Friday, 27 May 2011

Oliver's Barmy

This piece was the first thing I wrote for the CAMRA magazine, Sussex Drinker and published on p. 5 of the summer 2009 issue (see right), the first under my editorship, The context was an article by Stephen Oliver, MD of Marston's, attacking CAMRA with an injudicious use of the word "stormtrooper". I thought it quite a good riposte and, since this issue had a circulation of only 5000, worth reproducing here.


There has been much consternation over the last two months concerning the intemperate remarks made about CAMRA members by Stephen Oliver, managing director of Marston’s Beer Company. Some have described his outburst as a “Ratner’s moment”, a barmy PR disaster guaranteed to alienate an activist section of his customer base. If that is all there were to it we should have less cause to worry. True, his tired stereotypes of “sandal-clad … beardy weirdies” did much to antagonise many in the CAMRA rank and file, but his real targets lie so much wider. His rhetorical contrasts as reported in the Morning Advertiser (12th March 2009) are particularly telling. In portraying Marston’s as not only forward-looking and grandly metropolitan but as a “serious”, professional and “proper brewery”, Oliver characterises the beers he assumes to be favoured by CAMRA members as aged, infirm and of inferior quality (“Knackered Old Cripplecockserved with bits in it”), knocked out by bumpkin breweries (“down a country lane”) who happen to be amateurish hobbyists (“brewed in a cupboard”).

By so doing Oliver insults at one stroke the whole gamut of microbreweries, independents and SIBA included. He even engages in a spot of good old-fashioned regional-baiting. I’m not sure why Rotherham in particular deserved to be singled out for comparison to the size of a beer-gut, but then Oliver must think that just as all CAMRA members are “whisker-stroking stormtroopers”, all northerners are pie-chomping, pint-swilling lard-eaters. It’s a wonder he didn’t add: by gum, it’s grim up north with all those micros and not enough Marston’s.

All of this is irritating, it’s true. One can, of course, invert the meaning of the message intended by the sender, and I, like most CAMRA members would much rather sample the flavoursome guest ales individually crafted by small-scale rural microbreweries than swallow whole the mechanised mass outpourings of some sanitised national conglomerate. The problem though (and this is the real danger) is that Oliver doesn’t want me, doesn’t want you, in fact doesn’t want anybody to be allowed to. And the reason for this is because Oliver knows best. Oliver has already bestowed bountiful brands from the Marston’s portfolio and to “have an even wider choice” is “bizarre”. In fact licensees are told in no uncertain terms by Oliver that they “should be aware of kowtowing” to choosy customers who have the temerity to ask for something other than Big Brother Oliver’s National Blands, especially if those customers are CAMRA members for these are less likely to be the placid conformists that Oliver obviously idolises.

Oliver’s message, his propaganda, is clear: be a sheep; be a “normal person”. Find a pub serving Marston’s and stay there. Shut up and don’t complain, no matter how poor the pedigree. Just be grateful for what you’ve so generously been given. To dare give opinion about the product is to risk “talking rubbish”. To go in search of in interesting alternative is to be “itinerant” and to hunt “promiscuously” in search of the “eclectic”. These are all hallmarks of an independent mind for me, but decidedly deviant for Oliver. It is really not so surprising that the MD of a large and successful company is set so firmly against freedom of choice. For those who seek to gain most by the market have the most to lose by free trade and the free supply of commodities. Failure to stifle customer choice is to risk the growth of competition and threaten one’s own profit margins. Oliver’s not barmy: he’s downright dangerous. Our right to choose our “national heritage”, as he refers to cask ale, is not safe in his hands. Oliver’s army is on the march. Perhaps in his megalomaniac plans even Suffolk and Dorset are not safe from invasion. Beware!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Oakleaf Pompey Royal

Oakleaf Brewing Company Ltd is based in Gosport, Hampshire, UK. They were founded in March 2000 by Dave Pickersgill (MD) and his son-in-law Ed Anderson (Head Brewer). Ed was formerly a brewer at the Fuzz & Firkin brew-pub, Southsea before going on to brew for Winchester Ale Houses. Oakleaf first brewed in December 2000 and have since won numerous awards for their beers.

Oakleaf's version of Pompey Royal was, I believe first brewed in commemoration of Portsmouth FC winning the 2008 FA Cup. My discovery of this 4.5% ABV beer was on 22nd November 2008, at the Rising Sun, The Street, Nutbourne, West Sussex. I found it in particularly good condition and immediately thought it to be a recognizable recreation of the Pompey Royal I’d enjoyed 23 years previously. But time can play tricks and, having since sampled it on numerous occasions I now – rightly or wrongly - assess it as a much lighter beer in both colour and body than the Whitbread version of 1985.

There are no tasting notes in the 2009 or 2010 Good Beer Guide and those that do appear in the 2011 edition are as unspecific as to hardly fail to apply to what is, after all, “a traditional mid-brown malty ale with a delicate hop balance”. I have good reason to suppose that the hops are Goldings and Styrian Goldings and that this Oakleaf version is actually a Whitbread recipe – but which one?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Portsmouth & Brighton United Breweries Pompey Royal

Let’s do some detective work on what we might suppose to be the original version of this beer by Portsmouth and Brighton United Breweries (henceforth, United) of the Elm Brewery, King Street, Southsea. This image, which is either beer mat or bottle label, often turns up on e-bay or similar sites where it has been variously described as a “Coronation Label” and dated “1954”. From this and the Royal in the title, we might deduce it was brewed as a commemorative ale for the 1953 coronation of our present Queen. Corroborative but anecdotal evidence for this appears on the Express FM History Show (local radio) web site for September 2009 with the item: “seven times winner of our local history quiz, Larry Nicholas, brought his considerable experience of beer drinking to bear on the history of United Breweries Pompey Royal beer that was especially brewed to mark the Queen’s coronation!” More reliable evidence is at the website of the Association For British Brewery Collectables. Under its Complete Commemorative Bottle Collectors List appears "Portsmouth and Brighton United Breweries Ltd, Pompey Royal (Coronation Ale) (Blue and red neck strap) 1953."

But did the beer exist even earlier? In April 1953, a couple of months before the coronation, United were acquired by the local Brickwoods brewery. This itself is not an issue as, according to a paper by Philip Eley (1994, p23), “United was kept on as a separate subsidiary and continued to brew its own beers at King Street including a strong bottled ale named ‘Pompey Royal Golden Ale’”. This name clearly applies to our image, a “Golden Ale”, “Bottled at the Brewery”. Indeed, Eley also states (1994, p 24) that the King Street site continued bottling until September 1962, in which year United’s bottled Pompey Royal was replaced by Brickwood I.P.A.” Yet Eley then remarks that “the original gravity [of bottled Pompey Royal Golden Ale] was 1060° in 1950.” Not only is this three years before the Queen’s coronation but two years before the death of her father, King George VI.

Whitbread acquired Brickwoods in 1971, Eley consulted the Whitbread Archive for his paper and the specific source from which he obtained the original gravity of Pompey Royal is dated 19 April 1950. The year is mentioned twice, in the main text and the supporting footnote source, so it is unlikely to be a misprint. What does this suggest? One possibility is that a new version of United Pompey Royal was prepared for the Queen’s coronation. Remember that United continued to brew its own beers under its own name at its own site after the merger with Brickwood. Brickwoods definitely brewed its own bottled Coronation Ale. A label image can be seen at the website ‘The History of Brickwoods of Portsmouth’. A second but unlikely possibility is that Eley or his documentary sources were in error. Following the dispersion of the Whitbread Archive to the various local record offices, the United papers are now stored in the Portsmouth Public Library. It would be interesting to see if they can solve this puzzle; but in regard to Eley’s claims, the archive must be regarded as a highly reliable source.

And until we have evidence to the contrary, this leaves us with the fact that Pompey Royal, possibly even the version in our image, was a beer originally brewed for some purpose other than and prior to the present Queen’s coronation. Does the image afford any clues? What was meant by “Golden Ale” back then was clearly not the highly-hopped fragrant beers that now fall into the CAMRA category of that name, but interesting as it is to see the phrase used on the image, that remains something of an irrelevance. More importantly, the “Pompey’s Pillar” trademark was registered in 1932. If, as Eley states (1994, p 24), the bottled version of Pompey Royal continued until 1962, this gives a 30-year production span and possible dating for the image, although the recipe (and image design) could have changed significantly during that period. (Incidentally, don’t expect to find that Pillar in Portsmouth; it was erected by the aptly named Publius, Prefect of Egypt, at Alexandria, to record the conquest of that city in 296 AD.)

Other than that, there is little to go on but, as Portsmouth is home to the Royal Naval Dockyards, why must we assume that the Royal in the beer name originally referred to any monarch’s coronation? Other United bottled beers of the same period carried the same image, which has nothing regal about it. One might expect a Coronation Commemorative Bottle to carry a special design.

I’ll get back on this one after I’ve visited the Portsmouth Library.


Association for British Brewery Collectables, (Accessed 10th August 2011).

Eley, Philip (1994), ‘Portsmouth Breweries Since 1847’, The Portsmouth Papers, No. 63 (March), Portsmouth: Portsmouth Civic Council Offices.

Express FM History Show, (Accessed 3rd May 2011).