The last leaves are drifting down from the trees, my pint glass is half full of satisfyingly rich, hoppy beer and a wintry sun is shedding its last warmth as it slips down behind the Southern Downs. It’s one of those perfect moments when an Englishman contemplates life and decides that all is right in his world. With wine, whisky or lager it just wouldn’t be the same. And, it seems, people on this weather-tossed island increasingly agree. There has never been a more exciting time to indulge in our traditional drink, to sample the myriad styles of real British ale, and a resurgence in small, craft-led brewers is fighting back against the tide of bland, big brand beer that all but swamped this part of our heritage.
Just 30 years ago there were only 90 independent brewers left operating in Britain. Today this number has swelled to over 700 as a wave of new microbreweries has joined the remaining regional, family-owned independents that have carried the torch for cask ale. “We have a rich heritage of everyday styles such as bitter that have always continued to be brewed,” says Julian Grocock, chief executive of SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers. “But there is no doubt that the microbrewers have been responsible for a huge amount of experimentation, reviving old styles, inventing new styles and also using ancient herbs that were used before hops became widely used in the fifteenth century.”
It’s worth a quick reminder of what makes a classic British beer, known as ale, so special. Whereas continental lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeasts, ale is brewed from malted barley with top-fermenting yeasts that act quickly, encouraging a sweet, fruity, full-bodied beer, typically (but not always) flavoured with hops that impart a bitter, herby flavour, adding to the complexity of this thirst-quenching but heady brew. This is the essence of a pint of bitter, an icon of Britishness, and one so deeply imbedded in the culture that one fears revolution should the government ever attempt to impose metrification on this old imperial measure.
Beyond bitter, there is India Pale Ale (IPA), a strong but lightish brew developed to survive the sea journey and quench the thirst of Empire builders overseas, the rich, treacly-hued porters and stouts, plus powerful, sweet winter warming ales, the newish phenomenon of Golden Ales designed to convert lager drinkers, single hop ales and much else besides. Herbs and spices such as juniper, nettles and even heather, as in the intriguing Scottish Fraoch Heather Ale, have re-emerged as microbrewers experiment and revive old recipes that in some cases have been ignored for centuries. It really is a paradise of flavours equal to the variety and intrigue delivered by the world of wine.
On a light-hearted note, one of the best things about real ale is the way in which it has enriched the language with a plethora of quirky and often downright bizarre names. You can tickle your tonsils with Old Hooky, take pride in a pint of Spitfire, mull over a Black Sheep, warm up with a wintry Rip Snorter, delve into a Hobgoblin, freshen up with a Summer Lightening and sup on a Bishop’s Finger. British brewers seem to delight in intriguing, off-beat names. More seriously, though, this resurgence of interest in real beer reflects the growing concern over the provenance of food and drink, with an ever increasing number of people seeking out well-crafted, locally produced, often seasonal goods as the worst excesses of globalisation become increasingly worrying.
“The situation is very complex and very fascinating, rather like a microcosm of British society,” says renowned beer expert and publican Mark Dorber, who recently upped sticks from the seminal White Horse pub in London to reinvigorate The Anchor Inn on the Suffolk coast. “There has never been a more exciting time for British beer since the early part of the nineteenth century and the work now being done to promote the concept of beer and its terroir is similar to the ethos of Slow Food.”
Dorber agrees that a strong theme running through this resurgence is the insistence, where possible, on local produce, on traditional English hop varieties, on local barley, all tying in with local jobs and a pride in drinking beer produced within a community or county. Miles Jenner, head brewer at family-owned Harvey’s in Lewes, Sussex, agrees, explaining that this local emphasis also results in a better quality pint reaching the lips of the beer drinker.
“Beer is a perishable product and is also over 90 percent water so what is the point in shipping it up and down motorways?” he says. “This is why the old family brewers like Harvey’s sell their beers through pubs in the local region.” Harvey’s, like Shepherd Neame in Kent, Fuller’s in London, Adnams in Suffolk, Charles Wells in Bedfordshire, Hook Norton in Oxfordshire, Black Sheep Brewery in Yorkshire, Jennings Brewery in Cumbria - and many other great independent county brewers – typically sell most of their beer within a 60-mile radius of the brewery. “Our hops and barley come from Sussex, Kent and Surrey, which is where we sell our beer, so our Sussex bitter is tied to local produce and local palates,” says Jenner. Intriguingly, he is also setting up a microbrewery plant alongside the old Harvey’s brewery to enable him to produce a greater range of smaller batch seasonal and special recipe ales.
Of course, this revival is not without its challenges and rivalries as the 27 remaining independent family-owned brewers jostle with the myriad (if small) newcomers on the microbrewing scene which typically brew up to 15,000 barrels (18,000 hl) a year. But, as Jenner admits, there used to be 9 breweries in the small county town of Lewes alone (the last rival closed in 1958) so the competition used to be greater and it does seem that the interest being generated by these pint-sized brewers is bringing new people to real ale.
“There has been some very interesting research done,” says Paul Wells of Charles Wells brewery. “It shows that 60 percent of British people have never tried cask-conditioned ale [beers typically delivered to the pubs in a cask and literally pumped by hand from the barrel into the glass at the bar ndr], but if we can get them to try, then 40 percent will return to real ale again.’ It’s encouraging news for a tradition that appeared to be dying out completely 30 years ago and was in large part kept alive by the work of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, as consolidation among ever more giant brewers threatened this heritage. “A great pint – one you would cross the road for – is central to a good pub and a good pub is at the heart of the community,” continues Wells. “Without getting this right we will continue to lose pubs which are shutting down at a shocking rate in this country.”
Robert Wicks, who left a well-paid City job to open the Westerham Brewery in Kent, is an excellent example of how the microbreweries are playing their part in safeguarding the brewing heritage. The Westerham microbrewery may only be four years old but it is, in a very real sense, upholding tradition. In addition to creating a range of his own brews based on traditional styles, he has also revived a recipe – and the yeast – from the nearby Black Eagle Brewery which closed its doors in 1965, creating Westerham Special Bitter Ale 1965 in memory of the one-time local brewer. He is also doing his bit to help with the ailing British hop industry, working with the land-owning National Trust to brew a beer for them using hops from one of their protected properties, Scotney Castle, to help preserve yet another of the vastly diminished number of Kentish hop gardens.
It is this emphasis on protecting old recipes, on promoting regional and local styles, on saving and reinvigorating British hop growing, on using best British barley, on selling locally, on supporting pubs, on the community and heritage of Britain’s traditional drink, that is encouraging people to think again about what would be lost if we all continued to drink over-priced, underwhelming, mass-market lagers in our pubs and bars. Musing over my diminishing pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter at the Ram Inn at Firle under the shadow of the chalky Sussex downs, it’s encouraging to think that my children will be able to do the same. This is a world away from the kiss-me-quick, binge-drinking culture of the high street bars. And, at the risk of sounding civilised, long may it so remain. Time to replenish my glass with a guest ale, perhaps a tangy pint of the Dark Star brewery’s flavoursome Hophead.
Andrew Catchpole is a London-based wine, food and travel writer
Taken from the Italian magazine Slowfood (38)