Sunday 29 July 2012

A taste of tradition

The July issue of the CAMRA newsletter What’s Brewing contains an article entitled “Endangered (beer) styles need protection”, including styles such as light and dark mild, light bitter and old ale that were once the mainstay of the British pub. The August issue includes a couple of letters suggesting that, in view of the wave of golden ales colonising our bar tops, even ordinary bitter needs to be added to the list. This led me to think about how “beer enthusiasm” has changed over the past forty years.

The 1970s saw a strong reaction against the modernism and “knock it down and start again” attitudes of the 1960s. “Small is Beautiful”, “The Good Life”, Laura Ashley, railway preservation and the real ale revival were all facets of this.

The initial premise of CAMRA was all about “preserving tradition”. It was like a beery version of the National Trust. Small family brewers, often employing antediluvian management techniques, were lavishly praised. Beers such as Ruddles County and Wadworths 6X were regarded with reverence. In many cases, these beers were post-war introductions, but even so it was the traditional image that counted. Classic pubs like the Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham and the Royal Standard of England at Forty Green in Buckinghamshire were spoken of in hushed tones. Wolves & Dudley adopted the famous advertising slogan of “Unspoilt by Progress”.

Throughout the 1980s, much the same remained true. Yes, there were a few micro-breweries springing up, but it was good that some dedicated people were seeking to revive the old traditions. But, eventually, things started to change. The growth of beer exhibition pubs, the freeing up of the pub trade after the Beer Orders, all helped contribute to a view that innovation and novelty were desirable factors on the beer scene.

And so it has led to the current situation, where the long-standing traditional beers are dismissed as “boring brown bitters” and the pubs that have served them for generations written off as dumps only suitable for old codgers. The future is, we are told, in cutting-edge bars serving craft kegs and innovative beers laden with New World hops.

It’s as if people originally signed up for a movement to preserve Lyme Park and St Pancras Station, but ended up instead championing the Guggenheim Museum and the Millennium Dome. Not necessarily a bad thing (although that’s debateable) but certainly something completely different.

I have nothing against the development of new beers and new bars, and obviously recognise that in a commercial sense every industry needs to move on and adapt to changes in consumer tastes. But I make no apology for saying that what really interests me, personally, is drinking traditional British beer in traditional British pubs, not triple-hopped American IPA in an uncomfortable, echoing craft beer bar. And that’s something that an organisation like CAMRA should stand up for and support even if it runs counter to short-term commercial advantage. Just as the defence of real ale was in the 1970s.

From time to time, I enjoy a pint and maybe a meal too in Wetherspoon’s, but it’s just a utilitarian satisfying of a need, in the same way as a visit to Pizza Express or the Bombay Palace. On the other hand, going to the Nursery, or Turner’s Vaults, or the Thief’s Neck, is in a small way drinking in tradition and history in the same way as a visit to Lyme Park or Moreton Old Hall. That may not matter to you, but it matters to me.

While some commenters always see any mention of CAMRA on here as a criticism, in my view CAMRA deserves praise both for its ongoing commitment to the National Inventory of historic pub interiors and for highlighting endangered beer styles. The championing of the “shock of the new” comes largely from voices either outside CAMRA or not aligned with its mainstream. I get the feeling that many stalwarts of CAMRA feel a profound unease about the beer and bar landscape we are now moving into, something often hinted at on the letters page of What’s Brewing.

The picture, by the way, is of the Traveller's Rest at Alpraham in Cheshire, one of the dwindling number of truly traditional and unspoilt pubs.


  1. Let's face it Mudgie, most of your mentions of CAMRA here (and elsewhere) are a criticism.

  2. Anyway, John, perhaps prompted by your constant sniping, I will be withdrawing from any active involvement in CAMRA, so I hope you (and Mr Flynn) will be satisfied by that.

    There is, on the other hand, not a lot of point in jacking in Life Membership on a point of principle when I still get Spoons vouchers :p

  3. Well, that's a shame Peter; you will be missed and I'm certainly not satisfied (and I now have a hole in OT where Curmudgeon should go).

    I can't help thinking, though, that while you have been happy to snipe at CAMRA you seem less happy when CAMRA snipes back.

    Having said that I do get the feeling that this was something waiting to happen given your obvious and growing disillusionment with CAMRA and much of what it does (or perhaps more to the point doesn't) do.

    Still hope you'll think again though.

  4. Martin, Cambridge29 July 2012 at 22:38

    I want traditional brownish beers in traditional pubs, AND American or Aberdeen keg IPAs in small bars, AND Wetherspoon when I need to take the children for a meal. Why can't all 3 (and more) survive ?

  5. An excellent article, Curmudgeon and one I can closely identify with. I too have a great deal of nostalgia looking back at those early days of CAMRA, particularly when there seemed to be something of a pioneering spirit about the organisation. When this was coupled with the sense of discovery invoked in seeking out all these new beers, from different parts of the country that one had never heard of before, then there definitely was something special associated with CAMRA.

    However, I do feel that things have to move on and I now feel a new sense of excitment and discovery with all the new beer styles and associated beers that are springing up everywhere. Certainly here in Kent things are very exciting at the moment, with 25 breweries now operating in the county. These developments are certainly having a positive effect, as they are introducing the dleights of real ale, as well as craft beer, to a whole new generation and this, for me, is the best and most positive thing to come out of what is happening today.

  6. It's odd that you should announce your parting from CAMRA on the back of a positive posting.

    I think it a shame. There is plenty to complain about CAMRA and while sniping is unwelcome, constructive criticism isn't.

  7. I dunno Mudgie, pubs aren't museums. Shouldn't CAMRA be celebrating tradition rather than trying to preserve it? Most of the new brewers are casking beers, if they can make a living by selling golden hoppy beers on cask, what's not to like, specially if it gets people into pubs and gets them trying cask. Martin's point goes for me, by and large. There are some BBB's I'll happily drink in a 'traditional' pub, but I don't think I'm making any kind of point either way.

  8. Martin, Cambridge30 July 2012 at 11:10

    On Paul's point, I've had the pleasure of exploring east Kent (Margate to Folkestone) GBG pubs recently.

    There is certainly an explosion of small breweries, and very small pubs, but it's been the quality of the Shep Neames Master Brew, rather than the variable micros beers, that's made those trips so enjoyable. Prime example - Four Horseshoes in Whitstable, an unspoilt, eccentric classic.

    Superbly written article, by the way.

  9. Shouldn't CAMRA be celebrating tradition rather than trying to preserve it?

    What's the difference?

    I'm in near-total agreement with the OP. I've had boring brown bitters, but not many of them. Slow-burn brown bitter - the kind that tastes bland on the first mouthful, good halfway down the pint and superb on the second pint - I've had a lot of those, and I think they're one of the glories of English brewing. And they still need championing.

  10. @Tandleman: I am not "quitting" CAMRA, simply standing down from any position of responsibility.

    John has often wondered in the past why I continued to bother...

  11. "pubs aren't museums"

    No, but a lot are worthy of preservation in a historical sense, hence the National Inventory project.

    And to me there is a special kind of pleasure enjoying a drink in a pub that has been used by many generations.

    The general point is a much wider one, though - in the 1970s the core theme of the "real ale movement" was preserving tradition; now that is much less so.

  12. Very interesting. Like a lot of 20th century developments, CAMRA's relationship to tradition feels hard to unpick. Contemporary commentators referred to the campaign as a 'counter-revolution'; and, as you point out, lots of what they fought to preserve wasn't even really that old.

    Our impression (based on uncles, aunties and acquaintances...) is that CAMRA was a mix of left-wing hippies sticking it to the man and staunch Village Green Preservation Society types. Your National Trust comparison is apt!

    And, yes, there are some who champion newness for the sake of it (e.g. dismissing any beer made with Fuggles out of hand) but they're few and far between, and usually working a PR angle ('establishing a brand identity'). On this issue as on so many others, most people float about in the middle (on the fence...) liking old stuff and new stuff, chromed bars and traditional pubs, in about equal measure, depending on the weather, their mood, the time of year, etc..

  13. A while ago I was in the Railwaymen's Club here in Southport where they were serving two cask ales, Tetley Bitter and Spitfire. Chatting to the steward, I asked her whether she had ever tried the local Southport beers. She had, but had found that they were less popular, being golden; her customers preferred brown beers. I have found many golden beers to be insipid and many brown beers to be excellent, but I've also had precisely the opposite experience of excellent golden beer and boring brown beer. Perhaps some of us are too quick to judge beer by its appearance, thus prejudicing any assessment of its flavour in advance.

    I too welcome CAMRA's promotion of traditional pubs, many of which will still be selling beer when the 'innovative' craft beer bars (wherever they are!) have become branches of McDonalds.

  14. A middle ground is possible. My pub is certainly more traditional than many in terms of decor and lack of technology. We have no post-mix, nor any keg fonts, no television nor games machines, music is record player only, (even our telephone is vintage.)
    The ale policy is balanced between traditional styles of brown bitters, mild, stouts, porters and such, and the more exciting modern ale styles around. You don't have to visit a hideous ultra-modern bar to sample modern beers, at least not around here.
    The thing is that you have to be financially viable in order to preserve any tradition. There's no point sticking to your guns and only serving traditional beers, if the pub down the road is doing something different and taking all of the customers.
    Personally I don't want my taste buds to be challenged EVERY time I go for a pint but at the same time, I don't want to drink the same style of beer every time that I go out. Hopefully my beer choice reflects this.

  15. The best bit of OT was Mudgies drivel. Hope CAMRA has a few more odd balls in stock fill the gap.

  16. "The best bit of OT was Mudgies drivel."

    Doesn't say much for the rest of it, then.

    There is still one more to go, which will no doubt ruffle a few feathers.

  17. Is "Son of Curmudgeon" gonna bang on about fags too or have a different schtick?

    Guess we'll have to wait to see but I'm hopin' for some of this

  18. Maybe Dickie English could be invited to write a column ;-)


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