The Dawn of Real Ale Culture

Wooden beer casks.

We already knew that there were ‘beer geeks’ of sorts in nineteen-thirties Britain, but it turns out the idea of ‘real ale’ was also taking shape at the same time.

Last week, we acquired a copy of A Book About Beer published in 1934 — a 112-page piece of hackery written under the pseudonym ‘A Drinker’. Amid the filler material on tankards and a (very shaky) history of beer, the most interesting passages are those which resemble blog posts, exploring ideas, observations or gripes.

Chapter IV is on everybody’s favourite subject: methods of storage and dispense.

In 1933 when the book was written, keg beer was barely two years old and a niche export product, and so the debate wasn’t cask vs. keg but cask vs. bottle.

Between the bottle and the cask there is a wide difference; and between the beer that comes out of them there is also a wide difference. To me there seems something mechanical about bottled beer; whereas draught beer seems hand-made and traditional. Or, more nearly, I would say that bottled beer resembles tinned fruit and draught beer fruit picked fresh from the tree.

There some familiar-sounding language there — hand-made! He or she goes on to reveal that, thirty years before the founding of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood, and nearly forty before the emergence of the Campaign for Real Ale, there were fanatics:

In the view of the violent purist (and all purists are violent) bottled beer is a barbarism; one of the barbarisms of civilization, like bottled mayonnaise sauce. It is excused only when conditions preclude the serving of beer drawn direct from the cask.

Some people, however, preferred bottled beer because of its ‘bite and sparkle’, just as some today appreciate kegged or bottled beer because it is often more highly carbonated, aka ‘fizzy’. ‘A Drinker’ is not sympathetic to this view:

The genuine flavour of beer, the aroma of malt and hops, is obscured by the bite and the gas in bottled beer… It is a substitute for the real thing and… serves a purpose when the real thing is not available.

That paragraph confirms a suspicion we’ve had for a while: that ‘real’ was being applied to beer long before CAMRA adopted the term ‘real ale’ after 1973, and long before advertisers began to take advantage of its vagueness in the nineteen-sixties. (As they are doing today with ‘craft’.)

9 thoughts on “The Dawn of Real Ale Culture”

  1. That is very interesting and hopefully you will print more from this book. Was he referring to filtered (and possibly pasteurized) beer, though, or bottle-conditioned beer? His main objection – high condition – would characterize both, but bottle-conditioned beer is otherwise real beer. I suspect he was referring to the former class, it is this type of beer whose flavour is reduced not so much by the gas as the filtering out of yeast and pasteurization. By the Thirties, commercial brewing had extensively given up on bottle-conditioned beer although some to be sure was still being made.

    Gary

  2. Gary — we’ll probably be posting more at some point. There are some really interesting observations on how seriously (or not) beer is taken compared to wine.

    Ed — it wasn’t very expensive or hard to find and is an excellent companion to Andrew Campbell’s Book of Beer from twenty years later.

    1. I’m currently reading Campbell’s book so I guess I’d better put an order in for “Drinker’s”

  3. Try also (if you haven’t got it yet) “What’s Yours?”, subtitled “The Student’s Guide to Publand” from 1938 by TEB Clarke (writer of the screenplays for Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob, among others) – very good on 1930s pub culture.

  4. the notion of real is also used outside of beer. Concepts like “real food” rather than the synthetic stuff, denoting what I understand to be a lack of processing.

    Processed foods can be considered synthetic, full of preservatives, e numbers, whatever.

    Real food being organic or freshly prepared or fresh (not frozen or canned) ingredients.

    It’s just a use of the language to infer not only is something different but that it is better.

  5. Reality is also arguably a relative or perhaps essentially meaningless concept. Only 50 years earlier, some commentators considered modern running beers – using sugar in the mash, priming to force condition and finings – to be a dubious short-cut. To them real beer was the stored all-malt type.

    But by the 1930′s, the new kid on the block, er estate, is real beer… It is in this sense only that I sympathize with those who say CAMRA’s remit should be enlarged to encompass other forms of good – if not real – beer.

    Gary

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