Sucking up a social class

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLoVF7vcBtY]

In his column in the 5 December issue of New Statesman, Will Self, on the subject of wine, quotes his French translator who says “when I have a glass of wine, I’m imbibing the region where it comes from.” Self ponders this and suggests that “when an English person drinks wine, she’s sucking up a social class”.

Is that also what’s going on when people drink craft beer? Is it becoming an accessory for those who aspire to, or wish to emphasise, middle class credentials?

We like to think that beer is in the process of being stripped of any specific class associations — that it’s becoming socially mobile, as comfortable at an Islington dinner party as in a working men’s club. But maybe we’re kidding ourselves.

Either way, there’s plenty of work to be done before beer is quite welcome to a seat at the shabby chic dining table in front of the Aga. The Cheese Shop in Truro — one of the most middle class shops you can imagine — has wine, port, sherry, sparkling cider, soft drinks… but not one drop of beer. Not even a politely packaged Fuller’s Vintage Ale getting dusty in a corner. Shame.

This agonising over snobbery and social class isn’t going to end anytime soon, we’re afraid. It is much on our minds.

25 thoughts on “Sucking up a social class”

  1. You should ask them to get some in, people are receptive as long as you’re not swivel eyed about it — had a very interesting tasting of various beers with a French head chef last night, he normally drinks Carlsberg but we went through Orval, Westmalle, Flyign Dog, Kwak and Brooklyn Lagr in one of my locals with a view to a beer dinner. And I recall I would talk to him about beer several years ago and he would nod about Jenlain and that would be it, but now he is really interested. Get talking to the Truro people and get old Stuart Howe to send some nice beers…

  2. It’s a question that, were I still living in my homeland of England, would undoubtedly be on my mind more than it is here in my adopted country of Canada. This tells me that the classed elements of beer come either from the long and complicated intertwining of social friction and social lubrication that you find in any old culture like Britain’s, or that the beer/class relationship is of particular historical significance in Britain.

    I lean toward the latter somewhat. The impression you get from reading people such as Orwell and beer history in general that brewing has always had its roots in the serfdoms, guilds, bunkers, and other locales of the sub-gentry.

    But isn’t it usually the difficult-to-attain that the upper classes claim for their own? The lack of English vintners of any note prior to 20th century meant wine was exotic to most brits. In the frontier lands of America and Canada the ability to produce, store and serve a decent beer were the reserve of only the most well-to-do. I imagine Al Swearengen’s ale was as close to luxury as you’d find in the Gem Theater. British Columbians relied for decades on expensive, rare (im)porter before the likes of Molson overcame the huge obstacles to brewing in the Great White North. Perhaps this is why beer denotes but a social ripple, far less a rift in my corner of this side of the ocean.

  3. I really need a lexicon on the subtleties of class divides to be added to this as what you are calling middle class is still working class to me here in Canuckistan… but a person of that working class can make over $100,000 and even employ people if they are a successful trades person. My folks left industrial Britain in the 50s when I understood there were deep economic and cultural distinctions. Can a mere cheese shop itself actually still articulate such distinctions today?

  4. I read an article (In the Guardian?) about a year ago where one commentator said that craft/real ale’s growth among the middle class was in part due to lager being increasingly seen as a ‘chav’ drink.

  5. ATJ — we’ll probably mention it next time. In the middle of their Christmas rush when we were there on Saturday so didn’t seem quite the time. Perhaps there was tons of beer on Friday but it had all sold out?

    Dan — my perception is that the gulf between beer and wine only really opened in the post-war period when the British middle classes latched on to wine in a big way. Although it’s improving, the middle class press is full of adverts for wine boxes and wine-tasting columns. Even the New Statesman, a left of centre magazine, had a wine column by right-winger Roger Scruton until a few years ago.

    Alan — I don’t think *we* understand it well enough to explain it. Compared to ‘middle class’, ‘craft beer’ is easy to define. Most British people don’t know what class they are. Many people earning less than average think they’re middle class, because they aspire to be. Lots of people earning a lot think they’re working class because they grew up that way. You can be unemployed and living in a council house but, if your household is all all classical music, wooden toys and broadsheet papers, you’re still middle class.

    How can a cheese shop be middle class? Interesting question. Well, for starters, it assumes a certain knowledge of French cheese on the part of its customers. It sells discarded wooden camembert boxes as cheese boards or decorations. Its fixtures and fitting are all rustic sanded wood. Basically, there are lots of small signs and signals which we Brits are trained from birth to read. (Although we all read them differently.)

  6. “We like to think that beer is in the process of being stripped of any specific class associations — that it’s becoming socially mobile, as comfortable at an Islington dinner party as in a working men’s club. But maybe we’re kidding ourselves.”

    Beer – well more specifically some beer, is becoming a posh drink with all its snobby outriders. Pricing people out of the market, the posh shops (bars) where if you can’t afford (or aren’t daft enough) to pay up to £9 a pint for beer that has been dragged around the world and is probably past its best, you are an oik. The fact that it hasn’t permeated the Islington dinner party set, is hardly the measure. Getting smashed at home on a bottles of plonk will hardly be elbowed aside by bottles of sipping beer.

    Name dropping, dick waving and the rest of it has now found a new home in the various craft bars that are springing up. Not for everyone mind, but for enough to make it a discernible trend.

    The pyramid is being stood on its pointy bit.

  7. When I drink “craft beer”, I want to shrug off the world and let the sensory part of my brain commune with the fruit of the brewer’s work in an unmediated way. I want to have that Proustian moment, that sense of something happening a fraction of a second before my conscious mind gets in the way and starts to pull the experience apart. I want not to be disappointed. I want to have a “because I’m worth it” moment.

    But mostly it’s because I want to get a bit pissed on tasty beer.

  8. I see no reason why beer cannot cross over all divides. Beer can be snobby, aloof, pompous and overpriced just as easily as it can be base, cheap, mass produced, bland and aimed at the lowest common denominator.

    I’m always baffled why there is objection to a very small part of the beer market becoming aloof. Some of us are just trying to make an honest living out of it, that’s all.

    There will always be knock-down beer in Wetherspoons, so as a result everyone is happy.

    Anyway, personally I’m not sure the old fashioned model of class divide applies in the UK any more, thankfully.

  9. Hmmm – my local cheese specialist, Teddington Cheese, which is (a) pretty well-known in the cheesy comestibles world and (b) in a solidly middle-middle-class part of London, certainly sells some specialist beers in their shop, although admittedly (a) they don’t have a great range of beers and (b) they don’t feature the beers on their website, I notice.

  10. Something Bailey said suggests the riddle might be better understood if we’re on the same page about “class”. Bailey has a cultural understanding that would define Prince Phillip as working class if he ate beans on toast in front of Eastenders and visited the bookies once a week. I’m being flippant of course. But class is understood differently by many, and might mean “type of job” or “wealth” or “accent” or “where you live” or “political affiliation” or some mix of the many. For the academics among you, compare Marx to Bourdieu to Gramsci — even class theorists have drastically different definitions. I find that North American terms like “middle class” are entirely economic/labour-related, and very different to the way we might use it in England?

    So, to cut to the chase, what exactly do you mean by class and beer? Clarification might yield some good insights.

  11. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/aug/29/britons-rediscover-taste-for-beer <- might be the Guardian article. Similar point. I don't buy the idea that chavs are driving people away from lager. The "lager lout" and hooligan association with lager during 80s-90s was, to my memory, more vivid — and did not at the time create a good beer renaissance. My hypothesis is that the British good beer interest upturn is probably a reaction to the US scene.

  12. Dan — a Prince Philip who didn’t hunt, didn’t wear tailored suits, didn’t live in palaces, and didn’t get driven around in a Bentley, wouldn’t be Prince Philip!

    Class isn’t entirely divorced from income or work but someone who leaves a job as an accountant to take a job in a factory doesn’t stop being middle class. It’s hard to go back.

    You’re right, though — middle class is used very differently in North America. In Britain, you can assume the upper classes are out of reach, in a weird world of their own. It’s hard if not impossible to become upper class, although your family might, given a hundred years or so. So, in Britain, middle class covers a lot of ground up to and including, say, editors of nationan newspapers, CEOs and some government ministers. Hence those helpful distinctions “upper middle” and “lower middle”. Martyn’s use of “middle middle” is new to us, though…

  13. Tandleman (and Dave) — bear with us here: the development of high end, snobby beer is a good thing because it means that beer is becoming universal, like food. (The existence of Heston Blumenthal’s cooking doesn’t put paid to a well made portion of fish and chips or a good steak and kidney pie.) There is good beer to be had for less than £2, and beer you can spend a tenner on, and it’s all good beer. If beer has to put on its Sunday best to get invited to a dinner party, well, that’s not the end of the world. It’s just nice that people might stop saying: “Oh, whatever you do, don’t invite that ghastly yobbo with his dirty fingernails.”

    Sid — the thing we keep coming back to is that people are misunderstanding ‘elitism’, or at least seeing it where it isn’t. We’ve yet to come across a craft beer so expensive we couldn’t buy a bottle if we really wanted it, or a craft beer bar with a restrictive membership policy. And some of the best beer around is £2.60 a pint and served up in pubs which don’t even *realise* they’re part of a ‘craft beer revolution’. Beer still seems pretty inclusive to us.

    Martyn — sounds like a variation on the upscale restaurant with a beer list containing Stella Artois, Guinness and Leffe: beer’s there, but as a kind of afterthought.

  14. We’ve yet to come across a craft beer so expensive we couldn’t buy a bottle if we really wanted it,

    I don’t think that really means anything – there are lots of things I could buy if I really wanted them. I was looking at some Patek Philippe watches the other day; the cheapest examples were in four figures. As it goes, I’ve got a bit saved, and I can honestly say that I could buy myself a Patek Philippe watch if I really wanted one. Buying every big bottle that the Marble bring out, or every short run from BD, or even joining the Meantime Silly Money Beer Club, would be a doddle by comparison. I don’t, though.

    In practice, for me at least, the question isn’t whether you could afford beer X if you really wanted it – it’s whether the price of beer X is high enough to make you ask whether you can afford it. Which goes back to how much money you feel you can afford to waste (if necessary), which in turn goes back to disposable income. Some people may actually prefer to buy £10 bottles of beer (and even £10 pints) rather than pay £2-£3 with the rest of us – but you can bet that, in almost every case, those people have the kind of income that means they don’t miss those £10s.

    At this point Dave will probably say that there’s nothing wrong with the catering to the elite crowd, or that there’s nothing wrong with a brewer parting the rich from their money once in a while, and in principle I agree. In practice it leaves a bad taste, though. I suppose I feel that beer should be for everyone, and the snob end of the beer market – if there has to be a snob end – should be an irrelevance to most drinkers, just like the £200 vintage is irrelevant to 99% of the people who buy that same wine.

    some of the best beer around is £2.60 a pint and served up in pubs which don’t even *realise* they’re part of a ‘craft beer revolution’

    Unless you’re going to tell them they’re doing something they’re not, these are pubs that aren’t part of a ‘craft beer revolution’, surely.

  15. Unless you’re going to tell them they’re doing something they’re not,

    Er… I meant “something they don’t think they’re doing”. I think.

  16. Jeff — down here, fishermen and farm workers seem to drink a lot of Carlsberg Export. At some point, the unpretentious, masculine choice became continental lager. How did that happen!?

  17. Phil — we think the ‘revolution’ is a phenomenon rather than a club — you don’t have to sign up to be part of it!

    The pub/brewery we’re thinking of opened about five years ago when the former head brewer of a small regional brewery decided he wanted to be his own boss and make better beer using more American hops. It was his choice as an individual, but happens to reflect the same choice lots of other people have been making recently.

    I think we’d also see Roger Ryman’s reign at St Austell as part of the same thing: he turned up, overhauled all their recipes, introduced a wider range of hops, including from the US, and that now means that in the best St Austell pubs you can get a yellow hoppy; citrusy amber; and malty brown ale on tap. In 1995, it would have been a strong malty brown and a weak malty brown, which no-one was buying.

  18. “Tandleman (and Dave) — bear with us here: the development of high end, snobby beer is a good thing because it means that beer is becoming universal, like food.”

    It is certainly not a bad thing, but the “why”, the “who” and the “what” are interesting as side products.

  19. “middle middle” – not wealthy enough to be upper middle, although inclines towards upper middle class tastes, rather than lower middle class ones.

    No, the Teddington Cheese Shop features craft beers, not mainstream ones, but only one or two breweries, quite obscure, and not a particularly adventurous beer list.

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