is certain though: the beer is unlikely to be improved by the experience.

But is it necessary, or even desirable? Whilst I would not wish to denigrate the efforts of the Wetherspoon chain and specialist hauliers like the Beer Seller in bringing the products of the micros to the attention of the wider drinking public, what is to be gained by established brewers shipping their already well-known ales to the farthest corners of the realm, often at the expense of their local trade?

For my part, I am more than happy to support my local brewery when at home. But while travelling around the country I do like to try something different; indeed it is of the essence of travel to sample local food and drink. Am I alone in finding it profoundly sad to enter a village pub in, say, Somerset or Cheshire, only to discover that the only beers on offer are from London or Yorkshire?

Here I must mention one brewery which appears to buck the trend: Palmers of Bridport. Their beers are seldom seen in the free trade but they have maintained their tied estate in that corner of West Dorset and the quality is consistently good (it may be unfashionable to say so, but I think the tied house system still has a lot going for it). This is one area where there is never a problem in finding pubs that serve jolly good local beer in convivial surroundings. Long may they continue to do so.

Maximus Bibendus

* Alas for Brakspear, once among the leaders of that band, now threatened with closure.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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