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Brew Britannia

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by Jessica Boak & Ray Bailey

The beer scene in the UK has never been more exciting, a landscape featuring more than a thousand breweries, offering beers of more colours, styles and strengths than ever seen before.

Brew BritanniaThe selection of beers in many pubs is admirable, dozens of specialist 'craft beer' bars have opened in cities across the country, and independent beer shops, stocking hundreds of bottled beers for drinkers who prefer their enjoyment at home, are increasingly common.

Fifty years ago such a scenario was impossible to imagine. British beer was on the road to nowhere, with customer choice snuffed out by large corporations intent on imposing their own profitable, but deadly dull, convenience products on the country.

The turn-around has been astonishing. But how did this happen and who was responsible? Those are the questions that bloggers Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey have set out to answer in their first book, Brew Britannia.

First up, let's deal with the title. I don't like it. It's a surprisingly retro name for a book that celebrates the vibrancy of today's beer market and doesn't do justice to the contents.

For a better understanding of what this book is all about, look instead to the subtitle, The Strange Rebirth of British Beer. That's a tale that Boak and Bailey tell chronologically, kicking off with a summary of how British beer was rapidly spiralling down the drain of history during the 1960s.

The stultifying effect of large corporations such as Watney's is painted large, with particular example made of the devastation this keg-beer pioneer was wreaking on Norfolk, where breweries were bought and closed, their popular beers replaced by the convenient but utterly disgusting Red Barrel.

The End in Sight

If the likes of Watney's were to have their way, then the end of good beer in Britain was already in sight.
The authors then reveal how consumers began to fight back – sometimes half-heartedly, at other times with steel and purpose – and how the breweries were forced to backtrack.

They tell of the birth of a new generation of small breweries, many of which struggled to survive in a closed market until the law was changed to curb the power of the big boys and free up access to pubs.

Boak and Bailey follow the consequences – intended or otherwise – of this governmental action – the creation of pub groups, the proliferation of new breweries, the extended variety of beers in pubs – but also factor in an international dimension, noting how the success of small American brewers, with their pungent native hops and unlimited sense of adventure, has bounced across the Atlantic.

Along the way, the writers – like all good historians – are keen to go back to original sources. They speak to the people who were there at the time, the movers and the shakers in this remarkable renaissance of British beer.

In doing so, they add some much needed warmth and personality to what could be a rather dry account of the last fifty years.

They also tell the tale well. The book is an easy read and helpfully annotated with references. However, perhaps the greatest asset they bring to the project is a degree of objectivity.

Jessica and Ray weren't around when much of this story was unfolding. They weren't caught up in the politics and the passions of the times and so are able to cast a neutral eye over proceedings.

Those of us who have lived through most (if not all) of this beery story are inevitably coloured by experience and hindered by personal involvement, but Boak and Bailey pitch themselves as honest brokers, succeeding in their quest to put forward a balanced picture and apportioning credit where credit is due.

So who has been responsible for the sparkling beer scene we enjoy today. Is it CAMRA, Michael Jackson, David Bruce, the Government, US craft brewers or BrewDog? There's no easy answer but reading this book will certainly help you appreciate the influence of all these players and the many others who have had a say.

First edition (2014)

298-page paperback (Aurum Press)

£12.99

Available now from amazon.co.uk or amazon.com

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