As you’ll see from the gallery we posted earlier today there’s no shortage of pubs in the conjoined-twin-towns of Settle and Giggleswick but one was our clear favourite: the Talbot Arms.
Situated off the High Street, behind the market place and a few doors down from the 17th-century architectural oddity that is the Folly, the Talbot is visually striking: a wall of white with the pub’s name in huge black letters and an unusual sign of a white dog which looks both hip and yet also strangely medieval.
Inside is a single large room, rather bare, which somehow conveys that dining is an option without making it feel like an obligation. On our multiple visits we found locals chatting at the bar, in corners gossiping, or in muddy boots reading the Craven Herald with glasses of wine.
The cask ale offer struck us as interesting for various reasons. First, because we recognised few of the breweries; secondly, because there was a clear effort to cover a range of styles, from mild to pale’n’hoppy via old-fashioned bitter; and, finally, because the range seemed more resolutely small-and-local than some other pubs in the area.
Not every beer we tried was top notch but none of them were downright bad, and all were in good nick. It was also here that we also found our beer of the week: Partners Brewing Cascade (4% ABV, £3 a pint). Somewhat neglected in favour of more fashionable hop varieties, Cascade is surely due a revival — citrus, yes, but with a distinctive fruits-of-the-forest character that lent this particular beer a ripe juiciness to balance a light body and flinty bitterness.
Perhaps those of you who know the northern scene better than us will let us know whether Partners is a generally well-regarded brewery — we suspect not, or we might have heard of them — but, regardless, this particular beer was one we stuck on for multiple pints, and for two days in a row at that.
Now, if you visit Settle, the Talbot might not be your favourite — perhaps we were lucky with the weather and the particular beers that were on offer — but you can certainly have some fun finding out over the course of a day or weekend.
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’.
* * *
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.
He argues that, on the whole, ‘backward facing motions were defeated, while progressive motions were passed’. Among those carried was Motion 15:
This Conference instructs the National Executive to investigate a labelling scheme for naturally conditioned Key Keg beer, which would allow customers to identify which beers, at the point of sale, conform with the CAMRA criteria for real ale.
This is significant, as we understand it, because it paves the way for beer in ‘key kegs‘ to appear at CAMRA beer festivals, as long as they meets certain technical criteria — that is to say, that they are unfiltered and unpasteurised, contain a certain proportion of live yeast, and are carbonated without the addition of CO2 from an external source. (Key kegs use gas, but the gas doesn’t actually come into contact with the beer.)
This is not a wholehearted embrace of keg beer, overturning 40+ years of principles upon which the Campaign was built. Nor is it ‘CAMRA goes craft’. And we suspect it will take a long time for the results to be evident in the wild, too, with much bureaucracy to negotiate.
But it is important as a gesture, like that simple handshake between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro last December.
The letters page in next month’s What’s Brewing should be fun, though, while those passionate craft beer types who CAMRA has already alienated, will probably regard this, sourly, as too little, too late.
@BoakandBailey To be fair, real ale served via key keg was approved by CAMRA's TAG some time ago – motion was more about clear labelling.
A short way across the water from Plymouth, in what is sometimes called the forgotten corner of Cornwall, lie the conjoined coastal villages of Kingsand and Cawsand, blessed with four pubs between them.
We arrived on foot along the South West Coast Path just as the day was growing dimpsy and the evening fires had been lit. Dipping down from the cliffside into town we passed pretty pastel-coloured cottages, mostly holiday homes shuttered and hibernating.
We were momentarily anxious: what if the pubs are seasonal? Then we passed the Rising Sun, with its old Courage cockerel and peeling paint, the windows of which glowed with orange light. Someone with their back to us in the window seat laughed so heartily their whole body heaved. This seemed to bode well for our pub crawl.
In an article for All About Beer, American writer Jeff Alworth said: ‘If you read the English beer blogs, you’ll find mention of cask ale is nearly absent.’
He’s reading the wrong blogs, then, we thought, and came up with this reading list of people who mostly write about cask-conditioned beer consumed in the pub.
Before we get to the links, though, it’s worth noting that we do think Jeff might be broadly right: the bloggers we’ve suggested below are all on the… erm… experienced side, and while younger bloggers do write about cask-conditioned beer, it does seem that it’s not often what that gets them excited.
A long-time Campaign for Real Ale activist based in Manchester, Tandleman is proud to say that he rarely drinks beer at home, and rarely touches keg beer when he’s out. With experience in pub cellars and managing festival bars, he understands the technical ins-and-outs of cask ale better than most, and a recurring theme on his blog is the generally poor condition in which he finds it in London pubs.
Sample quote: ‘There is nothing more vexing than coughing up the best part of four quid for a pint in London (or anywhere to be fair) and then finding it warm enough to poach an egg in.’
While not dogmatic about cask vs. keg, Paul has been a CAMRA member since the 1970s and writes frequently about his memories of drinking cask-conditioned beer over the course of four decades, as well as providing first-hand commentary on the contemporary scene such as this piece on Doom Bar.
Another Manchester-based blogger and CAMRA loyalist, Phil is an academic by day and so knows how to string a sentence together. He is outspoken in his praise of cask-conditioned beer and, despite repeated efforts to ‘get’ what it is people see in it, an intelligent critic of modern kegged craft beer, and especially the way it is priced and marketed.
Sample quote: ‘The answer to the question, I honestly believe, is “because any given beer is better from a cask than a keg (or bottle, or can)”.’
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007