Still serving after all these years

by Steve Renshaw

Last week, the 2013 edition of CAMRA’s best-selling “Good Beer Guide” was published. It features the 4,500 best real ale pubs in the UK, as selected and reviewed by CAMRA members. It also contains a unique Breweries Section that lists all the breweries – micro, regional and national – that produce real ale in the UK.

This edition is the 40th, and it’s interesting to look back at the first commercially-produced Guide that was published in 1974. Flicking through its pages, you get a real sense of the changes that have taken place in the pub and brewing industry.

The introduction highlighted two major developments that were threatening to kill off good ale once and for all. These were the large-scale promotion of characterless keg beers, and the transfer from traditional methods of serving draught beer to pumps using carbon dioxide pressure, which makes ale gassy and sickly. Concern was also expressed that six companies owned more than 60% of our pubs and that they had started to standardise beer. Large brewing factories were supplying beer for whole regions of the country, where once there were dozens of little breweries each producing ales of different strengths and flavours.

The list of brewers in the 1974 Guide has just over one hundred entries, with accompanying comments ranging from ‘Recommended’ to ‘Avoid at all costs’. Contrast that situation with the 2013 edition, with over 1,000 breweries and a bigger range of styles and flavours of ale than we have ever seen.

But, of course, everything in the current beer-drinker’s garden isn’t rosy. In 1974, there was no mention of pubs closing, whereas now, because of the triple squeeze of tax, the big pub companies and the supermarkets, we are now losing twelve a week across the UK.

Of the twenty-nine Lincolnshire pubs listed in the ’74 Guide, five were in Lincoln. But only one remains as a real-ale pub. The others are now a snack bar, a ladies’ clothes shop, a (closed) bar and an Indian restaurant. I wonder how many readers can name those four pubs. See below for the answers.

And the one that remains? The ’74 Guide describes The Still on Saltergate as an ‘authentic Victorian pub owned by local wine merchants, C.Pratt & Sons’. The real ale on offer was from Younger’s Brewery which, at the time, was part of the Scottish & Newcastle group. So how has The Still changed?

As I’m a newcomer to Lincoln, I didn’t know the pub in its heyday. It’s clear that the interior has been changed quite a lot. But there are some features that I’m guessing are original. In particular, when you enter you’re immediately confronted by the magnificent, curved bar that separates the two drinking areas. On the walls are photos, dating back to around 1900, showing the wine merchant’s premises stretching all along Saltergate to what is now Ann Summers.

The Still is now one of a number of Marston’s pubs in the area. Based in Wolverhampton, Marston’s is now one of the national real-ale producers; the group also includes Banks’s, Brakspear, Jennings, Ringwood and Wychwood Breweries.

And what about the beer? I chose a pint of Marston’s Burton Bitter (3.8% ABV). You find Pedigree in lots of places, but Burton Bitter is less common. In fact, it was a first for me. The temperature was just right and the beer was crystal-clear amber with a creamy head. The first taste was a bit watery but a really refreshing bitterness quickly came through. Certainly a beer I shall seek out again.

Here are the other 1974 pubs: British Rail Buffet; Roebuck; Crown & Anchor; Hare & Hounds.