Sunday 13 July 2014

Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

It's tough for younger beer enthusiasts like myself to imagine what Britain's beer landscape was like in the 1960's and 70's. I've often asked my Dad, a fellow beer fan, what it was like back then. When he was studying Botany at The University of Sheffield in the early 70's he was a John Smith's drinker and used to avoid beers such as Watney's Red Barrel and Double Diamond like the plague. Nowadays we are chin-deep in a sea of what is for the most part excellent beer but it wasn't always this way and we have far more to thank CAMRA for than we realise.

I know this because I just finished reading Brew Britannia, the first book from one of the UK's finest and most hard-working blogging pairs, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. From their base in Penzance, Cornwall they have scoured the archives and correlated five decades worth of information into a rich and engrossing tome. It kicks off with a prologue that almost feels like a call to arms much like the book which they cite as an example, Christopher Hutt's The Death of the English Pub, before jumping forward in time and comparing Hutt's then bleak outlook to Bristol's now buoyant modern beer scene.

What follows is a carefully told story which works it's way through Britain's complex beer history decade by decade. Brew Britannia recounts tales such as the founding of the Society for Preservation of Beer from the Wood and as it was then known, the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. Boak and Bailey fuse meticulously researched facts with carefully thought out interviews, many of them with apparently quite elusive characters which they had put in considerable effort to track down.

The style of Brew Britannia runs true to that of their blog meaning that for the most part emotions are kept in check whilst we're fed interesting and informative facts. The downside of this is that much of the early parts of the book feel a little stodgy, almost like being sat in a university lecture in the late morning when you'd actually much rather still be in bed or even better in the pub with your mates. Despite this Brew Britannia gradually gathers pace and you can tell when the authors get excited about a subject that they're really enthusiastic about. One such example is when they talk about David Bruce and his Firkin chain of pubs, this was clearly a character they were keen to track down and they tell his story with real relish.

Brew Britannia kicks up another notch when it reaches the 1990's, in which Boak and Bailey started drinking in pubs themselves, again that enthusiasm suddenly becoming apparent. The book then ploughs headlong into the modern era with an incredibly in depth analysis of how Brewdog and Thornbridge changed the UK beer scene as we know it. Plenty of truths are revealed despite Brewdog's seemingly impenetrable marketing fortress standing in the way. In the final third their research is combined with experience, it's also the era when I started drinking in pubs so suddenly my attention was held solid until the wonderful final sentence, which comes out of almost nowhere and wraps up one of the most important books on beer to be released in the last ten years.

If you're even remotely into beer I would advise picking up a copy immediately and getting stuck in straight away. Some of the more historical chapters maybe be heavy going at first but eventually it becomes impossible to put down. I've given my Dad a copy and as he lived and drank through the parts where I wasn't yet born or old enough to buy a pint I'm interested to see if it rings true with his experience of beer back in the day.

With thanks to Aurum Press for sending a review copy. Brew Britannia is available in all good book stores and online now. Original photography by Dianne Tanner.


  1. Agreed it's an excellent book, but it's interesting that quite a few, er, older writers such as myself and Tandleman saw it the other way round. The first half benefits from being able to see the events described in a historical context, whereas the second half in comparison comes across as a little breathless and lacking in wider perspective.

    1. That is interesting, I'm pretty much the same age as the authors so it was very much an experience I feel I shared with them. I'm interested to hear my Dad's opinion once he's finished reading it.

  2. Guess I'd better read it then!

  3. Interesting indeed. I'd say that actually, having met them more than once, B&B are more attuned to the earlier half of their book than the latter.

    Perhaps it is just identification with what you know.

    When you say "we have far more to thank CAMRA for than we realise" actually you mean than "people my age realise".

    So that's all right then.

    1. I agree, I definitely found that parts that I had experienced personally more engaging but some of the more historical parts (I won't say which as I don't want to spoil the book for those that haven't read it) were extremely interesting, especially those that draw parallels with the state of the scene today.