World Beer Guide editor and St Albans' resident on real ale and top Herts pubs
- Credit: Roger Protz
Former Good Pub Guide editor, St Albans' Roger Protz, talks about the changing face of the industry, the resurgence of real ale, and his favourite Herts pubs.
I quite fancy a lager but I don’t tell Roger Protz that. When you’re drinking with one of the world’s leading authorities on real ale, there’s only one way to order: I’ll have what he’s having.
In the event, I’m given a pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best, a bitter known for the power of its four local hops, a 60-year-old yeast strain and water that’s been filtered through the Sussex Downs for more than 30 years.
Stands to reason, given that the pub we’re in has just been named the Campaign for Real Ale pub of the year for South Herts. It’s his choice: the Robin Hood in St Albans, one of those pavement pubs that enjoy the early evening footfall of commuters and the appreciation of those who know their beer.
And it’s one of three the former long-standing editor of the Good Beer Guide covets in a city that’s been the actual and spiritual home to CAMRA, an organisation of which he has been a key part since the Seventies.
'Harvey’s? It’s long been a favourite of mine,' he says. 'What I like about it is the pleasure it gives you, not the punch-you-in-the-face some of them give.
'It’s always about the balance of malt and hops. And this gets it about right.'
Not that he has anything against a glass of the amber stuff, he assures me.
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He’s too well travelled in the brewing world – and by that I mean several continents - not to have experienced the best of them.
'The lager scene has been changing a lot recently,' he says, explaining briefly the significance of its second fermentation.
'Genuine lager in Germany is magnificent. Until recently, the stuff we sold in the country was laughable. But that’s changed with demand. A lot of companies in the UK are now making very good lager.'
I’m reassured, but I’m here to talk about ale. British ale, with a man who worked as a journalist in the hard-drinking Fleet Street days before moving to St Albans, a city which, he reminds me, has an unusual abundance of pubs.
'There were 50 when I came and it still has 50. We lost a few over the years but gained a few as well so it balanced out. In fact, we have more of them per square metre than any other town.'
Not surprising, given Hertfordshire’s long and rich brewing history which goes back centuries, partly thanks to its agricultural roots and the abundance of unpolluted water from natural springs.
Local inns were plentiful and every one would brew its own beer, a tradition which led to the rise of what were then known as 'public breweries', many of which went on to create their own public houses, the so-called brewery taps, which, in turn, went on to spawn the tied houses of later years.
Hertford alone had a dozen of them in the mid 1800s and any brewing history will note the local links with the likes of Whitbread, Truman, and Buxton not to mention Benskins of Watford, widely regarded as the county’s biggest until it was bought by Ind Coope in 1957.
And of course there's McMullen, the Hertford family brewer with a history dating back nearly 200 years and which today operates more than 130 pubs, restaurants and bars.
Go back another 200 years from McMullen's founding and In 1636, long before the likes of Roger and his ilk began chronicling the beer scene, the poet John Taylor published a guide book entitled Tavernes in the ten shires in which he described Hertfordshire as 'a County that surpasseth all other Countries and Counties for making the best malt'.
These days, Herts' brewery scene is fortified by smaller craft breweries, run by small teams of enthusiasts, which have proliferated since the millennium.
Notables include Mad Squirrel which has a tap room in its Potten End brewery, the Hatfield-based 3 Brewers with its own bore hole and use of local ingredients, Tring Brewery, the creators of the much-loved Side Pocket for a Toad; New River Brewery of Hoddesdon; Buntingford Brewery; and Farr Brew which was founded in 2014 thanks to the sort of crowdfunding campaign that demonstrates how communities get behind their locals.
It now operates a 1,722 square foot unit on Samuels Farm, Wheathampstead, boasting a range of 10 barrels. Owner Nick Farr and partner Matt Elvidge also opened six pubs, including The Red Cow in Harpenden, The Eight Bells in Hatfield and most recently, The Elephant & Castle in Amwell, another on Roger's list of personal favourites.
So apart from that, and the one we’re sitting in, which are the others?
'That’s important, a welcoming atmosphere. It’s something that’s almost indefinable. Believe me, I’ve been in a few where I felt I was almost trespassing.
'The Green Man in Sandridge is another good example of what makes a good experience. It has new landlords, it’s been refurbished and serves two really good beers.'
Pressed for one further afield, Roger comes up with the Old Cross Tavern in Hertford, built behind the façade of a former antiques shop in St Andrew Street and, since 2008, became another running its own microbrewery.
These are important, he stresses: 'Every brewer has a different recipe. Some might have their own house yeast that they’ve looked after for donkeys years and you can tell. That comes out in the flavour.'
So, the local beer scene is in rude health, I venture. He agrees but admits that wasn’t the case back in the early days when he teamed up with former Evening Standard colleague Roger Hardman to join CAMRA.
“Oh, the choice was poor back then,” he says. 'The beer festival introduced a wider choice and the pubs had no option but to reflect that. They knew they couldn’t go on selling the same old beers any more.'
He says it with feeling. Not surprising, given that he was weened on the 24-hour pub scene that was Fleet Street a few miles from his home in the East End.
'That was a real beer scene. It wasn’t unusual to see printers and journalists actually queueing to get into the likes of the Punch and the Cheshire Cheese on a Saturday night.
'They were great pubs, that is, until it all started to change when the big brewers came in and brought the likes of Double Diamond and Watneys Red Barrel. Keg beer was obviously a lot more profitable.'
Has the perception of real ale changed during his time? 'Definitely. In fact, until the pandemic, people of all ages were drinking real ale. And there was a particularly strong following among women.'
I hadn’t thought about the pandemic until then. 'That was awful,' he continues. 'Don’t forget, real ale is only served in pubs and they were all closed. And it doesn’t stay in good condition for more than a couple of days. Millions of barrels had to be literally thrown away.'
Before we part, we touch on his latest book, the 300-plus page World Beer Guide due out in late October and ask him how many he has written in the past four decades.
He’s a little vague. He recalls being told it’s 'more than 25', which is unsurprising given his prolific level of activity. How many 82-year-olds would press me to confirm a time to meet 'so I can plan my week'?
I can’t help wondering whether this is because for a journalist, travelling the world in search of the perfect tipple must surely be a dream job.
'People assume people like me must drink vast amounts. The fact is, I’m a very moderate drinker. I even make sure I have one dry day a week. And I never drink during the day unless I’m on business at a brewery.
'I look upon beer and alcohol as being a good friend and a bad enemy. I saw enough in Fleet Street to teach me that.'
World Beer Guide is on sale now, priced £27 (£25 to CAMRA members)