I find myself in Stratford-upon-Avon, covering the European Brewing Convention’s Environmental Sustainability Symposium for the Brewers’ Guardian. I’ll spare you the details of the controversy surrounding the re-use of spent grains, and the latest revelations on the optimisation of CIP-cleaning of open machine surfaces by surface modification, but being in one of Britain’s tourist meccas really has brought home a point we discussed often in our steering committee meetings on the Intelligent Choice Report over the summer.
People come around the world to Stratford to mainline Shakespeare. It’s everywhere you look: his birthplace, the theatres, the Othello Bar and Restaurant – I was half-expecting the Indian restaurant in town to be branded King Lear’s Curry House (motto: ‘blow winds and crack your cheeks’). Like any theme park anywhere, Stratford is a mix of faux-ancient and depressingly modern. Almost every building is mock-Tudor, which would be fine, but the effect is undermined somewhat when every single shop front is a national or global chain: Pizza Hut, WHSmiths, Costa Coffee, Pizza Express – all with steep gabled roofs, black beams and white walls. It’s a dispiriting place.
But the thing is, people come here for more than the works of Bill himself: as far as I know he never wrote ‘authentic-looking wattle and daub or ordinary red brick work? That is the question’. Stratford is a hopeful homage not just to Shakespeare but to his time, a chance to step into a plastic history, and for many tourists, it works.
So you’re a hotel that caters mainly to American tourists seeking a sanitised verison of sixteenth century England. You’ve got the exterior looking like it did in Bill’s day. You’ve got the prints of characters from the main plays adorning your walls inside. You’ve probably got badly-punned dishes on the menu named as tributes to the same characters. All this goes down brilliantly with Hiram and Blanche from Des Moines. But they’ve come all this way to sample a taste of Ye Olde England, and here they are in the centre of it, and what do you offer them to drink? That’s right: Stella, Becks or Budweiser.
This is what we noted in the Intelligent Choice Report: cask ale is outperforming every other ale or lager. Cask Marque’s real ale trail regional guides are stocked by tourist offices nationwide, and they can’t re-stock them fast enough. Surveys among tourists show that ‘traditional British beer’ is near the top of the list of things they want to try when they visit the country. And hotels in general steadfastly refuse to stock it. WHY? I’ve never been one to bleat on about how we should treat cask ale almost as a charity case – we should drink it because, well, because we should, because it’s traditional, all that stuff – but I’m all for anything that gives me a better choice of beers when I’m out and about – I’m selfish like that. And this is simply a case of commercial opportunity. My hotel has a shit beer selection. If it stocked a decent range of well-kept cask ales I’m sure it could easily sell them at four quid a pint if they wanted to.
It’s not just Stratford – touristy pubs in London almost have to be tortured by water-boarding before they will admit to stocking cask ale alongside the usual global lager brands.
People travel to foreign countries because they want to see, hear, taste something different. Britain’s cask ale culture is unique in the world, and when you ask tourists, they think it’s pretty cool. But we act like we’re ashamed of it, like we don’t want to know.
I know it’s not very British to be proud of something we do really well, but could we please at least make available something tourists come here looking for and are prepared to pay good money for?