When we’re asked what we want from British beer culture we tend to say ‘Variety,’ but what exactly does that mean?
The story of Brew Britannia is arguably that of the journey — dare we say of progress? — from homogeneity to variety. A Which? magazine article from April 1972 sums up where thing were at back then:
Our tasters thought none smelt very strongly in the glass — none were either unpleasant or very pleasant… As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg beers had an very characteristic taste… We can see little reason for preferring one keg bitter to another…
Stumbling home the other night, we reached a conclusion: the biggest problem with ‘craft’ beer (def. 2) is that it gets us more drunk than ‘normal’ beer.
It’s a multi-pronged attack.
First, it seems to us generally stronger. Whereas old-school breweries are pushing best bitters at c.4%, trendier breweries tend to have as their flagship products pale ales and IPAs at 5-6% ABV.
Then, secondly, that almost inevitably forces special releases and one-offs into high ABV territory and, let’s be honest, to people like us, those are all but irresistible, quite apart from the fact that big flavours paired with big booze often tastes so nice.
A while ago, we thought aloud about whether there was anyone talking or writing about beer with anything like the ability of Jamie Oliver or Delia Smith to mention a product and immediately cause it to sell out across the country.
Back in 2011, we joined Twitter because we were frustrated by the BBC’s blank refusal to mention beer in any substantial way on its flagship weekend cookery show Saturday Kitchen and wanted to join in a campaign to encourage them to reconsider. It didn’t really work.
In recent months, however, without much fanfare, Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch (another show following much the same template of light chat around a cooker) has done what we all wanted and made beer a semi-regular feature, with Ms. Warman as their in-house expert.
As well as its significance in the ‘rebirth of British beer’, Alastair Hook’s Meantime Brewery has been important to us on a personal level.
Meantime taught us that lager wasn’t just lager: tasting the range side by side, we could tell that ‘Cologne-style’ was not the same as Helles, which was definitely different to Golden Beer. They were subtle, but distinctive.
Meantime put Vienna-style lager and Kölsch in Sainsburys supermarkets where we could buy four bottles for £4 and we turned up at many parties and barbecues with those packs under our arms c.2004.
Having read about porter, we wanted to taste it, but there didn’t seem to be many around a decade ago; Meantime fixed that, too. And their big 7.5% IPA was among the first we tasted that gave us a glimpse of what had people so excited about US takes on the style, and so dismissive of Greene King’s — it was boozy, fruity, juicy and bold.
The Union, Meantime’s brewery tap in Greenwich, was the first British pub where we really noticed beer being treated with respect. Half pints came in stemmed tulip glasses, bottles were served in snifters, and no-one seemed to care how much or how little you drank as long as you enjoyed it. We crossed London to get there, time and time again, and there was always something new to try. It was the world of Michael Jackson’s books brought to life.
In recent years, however, our ardour has faded. The brewery’s focus seems to have moved from obscure sub-styles to London Lager (oh, so lager is just lager after all?), Pale Ale and Yakima Red — beers that want so badly to be accepted everywhere that they blend into the banquettes. Alastair Hook has always been obsessed with consistency and control — he is passionate and eloquent on the subject — but perhaps, in recent years, Meantime has too often crossed the fine line between clean and bland? (We’re not sure, to be honest, that they are an upgrade from the mainstream as Pete Brown argues here, though we know what he means.)
This isn’t about demanding obscurity or ‘extremes': if we want US-style pale ale, we buy Sierra Nevada. Porter? Sam Smith’s or Anchor. Big IPA? BrewDog Punk, or the ubiquitous Goose Island IPA, at £2 a bottle. If we want a British-brewed version of a classic German style, we increasingly find ourselves looking to Thornbridge. (Where the brewing team is led by Rob Lovatt, formerly of… Meantime.)
The acquisition of Meantime by SAB Miller isn’t catastrophic, just another step in the direction they’ve been travelling for some time. We’ll always have a soft spot for Meantime, and will continue to make pilgrimages to Greenwich, where the draught lager can still be transcendent.
We are by no means uncritical of CAMRA but our instinctive reaction to the Tweet above was defensive: we’re rather fond of the Campaign, despite its oddities, frustrations and occasional missteps.
That’s why, despite having been tempted a couple of times, we’ve never let our membership lapse. (Or made a big fuss about cutting up or burning our membership cards on social media, as some others have.)
Keen to explore that gut feeling, we had a think about what specifically makes us like CAMRA as it is now, and came up with the following list.
1. Joining is a rite of passage — a way to show you’re on Team Beer. When we were just getting into beer, we wanted something like a fan club to join, and CAMRA was and remains more-or-less the only game in town. We didn’t know the ins-and-outs of dispense method politics — we just wanted a badge and a newsletter and a secrete decoder ring. It still fulfils this function today.
2. It gets beer and pubs into the news. CAMRA’s pub of the year awards gain acres of coverage, especially in local papers. When there is a story about beer, CAMRA is always asked for a comment: without them, business, government and the health lobby would have a monopoly over the conversation. It reminds the real world that people who are a bit more than passingly interested in beer exist, and in great numbers.
3. It makes beer part of the conversation in Westminster. You might not think it joins the right conversations, or takes the right line, but the fact that it is able to influence government policy at all is remarkable. Membership numbers are always entertaining to consider: CAMRA 169,000; Conservative Party 150,000; Labour Party 194,000; Liberal Democrats 44,000. (SOURCE: Wikipedia.)
4. Its history. The modern beer festival, with its tokens and dizzying array of weird beers, evolved from events like the 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition. The Good Beer Guide was the first book to prioritise drinkers and beer rather than breweries and food. CAMRA even helped to pioneer the ‘tasting note’, way back in the 1980s, when most people thought it was silly to talk about beer instead of just necking it. It didn’t single-handedly save British beer from mediocrity but it certainly played a huge part.
5.It offers something to react against. Breweries such as BrewDog and Meantime would not exist as they do today if they had not shaped themselves in opposition to CAMRA’s values and culture, as they saw them.
6.It is democratic. It’s an imperfect democracy — one that feels inaccessible and confusing to us in its current state — but it does give members the power to propose and vote on policy. The much-mocked letters page in What’s Brewing is currently a battleground between those who advocate a thawing of relations with ‘craft beer’, and those who want to send tanks in — but both voices are represented, in equal measure, without (as far as we can tell) any censorship of ideas.
7. It keeps cask-conditioned beer alive and relatively well. Though we’re pro-keg and -bottle, many of our favourite beers are cask-conditioned, and wouldn’t be half as good otherwise. We certainly think it’s a tradition worth preserving, and, without CAMRA’s constant stick-and-carrot pressure on the industry, it would be a lot harder to find outside specialist venues.
9. It is a national institution. The eccentricity, rituals, arcane rules and regulations, and the occasional pomposity, when they’re not infuriating, can seem rather charming. Like the College of Arms or Flora Day or cheese rolling, CAMRA is one of those things that makes Britain feel British: are we the only people who would voluntarily set up a huge national bureaucracy to organise debauches and moan about the heads on our pints, with occasional interludes of Morris Dancing?
Last and probably least…
10. It publishes, and pays fairly for, good quality long-form beer writing. (DISCLOSURE: including by us, if we do say so ourselves.) BEER magazine is one of few outlets in the UK for writing about beer and, despite its parentage, allows both criticism of CAMRA in its pages (though we can’t point to a specific example right now) and discussion of beers other than ‘real ale’.
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Of course we could easily argue against ourselves on each of these points. For example, why should CAMRA be the de facto voice of beer drinkers, given that it doesn’t represent all of them? What’s the use of cask ale everywhere if it’s only lip service — dodgy Greene King IPA and Sharp’s Doom Bar? And doesn’t government have more important things to worry about than beer and pubs? But this was about exploring our gut feeling — that CAMRA is a good thing, for all its flaws.
We’ve switched comments off on this post because we can’t quite be bothered to moderate the argument that we suspect might ensue. If you’re desperate to Speak Your Brains, email us at email@example.com and we’ll perhaps publish some comments in a follow-up.
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007