Where are all the breweries?

Good Beer Guide hails boom in brewery growth over the last 12 months but one city seems to be missing out.

Real ale drinkers throughout the region will be keenly perusing the latest edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide, which is published today. As ever the nation’s top pubs are included, and entries for the West Midlands include such perennial hands as the Great Western in Wolverhampton, a former CAMRA national pub of the year, Hockley’s Black Eagle (still the best backstreet pub on the planet, or at least outside Belgium) and those Black Country temples of brewing the Olde Swan in Netherton and the Vine (Bull & Bladder) in Brierley Hill. There are also welcome returns for Birmingham city centre faithfuls the Old Contemptibles and the Prince of Wales, both of which have been missing from recent editions.

While the Black Country and surrounding areas are traditional strongholds of good beer and decent places in which to drink it, Birmingham is still attempting to catch up with the boom in real ale drinking that has seen 187 new breweries open in the past twelve months. There’s no doubt that the city is a better place to drink now than ever before, but still lags behind the likes of Liverpool, Derby and Nottingham. Furthermore, while there are an increasing number of outlets for real ale, finding a successful brewery in Birmingham is a difficult task. It’s a story that mystifies Nigel Barker, owner of the highly-regarded Wellington and Post Office Vaults and the man widely regarded as having spearheaded the improvements in the city’s drinking scene.

“I’ve no idea why nobody seems to be able to brew successfully in Birmingham,” he told us. “The interest is there, the pubs are doing well – we’ve been packed all day with people drinking real ale. Yet in the Wellington, for example, I’ve got 18 handpulls and the closest beer we’ve got on at the moment is from Purity, 22 miles away. They’ve done well, in fact you could argue that they’ve been too successful and they’ve driven a lot of the competition out of some pubs, but I could give you a list of breweries that have started in Birmingham in recent years and failed.”

It was long said that the reason for the city centre’s limited nightlife was the restrictive practices of the M&B/Ansell’s duopoly, combined with the Quaker influence over the city fathers. However, Nigel refutes this theory. “That surely can’t still be the reason,” he said. “The pubs that sell real ale are doing well, Brewdog has recently opened, Cherry Red and the new Purity bar are opening soon, which disproves that there’s no interest in drinking good beer. It can’t be the water – Ansell’s used to brew some fine beers, Beowulf did well until they moved away. It’s baffling, particularly as the Black Country has a long tradition of quality breweries. It’s as though the city has got a curse on brewers.”

However, there is one potential bright spot as Nigel, whose third venture, the Woodman on Curzon Street, re-opens at the end of the month, told us. “If no-one else can do it I might have to open a brewery myself.”

The Good Beer Guide is available now. Published by the Campaign for real Ale Ltd, it has an RRP of £15.99.