During the lockdown I have made a list of places I want to visit, it’s a sort of game, an arcade of dreams with an element of playfulness. On my wish-list, amongst bars in Brussels, Bamberg and Berlin, is the Vine in Brierley Hill, home of Batham’s. I haven’t been there for a few years and for some reason this has become one of those places I want to visit. I have even tried to devise a sort of pub crawl that would also take in The Beacon, home of Sarah Hughes Brewery, which I last visited in 1998. As I considered and planned this expedition, which is several months in the future I suspect, a stray thought tumbled around acrobatically in my mind, unclear at first, then becoming more cogent and focused: are these two pubs and the beers they brew one of the last outposts of regional beer tastes in the UK?
When I first started writing about beer in the late 1990s the idea of regional tastes was pretty simple — mild in the Midlands, sweeter beers in the Southwest (though flat Bass in Bristol), brown ales in the Northeast and so on. I pretty much followed the party line of what had gone before and was being written then but my belief started to waver and when it came to writing Britain’s Beer Revolution with Roger Protz I was of the opinion that the idea of regional beer tastes in the UK was dead.
It’s a view that seems even more steadfast these days as the most stubbornly resistant of regional beer tastes and styles seem to crumble before the widespread use of New World hops and a growing thirst for hazy, juicy pales. You’re more likely to find a beer style (albeit tweaked and turned inside out and in the company of fruit and herbs) from central Europe in a modern brewery’s portfolio than something your great-grandparents might have drunk.
Or is that true?
I have spent a few days on and off thinking about regional beer tastes and am starting to wonder if they do still exist in patches, almost surviving in the manner of various speciality cheeses that Slow Food have always been keen to protect. Do drinkers in the Black Country still like the mild their parents and grandparents drunk even though the original drinkers were apparently drawn to it because they needed a low-ABV beer that could refresh and replenish after a day working in a car factory or foundry, most of which are gone? What was and remains the difference between a bitter made in Yorkshire and one made over the Pennines in Lancashire? I had an interesting conversation with Taylor’s head brewer Andrew Leman about that subject several years back. Do drinkers in the Northeast still hanker for sweeter brown ales?
On the other hand, could it be that regional beer specialities become a future trend? When we get back to the pub will ice cream stouts or Haribo IPAs (ok I made the latter up but you know what I mean) still be as popular? Or will there exist a thirst for more balanced beers that have a link with the locality in which the drinkers live, as is seen in food with writers and chefs rediscovering and championing traditional regional dishes.
Could it be that if a Black Country mild with its sweetness and low alcohol or a Kentish ale with its dryness and use of local hops were French or Italian, there would be campaigns for its survival and it would become a celebrated style? Or will they inevitably go the way of Burton, Dorchester Ale and South Devon White Ale?
When I can start travelling again I will start my search. I wonder what I will find.