Intoxicated Through the Years I

Part 1 – Genesis

Strong’s of Romsey. On holiday we drove to the market town of Romsey, even before we had got out of the car, the smell was unbearable, I mean really unbearable to this child. I demanded we leave the town. My other early recollection of beer was after the fortnightly visit to Nana and Grandad, my father was often visibly stressed afterwards and before driving home we would stop at a pub. At the very least this was crisps and a fizzy drink in the car, sometimes a garden, better if it had a swing. Dad emerged after one pint, visibly relaxed. The jury was out on beer at this point but pubs were definitely good places.

Manfully overcoming my traumatic experience in Romsey and glossing over my date of birth and the legality of it, I started drinking in the early seventies. Bottles of cider and then brown ale were the beginning. Malty, sweet brown ale was excellent boys ale and a part of me still hankers after that, the memory is surely of a beer far better than it was. As we got older and it became worth a punt trying to get served inside pubs it was immediately clear that the stuff to drink was the beer that came out of the handpumps. Writing now in my dotage, I wonder why this was? Beer and fizzy drinks just didn’t seem to go together, however much Watney’s might have wanted us to believe it. The Europeans made lager but that was a continental thing – “Fine Ales & Continental Lagers” – and definitely not British, probably something to do with their climate. Paradoxically this was also the heyday of the ‘light and bitter’, a bottle of light/pale ale and a half of bitter in a pint glass. Light ale was a pale, thin, bitter concoction of the worst kind, in my humble opinion. I firmly believe that nobody actually liked light and bitter despite them saying things like ‘it freshens up my pint’. Rubbish. The reason they bought it was that the half of bitter was more than likely going to be on the generous side and in those days bottles were less expensive so you got more beer for less money.

There were 14 pubs in Molesey by the time I was of legal drinking age, 7 remain. Though I mourn the passing of a couple, to be honest, seven is enough. And there are a few of bars and casual dining places where you can get a beer. Courage houses dominated and the beer was OK, Courage Best was never spectacular but was a solid pint back in the day, Directors was a tad sweet (as stronger beers always were back then) and more full bodied. My recollection is that most of these pubs had handpumps. Across the river at Hampton Court was a Sam Smiths pub and in Hampton Hill we found a free house, rare in those days, with Theakston’s Old Peculier. The closest pub to my mates was a ghastly new 70’s build called The Surveyor BUT it had Fuller’s – Chiswick Bitter (not much to it), London Pride (a great beer, always was) and the strong, sweet ESB. At 5.5% it was ridiculously strong for our tender age and any of our group who attempted an evening on it got very messy (yes Richard [not me, the other one] that’s you).

There were two seminal moments of my teenage drinking years. The Covent Garden Beer Festival and my first pint of Young’s. I have no recollection how I heard about the beer festival, but hear about it I did. We were also aware of CAMRA and while fully supporting them we had no need and no money to become members. Remember in these days free houses were rare, each town might have, say, three brewers represented in it and those brewers had a virtually unchanging line-up of beers. So I was like a kid in a candy store faced with all these different beers. No idea what I drank but it was tremendous fun! My only clear recollection was of an old water tap in the wall above which some wag had written ‘Watneys’.

I like to think my first of Young’s was in the packed, smoky, Grey Horse in Kingston listening to live trad jazz though to be honest I can’t remember precisely. I had heard about Young’s, it was considered Marmite beer at the time. It was the only beer my father would actively avoid. Well, dear reader, I became married to it. This was beer with character, flavour but above all, by the standards of those times, bitterness. A bitterness balanced with a good malt body. Not long afterwards we became used to seeing occasional people come into a Young’s pub, order a pint and then pass over a document which was signed and returned.

Intrigued we approached the landlord and discovered that, although unpublicised, if you picked up a list of Young’s pubs (always prominently displayed in every pub), got a signature from every landlord and returned it to the brewery you could claim a free pin of beer and receive a Young’s tie with CXLVII proudly emblazoned on it. And so was born our preferred weekend evening entertainment for four or five years.

Evenings were well planned, especially when further afield so that we didn’t miss just one pub, new additions to the estate were scribbled on, I think we actually visited about 152. For those of you that have grown up with Youngs and Geronimo pubcos, Young’s pubs were a very different kettle of fish back in the day. Some were nice middle class saloon bar type pubs but many were much of the ‘spit and sawdust’ variety, definitely sawdust anyway. In short a lot of them looked like really rough pubs, in reality none were. Much the same as today in my opinion, nice people like good beer and we had some great evenings, especially when the locals knew we were doing the list.

Young's Beer
All you need now is a driver

Interspersed with the Young’s years was my university life in Bristol. Courage predominated there too, not even Courage Best but the very weak and boring Courage B.A., Boys Ale as we called it. Our local had a passable pint of Usher’s (before it was subsumed by Watney’s/Grand Met) and the highlight was Donnington’s, not a spectacular beer but just an excellent session bitter. We only knew of one pub in the centre until a second opened close to the biochemistry building, the Scotsman and his Pack. (Still the only pub where I have seen someone lower a parasol, roll a joint, put it back up and sit there smoking it. Give him a break, it was after finals.)

Our former Venture Scout master, Ken, with whom we ‘messed around in boats’ had a cutter in Portsmouth harbour and through that we were introduced to Gales, phenomenally good beer when on song, usual routine was to have a pint of BBB then a pint of HSB and decide which was drinking best that evening.

Ken also went to the Oktoberfest on a regular basis, what was there not to like about this idea? Colin, Ian, Richard and I set off in Richard’s tank (an oldish battleship grey Rover) armed with 2 tents and road map of Europe. Two days drive down, three days there, two days back and with instructions to avoid the Hofbrau tent (drunken, brawling Aussies apparently). The beer was a ‘when in Rome’ thing but somehow it didn’t taste like the thin nasty stuff that passed itself as lager in the UK, but the Oktoberfest wasn’t about the beer really. Each day we’d arrive, four 20ish larrikins and be seated with a German family, three generations, both sexes – and we’d get on famously. Sure by the end of the day they’d have gone home in good spirits while we bumbled drunkenly around, each one of us randomly getting lost but somehow we all got back to the campsite each night. It really opened our eyes to a different way of drinking, one that is only very slowly beginning to change forty years on in the UK.

After university and a couple of rented flats my first purchase was in west London and I became more fully acquainted with Fuller’s. One year they ran a ‘passport’ scheme and all 125 pubs were duly done for faux earthenware stein and growler as I recall. It was fun but did not have the frisson of the Young’s days. Fuller’s rightly had its devotees. Malty Fuller’s or hoppy Young’s, much the same as today’s malty Sambrook’s or hoppy Twickenham Fine Ales.

At the same time some of my old university friends started working in the City and the Princess Louise became the venue for Christmas and any other excuse drinks. Always a little shabby, occasionally smelly, very Sam Smiths, this pub is completely timeless as a visit last year proved. The Firkin pubs were fun but the highlight of my early eighties drinking was The Orange Brewery in Pimlico, one of the first independent brewpubs I encountered, they also sold hops to home brewers (home brewers did not have much access to real leaf hops in those day). The beers were simple and characterful, SW1 and SW2.

And then as the eighties progressed and the nineties started my cask ale intake reduced. First Dry Blackthorn cider, and then when the cider:Rennies® ratio became unacceptable, Guinness became my tipple of choice. No idea why, maybe just I wasn’t going in decent beer pubs.

Beerwise I began to drift a little. In France I was happy to drink the widely available draught Leffe and realised that fizzy, mass produced beer could be okay. In Germany I was introduced to wheat beer, this was definitely a good thing though I have never quite got their dunkel beers. Hoegaarden was a natural progression, another enjoyable, mass produced, fizzy beer. Having read about the romance of spontaneous fermentation I did manage to order a gueuze on the French/Belgian border, thoroughly enjoyed it but seeking it out and being able to pronounce it were a hurdle too far so the baton was dropped on what would later become a great love affair.

By the mid-nineties I was beginning to make business visits to the USA, at first to Boston. I was quickly alerted to Sam Adams, another good mass produced, fizzy, beer (yeah, yeah, I know it’s classed as a craft brewery, it isn’t, but that doesn’t stop it being good). Then on a trip to Salem I had a beer with about 100g of blueberries floating in it, it was for me at the time, totally leftfield and I loved it. The bar was full, it was a great bar, and everyone was drinking this stuff. The USA was not just a choice of Bud/Coors/Miller as we’d been told. Something was happening here, and it was exciting.

Agog to find out what Rich drank next? Part 2 – Revelations featuring Garrett Oliver, Logan Plant and a cast of beards including the epiphany evening, the Beer Bloggers Conferences and much more, coming soon…

CAMRA AGM and Conference

I’m torn. Part of me wants to carry on gently poking fun at CAMRA, part of me wants to try to push water uphill by getting involved and making a difference, part of me questions the relevance of CAMRA to the beer industry and part of me just wants to scream.

The preamble to the 2017 AGM and Conference (two completely different things with different voting procedures, as it was pointed out) was an extremely personal attack on Tim Page, CEO of CAMRA by self-appointed Pub Champion, Greg Mulholland, MP. Whether or not you agree with this, the timing was malicious and only self-promoting. Had it been delivered a week or two in advance it could been dealt with constructively. Instead it was airbrushed.

Of CAMRAs 180,000+ members less than a thousand turned up. Apart from the conference there was the bar, interesting brewery trips and side discussions. Compare and contrast with the number of members attending the GBBF.

It has to be said there were more women than I had anticipated (maybe 20-25%) but other stereotypes abounded. My de Molen T-shirt often attracts comment but I suspect few had ever heard of this outstanding brewery. The cask ales were numerous but all firmly 5% or less, the dark ones sold out first. There were also 8 real ale in KeyKeg beers. With low carbonation and insufficient cooling these were halfway house beers from breweries looking for a marketing angle, disappointing.

Dear Reader, you can find all the detailed info on the weekend here. But of course you will need to be a member, this is top secret info. Highlights for me were,

  • The voting system. Anything people don’t understand during the weekend is referred to as ‘CAMRA arcana’. For the AGM, a vote by hand in the hall had to be taken and counted by tellers, my understanding is that this was completely irrelevant to the ballot later. Amusement rather than embarrassment was the general emotion.
  • The admirable John Cryne spoke about the Winter Ales festival fiasco. I don’t profess to understand the full details but it seems to have been organised on a lets order lots of beer, people are sure to come basis. CAMRA festivals in general, there are exceptions, rarely have special festival beers, rigidly stick to average ABV guidelines and fail to excite.
  • Another voice of reason, Tim Webb spoke about the amateur approach to book sales (he is a successful author).
  • The Special Resolution was completely unintelligible. Fortunately the passionate Christine Cryne explained and advocated it succinctly.
  • The keynote speech was from Paul Chase about the formation of the Drinkers Voice, an anti-anti-alcohol lobby group. What he said was absolutely true but I can’t help feeling that CAMRA is too stretched and this falls outside their remit.
  • More amendment and procedures chaos at Motion 6 which was about what CAMRA can do without consultation of members. Rome, burning, fiddles.
  • Motion 7 asked the Conference to accept that ‘craft beer’ can be applied to real ale. Defeated. This was a time to stand up and be counted, but the people who realise this self-evident fact remained quiet and the motion was presented with a lack of passion. To me this denigrates all the hard working, passionate microbrewers of real ales that CAMRA suggests cannot call their product a craft one.
  • The Website of the Year award was a low-key affair. Neither at this point nor any other time during the conference was time spent on websites and social media. They probably won’t catch on anyway.
  • Cider House Motions. Don’t get me started on why cider not forgetting perry is included in CAMRA. The two motions at least attracted passion and everyone voted. I voted for the motions against the puritans and the motions were duly defeated. I backed another two losers but made up for it with the Grand National winner.
  • An electronic photo library was suggested and authorised in 2013 but CAMRA has been too busy to realise it. CAMRA is still too busy to commit to doing it by the end of the year. Then a very sensible called Mark from South Cheshire branch said words to the effect of, ‘how difficult is this? send me your pictures, I will add them to a free online library service and give it to CAMRA by the end of the year.
  • There were some officers from SIBA in attendance but they were strangely quiet, especially on the subject of craft beer.
  • Oh, and the Revitalisation Project rumbles on.

So there we have it. I did enjoy the weekend and met some interesting brewers outside the conference but my overriding emotions are sadness and frustration.

Modern beer drinkers, beer bloggers and social media, SIBA and most brewers all see CAMRA as an irrelevance as far as beer is concerned. I do believe they are good at campaigning for pubs at a local level but the budget was a huge defeat. A criticism often levelled at CAMRA is that they are inward facing, I can only agree.

There should be more to CAMRA than saving an unprofitable local pub and demanding that they serve a choice of four real ales (probably national mass produced brands) for less than £3 a pint and then producing a 10% discount card.

I believe it is probably wrong of me to continue as member, and I am sure a significant proportion of the members will not want me. I really can’t see that I can make a difference, existing progressive beer drinkers in CAMRA just adopt a ‘don’t mind them’ approach to the diehards but that is not the way forward. Sooner or later a new organisation will emerge to properly represent the modern beer drinker, until then I plan not to be a hypocrite, and therefore, not to renew my CAMRA membership.

May 2020 edit: well, my conscience didn’t let me leave, I went to Warwick in 2018, had a good time and met some nice people. Then in a moment of total madness went to my local branch AGM and have been attending on a fairly regular basis since, it has certainly given me plenty of material to write about, look out for more on my favourite subject.

Pierre Zuber, sadly missed

Pierre Zuber, the man behind Delices et Caprices has sadly passed away. I had the opportunity to meet him (and several generations of his family as I recall) in 2015 as part of the European Beer Bloggers Conference. We took in his delightful shop as part of the pub crawl one evening but ended up staying most of the night there.

Pierre greeted us and then ambled around with a polypin of some rare unfiltered lambic, pouring for everyone, chatting to everyone, just like it was his living room and he’d invited a few friends around. I suspect most people who arrived at Delices et Caprices for the first time left as friends of Pierre.

For some years I had been searching for a bottle of Fou’Foune, Cantillon’s rare apricot lambic. The shelves of Delices et Caprices proved as bare as the others. I enquired as to whether he might have a bottle. There was a short pause while he summed me up, apparently I passed the audition and he said he would have a look. A good ten minutes later and he returned with a bottle. Then he asked me how much I would like to pay. I deferred to him but was very happy with the price.

His knowledge was great but his views not opinionated.

A gentle man and a gentleman. He will be missed by all who knew him.


Beer writing is a broad canon. From professional journalists through enthusiastic bloggers to an ecelectic selection of one-liners on Facebook or Twitter. In all formats, some of it is informative, well researched and well written, some of it is not. Some of the work is paid for, some is not, and there is the peril of ‘full disclosure’. What it hasn’t been up to now is tetchy and ill-natured.

Exhibit 1: M.Lawrenson, no not that one. Just an ordinary guy who blogged about beer, past tense. A self-confessed, talented piss taker he seems to have upset the establishment or ABCDs as he calls them (Awesome Beer Communicator Dudes), from an unnamed but well-followed lady, to the ubiquitous Matt Curtis and the ever genial Martyn Cornell. I wish I had read some of the posts. Certainly Lawro (as I can’t sop thinking of him) does have a chip on both shoulders about his working class roots and being outside the beer establishment. Unfortunate because I have one small circle of friends that I only know through beer, to look at us you would wonder what we have in common. On the surface it appears that it may be a case of ‘you can give it but you can’t take it’. As he says, beer IS fun, alternative reasoned opinions should be welcome. So his decision to stop is sad.

Exhibit 2: Matt Curtis. Matt should have a T-shirt saying ‘why is it always me?’. No denying it, Matt is a fanboy for Beavertown, Camden (pre-‘sell out’ natch) et al. Initially he had lots of run-ins on account of his need to defend any bad word said against these breweries (who couldn’t stand up for themselves;). The exchanges with Stonch were forthright but I always thought there was underlying good humour. Now Matt is indignant that Duncan Sambrook (All Breweries Debating Champion 2016) has suggested he is anti-cask/pro-keg. I don’t follow this too closely but looking at Matt’s last three blog posts (Beavertown, Lost & Grounded, Cloudwater), his history of being peoples champion for Beavertown, Camden et al and the paid work which he does (I only know of stuff in the predominantly keg sector) then I would say it is fair comment. We do need more Matts though, everything is always wonderful, nothing too deep but he has boundless enthusiasm, introduces the subject to new audiences and is good for the beer industry in general. Good luck to him for turning a hobby into a professional job too. However his indignation is misplaced.

Exhibit 3: Facebook. The UK Craft Beer Forum and the UK Craft Beer Network. One a splinter group of the other I believe. I’m seeing lots of posts from people new to the scene who having got derided for reviewing a beer that isn’t ‘craft’ decide to leave, that’s upsetting. Some of the stuff is well worth reading, including proper brewing industry insights from brewers themselves.

Maybe it’s a society thing. Maybe I am getting too deep and/or easily upset. I do think this general tetchiness is a newer phenomenon in the beer industry which until recently has been much more fun. A lot of it comes down the problem of grappling with the ‘what is craft?’ and the ‘is it quality or is it to my taste’ questions. But let’s all be civilised about it 🙂

What did I miss?

Back after a six month sabbatical, can I claim pressure of work, probably not.

What did I miss? I didn’t miss the last European Beer Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam, undoubtedly the best yet but sadly deserted by some of the top bloggers and hence not economically viable any longer. Sad for me as it was the very existence of this that pushed me into starting this blog.

Stonch is always a good read although it’s turned into an Italian travelogue at the moment, but none the worse for it, some of my favourite breweries are Italian, Toccalmatto et al. For a more restrained and contemplative read then Boak & Bailey are always on the money.

Fight of the century in the cask corner Roger ‘Power to the People’ Protz and in the keg corner Pete ‘Beer Blaster’ Brown. I predict it will go the distance and be decided on pints.

Craft. In the UK it has no meaning! Please stop using this word. It only means you have to check with the speaker what his/her definition of craft is.

Beer writing. A very confused area. It can all end in tears. It is certainly getting tetchy. The British Guild of Beer Writers allows most people in. I was invited to apply, nuff said. There are a lot of fanboys out there, be warned.

Cloudwater stop cask. Asahi buy Meantime. More breweries open, some begin to close. Which will be the next brewery to sell out/execute a successful exit strategy?

But most of all, what made me start writing again was a letter What’s Brewing inviting certain people to ‘fizz off’. Watch this spot.

Oh, and that the price brewers get for a cask of beer, that is disappointing me.

The Great CAMRA Revitalisation Project

camraI’ve been meaning to attend some CAMRA stuff and this looked a perfect opportunity. First let’s read the small print on the CAMRA website. This is not to attract new members it is intended for the existing members to decide how they want to proceed.

By a lovely quirk aka Sod’s Law I currently live in west London but by the time of the Ealing consultation I will be living in east London. So I went to the east London at Leyton. Just over 50 people attended according to my headcount. There were two women, most people were in the 40-60 age range according to my guess, over 50% were members of more than 20 years standing and over 50% were ‘active’ members – volunteers and campaigners.

The meeting was opened by the charismatic Michael Hardman, one of the four founding fathers. First time I’d seen or heard him and he seems a lovely chap, not at all hardline. It was also quite clear the organisation was set up to represent good beer. No good keg was available so the real ale definition made perfect sense to exclude it. (Though even then I imagine there were some poor cask ales as well.)

In response to a question it was clear that the intention of this project is not to reach out to non-members (or even the vast majority of inactive members) but to satisfy the members on the way foward. In answer to the question ‘why did you join CAMRA’ real ale was mentioned a lot, though many chose to say why others joined CAMRA.

Given my own sardonic comments on CAMRA you might ask why did I join? Well, I believe that a body who campaigns for good beer is necessary and CAMRA are the only credible kid on the block. And they did help save us in the early days. The reduced entry to beer festivals and ‘Spoons vouchers make it a no brainer, whether you agree with all their principles or not. I still fail to understand why cider and perry are included, I’m not particularly interested in pub campaigning. I’m here for the beer, good beer, preferably made by a small, local brewer.

So it was all very predictable. Everything CAMRA is doing is right and all we need is more existing members to become active. Across the country the first macro results bear this out. There was a strong request for online survey filling but 6k of the 22k respondees chose the Freepost option costing CAMRA money.

Since I first drafted this, James Yeomans, founder of Hop Stuff Brewery has been co-opted onto the panel. A young, modern brewer who recognises the need for good local cask ale and innovative keg beer this is a really positive step. James just relies on his beer tasting good, method of dispense is not important and many of his beers are available in either format.

So, what do we think? Will CAMRA change? The people at the top recognise the need for it and are not absorbed by the threat of carbon dioxide but I fear that the active members will resist substantial change.

This leaves a vacuum for the proper representation of small, local, independent brewers. The ‘craft beer’ industry has failed to come out with a unified voice or organisation, SIBA want to have a stab at it but are funded by the large independents in effect and the people with the money and time to do it are the big brewers who would not be qualified to enter.

As you were then, carry on drinking what you fancy.