CAMRA marks end of an era

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Tetley, Beer, Cask ale

CAMRA marks end of an era
It is with great sadness that Tetley's production will today (June 17) switch from Leeds to Wolverhampton, writes beer expert Roger Protz.

Last week 40 members of the Leeds branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) travelled to Wolverhampton where they handed over a scroll to their colleagues in the local branch. It told the Wolverhampton members they were now the proud custodians of Tetley Bitter and it was their duty to revere it and nurture it.

The event marked the closure of the Tetley brewery in Leeds and the transfer of production to Banks's brewery in Wolverhampton, part of the Marston's group. For those of us south of Watford, it's hard to imagine the hurt felt in Yorkshire by Carlsberg's decision to close Tetley.

To call it an iconic brewery is to abuse the English language. It was loved with the type of quiet passion that defies description. Its position at the heart of Yorkshire drinking life was summed up many years ago when the Great British Beer Festival was held in Leeds. I was there when the doors opened on the first day. Two young men, still dressed in overalls from a nearby building site, were the first customers. They looked round at the vast number of casks offering beers from all round the country. They paused for a moment, then one turned to the other and said: "We'll start with two pints of Tets."

The brewery dates from 1822 and became one of the leading industries in West Yorkshire. The fame of the beer spread far and wide. When I first drank it in a pub in Bradford I was expecting, as a southerner brought up on hoppy beers, something soft and creamy. But Tetley Bitter lived up to its name. It was so bitter and hoppy that it made my eyeballs pop. It was simply amazing.

I'm told by my friends up north that they are perfectly satisfied with the version of Tetley being brewed by Banks's. One of my friends is the legendary Dave Parker, who runs the Shoulder of Mutton in Castleford. He's known as Tetley Dave. He's a former drayman for the brewery and his pub is a shrine to the Leeds plant. If he's happy with "new Tetley" then it must be good.

But that misses the point. Dave once said to me: "If you close Tetley, you might as well close Leeds." Both the Yorkshire Post and its evening paper have devoted several pages for five days to the closure of Tetley. It's the end of an era.

It may be the end of an era in another form. Do we get too dewy-eyed over beers such as Tetley? I think not, but I'm part of a generation that grew up on the likes of Draught Bass and Boddingtons and my feelings may not fit with today's younger drinkers.

It seems remarkable to me that no-one has rushed to buy Bass, Boddingtons and Flowers, three famous cask brands that have been put on the market for £15m by A-B InBev. It would take a whole issue of this magazine to explain how these brands fell into the hands of a global giant best known for American Budweiser and Stella Artois. Suffice to say, the group has no interest in these cask ales and wants rid of them.

I naively thought that several large regional brewers would form an orderly queue to buy the brands. But there have been no takers. It seems odd to me: Draught Bass was once Britain's leading premium cask ale, worth close to a million barrels a year. Grown men wept when they drank it. The great English novelist Graham Greene peppered such novels as Brighton Rock with frequent references to the beer. Now it's up for sale, unloved and unwanted by its current owners.

But it's also unwanted and unloved by brewers that I expected to scramble to buy it. After discussions with two brewers — one head brewer of a major regional, the other a leading craft brewer in Yorkshire — I think I know why. The head brewer said: "It's yesterday's beer." The craft brewer said curtly: "I wouldn't give two pence for Draught Bass." And he's a paid-up member of CAMRA and the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA). He has nothing against the beer. Like me, he's drunk and loved it for years. But he believes the beer market has moved on from the days when just about every pub in the country had to have Draught Bass on the bar.

The growth of the cask-beer sector has created new demands and new beer styles. Craft brewers have gone some way down the American route. They import American hops to give their beers a resounding citrus/grapefruit character. This profound hop note booms out from the new golden ales, where malt plays second fiddle and there are no darker grains to give the biscuit and toffee notes we expect from old-time bitters.

I revel in these new beer styles. Britain has never been a better place to drink in. The choice of styles and flavours has never been greater or more exciting. But, if it goes, I shall mourn the passing of Bass, sulphurous on the nose, with juicy malt and subtle hops in the mouth. I'd buy it tomorrow if only I had £15m.

The banks are keen to lend. Does anyone have the number for the Yorkshire Bank?

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