Norwich will be awash with beer at the end of the month.
Norwich City of Ale, a celebration of both beer and pubs in Norwich and Norfolk, will run for 10 days between 26 May and 5 June and will highlight the astonishing rebirth of brewing in the county.
Pubs will feature special beers brewed for the occasion from around 30 breweries in Norfolk. Thirty-one pubs in the city will offer the beers and will stage special events including "meet the brewer" evenings, food-and-beer matching, live music and quizzes.
The organisers, who include Phil Cutter, landlord of the Murderers pub on Timberhill, plan to stage City of Ale on an annual basis, and they have received a message of support from pubs minister Bob Neill who says: "It is well-run, well-publicised events such as the Norwich City of Ale that can play such a critical role in promoting local pubs and in making things happen at grassroots level."
The revival of brewing in Norfolk is remarkable, for the county was dubbed a "beer desert" in the 1970s by the Campaign for Real Ale. Norfolk for centuries was a major brewing region due to the fact that some of the finest malting barley is grown there. Norwich had three breweries — Bullards, Morgans and Steward & Patteson (S&P) — while Great Yarmouth was home to Lacons. They were substantial companies with large tied estates, but in the 1960s they had the misfortune to fall into the hands of aggressive London groups.
Lacons was bought and closed by Whitbread while Watneys went through Norwich like an especially hungry horde of locusts. Bullards and S&P closed and Morgans eventually followed when Watneys switched production to its brewery in Northampton, which supplied Norfolk with a beer called Norwich Bitter. This was before the introduction of the Trade Descriptions Act.
Pubs in Norfolk fared as badly as the breweries. In the 1970s, Watneys owned 70% of all the licences in a largely rural county where the pub plays a crucial role in community life.
The giant London brewer paid little attention to the needs of isolated villages and small towns. More than a quarter of the pubs in the Thetford district closed and many villages became dry when their pubs were shut on the grounds that they were either too difficult to supply or sold insufficient beer to be profitable.
The village of Stiffkey on the north Norfolk coast road became a symbol for the blight imposed by Watneys.
It had a population of 400 and once had three pubs, the Red Lion, the Townshend Arms and the Victoria, previously owned by the three independent Norwich breweries. In 1966 Watneys closed the Victoria and three years later the Red Lion shut.
The villagers had no choice but to crowd into the Townshend Arms and drink Watneys' Norwich Bitter brewed in Northampton.
But even this small pleasure was denied them in 1971 when Watneys put the pub up for sale. Nobody in the village could raise the money and the pub closed.
Alan Tuck, a retired postman in Stiffkey, said at the time: "The death of the Townshend Arms was the final straw. Since then the post office and last shop have closed and with the last pub went the thriving cricket team."
There's an old saying, that nature abhors a vacuum. Put another way, you can't keep good beer down. Slowly, Norfolk started to recover. Woodforde's brewery opened in 1981 and others followed. Today there are some 30 breweries in Norfolk.
Some are small and the owners want them to stay small — that's their preferred way of running things.
But Woodforde's, producing 18,000 barrels a year and supplying 600 outlets, has grown to become a major regional brewer and Iceni, Winter's and Wolf are also substantial producers.
Pubs in today's marketplace thrive on a wide range of beers. Norfolk's pubs include the Red Lion in Stiffkey, which eventually re-opened and breathed life back into the village.
Norwich City of Ale will reflect the large range on offer and some pubs will have beers brewed specially for the occasion.
They include Norwich Bear's Pooh Bear, Ole Slewfoot's EBA, made with English malt, Belgian yeast and American hops — hence the acronym — and Pink Panther wheat beer from the Panther Brewery.
As I spent my first few years in Norfolk and consider Norwich to be one of the finest places on the planet, it will be my great pleasure next Thursday to officially open the ale celebration.
I shall, of course, be on my best behaviour. I see from the advance material that several brewers have produced beers to celebrate Norwich City FC's promotion to the Premier League.
The beers include Woodforde's Premier Crew, Fat Cat's Cat & Canary, On the Beer City from Winter's, and Green Jack's Canary Premier.
As my club, West Ham United, have been relegated — pause for a quiet sob — I will keep schtum about football, enjoy the good ale and raise a toast to the remarkable rebirth of brewing in the east of England.