The formative beers of my teenage years

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

An 802 bus in Stevenage bus station advertising McMullen’s strong pale ale, No 1, some time around 1967. I would say with confidence that I have travelled on that exact bus, probably numerous journeys

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.

Rayment’s BBA
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.

Rayment’s brewery in Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire, circa 1980

Watney’s Special
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

Draught Guinness
even though it was more expensive , and as my budget for food and drink was £5 a week, pennies had to be watched carefully.

Newcastle Amber
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.

Foster’s Lager
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.

19 thoughts on “The formative beers of my teenage years”

  1. Great post, Martyn. I started drinking at about the same time as you but I was 15 when I found out I could be served at the New Resurrection Club in Hitchin when I went to see bands there. I never really let on that fact to my parents. However, as my mother was a barmaid at one of the many pubs you mention in the High Street, I was never really a stranger to beer. I guess that means Ind Coope beers were more influential on me, well Double Diamond anyway! I loved Rayments – they served it at the Roebuck. For some reason I always drank Harvest Brown in the Marquis of Lorne ( and the Granby). Once I moved out to frequent the White Lion I changed to bitter and that is still my beer of choice nowadays. However, Adnams, St Peters and London Pride remain my favourites. I will always buy an Everards Tiger if one is available (as it was recently in the The Virgins & Castle in Kenilworth). When I lived in Langford in the early ’80s Greene King were still brewing in Biggleswade. Ah well, everything changes. No mention of Mild in the Two Diamonds here though!

    1. Yes, the Roebuck was one of the original Trust House inns (being part of the Lytton estate), and thus supplied by Rayment’s because it was a freehouse: until the building of the (second) Our Mutual Friend it was the nearest pub to my parents’ house, though I never drank there much. Didn’t drink much in the Two Diamonds either, and McMullen’s AK “mild” (really a light bitter), while historically fascinating, being the only AK left from many dozens brewed in the Victorian era, I have never rated much.

  2. Thanks for a great post. I’m a bit younger and didn’t start drinking until the early 1980s. With no pub culture and a drinking age at 19 in Florida, draught beer was off limits. Thus, we drank cans and bottles of whatever we could find or convince the convenience store owner to sell to us. It was all fizzy yellow, mass-produced American lagers from Stroh’s to Old Milwaukee. I too remember being dazzled by the colorful Foster’s oil can and its being from Australia convinced us it was much better tasting than our US lagers. How could it not be? It traveled thousands of miles to get here, right? Every so often we’d get some green-bottled, skunked Heineken or St. Pauli Girl or a Molson. By its higher price, we knew it was better than Schlitz et al. At university in my fraternity it was all about quantity, as we had keg beer on tap 24-7. I remember some old alum, probably much younger than I am now, showing up at a fraternity party with a couple cases of Molson Canadian, which we thought was the best thing we’d ever tasted hitherto. What’s striking now is that my entire beer world existed on the lager side. But that was the world of my father and his post WWII generation. You supported and drank a brand, that tasted like all the others, like you supported a sports team. My Dad was a Budweiser guy, through and through. And my friends and I thought Bud Light was about the best, reasonably priced beer we could drink. I was probably a beer drinker for nearly 4-5 years before I even tasted an ale, and that was probably Guinness, which I did not like at all then. I do remember having a Bass Ale in a pub in Freeport, Bahamas, around 1986 that hinted at another universe. Much like many others in the beer revolution, this all changed when I had my first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, at a “British” pub in St. Augustine, Florida, called the White Lion in late January 1993. This was followed a couple months later by a Pilsner Urquell in muggy New Orleans. Soon after I started brewing my own. What an amazing industry transformation in 25 years.

  3. An excellent article, Martyn. Your early drinking experiences mirror my own; so much so that I am tempted to write about my formative beers. As you point out, there was nothing, apart from personal prejudice, to guide drinkers back then, as to what was a good beer and what was bad. Many of my sixth form school friends didn’t like Shepherd Neame (probably because their fathers didn’t), so we tended to avoid Shep’s pubs.

    A few other random comments: Tony Ruddle certainly was a prat selling off his pubs, but that was nothing compared to a decade or so later when he sold the brewery, and the brands, to Watneys of all people!

    I never saw early Fairport Convention playing live, but in film footage I’ve seen, Richard Thompson certainly comes across as shy and trying to keep out of the limelight. Six pints of Abbot would floor me these days, although I gather Richard has been teetotal for many years.

    Living south of the Thames, I only got to try Rayments on a handful of occasions and never in any of their pubs. If Greene King had kept the brewery open for a few more decades, they would now be promoting it as their “boutique” country brewery, and it would probably be a very up-market and twee-looking place.

    A friend, who spent several years living in Hertfordshire, hasn’t a good word to say about McMullens, and although Macs have a pub in Sevenoaks, he won’t drink in there.

    My epiphany beer was Whitbread Trophy, brewed in Faversham and based on the old Fremlins Three Star recipe. Served on gravity, in the public bar of the Honest Miller in Brook; the Kent village where I grew up, it was beer perfection. Happy days!

  4. Great article, wish I had time to go into my similar experiences. Richard Thompson however… don’t like the bloke, dubious connections to Sandy denny’s death and in interviews comes across as a cocky twat.

    1. Any more insulting the greatest guitarist and one of the very best songwriters Britain has produced and you’re barred.

      1. I apologise, the Sandy Denny issue is sensitive. Let’s keep it to the beer- (I’d had a few at the time). As for ‘greatest’ stuff – all relative – Martin Carthy? Penny Seeger? Enock Kent?

        Think of it as a late night disagreement, which all seem blown out of context in this modern medium

  5. London Pride was both the first real ale I ever tasted & the first beer I got drunk on; in fact it’s the only beer I’ve ever drunk enough of to wipe out my memories of the evening in question. (I probably had about four pints in all – but I was very new to it.) The second was Buckley’s Bitter, which was even better; long gone now (although Evan Evans is a kind of Continuity Buckley’s, so if you’re in the right part of the world you can still taste it). I remember Watney’s Red, which was awful. I ought to remember the bitter they served at the Railway in Purley – I drank enough of it in my late teens – but my only beer-related memory from the Railway is of the time I decided to switch to Guinness (I didn’t like it). Then Cambridge; I didn’t think much of Tolly Cobbold bitter to begin with and for a while made vodka and lime my regular drink (I’m cringing at the memory). I got a taste for the local bitter in the end; I’ve got a vivid memory of sitting in the Mill with a fresh pint and watching the last few bubbles on the surface winking out. Then Manchester and a couple of years of Hyde’s bitter, which I (and nobody else) remember as being yellow and sharp-tasting; perhaps I just needed to recalibrate my palate after all that brown malty stuff. Oddly enough it was only in my late twenties that I really got into beer, and even then it was Belgian beer that I was seeking out for several years; never was much of a pubman.

  6. You’ve really thrown open the gates of memory here, Martyn… Do you know, I never realised George had artificial legs! A new twist on my Dad’s frequent observation about certain drinkers having “hollow legs”…

    I won’t rehearse the history of my own teenage drinking (the Red Lion’s GK was OK, but I’m not sure what they served in the Long Ship, but it wasn’t pleasant), but will mention how, after getting my A-Level results in 1972 I repaired to Stevenage pond with a couple of those new-fangled tins of Newcastle Brown which seemed very hip and happening at the time, but then in 1973 I discovered Wadworth’s 6X and Hook Norton from barrels lovingly kept behind our college bar, and my true education began.

    Mike

    1. The Long Ship was Watneys – pretty vile. Now in Oxford you had the choice of Morrell’s and Morlands, both excellent family brewers, though 6X and Hook Norton are pretty good. Trivia – the same architect designed both the Hook Norton and McMullen’s breweries (and also Harvey’s in Lewes).

  7. Though I’d had the odd bright Hole’s (Courage) bright beer, the one the first caught my attention was Barnsley Bitter in the Wing Tavern. (A lovely little pub around the back of Newark market place with no frontage on the street, now sadly closed.) What a revelation. Dry and firmly bitter, it was a lovely pint.

    Though as soon as I arrived in Leeds for university I fell in love with Tetley’s Mild. I can remember pub-crawling my way from Headingly into town with Matt and drinking the same beautiful Mild in each. The first night in the Cardigan Arms on the Kirkstall Road after they’d swapped from electric pumps to handpulls is one of my best beery memories ever. The beer was absolutely perfect. Who cared about the univac?

    1. The whole concept of a ‘Mild’ is one that won’t catch on in today’s ‘macho’ high-octane culture. I even tried to organise a “session” beer (Boy’s beer in Dorset in the day) with the Police endorsing it…

      More than that mild was a code in Devonshire pubs (maybe elsewhere) for ‘slop’. In Barnstaple, my great Uncle told me about crates of beers being put under the table where there were no cellars and where there were the run off from pours went sideways into another vessel which had a back pump – a half-price “mild”!

  8. I started my pub-going in the early 1990s and I’m pleased you know Oxford as I worked for an NHS trust in Kidlington. Morrell’s was the staple but I remember it paling against Morlands, Wadworth, Hook Norton but especially Brakspears. The Morrells seemed so leathery and flat (my dad remembers it like that too). On reflection, maybe a lot of it was literally flat.
    But I recall a summer ale by Brakspears which I can find no record of online. I remember it as only being around 2% and drinking almost like a soft drink. I have very fond summer memories of it but nobody else seems to (this took place after a long hike in the Harrow in West Ilsley which now seems to be a GK pub). The beer garden overlooks a parish cricket pitch and it was where I ordered my first ever pint with an A5 birth certificate folded up in my inside coat pocket.

  9. I have to take issue with you about Chicago. Listen again to their first two double albums – a great blast of jazz infused rock with druggy overtones (Does anyone know what time it is? and 25 or 6 to 4 getting past the sensor because they didn’t understand what they were about). After Terry Kath died and they went MOR and made mega-bucks they were crap (with a capital K). On the beer front I can identify with all of that. Luckily I grew up in the Borough of Wandsworth and knew about Youngs from an early age because of the fascination of the horse-drawn drays. I went to school in Hammersmith just down the road from Chiswick. Our local was the Dove (Fullers). I struggled with the beers when I went away to Uni – they just weren’t the same! Guess I was blessed being surrounded by great pubs in that era. Not sure how the others (Watneys, Charringtons, etc.) managed to compete. I suppose it was down to the power of marketing and young folks gullibility.

  10. Great read, it mirrors my experiences growing up in the late 90s. Quantity vs quality, nt always through choice thanks to Newcastle’s pubs being almost exclusively S&N, Vaux or Bass houses. Very rare to see cask beers back then. My staples were McEwans Best Scotch, Newcastle Exhibition, Stones Bitter and Fed Special. Around 2001 our local had 3x handpulls installed with Fuller’s London Pride, ESP and Honeydew on permanently. It was the ESB that opened my eyes (and nose) to a world of beer that tasted different and exciting. Although I still regularly relieve my youth with a pint of Best Scotch or Stones when out and about…

  11. Fascinating…I am a little younger and grew up in the then beer-duopoly of the West Midlands and after shifting from lager to bitter at about 18 enjoyed M & B’s sweetish Brew XI and Ansell’s Bitter – because that’s all there was. Someone then educated me about cask beer and CAMRA and the journey began…there wasn’t much choice, and it was hard to tell whether the dispense method was keg or electric air-pressure real ale as handpumps were rare (circa 1977). But I was able to track down a pub serving Draught Bass and another that had Ansell’s Aston Ale, but found them a little too strong for my taste, preferring lower strength bitters around 1035-1038 OG. My friend and I bought a weekly rail card one holiday and travelled to the Black Country and discovered Banks’s, Hanson’s, Ma Pardoes’s and Batham’s. Also M & B’s wonderful Springfield Bitter and Highgate Mild. All so much better. But the best pint ever in my formative years was when I discovered a small, dark, zero-atmosphere bar high up inside the old Birmingham New St Station, probably platform 11, where i drank an amazing pint of Ruddles Blue. Perfection in a glass.

  12. I’ve just discovered this site and have enjoyed reading these reminiscences, though I don’t agree with all of them (that’s what choice is all about).
    My earliest drinking was probably Double Diamond in the pubs of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, followed by whatever they dispensed in the Union Bar at Brum University. I moved on to teacher training college in Hertford (where they served Rayment’s bitter which wasn’t especially good) But Hertford was of course the home of McMullen’s, which is what we drank when we ventured off the college site into the town pubs. I can’t agree that it was tasteless or boring, especially as…
    …fast forward a couple of years and I was a young teacher in St. Albans. My local sold Ind Coope beers which were O.K., but one day a friend dragged me up town to a little corner pub he’d found near the abbey, The Farrier’s Arms. That was MY epiphany: they had hand pumps, which until then I had seen only in old films, which dispensed McMullen’s Country Bitter. I gave it a thorough trial over the next few years until I moved away, and it passed with flying colours.
    I have of course sampled many ales since those 1970s days; a well-kept Harvey’s Best Bitter is hard to beat, I lived on the same road as an excellent Harvey’s pub in Uckfield, the Alma Arms, for ten years.

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