Beer Matters 500: Sheffield’s beer scene – 15 years of change (1984-1999)

It was way back in 1984 when  I wrote my first ever article for Beer Matters. The first of many I was to write over the next few years. It was an article bewailing the fact that various breweries were using low interest loans to free houses in return for their product, narrowing the choice of beers available and creating a backdoor monopoly. This was back in the days of the tied estate, now fast becoming a twentieth century relic.

The tied estate has largely been replaced by the pub-owning chain, who are at liberty to buy and supply beer from any brewer these days. Progress. Though at the time I and several others in CAMRA questioned whether this was entirely a good thing, coupled with the move by the owners of the tied estates to change from the old-style rents, to leasehold agreements, meant that many pub landlords were forced to leave the trade. Plus it sometimes meant that some old, favourite pubs suffered less than sympathetic renovations that, along with a fetish for giving pubs gimmicky and silly names, meant that the changes weren’t always welcomed. Ah well, progress always comes at a price.

And it was progress. The changes within the brewing industry did lead to far greater choice for you, the drinker.

When I started to write for Beer Matters, Sheffield had four breweries. Four. Down from over 40 individual breweries that had served Sheffield at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whitbread, Stones, Hope & Anchor and Wards, now all gone. All that remains are the names of the beers, brewed by other brewers. Progress? I don’t think so. Neither did anyone else in CAMRA.

Breweries swallowed up by bigger breweries, which in turn were swallowed up by even bigger breweries in a feeding frenzy of eat or be eaten. Big is beautiful, biggest is best. That was the prevailing  dogma, and sod the drinker. And the they got away with it. Why? Drinker apathy. “I have always drunk Tennant’s” was something I heard a lot from older drinkers. Well no you didn’t, Tennant’s brewery was swallowed up by Whitbread many years before. So long in fact that I bet you never drank Tennant’s, just a beer brewed by Whitbread using a name they acquired when they bought the brewery.

I recently heard a similar sentiment expressed, “I have always drunk Stones.” Well not any more you can’t. Stones has gone, all that’s left is the name.

Likewise, Wards, now brewed by Robinson’s with different yeast, different hops, and different water. The yeast is especially important as they used both foculating and semi-flocculating yeast; part of what made Wards distinctive, love it or hate it. A marmite beer but distinctive, unique, and now sadly vanished for good. Though truth to tell, Wards had long ceased to be Wards, as changes in brewing and how long it was conditioned in the brewery, from two weeks to a week to three days, meant that it lost its distinctive nose and taste.

The members of CAMRA, weren’t apathetic drinkers. We campaigned to halt the slide towards bland, mass-produced keg beer, we campaigned for choice, for real ale. Through Beer Matters and all the other local newsletters, across the country.

Getting our message into the hands of drinkers by taking copies of Beer Matters into pubs right across sheffield and district. And it worked.

Over 40 breweries at the start of the twentieth century. By the late twentieth century only four. Now, at the start of the twenty-first, 24 breweries, and counting. Real progress.

The tie, originally a good thing, allowing breweries an outlet for their beers, became over time a noose, strangling choice. Not just in terms of beers but in every aspect of sales, from wines and spirits to soft drinks and crisps. I wrote about the absurdity of, pint for pint, soft drinks being far more expensive. Soft drinks. Hard prices indeed.

The big breweries used their tied pubs as milch cows, squeezing every once of profit from them.

CAMRA actively campaigned both locally and nationally against the tie, finally forcing the government to act, limiting the tie to 500 pubs and introducing a policy allowing publicans to buy two beers from outside the tie. A small start but a start.

Opening up the market to the microbrewery, and increasing choice.

The brewers tried to get round the break up of the tie by setting up their own pub chains; remember the Scream and the All Bar One chains, amongst others? Identikit pubs selling identical beers. But the genie was out of the bottle, and we saw the arrival of the Wetherspoon chain of pubs, a genuine chain of freehouses.

Finally more choice for drinkers.

And that choice has grown, but what limits choice now, is geography. Lots of choice in and around city centers but, in the suburbs and outskirts, we have seen the loss of so many local pubs.

Local pubs, so much a part of national heritage, are vanishing at an alarming rate and, if we lose them, an important part of our national identity will vanish with them. Use them or lose them.

I mentioned drinker apathy earlier but it was more than that, it was also loyalty to your local. The local was the hub of the community; it was where you met your friends, your family. No family celebration was complete without a trip to someone’s local. Mums, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins; weddings, christenings, funerals, birthdays; all celebrated down your local. So when the beer range changed, due to yet another takeover, you complained for a while but got used to it. The big brewers dominance was so great that they could offer the same choice offered by the infamous Hobson: it’s this or nothing. I’m reminded of the two chaps drinking in a pub, one says to the other “beer’s rubbish in here since the new brewery took over, I don’t know about you but i will be glad when I have had enough.” A sour joke with more than a grain of truth.

Well CAMRA wasn’t willing to accept Hobson’s choice and we began campaigning for a real and greater choice of quality beer.

The reason CAMRA’s campaign was so very successful is entirely down to grassroots activism, local branches producing a local newsletter that informed the drinker about what was going on in and around their pubs.

The first thing anyone looked at when they got the latest issue of Beer Matters (and I, as editor, was keenly interested in knowing) was not (as I hoped) my usual rant about some topical issue, but pub news; and then who had won this months pub; and finally future events, which part of Sheffield and district we were visiting.

This raised awareness of the pubs that were out there. The pub at the bottom of your road that you had never visited, but had always wondered about. Above all, where to go for a drink.

So much more important than my ranting. But my rants did raise awareness… and get me in bother. Legal action was threatened on several occasions. Thankfully threats to sue came to nothing.

It was an eventful and fun few years as editor. But Beer Matters was never a solo effort. I was entirely dependent on my contributors, the dedicated branch members who sourced the pub news, organised walkabouts, and wrote articles. And the general public who would write in on a variety of subjects. Big thanks to them all.

Without them there would not have been a Beer Matters . Some months, filling eight A5 pages took some doing. Other months, just too much to include in our meager eight pages.

Special thanks must go to the late Mike Hensman and his partner Liz. Both former chairs of Sheffield CAMRA who guided my first fumbling steps as editor, patiently correcting my poor spelling and appalling grammar. They also made material contributions with a number of excellent articles and helped in redesigning Beer Matters masthead.

Also thanks to Jenny Lightowler and Dave Staves, who took over typing duties and helped improve the look of Beer Matters. so much so that it won CAMRA’s award for most improved local newsletter. Result.

Thank you also to everyone who turned up every month to staple Beer Matters as it came as 4 A4 sheets that needed stapling and folding. Special thanks are due to the late Jack  Ware and his lovely wife Carol, they never missed a stapling night and more importantly distributed copies to pubs in their area.

Thank you everyone who, over the years, has helped distribute Beer Matters to the pubs around Sheffield. After all, if it’s not available in pubs, it cannot be read.

Finally a special thank you goes to my friend John Beardshaw. He has been with Sheffield CAMRA from its earliest days, helping organise its first and all subsequent beer festivals. He has also been from the start, and continues to be, a contributor to Beer Matters.

All the way from back in the days when it was called the Parish Pump, and was two sheets of A4, photocopied and stapled together, to the present. From such humble beginnings, great things have grown.

In truth, the current format of Beer Matters is a great improvement on my own humble efforts. It is now a highly polished and professional looking magazine and not just a simple newsletter.

Talking of humble beginnings, the big four breweries that dominated the brewing scene in Sheffield have gone, fallen over like ancient trees in a forest, leaving space and light for the saplings to grow. And they are growing.

From four to 24 breweries. Marvelous.

And joy of joys, an exciting new range of beer styles.

Plus the rebirth of old (and I thought long since vanished and forgotten) types of beer. In particular, oatmeal stout and milk stout. I thought milk stout had vanished in the 60s with the demise of John Smiths bottled Milk Maid Stout. Ideal for nursing mothers, invalids, and of youngsters, “but don’t tell your mum and dad” as my fun uncle told me. Now a proper cask version is available. Oh joy.

We really have come a long way from days when lager was the new, hip drink, and bitter was what your dad drank. Now lager is the dad drink and cask beer is the choice of a new more discerning generation of drinkers.

500 issues of Beer Matters. here’s to the next 500, cheers.

Adrian Staton
Former Editor