I arrived in Birmingham in 1983 from Leeds, a city where even the monopoly beer was to my taste, and much better beers could be found without too much difficulty. Brum was different. More than half the pubs were owned by Bass, through their M&B subsidiary. M&B operated 3 breweries, Cape Hill, which made the dreadful, sickly Brew XI and a much more acceptable – though unexciting – Mild; Springfield, in Wolverhampton, whose eponymous bitter was just as sweet but marginally less revolting; and Highgate in Walsall, pretty much unique for being a mild-only brewery, whose sole regular product was rather good, and whose seasonal Old Ale was as good as it was vanishingly difficult to sample. Additionally, some of the pubs served Draught Bass, which was certainly a better choice. Almost all the pubs used electric pumps, which made spotting the cask stuff amongst the keg rather tricky at times.
Next, there was Ansells, the Midlands wing of Allied Breweries, with getting on for 40% of the pubs. Their beers were now brewed in Burton, following the closure of the Aston brewery following the 1981 strike; the bitter being a bit better than Spew XI, but still far from great, and the mild of a similar standard. Some pubs served Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, which was probably the best mainstream option to be found most of the time. A handful still served beers that had been popular during the strike, particularly Gibbs Mew of Salisbury’s Wiltshire Bitter, which wasn’t bad at all.
The last of the Big Six to have a presence in the city was Courage, but with far fewer pubs than the other two (one of them being the Wellington). Their pubs had sometimes Bitter Ale, almost always Best Bitter and Directors, another reasonable option.
In terms of local independents, there were two, only one of which had any pubs – Davenports. Their bitter was again in the local sweet style, but a lot better than Ansells or Brew. They also had a full range of interesting bottled beers.
The other indie was Aston Manor, founded to fill the hole left by Ansells’ Aston brewery. They didn’t have all that many regular outlets, and I hated their bitter, again over-sweet to my taste. Oddly enough, this is the only brewery still functioning, but these days they just make cider for the supermarket trade.
Apart from that, there were very few free houses where a range of beers could be sampled; there was Atkinson’s Bar at the Midland Hotel, with quite a few beers stillaged behind the bar and at exorbitant prices – but it was still a really nice place for a civilised pint of something different; and the Duck on Hagley Road, a really nice pub back then with a great range of beers from outside Brum. Two oases in a desert.
And that was pretty much it; if you wanted a decent pint at a sensible price, you had to leave town. The Black Country had prices significantly lower, and with a choice of interesting small brewers’ beers; the Warwickshire countryside had some lovely old free houses, and 11pm closing.
The past is indeed a different country.