Mr. Arthur Batham’s Sense of Style

The Politics of Beer by | Aug 2009 | Issue #31

At the fabulous, must-do Great American Beer Festival in Denver next month, they will award prizes to those beers judged “best” in 75 different “styles.” Panels of judges from around the globe use nose and palate power to machete their way through dozens of brews and grant the coveted accolade of “best” Croatian-style Imperial Lager, Coffee Porter or whatever. The marathon ceremony is an emotional event, though I suspect brain-support workers are bussed in to keep the audience’s enthusiasm up for the whole three hours.

What would Jim Rose and Arthur Batham make of it?

The great city of Denver, in the high plains below the Rocky Mountains, is nearly 5,000 miles from the hamlet of Shenstone, in the rolling farmlands of north Worcestershire, below the Clent Hills in the English Midlands. The Plough Inn at Shenstone is where I was introduced to good beer, in the year that ABBA first sang “Waterloo” and network TV got the Six Million Dollar Man. I liked the pub and its beer so much that a few years later, I moved home to be within walking distance. The sight of the single bulb above its pub sign still gives me goose bumps.

Behind the bar, the immense hands of gentlemanly Jim Rose would pat the plain black hand-pulls into life, gushing straw-colored, barley-laden, sweet ale into a glass jug, a thin layer of white soapy foam resting on top. I became local enough to use the snug, where Jim would greet loud-looking strangers with, “Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable in the public bar, gentlemen? The beer is a penny cheaper there.”

The Plough was one of the then-eight pubs owned by Batham’s Brewery of Brierley Hill, navigated by Arthur Batham, the fourth generation of the family to do so and the first with a degree in brewing. He was the first brewer I ever interviewed.

This scrawny, badly dressed, ill-prepared, off-duty student had not spoken to management before. But the suited, neatly cropped head of the family firm was kind, if not playful, when we met in his Dickensian office next to the brewhouse. “You don’t want to see the brewery. It’s busy,” he said. “You might bring an infection. I don’t want you spoiling my beer.” No worries, I said—I had seen a brewery before. I knew how they worked.

He found it odd that beer had, for the first time in his memory, become fashionable. He had put off retiring to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca (“Ma-y-orrr-ca” to its inhabitants, “Mujj-orker” in the accent of the Black Country) to see whether it would continue, though he doubted it. He was actively dissuading his sons from joining the business, with mixed success.

“Why is Batham’s Bitter different from everyone else’s?” I asked, and he explained gently that if it was the same then nobody would buy it—my first insight into the ways of the market.

In 1974, there were, in truth, three other Midland beers in the same unusually blond, sweet and flowery, delicate but grainy mold as Batham’s; two made locally and another 30 miles away. Were they distinct enough to be considered a style in their own right? Well, maybe, but that is not the point.

Nowadays, Batham’s brewery is owned and run by Tim and Matthew Batham, Arthur’s grandchildren. They own 11 pubs and serve over two dozen more. As I sat in the expanded and barely recognizable Plough last autumn, reminiscing on lost youth and the advantages of ignorance, the distinctive light ale I drank was unmistakably the same Batham’s Bitter that led me to love good beer a third of a century ago.

What, I wonder, will the prize-winning beers of Denver 2009 be like in 2044?