Capital Idea

1989 was an auspicious year. First year at Uni and loving the new life away, it was a time of tremendous discovery – about myself and about life in general – much of it quite mundane, like how to actually make some food. It was also the start of my real years of beer discovery – living in the south west, enjoying pubs like the Drewe Arms at Drewsteignton, The Nobody Inn at Doddiscombleigh, The Warren House Inn right in the middle of Dartmoor and the pubs by the river and canal in Exeter – the Double Locks, The Turf and The Bridge in Topsham.

Against this rural setting of beer swigging idyllic yokels, three of us made a trip during a holiday to Burton upon Trent. Rumour had it, this was the ‘home of British brewing’ but we knew little of it truth be told. There were breweries, there were pubs and it wasn’t that long a drive from our home town in the north west. My brother, Wilko and I made the trip. We tossed for designated driver, but we planned a long enough day trip to allow for a couple of guilt free pints early doors.  The details are unimportant – we visited the Bass Museum, The Burton Bridge Brewery, the now defunct Thomas Sykes brew pub in the grounds of the recently close Everards brewery and otherwise took in the ambience of the town. The ambience being rough round the edges and distinctly whiffy, with the sharp tang of Marmite, meat processing, coffee from a nearby Nestle factory and beer all mixing together to form an aroma that gagged in the throat and flared your nostrils wide as they flapped on autopilot attempting to beat back the nasal assault.

Twenty or so years on the town has changed a little.  Few nasty niffs today but still the sense of brewing nobility; in fact a sign outside Molson Coors (then Bass) is supported by the words ‘Burton on Trent: World Brewing Capital’.  Which got me wondering: because let’s face it. It isn’t is it?  It was, sure; and yes, there’s no denying a lot of beer is produced each year across the different breweries in the town, but the truth is, this innocuous phrase is puffery, a product of our heritage mentality.  It’s so easy to revere the past above all else and as our Primary Industry – manufacturing – declines, so our Quaternary Industry – Nostalgia – booms.

What is a ‘capital’?  What do you need?  Power is one:  government, authority, bureaucracy.  Culture another – museums, art, music. Industry – or business power, not necessarily the manufacturing.  Creativity, influence…  collisions that throw off opportunities, possibilities.  Burton as a place of brewing influence had these once. Not today.  You can level the same at other brewing ‘capitals’ – Milwaukee; Berlin; St Louis.

Today it seems there’s emerging a new array of brewing hearths – cities, towns, regions, that can lay claim to the title of ‘world brewing capital’.  The strongest for me is the west coast USA – from San Diego in the south of California up through the sequoias to Portland, Oregon and beyond. Brewers united by being unfettered by ‘rules’ of the past;  pushing at the edges and in some cases long-jumping into a new space altogether.  And these aren’t just micros here – Widmer, Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Stone – all have scale – big enough I’m sure to be on the radar as potential acquisition targets for the global brewing concerns.  Only here, I would contend is there a culture of experimentation, trial, listen, tweak, improve.

Watch for the future, my vote would have to go to Italy. Craft brewed beer is about 2% of the market in Italy but it is growing in double figures year on year – with again, the spirit of curiosity, of discovery driving it forward – free from a burdensome legacy assisting a vibrant brewing scene. So too in parts of Scandinavia where brewers, fuelled in part by a healthy food movement are beginning to push into rediscovering and experimenting with indigenous raw materials, styles and ingredients.

The old capitals, Belgium, Germany (Munich in particular) and the Czech Republic are on a watching brief.  Belgium in particular has always had a culture of inventiveness but it remains to be seen if the domination by ABI and Heineken of the local brewing scene will create a market structure that stifles or creates the next wave. Likewise Czech, with so many of the big brands in the hands of multinationals and an industry structure whereby water is more profitable than beer, signals warnings for the future. Consolidation, focus, scale will be the watch words – the space for small scale, inventive brewers will be there to take.

Where does that leave Blighty?  Well, we seem to have come full circle. The big brewers and big retailers have managed to fight over the train set and break it.  The flair, the Heath-Robinson Garden Shedness, has passed elsewhere.  Far from being concentrated in one town, inventive brewing is scattered again across our towns, cities and villages.   Burton’s particular challenge is to grab this mantle back – but even if it doesn’t, the future is beginning to look bright again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

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