At the end of last week I received a fascinating book to review – Brew Britannia – The Strange Rebirth of British Beer by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey.
The authors tell the story of how British beer was nearly suffocated by the six big brewers in the 1960s when the beer industry consolidated. The big six companies were interested in selling fizzy keg beer, which was easy to keep and serve. Watneys Red Barrel is probably the best known and certainly most infamous of these keg beers from the 1960s and 1970s.
Brew Britannia tells of the reaction to the keg revolution – both the protest and campaigning movements typified by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and the setting up of new small micro-breweries. It also tells of the fight back by the big brewers by reintroducing cask beers at the same time as they started to promote lager.
In time splits emerged in CAMRA, partly because there was a feeling that the battle had been won with the growth in popularity of real ale even though it was still a niche market.
I’m afraid this is as far I have got with Brew Britannia, which is certainly a good read, helped by a strong cast of characters. This paragraph on Becky, the owner of Backy’s Dive Bar in London’s Southwark gives a flavour:
‘Recollections of Becky herself suggest a woman who, having reached her prime in the 1930s and 1940s, decided that that was where she would stay. Her hair was always dyed deep black, she wore lipstick ‘half an inch around her mouth’ and tended to wear clothes recalling the fashions of those decades. The bar had a gramophone-style record player, which would blast out songs on old seventy-eights by George Formby, Flannagan and Allen and even speeches by Winston Churchill, evoking the Blitz spirit in her underground ‘shelter’. Those, who frequented The Dive recall that she drank constantly and heavily, rarely making much sense by the end of a typical night. Not to overdo the air of tragedy, though: she was also a friendly, talkative and warm personality – likeably eccentric – and seems to have found something approaching a family in her colleagues and customers. There was a drunken pianist called Norman, two barmen-cum-cellarmen called Harry and Alf, as well as various heavy-drinking regulars. In a 1974 column for the Guardian, Richard Boston recalled a bus trip with Becky, Harry and Alf, along with about twenty-five Dive Bar regulars, around Rutland and Norfolk in search of real ale, accompanied by singing and the wheezing of harmonicas.’
Despite a lively new beer culture as recounted by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey many traditional pubs in London suburbs are still going to the wall as these photos show – three dead pubs all within a radius of some 300 yards in Sydenham, South London.