My teenage beer drinking involved plenty of quantity – I was a regular pub customer from 16 onwards, pubs being the place to meet my mates, and girls – but no appreciation at all of quality. This was not, forgive me, deliberate ignorance, but down to a lack of any kind of guidance. Today there are dozens of books about what beers to drink, and more every week, nearly. Then: nothing, nothing at all. The Campaign for Real Ale was only formed the year I turned 19, I had reached 21 when Frank Baillie bought out the Beer Drinker’s Companion and Richard Boston began writing about beer in the Guardian, and I was 22 when the first Good Beer Guide appeared. For my first five years of seriously drinking beer, therefore, while I was developing an awareness that some beers were much better than others, and some were actively awful, there was effectively nothing to explain why this was, nor anywhere to tell me where to find the good stuff.
I was nudged in the ribs into remembering the beers of my long-past youth by the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont, who posted earlier this week about ten beers that influenced his teenage years and early to mid-twenties. Did I have ten beers I could say lubricated my pre-enlightenment drinking, and eventually led me to wider appreciation: or at the least, were important to me 45 years ago, even if eventually left behind, like my small and long ago disposed-off collection of early albums by Chicago, errors in taste that I can excuse by saying: “I was young – I knew no better”? Yes, and here they are
Greene King IPA
Take-overs meant a plurality of pubs in the corner of North Hertfordshire where I grew up were owned by Greene King, and I probably drank its beers, brewed then in Biggleswade, most weekends from 1968 onwards. Stevenage was a new town, but its High Street had formerly been part of the Great North Road, and it had eight pubs in less than 600 yards, five of them owned by GK. Of the two GK pubs most frequented by teenagers, the Red Lion, a small and shabby two-bar ex-coaching inn run by a tall, elderly former News of the World darts champion with artificial legs and a fondness for rum-and-peppermint (I think he thought his wife wouldn’t be able to smell the alcohol on his breath), still had handpumps; the rather smarter Marquis of Lorne a little to the south (should be Marquess of Lorne, properly), where the varnish on the bar was fresher, the toilets considerably less like a biological warfare laboratory and the carpets much newer, served “top pressure” beer, cask-conditioned but then pushed to the glass by a cylinder of carbon dioxide. The bar taps for the top-pressure beer were miniature ceramic affairs clearly meant to look like full-sized pump handles. Camra put top-pressure service outside the limits, claiming it was no better than keg: I cannot, in honesty, say I remember the beer (which was always, incidentally, ordered as “bitter”, never “IPA”) tasting any different in the Red Lion compared to the Mar-kiss. Although Greene King IPA is dismissed today, it was a perfectly acceptable beer to grow up on.
McMullen’s Country Bitter
Many other local pubs were served by the brewery in the county town, McMullen’s. This is one of those long-running family-owned breweries (claiming to be 190 years old this year) you read very little about, for the good reason that the Hertford brewery’s beers are and have been for as long as I’ve known them entirely and totally uninteresting: the acme of meh. Still, it owned, and owns, a number of excellent pubs in the area, and I drank quantities of Country as a teen.
For reasons too complicated to explain here, Greene King owned a tiny brewery lost in the wriggling and deep-set lanes of East Hertfordshire called Rayment’s, which supplied a small number of tied houses and a much larger number of clubs and bars with an excellent session bitter called BBA. The youth centre where Stevenage Folk Club met had casks of Rayment’s BBA on the upstairs bar, and the teenage I would reel home after a session, hiccupping and singing “Oh Good Ale“. (The reeling was particularly bad if I had moved on to the second cask on the bar, filled with Abbot Ale. The great Richard Thompson, when asked by an interviewer how he had changed from the brilliant but shy lead guitarist who would hide on-stage behind the speaker stacks to the confident and in-command performer he eventually became, replied: “Six pints of Abbot helps!” Fortunately for me I was living at home, and my mother was happy to ease my Saturday hangover with a big FEB: two fried eggs, sausages, fried halved tomatoes, rashers, fried bread, fried mushrooms, and bottomless tea.) BBA was the first great beer I drank, a marvellously balanced brew, and it was a crime when the brewery was closed.
When I moved away to university, I still knew nothing about beer except that I liked drinking it, and it puzzled me that in the pubs of Brighton and Hove so much of the beer was undrinkable. This was because the local brewery, Tamplin’s, had been taken over by Watney’s, which was then at the height of its experimentation with finding ways to brew as cheaply as possible: maximising the use of raw barley, using continuous fermentation technology and so on. Watney’s multitude of tied houses had to stock the results, even though they were vile. If I was in a Watney’s house I normally changed to drinking
even though it was more expensive , and as my budget for food and drink was £5 a week, pennies had to be watched carefully.
Out on campus, however, the beer in places like the arts centre seemed so much better. Everything is relative. Amber was Scottish & Newcastle’s cheap keg, cheaper than Tartan, its OG was about 1030, its abv barely above 3pc, but it tasted of beer, which is more than the horridly phenolic Watney’s Special did. (Amber was, I believe, the beer blended with Newcastle Star strong ale to make Newcastle Brown.)
Watney’s Party Seven
Canned beer was still quite rare in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so this, or the smaller Party Four, was what you brought to parties: seven pints of, probably, Watney’s Star Light, an even worse and weaker beer than Special, if that is conceivable, in a can that required a special opener to punch two v-shaped holes in the top – an opener no one ever seemed to possess, so that too many cans had to be attacked with a pair of kitchen scissors, resulting in ceilings dripping beer. You could also buy Watney’s Party Four Mild, and other brewers had their own versions: Ansell’s Pipkin, Courage Jackpot. By the mid-1970s you could get Ruddle’s County in four-pint tins, which was actually a perfectly acceptable beer served that way, and Sainsbury’s sold an “own brand” four-pint can of what was Ruddle’s “blue” ordinary bitter. Then Tony Ruddle made one of the most disastrous corporate decisions of any small brewer and sold all his pubs – prat.
In 1974 Foster’s was an exotic and hard-to-find import in the UK, available in striking large pint-and-a-quarter tins, and I stacked the fridge in the house where I was living in Brighton with them for the post-finals, off into the big world party. That was the first of a run of really hot summers, and an important lesson: if the weather’s very warm and the beer’s very cold, it almost doesn’t matter what that beer tastes like.
Greene King XX mild
The first Good Beer Guide I bought was the third, 1976 edition, when I was 23, and it encouraged me to start trying beers that were all around me but that, because they didn’t fall in the “bitter” category, I had ignored. Once I discovered XX, until I left Hertfordshire, I consumed considerable quantities of this 3pc abv black beauty. I remember a Camra branch “pub of the year” presentation night at the (happily still open) Plough, a rural beerhouse in the tiny and hard-to-find hamlet of Ley Green, on the Herts-Beds borders, where Greene King supplied a free firkin of XX. The lot went in less than 15 minutes: you could hardly have got rid of it faster than by simply opening the tap and letting it flow onto the cellar floor.
Fuller’s London Pride
The GBG also encouraged exploring: one September Saturday in the mid-1970s, after a QPR match at Shepherd’s Bush (did we win? Can’t remember), I walked down to the Dove by the riverside in Hammersmith for the first time, and had an epiphany with a pint of Pride on the sun-struck terrace overlooking the Thames. It was like drinking a cool, beautiful, delicately scented floral bouquet, while Yo Yo Ma played Mozart in the background and expert masseurs attended to your neck and feet. I have had other beery experiences as good, or almost, but that was probably the one that made me know how important beer was going to be to me.