A week or two ago the 37th (2010) edition of the Good Beer Guide was launched. The last few years have been tough for the pub trade, but the 2010 guide lists almost 1300 new pubs and 71 new breweries. That’s right: 71. According to the trade paper The Morning Advertiser there are now 711 operational breweries in Britain, which is more than at any time since the end of World War II.
The number of breweries in Britain declined steadily through most of the twentieth century as brewing businesses merged into ever more enormous corporations, most of which have chased profit and low costs at the expense of quality and distinctiveness. In fact the last time the number of breweries grew like this was in the mid-nineteenth century, when brewers like Robert Cain, Andrew Walker, Timothy Taylor and others began to be successful.
Nineteenth-century brewers benefited from a relaxation of licensing laws following the Beer Act of 1830, after which the number of small brewers–what we would now call ‘micro-breweries’–grew enormously. Over the next few decades the laws were gradually tightened up under pressure from the Temperance movement, but in the middle of the century many small brewers managed to get a toe-hold in the market and some of them did very well indeed.
It strikes me that there are quite a few similarities between our time and the mid-Victorian period; similarities that might explain this growth in brewing. These include improved (and cheaper) equipment, the growing supply of commercial property, and less quantifiable factors, such as the desire to start businesses and be your own boss. As in 1860, so in 2009, but the single most significant external influence on nineteenth-century brewing was Temperance and in 2009 an increasingly hostile attitude towards pubs and drinking has once again opened up the market in an interesting way.
The idea that Temperance campaigners could improve the beer and pub trade might seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me. In the decades after the 1830 Beer Act drunkenness became a major public worry, especially in cities like Liverpool and London. By the 1870s and 1880s, as the Temperance movement began to gain popular support, smart brewers began to develop more civilized atmospheres in their pubs. Then, as now, brewers tried to ‘move to quality’ and establish a ‘respectable’ image for themselves. This was the era of the brightly-painted dray and fine horses, but also of the luxurious city centre pub and what became known as the ‘improved public house’ movement. We no longer have a Temperance movement as such, but worries about street violence, alcoholism in the young, and other medical effects of alcohol have led to what many regard as a concerted attack on pubs and the drinks industry in general.
A lot of people are pessimistic about what is going to happen to pubs in the coming years, but I’m not. The ‘traditional’ English pub is already quite different from the way it was twenty-odd years ago when I was in my late teens. The best pubs are cleaner, more pleasant places to drink than they were back then. The beer is better too; and there is more choice, not only in terms of the beer available, but the range of places in which to drink it. This is not to say the last few years haven’t been difficult, or that it isn’t going to keep on being tough, or that there aren’t issues that need to be addressed, but I see the best pubs and brewers adapting to those difficulties and, importantly, moving towards quality.
I’m still worried about aggressive supermarket price campaigns and about what we might lose if pubs keep closing. And more pubs will close no doubt. But as CAMRA’s figures suggest, brewing itself is thriving; there is even evidence to suggest that the pubs are beginning to beat off the competition. We are in the middle of a dramatic change in the way our towns and cities work, and the way we live our lives. Politics, economics, and simple demographic change are all putting pressure on that indefinable place, the ‘traditional English pub,’ but change is not necessarily for the worse. On the subject of those 711 breweries, the only sensible question is: where to start?