Beers and Birds


Dad loved a pint. Bitter not lager. What we today know as real or cask ale not what I grew up understanding to be pisswater, aka keg beer. For a full explanation of the difference, click here. Just know that, back in the 60s and 70s keg was a dirty dirty word when applied to beer.

Post WW2 the already huge brewery companies consolidated even more, retaining massive pub estates which were ‘tied’. That meant that the only beer, and indeed pretty much all drinks and food that the publican could sell were dictated by the Brewery – most especially the  beer  and all other alcoholic drinks. It was a captive market. Breweries wanted these monopolies to continue; they hardly ever sold a pub and never to a rival.

This urge to control was helped by the fact that the number of pubs was limited by the licensing laws. These had to have on-licences – a permit to sell alcohol for consumption on the premises – and were gold dust. These were granted to the individual that ran the pub but he or she could only get the licence with the brewery’s support.

Licensing the sale and consumption of alcohol, regulating the hours of opening, these were all measures to try and stop excessive alcohol use and abuse.


Hogarth, in 1751, famously painted Beer Street and Gin Lane to represent this debauched side to London, indeed English city, life and these licensing controls were the inevitable culmination of society wanting to effect control and the  establishment’s attempts to prevent these scense becoming the norm.

The consequence was that the breweries decided on the type and quality of beer sold. Of course they wanted beer that lasted, was  of consistent quality and easy to transport and store – cask ale is still ‘live’ in the barrel, difficult to transport and store and goes off quickly if exposed to the air. Therefore they developed pisswater, sorry keg beer which answered all of the above (erm, when I say ‘quality, that doesn’t connote high quality, just uniform). Dad loathed it but there was little to no choice.

I think one of the earliest jokes I heard to include the ‘f’ word involved keg beer. One brand of this type, a large seller in the 1960s, was from Watneys Brewery called ‘Red Barrel’.

The joke?

What is the similarity between Red Barrel and making love in a punt?

They’re both f*****g close to water.

A protest group, probably one of the first if not the first consumer protest group, emerged. The Campaign for Real Ale or CAMERA as it became known.

Through the seventies and into the 80s Camera pursued a dogged rearguard to try and force the return of more and more cask conditioned or real ale. What today are called micro breweries began to emerge. But everything was still small scale.

You see the unintended consequence of trying to control a national descent into alcoholism – the licensing laws – created a tight constrained market and the conditions for an oligopoly of six enormous brewers/pub owners – Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Whitbread, Allied, Bass and Scottish and Newcastle. And that led to the consumers being ignored.


Mum was partial to a noggin, too

Each brewer owned thousands of pubs; they rarely sold of even closed them (because that meant a lost licence). Cross-subsidies kept unprofitable pubs trading and Britain became famous for its cosy country pubs – every town, every village having a disproportionate number – but at a price.

It couldn’t continue and it required a brash Australian and a dogmatic hater of vested interests to end this state of affairs. John Elliott, the man behind the global rise of Fosters lager through his company Elders IXL and Margaret Thatcher made strange bedfellows. They had very different motivations – a desire for self aggrandisement and profit on the side of Elliott and a distrust of embedded power elites and monopolistic business practices in the case of Thatcher (she didn’t just bash the Unions). She introduced the Beer Orders  in 1989 under which the tie between the brewer and the pub was fundamentally undermined; he created the first bespoke Pub owning company (jointly with Grand Metropolitan, called Inntrepreneur Estates) that decoupled the property value from the value of the beer tie (thus ending the cross subsidies in his group, Courage and that of Grand Metropolitan’s estate, between them owners of some 13,000 pubs).

Every pub owned by a large group had to sell a cask conditioned beer and have a guest beer if the tie was retained and only 2000 pubs could be tied anyway. As we entered the 1990s the Berlin Wall fell and the Euro project began, but the most visible impact, here in the UK, of the changes wrought in 1989 was the demise of a multitude of British pubs. Cross subsidies no longer made sense and the unprofitable inns were sold off to these new pub owning companies. It was another unintended consequence and one that changed the face of many towns and villages fundamentally.


And the Lawyer follows where his grandfather led

When I moved to Herne Hill in 1985 the Camera pressure was beginning to tell in London. One early exploiter of this pressure was Dave Bruce, a brewing entrepreneur with a passion for good beer. In the 1970s he began his own brewery – Bruce’s Brewery – to brew cask ale and started to buy up  tatty pubs in South and West London that even the resistant brewers didn’t want to keep. He launched his Firkin brand of ales, many of which were brewed in situ (thus avoiding the transportation issues) . His pubs, which had a spit and sawdust olde worlde charm, proved extremely popular. They became the model for micro-breweries today. Each one was called the Something and Firkin – Goose, Flounder etc. The one above Denmark Hill station where I caught the train every day was the Phoenix and Firkin (an appropriate name this since the pub was housed in the rebuilt ticket hall that had burnt down). There was a super strength beer deliciously called Dogbolter – believe me this was not a session drink. Best of all the bar staff wore T shirts with the best branded slogan I’ve seen:

Phoenix my pint I’ll Firkin thump him

We have moved on from Red Barrel in oh so many ways. Dad would have mourned the loss of some pubs but would have loved the microbrewery and all that comes with it. Once again that great British invention, the pint of ale is something of which even a teetotaller like me can be proud.

This post is a result of a conversation with Charli Mills at her Carrot Ranch about her local pub in Northern Idaho, The Laughing Dog. Thanks Charli!

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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28 Responses to Beers and Birds

  1. Solveig says:

    I don’t drink either, but your post was so informative and fun to read. Guess even with beer we can learn 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      One of the reasons the beer tie remained so strong for so long was the combined strength of the German and British brew markets. They had European law changed in the 60s to protect their dominant position. That’s no longer so and I hope the German market has benefitted too! Still as you are in Paris that’s not going to be a concern!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ellenbest24 says:

    The micro brewery has improved the quality of beer and hostelry. You have a very informative post, We lived in Bury St Edmunds until three years ago, Greene king and Tolly Cobbold were major competitors until Tolly was swallowed by Greene king. Then 2007 the Cannon brewery opened it’s micro brewery and so we have as if by magic ; four micro’s a small market town all within the mediaeval grid. A great beer festival happens each year a lovely town to visit and even better to live in. 😇

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I was more a Double Diamond kind of guy, Geoff.

    But I did find this.

    No wonder I was a Double Diamond drinker.


  4. Judy Martin says:

    Mr Grump is a ‘bitter’ man as well and very fussy about it too! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jan says:

    Interesting history of microbreweries. My husband likes to say that beer is actually very nutritional (of course, not in excess)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great read and a fascinating history lesson Geoff – I really enjoyed reading this and I am not a beer drinker – though I do indulge in a proper stout from time to time – for health reasons you understand. And I am greatly tickled by the fact that the massive global changes that kicked off in 1989 were first noticed in your great land as bringing down the pub empirists and bringing about a return to the brewing of real beer. Just as it should!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Charli Mills says:

    Love this post and my gratitude for the British gift of the pint of ale! As with comparative histories, ours in the US is always younger and greener than our Motherland but we embraced (were forced to endure) piss-water beers after prohibition. Perhaps the natural inclination is to rebel with the rise of microbreweries. Today, beer is controlled through distribution laws. Our favorite, as you you know, is Laughing Dog and they serve some bitters your Dad would have appreciated. I’ll toast you and yours next time we visit the Dog.


  8. trifflepudling says:

    Jerry said that real ale had plenty of plankton in it and was very nutritious! Pity he’s now having to make do with Aus stuff!
    Interesting post!


  9. noelleg44 says:

    Wonderful post! Loved the photos and the information. Microbreweries are all the rage here in North Carolina, and I have to admit some of these boutique beers and ale are pretty darn good!


  10. Mick Canning says:

    Oh, yes. The unlamented pisswater of my youth! I really can’t imagine drinking any of that nowadays. Anyone remember Watneys’ party sevens? *cringe*

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Annecdotist says:

    I was interested to read about the origins of CAMERA and, off on a bit of a tangent, I recall unsuccessfully trying to raise objections to Scottish & Newcastle’s promotion of their ale (which I actually liked) through the slogan Most women prefer lager – they couldn’t see what I was getting at! I’m hoping that despite being non-drinker, as a feminist, you will.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. roweeee says:

    I can’t help wondering whether the pisspot Aussie backpackers care what beer they’re drinking. I’m not much of a drinker and have never drunk beer.
    Very interesting post.
    xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

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