Drink: Raise the Titanic

Daft names, wonderful brews. Michael Jackson recommends some of the best ales on offer at next week's Great British Beer Festival; If I find myself in Bruddersford and can enjoy a great pint where I could not last year, I shall be delighted, however small the brewery Illustration by Otto
Bad news always makes more headlines than good, so when a great beer is threatened, noisy campaigns are rightly mounted to save it, but when a new brewery fires its kettles, it is lucky even to make the local weekly. Because of this there is a myth that small breweries are closing everywhere, drowned out by the giants' bland outpourings. The truth is that small breweries are opening everywhere and can, if they make interesting beers and work hard to sell them, survive and prosper.

Before the Campaign for Real Ale, the British Isles had just over 100 brewing companies. It now has something between 250 and 300. Some are bigger than the smallest of the old-established breweries; others very tiny, but that does not matter. If I find myself in Bruddersford and can enjoy a great pint where I could not last year, I shall be delighted, however small the brewery. No one mocks Chateau Latour for making less wine than Blue Nun.

The smallest breweries are more secure than the middle-sized, which are neither one thing nor the other. Even then, the greatest threats are lack of self-belief, problems with family succession, bad management, rather than unprofitability. The latest potential casualty, Oxford's local brewery, in the Morrell family since the 1700s, and still profitable, faces closure because its site would now be worth more as housing.

We have only 30-odd family-owned breweries, and should not lightly lose any, but what of the new ones established in the past 20 years? I took a look not just at breweries, but at individual beers that are scheduled to be placed before the public under one roof at the Great British Beer Festival next week. I had no trouble in finding some 30 or so that I have especially enjoyed. Here is my selection:

Archer's Founded 1979. From Swindon, Wiltshire, a county blossoming with new breweries. Its fresh, fruity, beautifully balanced Best Bitter will be at the festival.

Ash Vine 1987. Also in the west, near Frome, Somerset. There is a licorice maltiness and orangey fruitiness in its flavour-packed, triumphantly-named Hop and Glory Ale, also available at Waitrose stores.

Ballard's 1980. Near Petersfield, Hampshire. Its Trotton Bitter has a marzipan maltiness and lemony hoppiness.

Big Lamp 1982. Newcastle upon Tyne. Its perfumy, hoppy, dry, Bitter led a revival in Geordie brewing.

Black Sheep 1992. Masham, Yorkshire. A classic new brewery. Its new Riggwelter is a malty masterpiece, also available in most major supermarket chains.

Broughton 1979. Biggar, Scottish Borders. Its peppery, gingery, chewy, Oatmeal Stout is a characterful example of a distinctive style.

Burton Bridge 1982. Burton upon Trent. The smallest brewery in Britain's brewing capital. Look out for the yeastily assertive Festival Ale.

Butcombe 1978. Bristol. Wonderfully refreshing, cleansing, Bitter. This brewery was established by a refugee from Courage.

Butterknowle 1990. Bishop Auckland, County Durham. Delicious beers. Check out the flowery, nutty Conciliation Ale.

Cheriton 1993. Alresford, Hampshire. Digger's Gold has a slippery drinkability.

Coach House 1991. Warrington, Cheshire. Posthorn Ale is malty and almost whiskyish. This brewery was established by victims of the closure of the Greenall Whitley brewery.

Durham Brewery 1994. Bowburn, Co Durham. Magus is a clean, dry, very appetising bitter.

Exmoor 1980. Wiveliscombe, Somerset. Exmoor Gold is a summer ale with the crunch of a Cox's apple.

Hambleton 1991. Near Thirsk, Yorkshire. Nightmare Porter, starts chocolatey, becomes creamy, and finishes oakily.

Hop Back 1987. Salisbury, Wiltshire. Star micro-brewery. Its Thunderstorm is a rare British wheat beer.

Kelham Island 1990. Sheffield, Yorkshire. Pale Rider is a biscuity summer brew.

Larkins 1986. Edenbridge, Kent. Hop-farm brewery. There is an appropriately good hop perfume in its Chiddingstone Bitter.

Mordue 1995. Wallsend, Tyneside. Last year's festival champion, with its lively, provocative, Workie Ticket ale.

Nethergate 1986. Clare, Suffolk. Its firm, dryish, smooth, Mild is my British Beer of the Year.

O'Hanlon's 1996. London. Ireland's stouts have London origins. Try this leafy, cocoa-ish, solidly flavoursome example.

Old Crown 1988. Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria. Lakeland pub brewery

with the spritzy Skiddaw Special Bitter.

Orkney1988. Quoyloo, Orkney. Check out the smoky, medicinally hoppy Dragonhead Stout.

Passageway 1994. Liverpool. Redemption is a spicy (minty?) rye beer, made with yeast from a monastic brewery with a token addition of "holy" water from St Arnold's well, in Belgium.

Pitfield 1996. London. Makes a really good basic Bitter, with a softly malty aroma and a dry, hoppy, palate.

Plassey 1985. Wrexham, North Wales. Try Cwrw Tudno, named after a local saint. An ethereal balance of sweet maltiness and pineappley fruitiness.

Quay 1996. Weymouth, Dorset. Its Silent Knight is a claret-coloured beer, full of flavour: vanilla, toffee, coffee, chocolate, prunes ...

Ringwood 1978. In the Hampshire town of the same name. Its rounded, robust, Old Thumper has been such a success that it is now also brewed in Orlando, Florida, and Portland, Maine.

Rooster's 1993. Harrogate, Yorkshire. Hop expert Sean Franklin can be secretive about his formulations. To me, his Rooster Ale has the grapefruity aroma of Cascade hops from Washington State.

Titanic 1985. Stoke-on-Trent. The doomed vessel's captain hailed from the Potteries. Titanic Premium Bitter is safely dry, and goes down beautifully.

Woodforde 1980. Norwich. The lime-like hop flavours of Wherry Best Bitter or the brandyish Headcracker Barley Wine? The Bitter is a past Champion Beer of Britain and its bigger brother a category winner. This thriving enterprise has also previously won the Mild category and Champion Beer for its Old Ale.

Who says that the small breweries cannot compete?

The Great British Beer Festival, at Olympia, London, opens on Tuesday evening (4 August) and runs through to Saturday (call the Campaign for Real Ale on 01727 867201 for details).