Despite everything we read in the papers, all that binge-drinking and alcohol-related doom and gloom, people drink, on average, less than they used to. Their drinking habits have changed. Beer (and particularly ale) sales have declined; wine sales have risen, but consumption in general has gone down.
I was thinking about this a bit last week, as we took our trip out to Foxbury Farm in Oxfordshire. Not least because, as we drove out of down, we passed the Stag Brewery in Mortlake, soon to close as Anheuser-Busch shuts down the Budwieser plant.
The air was heady with the smell of brewing.
It’s a favourite smell. It evokes school holidays for me, the heavy, honeyed maltiness of Brakspears weekly brew.
As an Oxfordshire chap, I’ve drunk my fair share of Oxfordshire beer over the years. And Brakspears was one of the great ones.
It’s gone now. You can still buy beers with Brakspears on the label, but it’s not Brakspears. Not really. It’s an ersatz facsimile. It’s like drinking coffee made from acorns. It’s not the same. It cannot be the same. And the story of why it’s not is a sad little cautionary tale which bears repeating.
Brakspears chose to close the brewery in 2002, having been central to Henley and its local economy since 1711, despite opposition from the town, from CAMRA, and despite the key fact that they had a profitable business. Unlike Abingdon’s Morland Brewery, they hadn’t gone bust through rapid over-expansion, a real problem for brewers after Courage was forced to sell off a vast number of its pubs in the early 1990s. Instead, they decided to sell-off the brewery site, which is now a Hotel du Vin, and become a pub real-estate business.
There was, however, a general protest about the potential loss of the beers. The brewing rights were licensed to Wychwood, who went to the considerable trouble of preserving the yeast cultures, ensuring they used the same suppliers for their hops and their malt, and building a new facility to house the enormous Brakspear double-drop vats.
Of course, the one thing they couldn’t take with them was the water which came from its own source on the brewery site.
There are, by and large, only four ingredients in beer. If you change one, you change everything.
The point, however, is not that the beer is no longer the same. Businesses fail all them time. People no longer want the product that you make, you over-extend, they die for any number of reasons, and a vast number of breweries have closed for exactly these reasons. But the Brakspears brewery was a living, functioning, profitable thing. Furthermore, they were making a great product. It won awards, people sought it out. It was good. Brakspears Ordinarywas a pint of renown. And they chose to kill it for a fast buck.
Hotel du Vin run a good business, but there’s something dead in the middle of Henley now.
Beer is a part of the fabric of this country. We may not drink as much of it anymore, but it’s as surviving a part of our national culture as stilton or football or wet Tuesday afternoons.
How does the song go? “Don’t it always seem to go / You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
Except they did know, and they broke it anyway. To me, it’s an act of cultural vandalism.