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Points Interview — Frank Priestley

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note:  British beer brewer, Frank Priestley, in this engaging author’s interview, tells us a little about his new book, The Brewer’s Tale:  Memoirs of a Master Brewer (Merlin Unwin Books, 2010). 

After leaving school, I started work in a brewery almost by accident.  Of the three jobs available to me, the brewery seemed the least objectionable.  However, I very quickly realised how very lucky I was to be working there.  It was like joining an extended family.  There was a wonderful atmosphere of friendship and co-operation.  Of course, in those days, all the breweries that I worked in were ‘wet’.  That is, a beer allowance was available to the men who wanted it – a couple of pints a shift.  Some men managed to drink more and some drank less.  The work was hard but the job always got finished.  And then there were the characters – The Irishman on the loading bay who, however busy they were, would say, “When the good Lord made time, He made plenty of it.”  And Wee Jock in the cask shed, who was from Glasgow and no-one could understand his accent.  And Big Jock from The Isles whose cap rotated round his head, depending on how much he had had to drink.  There were many such characters, very many, and when I was made redundant after twenty years service, I missed them grievously.  I never found another job in a brewery but consoled myself by studying the history of the public house (which will be the subject of my next book).  I find the practical research very rewarding.  However, I still think back to those days in the breweries, “where, between those precious pints, there was conversation and songs, friendship and jokes, music and laughter and such magic that sober men could never dream of.”

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

The history of the brewing industry forms a significant part of this book.  The breweries in which I worked were built in the early to mid 19th century.  (Tennant Brothers 1852, Bentley’s Yorkshire Brewery 1828, and Nimmo’s Castle Eden Brewery 1826.) Consequently, even in the late 20th century, there were strong elements of the old methods still being used.  For example, Tennant Brother’s had been built using the ‘tower system’.  That is, the main part of the brewery consisted of a tower block in which the process began on the top floor and, motivated by gravity, each successive stage took the beer to a lower floor until the finished product was racked into casks on the cellar floor.  I also describe traditional methods of fermentation, including the dropping system and Yorkshire Squares.  I recall fast disappearing skills of the industry such as those used in the cooperage and in floor malting (and the mouse-catching skills of the brewery/distillery cat).  I explain the importance of Burton-on-Trent as a brewing centre since 1002, including the Burton Union System of fermentation, in which beer is fermented in a cask, an echo of the Saxon brewsters.  I describe the early histories of the breweries I know, including Whitbread’s London Brewery, founded in 1742, which had a steam engine designed by James Watt and played host to Louis Pasteur.  I refer to traditional products such as old ale, porter and ‘ordinary’.  Finally, I describe some of my favourite pubs and outline the evolution of the British pub from the Roman tabernae vineriae, the Saxon alehouses, taverns, coaching inns, railway and canal inns to the modern public house.  As Dr. Johnson said, “There is nothing that has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good tavern or inn.”

3.  What is the thing you find most interesting about your book?

In addition to the social life enjoyed in breweries (already touched on), the thing that I personally find most interesting is the professional development and satisfaction I achieved during my brewing years.  I started work as a laboratory assistant and under the guidance of the Chief Chemist, Eric Wiles, I learned about the science of brewing.  Then, as a brewing supervisor, under the guidance of the Head Brewer, Harold Burkinshaw, the art of brewing was revealed to me.  It was during this time that I was awarded the Diploma of the Institute of Brewing, the highest qualification of the profession.  In the third and final phase of my brewing career, as Senior Brewer at Castle Eden Brewery, I had the

4.  Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone are you curious to see turned over soon?

Over the last few decades, a phenomenon has arisen known as real ale.  (I naively believed that all ale was real.)  The adherents of real ale promote the myth that only cask conditioned beer, the most primitive and unreliable method of processing, is real!  This relegates all those who enjoy drinking keg beer, lager, filtered bottled beer, canned and tank beer to the realms of unreality.  Cask conditioned beer is produced by filling a cask with unfiltered beer together with a little isinglass finings.  The operative word in the term cask conditioned is not that it takes place in a cask, but that it is conditioned.  In a well conditioned beer, the yeast separates cleanly, leaving the body of the beer sound of taste and aroma and, without exception, clear.  The settled bed of yeast, on the other hand, continues fermenting, keeping the beer well carbonated, so that when dispensed, it creates and maintains a good head and, with each successive mouthful, leaves a series of foamy rings down the inside of the glass.  This is known as lacing and is much to be desired.  If you can catch cask conditioned beer at its prime, there is no better drink in the world.

However, a lot can go wrong.  I suspect I’m not the only person who’s been served a foul-tasting, flat, cloudy, smelly pint and, on complaining, has been informed that it was real ale and was intended to be like that.  But worse is to come.  When the real ale myth percolated down to Westminster, legislation was produced, in the form of The Supply of Beer Order, which ordered all the big British pub owning brewers to sell at least one of their competitors cask conditioned beers in every one of their pubs.  They also had to reduce the number of their own pubs to two thousand or fewer or dispose of their brewery business!  This resulted in the destruction of much of the successful parts of the British brewing industry, the disappearance of many regional beers and the widespread closure of public houses.  What I am stating here are my own impressions – I intend to explore the matter more fully in my next book.  In the meantime, instead of real ale, I prefer to use the term good beer, which is simply, beer that people enjoy.

5.  In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

I would choose Robert De Niro to narrate my book.  Everybody listens when he speaks.  Nobody disagrees with Robert De Niro.


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