The Beer Diary book review: Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey


Great books on beer often make you say ‘why hasn’t somebody done this already?’ In the case of Brew Britannia, the long-awaited debut in print by esteemed beer bloggers Boak and Bailey, the reason no one has done it already is quite simple: some of the history covered inside has only just happened. The result is a truly fantastic beer history book for our time.

It can be tricky to write about recent events with the authority of a historian, but in Brew Britannia it’s far more than just a framing device that brings us to the present. Whilst much of the book describes the long and multi-faceted war of good beer versus bad beer from the 1960s to the 1980s, it’s the pages about the last twenty years or so that really illuminate just how far we’ve come.

The authors are extremely shrewd in their depiction of key characters, and allow the reader to make most of the comparisons between breweries, people and companies from the past with those operating now. Still, it is always clear when the comparison should be made, and it is a credit to them as writers for getting the balance right in this respect. The battles in print between CAMRA and the Big Six, and BrewDog and the Portman Group for example, are particularly worthy of note.

Like all good social historians – and I’m thinking particularly of Pete Brown in the arena of beer history – Boak and Bailey have a gift for finding and describing the ‘characters’ of their story, and it certainly is a great story. From the boisterous and boozy founders of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood to the brilliant and eclectic Brendan Dobbin, from the plucky and unstoppable David Bruce to the gifted and statesmanly Peter Austin, there are dozens of fascinating profiles of people who have helped shape the beer industry we have today.

One of the themes that recurs in the book is a talented person working in a field completely unrelated to beer and then one day triumphantly deciding they should open a pub/start a brewery/wage a decade-long war with the Portman Group. It’s something I’ve noticed in in other articles, interviews and books about beer: people seem to become possessed by it and dedicate their lives to it. It reminds me of that trope of science-fiction where aliens intervene in the path of human history to guide us along a certain path – but in a good way. I think it really is representative of the single-mindedness, the [*klaxon*] passion that drives these people, and Boak and Bailey totally succeed in capturing this in print. Many of the stories are truly inspiring, and to those who are involved in the beer industry, serve as a welcome reminder of Why We Do This.

The book’s portrayal of organisations as different (or perhaps not, it winks and nudges) as CAMRA and BrewDog is fair, almost to a fault. You occasionally find yourself urging the authors to stick the boot in, but then you see another side to the story that makes you doubt your first impression of person X or company Y. Whilst the pursuit to present a ‘true’ story demands this level of objectivity, there is definitely a message in Brew Britannia. That message becomes clearer as the story progresses. The ending line of the epilogue (which I won’t spoil) is wonderful, crystallising the most important things and lets you reach your own conclusion about what really matters.

There are definitely a few pieces missing from the story, though. In a story about consumer appreciation of beer driving a revival, the rise and fall and rise of bottle-conditioned beer, for example, feels noticeably absent. One microbrewery is indicated to have a dramatic, ominous end but we never find out what happened. These are minor quibbles, though, as there has not been a more complete and fascinating history of modern beer.

It’s not just a great book, it’s an important one for the time we live in. My advice is: don’t wait a few years before reading it. The lessons that can be learned from Brew Britannia are best appreciated right now. I just hope we have equally talented writers to write a book just as good in another 50 years time.

Brew Britannia is available right now in book shops and online. Details of where to find it are summarised on Boak and Bailey’s website here.

%d bloggers like this: