Tuesday 13 October 2015

English as she is spoke

Traditionalists such as myself are often heard to complain about the changing meaning of English words, which usually seems to result in a loss of clarity and precision in the language. However, any student of linguistics has to recognise that language does evolve over time, and that dictionaries have to reflect how people actually use words, not how someone else thinks they should.

The concept of “real ale” was invented by CAMRA, and before too long they succeeded in having it defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as

Real Ale: a name for draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
However, in recent years I’ve increasingly begun to hear other people, especially work colleagues, say “I’ve got a few of those real ales in from ASDA.” Clearly, they’re referring to brewery-conditioned Premium Bottled Ales such as Pedigree and Abbot Ale, which aren’t real ales by the official definition. However, they see them as the bottle equivalent of real ales that you might get in the pub, and so there’s some sense in making the link.

My local branch of Morrisons has recently revamped its beer aisle, and there’s a prominent sign above the Premium Bottled Ales section saying “Real Ales”. Probably one or two pedants will write to them pointing out their error, but in reality that’s how customers define that beer category. In twenty years’ time, might we be seeing “real ale” redefined as any British top-fermented beer in a traditional style?

Next to “Real Ales” is “Craft Beers”, which seems to encompass a wide variety of British, American, Belgian and Swedish beers, but all in 330ml or 355ml bottles or cans, whereas the PBAs are in 500ml bottles. The definition of “craft beer” has been endlessly wrangled over in the beer blogosphere, but in the actual marketplace it seems to be resolving itself.

In the off-trade, it’s beers in smaller bottles that may be stronger and more diverse and experimental in style than the boring old brown PBAs in their big bottles. Probably more expensive too. And, in the on-trade draught beer market, “craft beer” increasingly means “craft keg”. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that, by any rational standard, virtually all microbrewed real ale is craft beer, but the market is saying otherwise.

Long gone are the days when a small, traditional, quirky, long-established, undeniably “artisanal” brewery such as Bathams or Hook Norton could be described as “craft”. Although eventually that moment of discovery is bound to happen when trendsetters say “Wow, these guys have been doing it for 150 years!”


  1. Interesting, I haven't seen the "Real Ales" sign but then I rarely go in Morrisons. Since it's an offence for a pub to advertise real ale when they don't sell any, I presume that technically it's also wrong for Morrisons.

  2. I'm sure some CAMRA pedant can call them out on that but, on the other hand, I think there are one or two BCAs in there.

    I wonder what Trading Standards would say...

  3. I too shop in Morrisons. Real or not, I enjoy these bottled beers. My favourite is Yorkshire Blonde, which goes very well with Chilli. Well, actually, as a treat, my absolute favourite is Sierra Nevada, which comes in 335ml bottles and works out much more expensive per ml. I guess the term "craft beer" is to justify the price. A bit misleading, but since they do have a very good range of excellent beer, I don't hold it against them.

  4. Offence?

    I think if you run a pub and the beards start claiming your John Smiths Smooth isn't "real"? and threatening trading standards, it's easier to take the sign down or put a single bottle of Shite Shield in the fridge, innit?

    Easier than the cost of arguing that anything that can be observed as existentially existing is in fact "real"

    Why not have a quite life? At least this bunch of beardies aren't otherwise troubling your pub by drinking in it and annoying your paying locals with their pedantry. They are all down spoons or that middle class wankers multi beer micro pub.

    The beards try and tell Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys what is and isn't real. Well that might not be so easy. Them's got lawyers on tap and can well afford to tell the beards to sling their 'ook.

  5. Haha, and now Dickie English has spotted this and has posted the following on the CAMRA forum (members only section):

    "I went into Reigate Morrisons today and was initially delighted to see a sign on the bottle beer shelves saying "Real Ale". But my elation was soon to disappear when I found that all but to of the beers on sale were actually not bottle-conditioned and thus, by Camra's definition, not Real Ale.

    "The two exceptions were Sierra Nevada and the only British example was Shepherd and Neame 1698. As the sign was at the top of the beer shelves and nowhere near either of the Real Ale I reckon this is misleading advertising and I will be writing to Morrisons to tell them so."

    I'll keep you posted ;-)

  6. 'Craft Beer' ! Makes me laugh ! Overpriced and very often keg ! Real Ale is still the product for me - Wadworth,Harveys, Batham, Holden, Enville, Hook Norton, Sam Smith, Theakston et al ! Long may they continue !!!


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