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Real Ale – Preference or Dogma?

“Are the beers dispensed by gravity or gas?”

When I previewed the opening of the Euston Tap, this was the first question I received on both my blog and Twitfeed.  It’s because the real ale taps come straight out of the wall rather than being from hand pumps on the bar.

And when I replied that they were served with gas, there was a supplemental question: “Does that mean air pressure or do they also use CO2?”

These questions are of no interest to the vast majority of craft beer drinkers.  But they are of fundamental importance to the Campaign for Real Ale.  And because CAMRA is the biggest and most influential consumer body in beer in the UK, that makes them important.

While I’m a champion of cask ale, I obviously love other beers as well – as I think do most drinkers.  But this is an issue that won’t go away, and the Tap has thrown it, for me, into sharp relief.

CAMRA as a body fight for real ale.  When it suits them they fight for other stuff as well, but let’s leave that to one side for now.  When it comes to British brewed craft beer, by their constitution they have to champion ‘real’ or cask conditioned ale.  Given that, it’s quite understandable that they need to have a pretty specific technical definition of what real ale is.  That means there are bound to be some beers that are pretty close to that definition, but fall outside it.

I can accept that.  What’s more bizarre is what happens to beers that do not qualify as real ale, and to the pubs that serve them.  If they are not real ale – even by a whisker – CAMRA cannot support them.  Pubs that start using cask breathers are promptly dropped from the Good Beer Guide.

I understand how they get here.  But I still think it’s bizarre.

I don’t know whether the beers in the Euston Tap are served with CO2 (i.e. cask breathers) or not.  But what if they were?

Let’s take Thornbridge Bracia.  Normally a bottled beer, it’s won numerous awards around the globe.  It’s breathtaking in its complexity, subtlety, structure and power.  Now it’s on cask at the Euston tap, and nowhere else.

Now, I know most CAMRA members join because they love great beer and by and large that’s what CAMRA’s about.  But let’s focus on the hardliners, the people who propose motions at AGMs, who campaign most actively, who write stuff like this on Cambridge CAMRA’s official website:

“The beer must remain untainted and utterly genuine. CAMRA have fought off all sorts of threats, some blatant, others more subtle and the image remains intact. The dishonest cask breather must not be allowed to corrupt CAMRA’s standards.”

If you agree with this, I would genuinely like to hear from you…

Let’s say I get you into the Euston Tap and place a pint of Bracia in front of you.  Would you demand to know about gas and cask breathers before you deigned to drink it?  If I told you it was served without cask breathers, and you drank it and enjoyed it, would you then change your mind about it if I said, “Actually I lied, it is served with cask breathers”?

What would you do if I said “Why not taste it and decide if it has a cask breather or not?” Given that the main argument against cask breathers is that they supposedly affect the taste (something every brewer I’ve spoken to denies), surely you’ll be able to tell whether it has a cask breather or not?  If you can’t, then what exactly is the problem?

Because this is the nub of the debate: the Campaign for Real Ale was founded from a genuine belief that cask ale tastes better than other beers.  Whether you agree with that or not, it’s an argument about the quality and delivery of the beer.  But it’s about your senses.  It’s about the beer.  If I give you a beer that doesn’t fit with your definition of cask, but is generally regarded as a flavourful, quality beer, you could:

  • Drink it and say, “Amazing – it’s not about cask or keg or cask breathers – it’s just about the taste of the beer.”
  • Drink it, and perhaps say something like, “Wow, I still prefer cask beers generally, but I’ll admit there are some pretty damn good beers that are not cask conditioned.”
  • Say, “If it’s not cask beer I refuse to drink it.  It must be rubbish.”

Most people I know would go with the first option.  I think the vast majority of CAMRA members would go for the second one.  But I have met people who do the third.

I once told the chairman of Edinburgh CAMRA I’d really enjoyed a pint of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted in my hotel while visiting the city.  Because it was delivered to me at a table by a waiter, I had no idea whether it was cask or keg.  This man, who surely considers himself an expert on beer, was adamant that if it had been cask I must have enjoyed it, but if it was keg I couldn’t have.  He was telling me to ignore the evidence of my senses and instead focus on a technical aspect of beer dispense to decide whether my beer tasted nice or not.

Surely it’s meant to be about the taste of the beer.  Why else are we all here?  If you need to ask technical questions about methods of dispense before deciding if you like a beer or not, you are making your decisions based on dogma.  You are making a political decision rather than taste driven decision.  And I believe that means you’ve lost sight of what the whole Campaign for Real Ale was supposed to be about.

Some CAMRA people argue that things like cask breathers, and FastCask from Marston’s, are “the thin end of the wedge” – that if we accept this, we’ll see a gradual erosion of real ale until it doesn’t exist any more and, by stealth, CAMRA will have been defeated.

I think that’s a pretty paranoid argument.  And if I were being contentious, I’d also say “But if the quality of the beer doesn’t change, what’s the problem?”

CAMRA was established because beer most beer was shit.  A lot of beer still is.  But dogma, definition and politics mean that the most hardline CAMRA members often save their hostility for really good beers that simply don’t meet an over-specific technical definition.

If you’re one of these people, I know ranting and telling you you’re stupid isn’t going to change anything. But I believe craft beer bars like the Euston Tap demonstrate that the definition of quality craft beer has changed an awful lot since 1971.  I don’t think your hardline attitude does anything to help beer drinkers, CAMRA’s image and credibility, or even cask ale itself.

I’ve tried to outline the argument in reasonable terms, understand your position and specify why I think it’s wrong.  I’d be hugely grateful if you wanted to respond in kind.

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CAMRA’s noxious culture of entitlement

Long ranty post alert – apologies in advance, but this all needs saying…

One of my character flaws (I promise you I only have two, maybe three max) is that I can sometimes come across as arrogant. I never feel arrogant on the inside, but things I say or do can sometimes make it look as though I am.

When it happens, it’s not because I think I am superior – quite the opposite. It’s because I feel insecure and need reassurance. I over-compensate. Curiously enough, as I’ve become more successful as a beer writer, my ‘arrogance’ has declined as my inner confidence has grown.

The same is probably true of many other people who come across as arrogant. I guess it’s a kinder explanation than thinking that these people truly do believe they’re God’s gift.

But sometimes, I’m not so sure.

This is something that’s been tickling my brain since the scheme of pub discounts for CAMRA members was announced. It’s become quite controversial. Tandleman, as ever, gives a very reasonable argument in defence of CAMRA. (If only more of its prominent members were like him, there would be far fewer rucks like the one I’m about to prompt.) He claims that any organization is free to negotiate discounts for its members. If they put the effort in, and they succeed, fair play to them.

I can’t possibly disagree with that argument – I’ve worked in offices before now where HR have negotiated a staff discount in local shops – so why is it that the CAMRA discount winds up so many?

It’s this.

I was in the Sheffield Tap a few weeks ago, nursing a half of Thornbridge St Petersburg at the bar. In came two middle-aged guys with – and I swear I’m not making this up – plastic carrier bags full of VHS videos of locomotives, which they were swapping with each other. They went to the bar, ordered a couple of beers, and said, loudly enough for all the pub to hear, “We should get a discount in here!”

“Why’s that?” asked the barman.

“Because I’m a CAMRA member! And we spread the word about places like this!”

Now. Solipsistic as I am, I can only judge this by my own actions and experience. I’m Beer Writer of the Year. It seems that what I say carries a certain measure of influence in some misguided corners of the world. Sometimes in the Sheffield Tap the staff recognize me and insist on buying me a drink or giving me one on the house. If they do, I thank them as graciously as I can (being a Yorkshireman it’s hard, but I try) and accept.

I hope it’s not too arrogant of me to suggest that I “spread the word” about pubs more widely than Mr Deltics 1975-82 on VHS.  But I have never – in my life – walked into any pub and either demanded or expected a free or discounted drink because of who I am, or what I do. If I did, I would expect and deserve to be called a complete and utter fucking twat by anyone who witnessed it.

But with some CAMRA members there’s this sense of entitlement. It has nothing to do with head office having negotiated a commercial discount; it’s about this or that individual believing they deserve special treatment simply because they are a CAMRA member.

They know that a local branch can choose to make or break a pub over some perceived slight that has nothing to do with the quality of the real ale on offer. Similarly, CAMRA’s brewery liaison officers know they carry a great deal of influence. I’m sure many branches and many BLOs do their jobs conscientiously and responsibly. But I hear regular stories of others who let the power go to their heads.

When the bloke in the Sheffield Tap said his piece, he said it with a threatening tone. “We spread the word about places like this” was delivered with the protection racketeer’s implicit threat that ‘the word’ could just as easily be bad as good if his demands weren’t met. The Tap needn’t worry – no word this pathetic little man could spread would have anything like the power of the positive buzz coming from the vast majority of decent, sensible people – CAMRA members and non-members alike – who are raving about the pub.

So all this was buzzing around my head when we sat down to a free dinner in the National Brewery Centre last week. Master Brewer Steve Wellington had chosen a beer to go with each of the three courses we were served, and he stood up to introduce and explain each match.

Every time he took the microphone, the specially invited CAMRA members on my table heckled him, bellowing “P2 stout! Give us some P2 stout!” Now, this is a remarkable beer. But it wasn’t available. The first time they demanded it, Steve explained that there was none available because it hasn’t been brewed for a while. This didn’t put them off.  The first time it could be excused as good-humoured banter.  As the evening wore on, it just became fucking rude.

The final course was served with Kasteel Cru Rose. Like most beer geeks, it’s not a beer I care for that much, but Steve had his reasons for matching it with the dessert. Not a single one of the CAMRA guys would even touch it. They were disgusted, insulted, seemingly forgetting that this was not a CAMRA dinner, and that CAMRA has not financed the £700,000 reopening of the brewery centre. A private leisure company had, and Molson Coors – license owners of Kasteel Cru – had.

The demands for P2 stout grew louder. Finally, Steve went out into the driving rain, ran across to his office and found five bottles from his personal stash. He placed them on our table, and the CAMRA members, without a word of thanks to Steve, proceeded to divide these bottles among themselves, not offering to share them with anyone else. The guy sitting next to me told me that I could have some of his if I could get the bottle opened. Why he felt he was in a position to decide whether I was entitled to drink some of Steve Wellington’s beer speaks volumes.

When I opened the bottle and poured it for him, he grunted, “This had better be bottle-conditioned.”

While we were enjoying a dinner that had probably cost the NBC in the region of eighty quid a head, for CAMRA members to show such visible and audible disgust at the beer choice of a brewer they and everyone else has huge respect for, to barrack and heckle in such a way, and to display such a sense of entitlement when they got what they had so rudely demanded, was not just grossly disrespectful; it was the behaviour of sugar-rushed ten year-olds at a birthday party.

I hope that every decent CAMRA member reading this is appalled by the behaviour of people who were there in their name, representing them. These were not some junior local branch hangers-on; they were senior members with significant responsibility for pursuing the aims and objectives of the organization.  But they acted just as obnoxiously as the inadequate trainspotter in the Sheffield Tap.

From their point of view, there had been a perceived slight in the speeches when CAMRA had not been thanked adequately for their role in the brewery centre being reopened. Personally I don’t think there was any such slight. But even if there had been, it didn’t excuse this behaviour. And the perceiving of a slight in the first place is yet another manifestation of what I’m talking about. (As soon as the reopening of the centre was announced, CAMRA members were phoning up demanding free/discounted entry.)

This culture of entitlement is – as far as I can see it – arrogance in its truest form, a genuine belief that simply by being a CAMRA member you are somehow superior, more deserving than other paying customers.

Of course, not everyone who is a CAMRA member behaves this way (I’m not even suggesting every CAMRA member at the dinner behaved this way). 
But everyone who does behave this way is a CAMRA member.

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CAMRA and the neo-prohibitionists

A few of you have asked me where CAMRA is in the whole battle against the neo-prohibitionists, and whether they have issued any response to the HSC report.

So yesterday – after receiving a press release entitled ‘Pub Goers Set to Benefit from Abolition of Land Agreements Exclusion Order’ – I asked CAMRA’s press officer the question – had they issued any response to the HSC report or were they planning to?
CAMRA confirmed that they have not issued a press release, but have released the following quote to the media:
Iain Loe, CAMRA research manager, said “CAMRA welcomes the call by the Committee for the introduction of a minimum price per alcohol unit which will benefit community pubs by curbing the below cost selling of alcohol by supermarkets which can fuel pre-loading. We also welcome their suggestion that the Government should introduce a reduced rate of duty on beers below 2.8%.”
So there you have it. CAMRA supports minimum pricing – which we already knew – and has nothing to say about the rest of the report.
I’m not just going to indulge in knee-jerk CAMRA-bashing here. I’ll be asking CAMRA why they are not commenting more widely.
But in the meantime, what do you think? Is it CAMRA’s job to argue back against the HSC? Should they do so given that they claim to represent the interests of beer drinkers? Or is it too political? Is it outside their remit?
You can understand to an extent why drinks manufacturers are not arguing back – they would be hung out to dry by the media, treated (unfairly) with the same contempt as the cigarette companies who tried to argue that the link between smoking and lung cancer wasn’t proven.
But who SHOULD be fighting back? Someone has to. Surely it’s not just down to one or two independent journos and bloggers…
What do you think?

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Beer summits for all

It’s one of my broken record mantras: beer is the most sociable drink in the world. And this week proves it – if only people reported on the GBBF as much as they did about Obama, the world would be a happier place.

ATJ posted recently about how the sad demise of Beers of the World magazine means “we’re all beer bloggers now”. He wasn’t criticising blogging at all, merely saying that it’s increasingly the only outlet for those of us who want to write about beer. But his comments did lead to a bit of a discussion about the merits of blogging versus other writing.
Without wishing to get into that, whatever your views, the existence of blogging, Facebook and Twitter has revolutionised beer appreciation and led to a far more diverse, colourful, fun and interesting beer community than existed when I began writing. Everyone was talking about GBBF and building the anticipation and when we got there the atmosphere was fantastic. It was great to meet Jay R Brooks, Mark Dredge, Beer Nut, Woolpack Dave, Bionic Laura and the remarkable Laurent Mousson for the first time after much online interaction. Great also to see again Impy Malting, Stephen Beaumont, ATJ, Stonch and Boak, all enjoying themselves. Beer brought us all together and really that’s the only argument you ever really need to make in its favour.
Mrs PBBB was lured along to the Guild of Beer Writers event and was so charmed by meeting everyone that she was immediately roped in to come to GBBF trade day too. She was quite taken aback to realise that she has a cult following of her own, mainly consisting of people asking how she puts up with my beer-related behaviour.
I semi-retract the comment about ‘freakish volunteers’. There are always a number of remarkable specimens, but I made it sound like I was slagging off people en masse. Once I would have. Now, I don’t know what CAMRA have been doing, and I’m over-generalising based on isolated events, but I’d like to offer up the following illustration of how this event has changed since I slagged it off, somewhat notoriously, in Man Walks into a Pub.
Mrs PBBB: “Hello, I quite like blonde and summer ales. Do you have anything like that?”
Volunteer on Fuller’s stand: “We’ve got this one that’s strong and gets you pissed quickly, and this one that’s weaker and gets you less pissed. Now which do you want? I’m busy.”
This week was the first time I’ve been able to tempt her back since.
Bloke standing next to me at East of England stand: “Um… I’m not sure what I want. I don’t know where to start.”
Volunteer on stand: “Well do you think you prefer darker, maltier beers, or lighter, fresher, hoppier beers?
Bloke: “Um… darker and maltier I think.”
Volunteer: “Well let’s start you off with a little taster of this one and see how you get on…”
I’d be back there tonight but Leeds beckons. A visit to the Beer Boy in his wonderful retail emporium, followed by reading and signing in Borders from 6-8pm, with the very high likelihood of beverages in the North Bar afterwards. Please come and join me if you’re north of Earl’s Court.

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Hurrah for the Great British Beer Festival

Feeling very benign about the world this morning after a cracking 21st birthday bash for the British Guild of Beer Writers last night.

And I don’t know if it’s just that this year we’re all twittered, blogged and facebooked to the gunnels, but I’m feeling a real buzz of excitement about GBBF that I’ve never felt before.
I say that as someone who first made my name as a beer writer by dissing CAMRA and GBBF. Seven or eight years ago, when I was writing Man Walks into a Pub, I was sickened by the fact that no one ever seemed to criticise CAMRA in print. Even back then I went to the GBBF every year. I obviously thought it was a worthwhile event. But I saw big problems with it that prevented it from becoming even better. Many of those problems have now disappeared. Some are still there.
I still criticise CAMRA today – in fact I do so in this week’s Publican – because no one in the world is above criticism. But I’ll be queuing outside when the doors open at twelve. I’ll be there with people who will complain throughout the afternoon about the acoustics, about the weird way it’s organised by region, about the grumble between regional brewers and micros – both of whom will feel under-represented and hard done by compared to the other – and about the freakish volunteers enjoying their day in the sun, their moment of power, as they get to boss us around.
But for all that – we’ll be there. And we’ll have been looking forward to it for weeks. And we’ll all try beers we’ve never seen before, and all rush to sample the winners before they run out, and we’ll all have the same conversations we had last year with people we haven’t seen since last year and we’ll all end the day rhapsodising at the bieres sans frontieres bar and unwisely consuming one too many American extreme mofos before making our way unsteadily back to the tube. And we’ll look back on it with fondness.
GBBF isn’t perfect – but it’s pretty damn special, and I’ll admit to loving it through gritted teeth if you will.
I’m signing copies of Hops & Glory on the bookstand at 5pm today and tomorrow.
See you there.

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Beer and marketing

I didn’t mean to sound too critical of the multinational I mentioned yesterday – it’s what I expected them to do.  At that scale, it is about branding first, brewing second.  And when your brewing all takes place inside shiny sealed closed tanks and happens at the push of a button, there’s not so much you can talk about anyway. Small brewers undoubtedly have an advantage when there’s a sense of a guy who brews the beer, who has a sort of marriage to it, and who can show you the insides of how it’s made if you talk to him or, even better, visit his brewery.

But many small brewers often go too far the other way and seemingly reject marketing as somehow evil.  I’ve – hopefully – recently worked my last day inside an ad agency because a great deal of what I had to do there made me feel dirty.  It wasn’t the process, the craft of marketing itself that was the problem – it was the kind of people it attracted, what they will do to get on, and what we were all obliged to do when unpleasant companies gave us the money that paid our frozen salaries and Martin Sorrell’s £60m bonus.
Sorry, this is going to turn into another long post – too much pent up blogging over the last few weeks!
If you take the tools of marketing and use them in a good way, they’re not evil.  Marketing does coerce people, but 90% of the time it does so with their consent.  People are marketing-savvy, and choose to either play the game or not.  And we live in a branded age – it’s simply how things work.  If you choose not to play, you go invisible, or look very dated and stuffy.
When I first started writing about beer, I was really pissed off with CAMRA in this respect. Prominent CAMRA members frequently wrote about how people only drank lager because they had been brainwashed by big brewers with shiny ads.  What an insulting, snobbish, elitist thing to say – “you proles have no individual will, and you are too weak to resist this mass social conditioning – whereas I am immune to it, because in some way, I am cleverer than the masses.”  And by refusing to play the marketing game, standing outside it, these people by default made CAMRA seem like a very stuffy, geeky organisation filled with the kind of people you wouldn’t want to associate or be identified with.
I’ve learned a lot about CAMRA over the last six or seven years. The organisation is modernising itself and learning to play the game, and at central office at least, there are people who are forward looking, PR-savvy, and are very effective at engaging with the broader world.  I’ve also learned that CAMRA is a loose umbrella that holds many divergent opinions.  The vast majority of members are ordinary, decent people who really like good cask ale and – gasp – occasionally, on the hot day, might have a pint of Heineken instead.  But I have also met a great many hardcore nutters who clearly wear tinfoil hats when they’re not releasing vile silent-but-deadly farts as they raise their personalised pewter tankards at beer festivals. You still hear these people saying lager is evil, that people who drink it are stupid, neither realising nor caring that they are actively discouraging new converts to cask ale by their appearance and behaviour.  It’s fantastic that CAMRA membership is about to break the 100,000 barrier.  But in the context that there are 7 million regular cask ale drinkers in the UK, it’s obvious many still feel the organisation doesn’t represent them.
(My only remaining gripe with CAMRA central on this score is that the weird, unpleasant anthropomorphic people with pints growing out of their heads is a long way past its sell-by date.)  
This is all a hideously overlong and rambling prelude to saying, ‘Hurrah!  The SIBA Business Awards are back!’  SIBA is a trade body for small and independent brewers in the UK.  The vast majority of the beer these brewers make is cask ale.  It could very easily have become like CAMRA of old, a fogeyish trade body mirroring the consumer movement.  But it hasn’t. Big brewers want to join SIBA.  It’s rapidly becoming seen by many as the major voice for the brewing industry.  And while they celebrate great brewing at their annual conference, as of course they should, the business awards celebrate best support of customers, best use of PR, best use of new media, best packaging, best launch etc.  
What these awards demonstrate is that effective marketing doesn’t require the multi-million pound budgets of the big four multinationals who dominate the British market.  I write regular features for the Brewers Guardian showing how tools like great label design, viral marketing and effective use of PR can be done by any brewer of any size with a little effort and time.
People like Stonch have blogged consistently about how depressing it is to see beers with names like ‘Old Pisshead’ or pump clips featuring scantily clad women.  It makes the whole industry, and the people who drink their products, look like twelve year-olds.  On the other hand, look at Thornbridge, Brew Dog, Wye Valley, Otley.  Brew Dog may be loved mainly for the bravery of its brews, and Thornbridge also brew beers that, as they say, are ‘never ordinary’.  But all four of these breweries give as much love and attention to creating modern, contemporary design – design that’s bringing in new people to try their beers.  They are all experiencing soaring sales.
So if you’re a brewer and you’re not entering the SIBA Business Awards, you need to ask yourself why. If the multinationals spend more time thinking about marketing than brewing, it’s because it works for them.  There are only a few breweries who are excellent at both brewing and branding.  And look how they take off when both are great. 

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A quandary for CAMRA

Every time I start paying attention to this blog, something comes along to annihilate it.  Since my last post MFI went bust, at a time when I’d paid them £6500 for a new kitchen that hadn’t yet been delivered, and now never will be.  I had to buy a new kitchen from somewhere else, fight to get my money back from MFI via my credit card company, deal with the fact that said credit card company, after reassuring me they would follow up and resolve it, then took the £6500 from my bank account, thereby reducing me to penury just before Christmas, and cope with builders taking advantage of the situation to up their fees and reduce their service, all while having had to take a five day a week contract back in the greasy world of advertising to keep my head above water while all this was happening.
I’ve got a list of blog entries as long as my arm that I’ve been meaning to write, but don’t have time.  But every now and then, one comes along that jumps to the head of the queue, and even though I’m up and at my desk after midnight writing a PowerPoint TM presentation on the future of an online media player for a meeting in nine hours’ time, with a good night’s sleep and a 75 minute commute between me and said presentation, I can’t resist commenting.From the press release:Newly formed brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev may look to sell off its Budweiser Stag Brewery as part of a restructuring progamme in the UK, analysts believe.The brewery, based in Mortlake, London, could face an uncertain future following confirmation by Anheuser-Busch (A-B) InBev that it is reviewing its UK operations.One analyst told just-drinks today (8 December) that InBev’s US$52bn buyout of A-B has left it with “significant over-capacity” in the UK.The only genuinely funny thing CAMRA’s Roger Protz has ever written (to my knowledge) is when he pointed out the Stag brewery – formerly the home of the reviled Red Barrel, subsequently colonised by Bud – was in Mortlake, AKA ‘dead water’.  I laughed out loud and was jealous he’d said it and not me.  Personally, I’d rather drink my own piss than Budweiser, and I think most CAMRA members would share my views.  But CAMRA also oppose British brewery closures on principle, and the Stag brewery has a long and honourable history…Rub your hands with glee and get ready for one of those moments usually only seen in sci-fi movies where the intelligent robot has two core directives: protect human life at all costs, and obey the human master, and the human master orders the robot to kill him… 

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The campaign for real ale is almost two hundred years old!

Where does the term ‘real ale’ originate?

Any CAMRA member or beer historian will tell you that in the early seventies, four discontented beer drinkers founded the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, before amending this to the snappier Campaign for Real Ale, coining a term to differentiate cask conditioned ales from what they saw as worthless, ersatz fizzy brews.

Whatever disagreements I’ve had with CAMRA in the past, I’ve always said that this was a PR masterstroke. So I was astonished to discover this loaded term being used long, long before CAMRA’s hated keg beers were even a twinkle in some demonic corporate brewer’s eye.

On April 13 1809, the Calcutta Gazette carried countless ads for beer. Most of these were for pale ale (not yet referred to as India Pale Ale), the majority promoting “HODGSON’S very best PALE ALE, Brewed for this Climate and warranted of a Superior Quality.”

But one ad was different. I couldn’t make a copy of it, as the paper would have disintegrated, but it read: REAL ALE
To be sold by Public Auction
By Williams and Hohler
At their Auction-room
On MONDAY next, the 17th April 1809,
ONE Hundred and Forty-three Dozen
of excellent REAL ALE, warranted
good, the property of an Up-Country Trader,
leaving of business. For the convenience of Purchasers, it
will be put up in lots of Three Dozen. So what was the ‘false’ ale they were seeking to differentiate from? Well, maybe keg ale, or something similar to it, is older than we thought too. W L Tizard, a Professor of Brewing, wrote the following in his account of how to brew beers for export in his 1843 book Theory and Practice of Brewing: “It is imperatively necessary that all extraneous vegetable matter which forms the yeast, lees &c. be removed; because the agitation during the voyage would otherwise produce extreme fretting, leakages and premature acidity.”
So ‘real ale’ is beer that still has yeast present in the cask, whereas other beers have the yeast removed. If IPA and other nineteenth century beers had all their yeast removed, does that mean they were not technically real ales at all, but the forerunners of the dreaded keg? And could the ad above therefore be evidence that some CAMRA hardliners have perfected time travel and gone back to protest against what might be an uncomfortable bit of trivia for anyone who thinks the only decent beer is one that is carrying on a secondary fermentation in the cask? Or is the fight for cask beer older than we thought?

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Losing your head?

“Englishmen are like their own beer: Frothy on top, dregs on the bottom, the middle excellent.”

Voltaire said that.

François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, and smartarse about English beer. Much like me – apart form the French bit. And the whole affectation about having to write under a pen name. And the global fame, obviously. And the memorable epithets.

A couple of recent posts on here have raised a bit of debate, so in a devilish mood I thought I’d throw another one in.

Imagine you’re in Starbucks. You order a cappuccino. Here it comes, in its big cup, a dense, creamy foam piled high. If you’re feeling naughty, it might have chocolate or even cinnamon sprinkles on it. What do you do? Is it:

a) Think, “Mmm, lovely, an indulgent little treat to start the day. This is way posher than a cup of Nescafe. Because this is REAL coffee, like the Italians drink, but with a really complex ordering system, like the Americans have. So I feel a little bit more stylish, like an Italian. And also, at a subconscious level, though I may not realise it, I’m associating myself with the opening scenes of Hollywood romantic comedies in the tradition of Working Girl with Melanie Griffiths. They always use moments like these to symbolise the start of yet another humdrum working day and then something wonderful happens. So in drinking this particular type of coffee I’m making my working day a bit more like Melanie Griffiths’s, so that means that I too am making myself slightly more likely to be swept off my feet by Harrison Ford fifteen years ago. Shit, I suppose I’ll have to settle for Hugh Grant, or Sandra Sodding Bullock if I’m the heterosexual male of the piece. Still, at least the coffee’s nice,” before enjoying a tiny, lost, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it moment of private bliss as the foam caresses your top lip and you mouth puckers downward through the fluffy clouds in search of the hot, dark delights it conceals.

or is it:

b) Take your coffee back to the counter and say “Oi! I think you will find I asked for a cup of COFFEE! What do you call THIS?! I think you’ll find that this is half a cup of coffee, and a lot of air. I’m not standing for this! I demand you scrape off all this foam, NOW, and fill up my paper mug with more coffee until it’s dribbling down the sides, or I shall have no alternative other than to mutter under my breath and sign a strongly worded petition!”

Which one are you? I really hope it’s not (b). Nobody would be that sad. So why would you choose (b) if we switched the capuccino for a pint of beer?

Melanie Griffith asking Harrison Ford if he likes a good head.It’s really simple: a foamy head is an integral part of a pint. It’s not something that sits on top of a pint, superfluous, it is part of the pint. A pint is not complete without a head. Want to do this on technical grounds? OK, a head releases volatiles from the hop compounds in the beer, which improve the aroma of the pint. And head formation indicates that the glass is clean, and that the beer is fresh. The world’s brewing scientists KNOW that a head is an important part of a beer. If you disagree, and you’re not one of the world’s leading brewing scientists, then I’m afraid you’re wrong.This is why I have a major problem with CAMRA’s dogged determination to fight for a change in the law to demand a full pint.First, let’s define parameters:

  • It’s acceptable for a head to constitute five per cent of the total pint. You may like it to be more than that, but if it is more, no-one’s going to call you an arse if you demand a top-up.
  • I share the view that the simplest solution to the whole controversy over a full pint would be to introduce over-size glasses with the pint mark clearly on them, to allow room for a head.
  • And I do know that pub companies have been known to ask for yields from tenants of over 100% of the volume of a barrel, effectively ordering bar staff to short-serve.

So I’m not saying there isn’t an issue here.But I’ve seen data from research sponsored by CAMRA, and it says that most consumers think you’re a bit of an arse if you keep banging on about our right to have a full pint. Alright, it doesn’t say that; I’m lying. But it really does say that most drinkers, if they were given a short measure, would simply ask for a top-up. And you know what? The vast majority of pubs would give you one, no questions asked. Most pubs these days even have signs behind the bar stating that they will give you a top-up if you are not happy with your serve.So at best, the issue is not all that big, and CAMRA’s campaign for a full pint is a waste of valuable campaigning time and energy.At worst, it’s damaging the interests of the beer drinkers it seeks to protect.Here’s a true story. Last year Paulaner lager (I know, it’s not a real ale but bear with me – it’s still a very fine beer and the story is still relevant) introduced special World Cup glasses into UK pubs – it’s a German lager, World Cup in Germany, good promotional opportunity. These were over-size glasses, with pint line clearly marked, to allow a good couple of inches of head, as is the tradition for German lagers. As a new, different, quality lager, served in its own unique glass, Paulaner could be sold at a premium price compared to other lagers, but bars weren’t too keen on stocking it. One of the importers, a friend of mine, went out to find out why. Bar staff were filling the glass to the brim, serving drinkers considerably more than a pint, and yet, serving a drink that looked, smelled and tasted a little less appetising than it should. Pubs were losing money, and at the same time, the beer was not as attractive as it should be. My mate pointed out the lined glass, the fact that you didn’t need to fill it to the top. The barman said, “Watch this.” A customer came to the bar and ordered a pint. The thing about a large head in an oversized glass is, when the beer is first poured, the head extends below the pint glass mark. But we all know that as the beer settles, the head doesn’t just evaporate; the level of beer comes up as the level of head goes down. The drinker, however, wasn’t having this. He insisted he had not been served a full pint. The barman explained what I’ve just said. So the drinker waited at the bar for several minutes, until the head had disappeared and the liquid had settled at the pint mark. Despite being proven wrong about his accusation of being short-served, despite pissing off the barman, despite allowing the head on his beer to disappear and the beer to warm up, giving himself a poorer quality pint, despite spending ten minutes more at the bar away from his mates, he was satisfied. The barman explained to my mate, better just to over-serve. Better still just to give them an ordinary lager in an ordinary pint glass.This doesn’t have to happen. But if we get what we want and we have all beer served in over-sized glasses, then it will happen – maybe not to this extreme degree, but drinkers won’t be any happier, one way or another, with what they get. And that’s because this British attitude, where we always assume we’re about to be ripped off, leeches both the trust and the joy out of what should be a happy, informal occasion. CAMRA didn’t invent this attitude, but they are encouraging it with a full pint campaign that doesn’t explain all the issues around the importance of a head, and which panders to and encourages English small-minded pettiness.Where there is a short serve, people are happy to correct it. To shout shrilly (and ultimately, inaccurately) about it could ruin perfectly good and valid beer serves. OK, I’m ready. As the late, not-so-great Mike Reid would have said, “Rrrrrrrrunaround now!”