Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying my best to turn a blind eye to the plethora of online reviews of a new book; Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. It was nothing personal; my studious ignorance was to give the book unbiased consideration, as I worked my way through it (as I’ve recently become a surprisingly slow reader, for some reason). If you’re a regular peruser of internet beer bloggery, you’ll have probably read at least one or two reviews by now, and will have gained an appreciation of how much of a difficult avoidance task I had at hand. Still, due to my tortoise-like countenance, this could well be the last one you have to put up with. And if even this is too much to bear, here’s the abbreviated version: the book is fantastic.
I don’t know Jessica and Ray personally; having only communicated through the necessarily clipped conversation of character-limited tweets and blog comments. But I love what they write on their blog, their considered, to-the-point postings, usually asking a singular question, to facilitate further conversation and a broad range of opinion. It’s a measure, partly, of the respect other bloggers and beer writers have of their work, I think, that there are so many reviews out there (the other part being that we were sent review copies, of course). Anyhow, their work is a meticulously researched, detailed account of the ‘rebirth’ of British beer, and how a continual parade of enthusiasts, professional and amateur, helped get British brewing back on its feet.
Starting out with the chaps of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood, in 1963, the book runs through their colourful history, before giving way to the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, as they took up the mantle. It then charts CAMRA’s struggle throughout the 1970’s – often with (to me, personally) unimaginable rebellion and bullishness; protest marches, investigative journalist-style digging into the affairs of ‘the big six’, launching their own network of pubs. I mean, I’m a CAMRA member – admittedly mostly for the publications and festivals – but this radical, sign of the 70’s attitudes some of the members and the Executive had then seems a world away. But then, I guess that’s one of the criticisms oft-directed at CAMRA these days, that they fought the fight and have already won, to a certain extent.
Anyway, that aside, the book fills in a lot of blanks for me, covering issues and occurrences that took place before I was born; and that is one of the things I found most fascinating about it. One of the others are the quotes – liberally sprinkled throughout; it must have been hugely fun scouring for these comments, and then hugely difficult to narrow them down during the editing process; the number of interviews and press archive material is massively impressive. It cites, continually, the debt owed to Michael Jackson, so often these days discussed in my beery circles with that necessarily irritating preface ‘no, not that one’. The book also pushed dates back for me; giving early examples of the usage of ‘craft’ in beer making (1930), an eighteen-tap pub (the Barley Mow, near St Albans, 1977) and the ‘single hop series’ (1994, by Whitbread).
The final thing that makes Brew Britannia so interesting to me is the flat-out similarities between what we think is a very modern beer scene, and what has gone before. Describing a London beer festival, the book quotes Observer writer Patrick O’Donovan ‘Most of the 1,000 in the hall at the time were young. They seemed to belong to the fashionably unkempt, the set of rebels with pocket money.” You could as easily equate that to something like Craft Beer Rising, as the 1975 Covent Garden Beer Festival, which is where the comment was aimed. The book also quotes the Sunday Times’ Andrew Barr, writing with scarcely-disguised incredulity in 1997 “…others have actually added spices to their beer, such as ginger and coriander. They have made real ale more interesting, as well as more accessible.” (Substitute ‘craft keg’ in here, if you wish).
In fact, there’s very little not to like about Brew Britannia; maybe for me, the inevitable – and deserved – chapter about BrewDog, which relies quite heavily on quotes from Pete Brown. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the other chapters do revolve around personal interviews, and specific comment. Still, that’s being ultra-picky. The book is written in a supremely engaging style, as you’d expect if you’d ever read Boak and Bailey’s blog. To see esteemed bloggers such as these (and others in recent years) making the leap to print is a fantastic sight, and practically has me reaching for my pencil case. I think the biggest compliment I can pay Brew Britannia is that it focuses continually on the best of each time; from the SPBW days to the modern craft phenomena, every picture painted is one that proves how a scene can become an industry with the right amount of dedicated people.
Brew Britannia ends beautifully, following the surviving members of the SPBW as they meet up for another of their semi-regular committee meetings. I won’t spoil the final quote – but it’s a perfectly-judged summation of all that good beer – and good attitudes to beer – should be about; and that is exactly the kind of attitude fostered by this tremendous book.
Brew Britannia is now available online and in bookshops. For more details of where to buy, check out the dedicated page on Boak and Bailey’s website. Many thanks to Andrew from Aurum Press for the review copy.