Modern British Beer

This copiously illustrated and extensively researched 288-page book provides a reflection as to how British Beer has evolved over the last fifty years, and why this matters. It does not claim to be a beer guide or a history book. However, it provides a perfect picture of Modern British Beer (MBB).

A short prologue is followed by two introductory chapters: ‘The Broad Spectrum of Joy‘ and ‘Defining Modern British Beer.‘ The former provides the historical backdrop and paints a beguiling picture of the spectrum of currently available MBB – styles, flavours and experiences: from the perfect cask bitter to the wild-fermented, barrel-aged Saison. There are also references to many key players including Brendan Dobbin, (Yakima Grande Pale Ale, West Coast Brewery in Manchester) and Sean Franklin (the founder of Harrogate-based Rooster’s). As Matthew states: ‘the primary function of modern beer is to spark joy.

The next chapter asserts that MBB is:

  • focused on ingredients, their agriculture and provenance
  • invested in sustainability, and the preservation of the environment
  • focused on regionality and is driven by, and supportive of, its local communities
  • inclusive and equitability-minded
  • delicious

He continues to state that ‘Racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and all other forms of marginalising language and actions belong in the dustbin of beer’s past, not its present, and certainly not its future.

These are all sentiments with which I am sure we all fully agree.

Matthew also comments that, ‘in terms of modern British beer, no brewery has had more significant an impact on brewing in the United Kingdom over the past twenty years than BrewDog. Love them or hate them, this is a hill I have chosen to die on.’ BrewDog would not be my hill: many will recall their behaviour prior to the 2011 CAMRA GBBF, will note recent social media comment and also remember that in 2017, a quarter of their shares were sold to two companies based in the Cayman Islands. Personally, I would have taken Thornbridge, with their iconic and ground-breaking Jaipur, ‘the most influential of them all,’ as my talisman.

The introductory sections are followed by a series of short stories each focussed on a single beer from an independently owned, and run, brewery. The beers are chosen as a representative sample. As Matthew says, ‘whittling down the selection was the most challenging part of putting this book together.’ I have no doubt that every reader will suggest breweries which ‘should’ have been considered: my selections would include Arbor, Neepsend and Vocation. Perhaps, a supplementary book could be forthcoming?

The eighty six beers are split into seven regions, geographically, north to south. Hence, ‘Scotland,’ with eleven entries opens with ‘London and the South‘ (15), as the closing section. The brewery order is deliberately not alphabetical.

Each listing includes brewery location, alcohol by volume (abv) and style. The latter is based on styles as defined by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). As this book is published by CAMRA, it seems odd that the recently rewritten CAMRA beer styles are not mentioned.

Beer descriptions are evocative: ‘…. seduces with aromas of stewed plums and rhubarb crumble, drawing you in for that first, decadent sip’ (Titanic Plum Porter) and are mostly about right. Traquair House Ale, however, is included in a collective description of several beers as ‘brown and taste predominantly of malted barley, and not much else.‘ This is simply not true. First brewed in 1965, this 7.2% beer is a traditional Scotch ale (‘Wee Heavy).’ Agreed, there is fruity malt on the nose, but there is so much more. As Michael Jackson put it in his seminal, New World Guide to Beer, ‘A vintage port among beers.’

The beers included cover the full spectrum of MBB. Some are obvious choices while many are from relatively small local breweries, for example: Torrside’s Monsters, one of the last cask beers I drank before the first lockdown.

Many inspirational stories are included. For example, the uplifting tale of how Abbeydale, known for their hop-forward and funky sours, deliberately created a magnificent example of a ‘brown bitter,’ using John Smiths Bitter as their inspiration.

As ever, with a fact-filled tome, there are a small number of errors and areas which could do with more information: Attercliffe is east Sheffield, not north, Saltaire Brewery is in Shipley, not Saltaire, ‘23 years‘ is described as ‘three decades‘ and SI units are incorrectly written (please use 750 mL, not 750ml). It is stated that ‘BrewDog ceased production of cask ale in July 2011.’ Their 2019 restart is not mentioned.

Bruce Bentley, who, in July 1981, in partnership with Dave Wickett, purchased the Fat Cat for £33,750, also deserves a name-check. There are some typos: for example, Jakehead IPA (Wylam) is said to originate in 2021.

I also have the occasional disagreement: in the overview, mention is made of Matthew’s father, Frank, and the Tetley’s Bitter he served in the Beehive in the mid-1970s. Agreed, this was an excellent pint. However, I preferred Tetley’s from the nearby Red Deer: the only pub in the Sheffield One postal area which has continuously used a handpump since that time.

As Matthew states, ‘British beer has changed forever,’ ‘it’s about building friendships with like-minded folks from around the entire industry …. It’s this open attitude towards sharing ideas and forming bonds that has put British beer where it is today.’ These are sentiments with which I can only concur. This is a book well worth reading: it’s interesting, accessible, and enjoyable. You will not agree with every point, but you will appreciate the overall approach. Personally, I would enjoy meeting the author, over a few pints. Next time he’s in Sheffield, I hope he lets me know. As the book states, ‘Steel City as one of the most tremendous places for beer in the UK.’ This is yet another statement with which I cannot disagree.

Modern British Beer by Matthew Curtis / CAMRA Books (first published: 2021) / £15.99

Photo © Abbeydale brewery, used with permission

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