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The breaking of Brakspear's: Succeeding by stealth

Why aren't there more protests over the planned closure of Brakspear's, one of Britain's greatest ale breweries?

One reason is that the beer will continue to be produced, elsewhere. (Not every consumer realizes that the brewery has a two-stage fermentation system not found elsewhere. In its new home, the beer won't taste the same, from Day One).

The other reason? While the board of Brakspear's seems incapable of keeping the brewery in operation, it has demonstrated considerable skills in news-management. Or perhaps it just got lucky?

By first "considering" a complex and confusing plan, then eventually deciding to put it into action, the company ensured that news coverage was diffuse and diluted.

With thin papers in summer, writers on the food and drink pages had difficulty getting space for a story with no reader "take-home" (editors like a tag at the end listing retailers and prices).

My colleague Roger Protz is always good on a campaigning story, though his space in The Guardian is constrained. Respected wine-writer and beer-lover Andrew Jefford has been starved of space in the Evening Standard, but popped up in The Times with a headline that was powerful and witty: "They Could Murder a Pint". By the time I could get my hands on some space in The Independent, it was an old story and I had to find a new approach. Below is a slightly fuller version of my Independent story:

Bitter is Dead! Long Live Bitter!!

"Going on the town" is impossible when there isn't one. Finding a town-center where you can get a decent drink is one of the challenges of modern life. Town-center properties are valuable, and therefore must be converted into luxury flats.

Only a hopelessly old-fashioned town would still have at its center a church, a brewery and a pub or three. That was okay in the days when there were monks who needed somewhere to pray and somewhere else to drink beer, but that was a long time ago.

Now, finally, we are taking a more rigorous view. St Paul's Cathedral is a prime city-center site. Westminster Abbey (which probably once had a brewery) is another. Shouldn't they be turned into luxury flats? The only English Pope, Nicholas Brakspear, has from his vantage point in heaven seen the such a transformation proposed, on the same grounds, for his family's brewery at Henley-on-Thames. He's all right, of course. In heaven, you can get Brakspear's bitter on tap, always in perfect condition. Hours: eternal.

The similarities between churches and breweries are considerable. Churches have traditionally propounded belief systems that that are much too complex and abstract for today's young people. Hence the number of progressive religious leaders who disavow old-fashioned ideas like he existence of God. Likewise breweries traditionally made beers with aromas and flavours that are much too demanding for today's generation. Hence the number of progressive brewers working hard to remove any hint of malt or hops from their beers.

The terminally old fashioned brewers at Brakspear's make the hoppiest, and therefore most bitter, ale in England. It is now to be brewed elsewhere, with different equipment, and will slowly die of embarrassment.

God moves in mysterious ways. While in deep despair over Brakspear's, I encountered Bishops Farewell. This heady brew was first produced seven or eight years ago to honor the Bishop of Peterborough, Bill Westwood, upon his retirement. As Bishop, he had been a strong supporter of the local beer festival, which attracts almost 40,000 people each year, rivaling its national counterpart in Olympia, London.

Bishop's Farewell is thirst-cuttingly bitter. That same bitterness is instantly appetizing. It is so more-ish that one pint has to be followed by another, Stop to think and you will be in the Light of India before you can say poppadum.

Brewers have a way of measuring bitterness, and on this scale Bishop's Farewell has twice the sting of most ales or lagers. Despite this, its producers don't call it s Bitter. What is it? Golden ale is good a name as anyone can conjure.. It is brewed from Maris Otter, the juiciest of English barleys, malted in this instance to an unusually pale colour. A small proportion of wheat is also used, to crisp up the palate and boost that inviting foam.

To look at the glistening brew with its bright head is to want a mouthful. Raise the glass and you could be in hop garden. Those lemony aromas are an English variety of hop called the Challenger. The grapefruity note is the Cascade hop, from Washington state. Alcohol by volume is 4.6.

I sampled the beer at The Oakham Brewery Tap, which reminded me of the Prairie-style brewpub Flatlanders, between Chicago and Milwaukee. The Brewery Tap is in Peterborough's truly awful city center. It's a nightmare of town planning, but it still has a cathedral, pub and brewery,

Is it really property values that will soon deny me proper Brakspear's? Or did the management lack belief. The Oakham Brewery is less than ten years old, makes a more bitter beer, and is on tap from Derbyshire (The Bell Inn, Smalley) to Hertfordshire (The Crooked Billet, Colney Heath).

Safeway's now has a slightly less strong beer from Oakham; Jeffery Hudson Bitter. Oh my god, they used the "B" word...

Published: SEPT 10, 2002
In: Beer Hunter Online

- Editorial

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