Beer Matters

“Change and decay in all around I see...”

Lately there has been much head-shaking, sighing and breast-beating over the noble name of Brakspear, not least on the part of your correspondent. Incredible as it may seem, the pride of Henley is brewing no more.

A couple of years ago when the Horsham brewery of King & Barnes closed its doors for the last time, the local ringers marked the occasion, as I recall, with a half-muffled quarter peal, as well they might, for K&B Sussex Bitter was one of the finest session beers ever known to man. The name lives on under Hall & Woodhouse but it is not the same beer any more than Brakspear’s ordinary is the same beer now.

Why should news like this cause such sorrow and anguish? After all, breweries like all other businesses come and go. What was so special about those two?

To answer that question, we must go back to the early seventies. Half a century of modernisation, mergers and take-overs had reduced Britain’s thousands of local breweries to six large conglomerates and barely a hundred struggling independents. Beer as we know and love it looked to be on the verge of extinction. Then along came CAMRA and within a couple of years the tide had turned – we all know that story.

Adnams, Brakspear, Gale, Hartley, Hook Norton, King & Barnes, McMullen, Morland, Shipstone, Simpkiss, Timothy Taylor, Young – to drinkers of a certain age these (and others) were heroes of the counter-revolution, real brewers who had emerged relatively unscathed from the dark days of Watneys Starlight and Tavern Keg. [There was something about their pubs too: generally small, cosy and unpretentious, designed for serious drinking.] We revered them and came to assume they were immortal.

But thirty years on it has become apparent that they had feet of clay all along. After a brief respite the round of brewery closures and take-overs continued apace as members of ancient brewing dynasties gave up the struggle for excellence in a world where fewer people cared and succumbed to the accountant’s shilling. Of the dozen named above, half are no longer with us. Rumour has it that McMullen’s days are numbered. As for what might happen at Wandsworth when the indomitable John Young is no longer at the helm, it does not bear thinking about.

But let’s be philosophical (a pint of Fuller’s ESB might help there). Change is all around, certainly. Decay, too, is inevitable. But decay nourishes new growth. Art, as ever, imitates nature and the brewer’s art is no exception. Since the late Seventies hundreds of new breweries have sprung up, reversing the trend of the previous 50 years. Many have already fallen by the wayside but the best of them are even now stepping into the shoes of the defunct regionals – think of Hopback (Wiltshire), Ringwood (Hampshire), Woodfords (Norfolk), Cotleigh (Somerset), Nethergate (Suffolk), Wye Valley (Herefords). Think too of Paul Theakston who, when the rest of the family sold out, remained true to the spirit of his ancestors by setting up his own “Black Sheep” brewery.

It is right and proper to lament the demise of Brakspear as one would mourn the passing of an old and dear friend. But let us then raise a glass to the success of the next generation. May they acquire some pubs worthy of their ales; then maybe one day Clare, Downton or Wiveliscombe will be worth a pilgrimage as Henley once was.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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