From fairly early on in its existence, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has shown a concern with the purity of beer, almost as much as with the method of dispense, and arguably more than with the quality of its flavour.
This has been on our mind lately, since Yvan Seth asked this question:
'Chemicals' comes well before 'craft' in words I'd like to redact from the world's beer vocabulary… is chemical angst another CAMRA-ism?
We can’t say we were outraged by it, but we were certainly dismayed. CAMRA, like it or not, is these days an organisation of similar status to the National Trust or the RSPB, and we can’t imagine either of them doing anything so crass.
The main problem is that it confirms what many people suspect: that, despite making some of the right noises, behind the scenes, CAMRA isn’t fully committed to the idea of making the Campaign more welcoming to women, or at least hasn’t given it much more thought than you might expect from Alan Partridge or David Brent.
Once again, we find ourselves struggling to summon what is apparently the appropriate level of outrage as the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) award is announced by the Campaign for Real Ale.
It’s an important competition which can tip a brewery over into the big time, sure, but it’s not the Word of God.
If you accept that, of the thousands in production, it’s legitimate to name a single beer The Best, then there’s no reason we can see to be angry that the award has gone to Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker, aka Best Bitter.
Now, we get as bored as anyone of entering pubs and finding three ubiquitous and underwhelming bitters on offer, and we have to admit that we did hope something a bit sexier might win for once — the pale’n’hoppy Oakham Citra, universally loved in the Blogoshire, which came in second place, for example.
We’ve not had Boltmaker, as far as we can recall, but we suspect we’d probably enjoy it. Two of our most fondly-remembered pub sessions have been on Timothy Taylor beer — one in Haworth, and another at the Bricklayer’s Arms in Putney — and it can be transcendently wonderful, in that subtle, indescribable way that regional brewers sometimes achieve. (See also: the Batham’s.)
Perhaps that’s how Boltmaker tasted today? Enthusiasm on the part of the judges certainly seems a more likely than a sinister conspiracy aimed at the suppression of ‘craft’.
(Having said that, we’ll certainly be filing today’s result in the memory banks for next time someone claims traditional bitters are some kind of endangered species that don’t get enough attention…)
The Great British Beer Festival runs until Saturday 16 August.
What can we learn from the small book Real Ale in Devon published by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1984?
1.It is evidence of the increasing availability of ‘real ale’ in this period. With a hundred pages, this volume is as big as the first edition of the national Good Beer Guide,published ten years earlier. The introduction notes a huge boom in the number of ‘real ale outlets’ since the previous edition, and there 1050 listed in total.
2. Beer agencies were important players in the development of a beer geek culture. That is, distributors (middle men) who brought interesting outside beer into the region (Samuel Smith, Wadworth, Fuller’s, Theakston) at a price. Businesses of this type still exist, notably supplying kegged beer to the emerging ‘craft beer’ market currently neglected, or misunderstood, by larger distributors.
3. Bass is an honorary West Country beer. Since veteran observer the Pub Curmudgeon pointed it out to us, we’ve seen lots of evidence to support the idea that, beyond Bristol, Draught Bass was the traditional ‘premium’ alternative to poor quality locally brewed beers. This book describes it as ‘one of the commonest real ales in Devon’.
4.It was easier to get strong dark beer than pale’n’hoppy. There are several ‘strong winter’ ales listed, but nothing described as straw/golden coloured. Small brewers back then seem to have staked their reputations on producing heavier, headier beer than the thin, weak products turned out by big brewers. Marston’s Owd Roger old ale/barley wine had people rather excited.
5.There were several stand-out exhibition pubs. Where most pubs in the guide hada single real ale on offer (e.g. Whitbread Bitter), several leap out of the text with long lists. The Royal Inn at Horsebridge had nine ales, including some brewed on the premises; and the Peter Tavy at, er, Peter Tavy, has fourteen in its listing. There are quite a few others with similar numbers, and many more with six or seven.
6. The phrase ‘guest beers’, so important in the 1990s, was in use by this time. It is the antidote to the big brewery tied house model and an expression of a certain type of beer geekery, perhaps stimulated more by novelty and variety than a simple ‘decent pint‘.
7. We need to think a bit more about cider and its place in the ‘real ale revolution’. Devon’s CAMRA activists were evidently particularly keen to defend and promote ‘real cider’, but, by this stage, seem to have had more success bringing beer from Yorkshire and London than in preserving the true native drinking tradition.
8. Blackawton was the trendiest brewery in the county. It was Devon’s first microbrewery, and one of the first in the country, founded in 1977. We wonder if the presence of Blackawton beer in a pub wasn’t a kind of Bat Signal for beer geeks, rather as a Magic Rock pump clip is today.
9. If you didn’t like Courage, Plymouth was not the city for you. See also: Bristol.
(And a personal footnote: Bailey’s parents’ pub in Exeter sold Whitbread Bitter on hand-pump. Described as a ‘Town local’ in the text, it also, sadly, features in the addendum: “[The] following pubs should now be deleted…”)
We’re very grateful to Neil Bowness (@neil_bowness) for sending us a copy of this book which he tells us his mum bought for 20p at a church fair. Bargain!
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007