Friday, 14 December 2018

Heritage brew

If you had said to the people who were in at the birth of CAMRA that, forty-five years later, the organisation would be promoting keg beer, cans and trendy bars, they would have laughed in your face. Yet so it has proved. What was once essentially a campaign to preserve a unique and endangered British tradition has, over time, metamorphosed into much more of an organisation that supposedly champions all good beer, however, defined, and has also in recent years introduced a much greater note of outright snobbery.

It’s often said that CAMRA is a broad church, but it has to be said that those whose interest is mainly in the traditional side get very slim pickings at present, and are often the subjects of sneering and derision. There are people who contribute to CAMRA’s Discourse discussion forum with whom I struggle to identify any commonality of interest whatsoever.

So maybe the time has come for a new organisation to cater for those whose interest in the sphere of beer and pubs is primarily in the preservationist arena, which we could perhaps call “Heritage Brew”. This would not be a rival to CAMRA so much as being complementary. Nor would it campaign in any active sense, except perhaps for the listing of heritage pubs, and to urge breweries not to discontinue traditional beer brands. It would essentially be a vehicle for people to share and pursue their particular enthusiasm. It would certainly never seek to divide anything into hard and fast categories.

As I wrote here, there is a big difference between what people buy as consumers and what they pursue as a leisure interest. Being interested in historic breweries doesn’t mean that you can’t drink craft beer, or that you’re against in any sense, just that it is essentially a consumer product to you, like cheese or washing up liquid. And the claim that some will raise that they’re equally interested in everything just doesn’t hold water, and will be contradicted by their own actions.

In terms of beer, the focus would be on the traditional British styles – light and dark mild, bitter, pale ale, stout, porter, old ale, barley wine and so forth. Much of this is produced today in cask form, but it certainly wouldn’t exclude keg beers, and indeed a surprising number of once well-known beers only live on today in keg form, especially milds. It would also encompass bottled and canned beers, where again many survivors from light ales to barley wines linger on in obscure corners of the market. And it would cover the premium bottled ale sector, which receives little attention from beer enthusiasts gushing over the latest 330ml can of American-style hop soup. Most of the beers in this category are bang in the middle of the British tradition, and often are only rarely seen on draught, or have no draught equivalent at all. And the sector does contain some underappreciated hidden gems, such as McEwan’s Special, a rare survivor of the classic Burton style. Things such as surviving old-fashioned pumpclips, keg fonts and electric meters would also come within its purview.

When it comes to breweries, at the core would undoubtedly be the surviving independent breweries who were in existence in 1972 and have kept the flag of traditional British beer styles flying ever since. There is still some traditional beer being produced in the remaining British plants of the international brewers, but that isn’t their primary focus. To these must be added the new breweries that have been established in the succeeding years and who have mainly concentrated on British styles, such as Black Sheep, Wye Valley, Butcombe and Joules. There are some breweries such as Hawkshead who successfully straddle both camps, but obviously other well-known names of the craft beer movement concentrate on constant innovation and American-influenced styles. And it certainly helps if your operation is in a magnificent historic brewhouse such as that of Hook Norton shown above.

For traditional pubs, the best place to start must be CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, which to my mind is one of the most important things the organisation has done. However, amongst the wave of enthusiasm for craft bars and brewery taps it seems to have slipped down the priority list recently, and its website has now been offline for “upgrading” for several months. Together with the various regional inventories, the total of listed pubs must come to over a thousand, but there are plenty more that may not be so unspoilt, but which still retain a broadly traditional character in terms of their layout, fittings and customer dynamics. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And, to widen the scope, there are plenty of pubs that may have been much modernised internally, but are still located in impressive historic buildings, something that is outside the remit of the National Inventory. Maybe there would be scope to publish a guidebook of “Britain’s Finest Traditional Pubs.”

Initially I just came up with this idea as a kind of thought experiment. But maybe there may be rather more to it than that. So who’s with me for a pint of keg M&B Mild in that unsung 1930s West Midlands boozer that didn’t quite make it on to the regional inventory, but still has red dralon bench seating, a meat raffle and little bags of Ploughman’s Lunch pinned to a card on the bar back?

16 comments:

  1. Unless you can guarantee cellophane packets of Dairylea and crackers I'm resigning.

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  2. An organisation that celebrates the heritage of Bass, Joules, Hook Norton and proper pubs? Sounds ideal - Count me in!

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  3. I am at a loss to understand the need for such a forum. If it is not to be a campaigning one then it would be little more than another beer log with which we are already well served. Indeed your description of "Heritage Brew" could well be a description of this very blog, or the "Beer and Pubs Forum".

    (Please don't take this as just a negative attack; rather a devil's advocate wanting to encourage discussion)

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    1. A personal benefit for me would be as a travel resource. (I am not sure this justifies it:)) The existence of such a finely focused site would, in my opinion, encourage specialized travel. I think a site like this would bring a nice focus on English brewing traditions as we visit the country. The site would not have to be a campaigning one; Its mere existence though could increase foot traffic in traditional pubs and interest in traditional breweries.

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  4. I whole heartedly agree with you. When I wrote my business plan I wrote that we will produce traditional British beer. We do, using traditional hops such as Fuggles and Goldings East Kent hops. One brew is based on an 1850 Scottish recipe for table beer which I modified to up the ABV to 3.7%. I do the range, light pale ale, bitter, best bitter (4.4%), Strong bitter (pale) 5.5%, a porter at 5%, an imperial stout and a high strength hoppy IPA, plus a couple of others. I make a lager too using traditional methods as in German largering. Just produced what I think of as a Blue Bass clone. I used to enjoy a pint of draught Blue Bass years ago so this is my homage to it. 5% ABV of course. The Burton heritage Brewery want some to try and sell locally. The kicker is getting the name right without getting a legal letter and threats. Any ideas? At the moment It's called Blu Xmas.

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  5. I would support this group. I mainly drink our local brew Wadworths which is excellent. I also love Bathams, Holdens, Sam Smiths, Taylors, and Joules. I do not like craft grapefruit keg beers !

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  6. Love proper heritage pubs, but heritage beer is not really my thing.

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    1. Life would be very dull if we all liked the same thing.

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  7. The problem I have with 'tradition' is that those who hanker after it so often miss the point - that it is largely arbitrary and dependent on subjective preferences, often directly linked to the age of the preferer.

    Everything evolves and changes. The 1960s are no more 'traditional' than the 1900s. The 1900s are no more 'traditional' than the 1830s. Everyone who ever lived lived in modern times.

    What you consider to be traditional beers and pubs were once new and different to what had gone before. How far back do you want to go? One could argue convincingly that 'traditional' is a time before beer was hopped and before pubs as we know them existed - yet I suspect this is not what you are driving at. At some point in the future, people will likely be reminiscing about heritage microbreweries in railway arches and traditional contactless payments.

    It's all fundamentally subjective. Those who campaign for 'traditional counties', for example. Or steam railways (what's wrong with horse-drawn railways? etc.) Or the Amish community. Or indeed, much as it is a love of mine, 'traditional music'. It's all arbitrary - we're basically picking a time that we personally like and arguing that stuff from this particular era is better than anything before or since.

    'Heritage' and the preservation thereof is a noble aim, but it should probably encompass all of history, not just the bits one might personally happen to like.

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    1. Well, as I said, you can never pin it down precisely, but that's no reason for airily dismissing it.

      Far worse is the attitude that nothing is worth preserving, and that the world needs to be made anew.

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  8. The Stafford Mudgie17 December 2018 at 15:53

    Maybe the time has come for a new organisation to cater for those whose interest in the sphere of beer and pubs is primarily in the preservationist arena.
    Or maybe the time has come for a new organisation to cater for those whose interest is in promoting keg beer, cans and trendy bars.

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    1. Didn't Colin Valentine once say something along the lines of "if you want to campaign for keg beers, start your own organisation"?

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie18 December 2018 at 14:57

      Yes indeed, in his first speech as Chairman to an AGM Colin reflected on “forty years of achievement”, questioned what “craft beer” is, criticised the Blogeratti reminding us that “we are the Campaign for Real Ale, which one of those four words do the Blogeratti not understand?”, adding “if they want to start up their own organisation dedicated to campaigning for keg beer with hops in it then they can maybe call it CamKeg, then be my guest” and ending “while I have anything to do with it we will remain the Campaign for Real Ale”.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eayy2XkrUpk5
      But that was in April 2011 long before he decided to go along with the so called Revitalisation Project.

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  9. In the future the trendy bars and beers so beloved of the millennial generation will also become the subject of misty eyed reminiscing. But of course they won't, because the nature of trends means a tradition can never be established. The pubs and breweries we know and love are being replaced by transient converted shops, warehouses and factory units and most of them will be lucky if they see more than ten years. Even the older established micro brewers are looked at as boring now.

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    1. Yes, much of what people gush over today is likely to prove very here-today-gone-tomorrow. How long before Beavertown and Cloudwater are considered old hat? BrewDog already are to some extent.

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    2. Brewdog made their name sticking it to 'the man'. Now, they are 'the man'.

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