Friday, 15 May 2015

Bipolar beer

Last month’s CAMRA AGM passed a motion instructing branches to desist from “anti campaigns” denigrating other drinks. Many would take the view this was long overdue, and indeed founder member Michael Hardman famously said “I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something.” Over the years this has included both a blanket dismissal of whole categories of beer as worthless rubbish, and casting doubt on the intelligence of those who chose to drink them. This kind of attitude may come across as narrow-minded and dogmatic today, but it’s interesting to consider how it arose in the first place.

When CAMRA was formed in the early 70s, the British beer and pub landscape was very different from how it is today. Approximately 90% of beer was sold in pubs and clubs, and 90% of that was ale – either bitter or mild in various forms. People weren’t “keg drinkers” or “real ale drinkers”, they were bitter or mild drinkers, and what CAMRA was trying to do was to to raise awareness of whether that beer was real or pressurised in some way. It also needs to be remembered that in those days non-real beer covered a multitude of categories beyond keg as such – blanket pressure, top pressure, bright beer, tank beer etc. But, at this time, it was correct to say that cask beer, when well kept, was almost universally better than any form of pressurised beer, so the simple dichotomy of “real ale good, keg beer bad” contained a substantial element of truth.

Of course there was at that time one clearly-defined group of “keg drinkers” – those who went for the big brewers’ premium keg beers such as Watney’s Red, Double Diamond and Worthington E, but even there they identified with the brand rather than the category. These were among CAMRA’s first targets and within a period of about five years they had reduced them from being seen as an aspirational product to something irredeemably naff. “Keg drinkers” as such didn’t re-emerge until the early 90s and the rise of “smooth” as a distinct product. At first, with products like Caffrey’s, the brewers hoped to reconnect ale with a younger market, but it has been increasingly characterised as the choice of older, working-class male drinkers. They do specifically ask for “smooth”, though, whereas nobody really used to ask for keg.

In the long run, cask has won the battle against keg, which now accounts for a smaller proportion of the ale market than at any time during CAMRA’s existence. But ale has decisively lost the wider battle against lager, which has come to represent 70% of the on-trade beer market. The spectacular rise of lager is often thought to have really taken off in the hot summer of 1976. This was harder to oppose than keg ale, because it wasn’t possible to point to a direct “real” alternative, and so inevitably lager drinkers themselves began to be stereotyped. Initially they were seen as effete “shandy drinkers”, but as lager gained popularity amongst a new generation of drinkers, they metamorphosed into the laddish followers of George the Bear, and in a sense lager became the drink of the Loadsamoney generation. Obviously this was easy for the beer buffs to look down their noses at, but they started to realise that in Germany and the Czech Republic you could actually find some excellent lagers, so it became more difficult to condemn the whole category. You won’t win any converts by asking What’s the matter, Lagerboy?, and it’s noticeable how nowadays it’s vanishingly rare to see any working-class man under 40 drinking ale, either real or keg.

In the early 70s, bottled and canned beer only made up a small proportion of the market, and it didn’t matter all that much when CAMRA decided to make bottle-conditioned beer, which was down to a small handful of products, the packaged equivalent of real ale. But in the longer term, as drinking increasingly moved from the pub to the home, this proved to be a strategic error. Bottle-conditioning is great for strong speciality brews but, because of the practical difficulties of storage, pouring and consistency, it is never going to be a realistic option for everyday quaffing beers, something that the brewers had realised long before they started dropping cask on draught. So, when all the well-known real ales started appearing in bottles, CAMRA lumped them in the same category as cans of Long Life, while encouraging small breweries to produce bottle-conditioned ales which qualified for “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” but were often highly inconsistent products that did not encourage repeat purchase. It’s commonplace for the drinkers who choose cask beer in the pub to buy the bottled versions for drinking at home and refer to them as “real ales”, even though strictly speaking they aren’t. Drinkers see the two as equivalent even if CAMRA doesn’t. One CAMRA magazine notoriously declares “tins are always very, very bad”. The likes of Beavertown might have something to say about that!

Forty years on, the beer scene is far more diverse than it was in the early days. Lager has come to dominate the market – much dull or indifferent, some truly excellent. We have imports from all over the world, the craft beer movement has brought a bewildering array of styles and flavours, and we have high-quality beers from small new breweries appearing in keg form, some of which technically qualify as real ale. The old certainties have gone, and it no longer makes any sense to dismiss entire categories of beer out of hand or suggest that the people who drink them are ill-informed. Most of us, including most CAMRA members, are to some extent “repertoire drinkers” now, and don’t religiously stick to the same product on grounds of principle. I rarely drink anything but cask in pubs, as I make a point of choosing pubs that serve decent cask, but I’m certainly not the kind of person who sits at a wedding drinking bitter lemon with a face like a wet weekend because the only beer available is Foster’s. If you want to encourage people to try something new, denigrating their current choice is not a good way to go about it. It is good news that CAMRA has at last officially recognised that championing Britain’s unique contribution to the beer world and a key part of our national heritage requires a positive, outward-looking approach rather than refighting the doctrinaire battles of forty years ago.


  1. "it’s noticeable how nowadays it’s vanishingly rare to see any working-class man under 40 drinking ale, either real or keg."

    Completely true - but how come every time I point this out I get told I'm delusional?

  2. I significant portion of people will join the beard club for the same reason they joined the Dennis the Menace club, for the furry Gnasher badge. Namely a silver card that denotes being part of a beer club for people that like Bitter and hate Fosters. The hating Fosters is as important to identity and club affiliation as liking the bitter.

  3. The message that CAMRA is pro-real ale and not anti-anything has always been the case, repeated by Colin Valentine, CAMRA National Chair, at the AGM in Norwich two years ago. Every mass member organisation has its very own Taliban, who are usually powerless but intensely irritating.

  4. What I have noticed is that there are proportion of people that appear to want some sort of validation and respect and think consumer choices is a way to do this. They may like beer and as a result have gained a certain knowledge beyond the average chap. Much like a wine buff knows more and pays more than the average chap looking at the fiver a bottle shiraz in Tesco.

    This knowledge comes from enthusiasm. Everyone is quite knowledgable about things that interest them, from computers, cars, comics that the average person has scant interest in.

    If the interest is beer that person will likely join CAMRA as it produces an interesting beer magazine and offers discounts for stuff.

    They may have no interest in being involved and most active members wouldn't recognise them in the street.

    A portion, once well oiled may become a bit pub boorish and their CAMRA card is a sense of validation. The act of joining being something most drinkers don't bother with. These people don't listen to what campaign AGMs say. They firmly believe that A is crap, B is great and people that consume A are idiots. After a few they are keen to express this view. You can't stop them. They will always be with you. All you can really do is try and set a tone in your publications that counter that.

    In moving from a real ale campaign to a pub preservation campaign, maybe it's time for the beards to see pubs are more than just outlets for beer enthusiasts and appreciate why most people use pubs. As social spaces. Why many people are happy with a pint of lout and a game of darts or watching the footie, or having a meal.

  5. Something about half this size would make a good article in a certain local CAMRA magazine I can think of...

  6. I'm sure that can be arranged, John, probably by dramatically pruning paragraphs 3, 4 and 5. It would also look good in "Ale Cry", though I'm not sure whether its editors would be interested.

  7. I think it was on Pete Brown's blog that I said the fight started by CAMRA in St Albans in 1971 has, by and large, been won. As you rightly point out in your blog it's the establishments where Grog is drunk that needs to be preserved. The name they chose 40+ years ago is an anathema. When people ask me what the card is that I carry in my wallet, I sometimes just say it's preferable to wearing sandals and elbow patches.

  8. Any group bonds both on what they love and what they mutually hate.

    What bonds the labour party is as much a hatred of the tories as a love of a bigger state. Group behaviour normalizes certain interactions and they only appear mean spirited when they express hatred publicly to none group members.

    Likewise, the hatred of Fosters acts as a strong bind within the beardy group. They may not agree on everything, but at least they have that to unite them. You cannot take it away without fracturing the bonds of the group, which it turn strengthen the concept of common purpose.

    What you can do is realise how self defeating expressing negative views publicly is.

    By all means hate the Foster's, just don't go about calling Foster's drinkers "ignorami"

  9. By the way Mudgie - I would like this as a free-standing article rather than one of your columns.


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