Home > Beers > History of a Real Ale Bore

History of a Real Ale Bore

There probably comes a time in everyone’s beer-drinking life when they realise that there’s more to beer than simply plucking a beer out of the ‘fridge and swigging it from the bottle, or running to the nearest bar and grabbing the proffered glass of malt and hop. For me, this began with a British organisation known as CAMRA, the Campaign For Real Ale.

The appreciation of Riggwelter

Appreciating beer since 1974

I’d left home at age eighteen for the bright lights of the ancient county seat of Norwich to embark on a dual career of banking and beerdrinking. At the time, many of the small breweries that had once been dotted about the county had vanished into the drinkers’ collective memory. The “big boys” with their mass-produced keg beers had taken over more and more pubs, old-fashioned beers were harder to find. The huge advertising budgets from the megabreweries promoted the drinking of the thin and gassy ales that were the antithesis of the old-style brewer’s art. Perhaps these were the last days.

Norwich pubs

At twenty one, I was young and cocky. I had been drinking beer for three years (UK law says you can drink at 18), and already considered myself a cut above the average boozer because I eschewed the mass-produced, insipid beers available in 95% of Norwich’s pubs, and tended to go for the remaining local brews of Adnams, Greene King and the now sadly departed Tolly Cobbold. Some of the old ways persisted, thanks to a small band of determined beer-lovers.

I was blessed in so many ways – there were a dozen or so pubs in and around the city that were “free houses”, that is, not tied into a brewery chain, and many of them specialised in the “real ales” coming out of the smaller, traditional, local breweries that today we call “microbreweries”. It was at one of these more liberated pubs that I came across CAMRA, and it was through these good folk that I first started to learn more about beer.

The rise of CAMRA raised the awareness of what beer used to be, and suddenly the tables were turned. Gradually, the massive Watney brewery and Norwich Brewery (now owned by Watney) pubs fell from favour as a new, better-educated beer drinker rode on the wings of the Real Ale storm that was sweeping the country.

I have very clear memories of many old pubs in the city – the Mischief Tavern, Micawbers, and the Golden Star. They were a strange mix; partly old-fashioned pubs with the ticking clock and the unwalked dog, partly venues for the newly-liberated real ale drinkers. There was a range of beers, both local and from the far-flung corners of the Isles, and a bewildering range it could be. I started to discover the range of old-fashioned beers, from the delightfully refreshing pale ales and bitters, through the darker and sweeter mild ales, then the browns, porters and stouts. Each pub an Aladdin’s cave filled not with jewels, but with liquid delights for every taste, time and season.

The one pub that stood out was the Golden Star. This was the only pub I knew of that brewed its own beer, and one of those brews was named “Wifebeater Ale”, which needless to say provoked some justifiably negative comments from local women. Following a protest at the pub, it was renamed “GBH” (meaning Grievous Bodily Harm, the name of a violent criminal offence). That didn’t go down well with the local police, so at some point it became simply Star Bitter¹.

Nottingham and beyond

In time, I moved the focus of my drinking to Nottingham, and discovered new pubs, drinking buddies and most especially beers. Shortly after I moved, the two big city breweries, Home Ales and the Shipstone’s brewery, closed down, not that I missed them too much, though both breweries made a lovely nutty Brown Ale that did leave something of a vacuum.

Nottingham is, of course, home to what claims to be the oldest pub in the world, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. Then there’s the Salutation Inn and the Bell Inn, each of which also has some claim to being the oldest pub, if not in the world, certainly in Nottingham.

Many of the old pubs went the way of <choose your extinct species>, including the excellent Flying Horse (the front of which now decorates a shopping arcade), the Black Boys Inn (demolished to make way for a dreadful supermarket) and the Old Corner Pin (taken over by the Disney Store, who filled its cellar with concrete).

But the beers are still there – the Nottingham Brewery turns out good ales and Castle Rock carries on a great brewing tradition. Real ales in abundance by this time, but sadly the city centre has been taken over by the chain pubs which (forgive me for oversimplifying) serve gassy and insipid lager to equally gassy and vulgar louts. Escape from the city and you’ll still find the old-fashioned pub with all that means – live music, good company, ancient decor and most importantly, good microbrewed ales.

I began to sample and appreciate other delights too – German, Belgian, Trappist ales all had a part to play in my continuing journey through the world of brewing.

Now I live in sunny California, and to my great surprise and delight I am discovering that the art of the American microbrew is not only alive, but kicking, and kicking hard. I’ve had so many great examples of good beer styles that it’s hard to forget that until quite recently, pretty much the only American beer was lager.

Now all we need to do is three things. Convince America to open actual pubs to replace the sports bar, teach them to brew a decent cup of tea, and desist from calling that sport “football”. Because unlike their beers, there’s practically bugger-all kicking there.

¹  Confirmation here.
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  1. 26 September, 2009 at 01:11

    I remember my dad introducing me to Courage Directors as a young ‘un. It’s not the most amazing brew in the world, but at the time I think it was brewed across the docks from where I tried it at the Old Duke in Bristol and was far more interesting than the lagers I’d been drinking before. I then discovered the other ales served by that pub, most importantly the ones from the late lamented Smiles Brewery. Of course, I later found Smiles’ Brewery Tap pub, famous for being the place where I first met you!

    I now have a rule when going to a new pub. If it serves no real ales, then I’ll probably leave. If it serves a real ale that I’ve never tried, then I’ll try that before anything. If there are several, then I’ll start with the one on the pump on the left and go from there!

    Most of my friends seem to drink real ales or ciders, and have for a long time. I don’t know if this says more about the real ale market in the UK, or just about my friends!

    • 28 September, 2009 at 08:20

      Oh, the Tap was a good pub, and a memorable occasion. Funnily enough, in Norwich, Director’s was the CAMRA RAB’s choice. In the US, there are generally so few places with good cask ales that the only way of getting ’em is at home, bottled.

      Shame, the same seems to be happening in the UK, as more pubs close.

  2. 26 September, 2009 at 13:28

    Next time you make it up to Portland, you should check out the Tao of Tea, a really awesome tea house/tea shop. It’s not exactly British style—they focus mostly on Asian style teas, though they do have a couple British style as I recall. But if you are looking for decent tea, you will certainly find it.

    I really recommend getting an oolong tea and asking to have it served the Gong Fu method (often called the “tea ceremony”). They do it Taiwanese style, which means you brew the tea in small batches in a clay pot which is never washed and thus enhances the tea flavour, and then you pour it out into a clay pitcher so it stops brewing at the perfect point. You then pour it into little tiny tall cups, place a wide cup on top of the tall cup, and flip the deal over. You then take the tall cup off, the tea drains into the wide cup, and you lift the tall cup up to your nose to appreciate the aroma of the tea. You then sip the tea out of the wide cup. Oolong is good for several steepings, so you can sit for a while with friends over one batch of oolong, getting progressively more wired and talkative.

    You can also go to the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, which has a tea house in it run by the Tao of Tea and is a lovely setting for tea drinking. They only have Chinese style teas at that location, though.

    • 28 September, 2009 at 08:51

      Oh, tea is good too! I love the white, green and Oolong styles so I may just try and make that with you.

  3. 26 September, 2009 at 13:30

    Oh also, one thing I tell people I miss about the US here in Canada is good beer. They always mock me, because mass produced Canadian beer is only half as terrible as mass produced US beer, and I have to desperately explain to them that similarly, good Canadian microbrew is only half as good as good American microbrew. They seldom believe me.

    Fortunately, there is a very good brewery here in Whitehorse.

  4. 26 September, 2009 at 13:40

    Norwich is even better for pubs and beer now – there is more real ale in the city than you can shake a stick at. It’s a fantastic place to live for a real ale fan!

    I have occasion to sometimes visit Nottingham and the Trip and the Salutation are still there. The Trip is now a Greene King pub

    • 28 September, 2009 at 09:06

      I see a lot more microbreweries springing up in Norwich, which has to be good! I was last in Nottingham two years ago, and I saw some decline in the quality of pub. More sports bars,more cheap lager. Ah, well, can’t win ’em all.

  5. Steve Burling
    28 September, 2009 at 08:01

    I have CAMRA to thank for my introduction to Theakston’s Old Peculier, back in 1984 as the last of five beers tasted at a Real Ale Practical during the Durham MTS Workshop. I was feeling no pain at the end of that evening, but the next morning was another story…

    Kevin, the next time you’re in Ann Arbor, we’ll have to visit Ashley’s, our local home to 70+ taps… Coming for Thanksgiving?

    • 28 September, 2009 at 09:07

      I’ll take you up on that! Thanksgiving decision is awaiting a decision based on budget, sadly. But I do want to enjoy some local brews next time I am there, for sure!

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