Beer writer Adrian Tierney- Jones said to me: “We got the title right,” when the annual Cask Report was launched last month.
At the end of October, ATJ and I will publish Britain’s Beer Revolution, a book that charts the astonishing rise of new breweries and new beers during the past decade and the dramatic improvement in choice for drinkers.
Pete Brown, compiler of the Cask Report, mirrors what we say in our book. “There’s a beer revolution happening in Britain,” he declares in the introduction. He goes to show how cask beer is outperforming the ontrade market, with drinkers supping 634m pints of real ale every year.
Writing a book is punishing hard work but Britain’s Beer Revolution was a labour of love. The toughest task we faced was choosing, from the 1,400 breweries now operating in Britain, a representative sample covering all parts of a country that still includes Scotland.
We haven’t fallen into the trap of concentrating solely on new small craft brewers, though they make a strong appearance. We also include some of the stalwarts of the industry, the regional and family companies that bravely flew the cask ale flag when all around them were converting to keg and lager.
Stuart Bateman of George Bateman & Son of Wainfleet in Lincolnshire, says in the book: “I’m fed up with being told I can’t call myself a craft brewer because I’ve been around for more than two years. I haven’t got a ponytail, earrings or tattoos but I’m producing craft beer.” Batemans is celebrating 140 years of brewing this year and remains committed to cask ale — though it has rebranded those beers with sharp new images.
In common with Batemans, the beer revolution didn’t happen overnight. At the same time as the Cask Report was launched, I spent four exhilarating days at the 19th annual St Albans beer festival. It’s a comparative newcomer. The beer festivals run by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, being held this month include the 21st in Westmorland, the 37th in both Bedford and Norwich, and the 40th in Sheffield.
For nigh on four decades, these festivals have been watering beer deserts and scattering the seed corn that has allowed so many breweries to flourish today. The St Albans festivals, where I have worked for many years, is a case in point. The local CAMRA members were told, when they first planned the event, there would be no demand for it in a small cathedral city with 55 pubs.
But most of those pubs at the time were owned and supplied by Allied Breweries and Whitbread. Choice was limited in the extreme.
Great British Beer festival
One thousand drinkers attended that first festival. Last month, 12,000 packed the Alban Arena to sample, sup and savour hundreds of beers from around the country.
And they didn’t adhere to that clapped-out stereotype of the bigbellied, heavily bearded real ale drinker so beloved of the tabloids. The audience was young, lively, attractive, attentive, knowledgeable and passionate.
When the festival was first mooted, local publicans said it would ruin their trade. On the contrary, the pubs in St Albans — and there are still 50 of them — were doing a roaring trade this year as drinkers went on from the arena is search of further beery delights.
Few of them would appreciate the enormous amount of work that goes into running beer festivals. They don’t spring up like mushrooms at dawn. Months of planning is needed. One of the many strengths of CAMRA is that, with 165,000 members, it has experts in many fields. There are people who know how to order beer, how to store it, where to find food supplies and how to book entertainment.
There are lawyers who know how to get licences that permit the sale of alcohol and staging live music. And, critically, there are health and safety people who monitor the structures that hold heavy casks of ale: a collapsing gantry wouldn’t do much for the beer let alone the wellbeing of the people in front of it.
Unlike such major festivals as the Great American and the Munich Okoberfest, where brewers supply paid staff, all CAMRA events are run solely by volunteers who devote months of their time to organising them. In many cases, they give up their holidays to work at the events.
When one of the founders of BrewDog told the Publican’s Morning Advertiser in August that the Great British Beer Festival was an embarrassment and should be abandoned, I assumed he must live high in the clouds from where he draws most of his funding these days. Without CAMRA and its festivals, instead of 1,400 breweries, there would be six global giants foisting Eurofizz on the sullen populace.
Looking at the industry today I will for once in my life — and only once — quote Margaret Thatcher: “Rejoice!” Britain’s Beer Revolution (CAMRA Books, £14.99) will be published on 28 October.