Ben the pub dog would only drink ‘real ale’, as shown on BBC consumer show That’s Life in 1983. Also featuring Barry Malone from Shropshire CAMRA: “Yes, that is a good quality real ale, yeah.”
In 1976, the Sunday Mirror invited Michael Hardman, a founding member of the Campaign for Real Ale, to take part in a beer ‘taste test’. He walked right into a trap.
Tasting ‘blind’, Hardman joined his fellow judges in declaring a keg bitter, Tetley’s Drum, the unanimous winner, and the Sunday Mirror duly declared it ‘the best beer in Britain’.
Hardman was quoted in the article, admitting that Drum was ‘very good’ and that he wasn’t surprised by the result.
CAMRA had, in effect, publicly endorsed a product of the very type it had been set up to do away with.
Campaign members were not impressed: they wrote to What’s Brewing declaring it a ‘fiasco’ and berating Hardman not only for taking part, but in particular for appearing to speak positively about keg bitter.
Hardman argued that he had only reacted honestly — the real ales, in the middle of a famous heat wave, had not been at their best, and the keg had been ‘in better condition on the day‘. He also defended his decision to take part, saying that CAMRA needed to take every opportunity it could to reach mainstream audiences.
Nonetheless, a lesson was learned, we think: we can’t recall hearing of anyone from CAMRA being lured into a similar cask vs. keg blind-tasting since.
There was only so much space available in Brew Britannia and not every nugget we came across made it into the text, so there will no doubt be more posts like this in the coming months.
The opening chapter of our book concerns the Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood, and one of the first things we learned about the SPBW is that, since the late sixties, they’ve actually been pretty relaxed about the whole wood thing.
Though caricatured as fundamentalists, the Society’s founders realised early on that the beer they liked wasn’t literally ‘from the wood’ in most cases.
When we toured a large regional brewery a while ago, we spotted a wooden cask sitting in a corner. The head brewer who was accompanying us rolled his eyes: ‘We do that for one pub in the estate. The regulars insist on it. Wood’s fine, as long as you like your beer to taste of vinegar.’
With this attitude holding sway in the industry, the SPBW accepted that, as long as a beer was cask-conditioned, even if said cask was made of metal, it would do the job.
And yet, fifty years after their founding (the first meeting took place on 6 December 1963), wood is suddenly back in fashion in British brewing.
At the East London Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) ‘Pig’s Ear’ beer festival in Hackney (running until this Saturday, 7 December), in honour of the SPBW, ten beers are being dispensed ‘from the wood’. This has taken some lobbying to achieve, but could it become a habit? Well, why not — after all, wooden casks are dead ‘craft’ (rustic, artisanal, handmade) aren’t they? And wooden casks do look lovely.
More significant, perhaps, is the recent obsession with ‘barrel ageing’, derived from Belgium via the United States. Though it is not always used quite as Arthur Millard and the other founders of the SPBW might have hoped, hip young brewers positively fetishise wood. At the Wild Beer Company in Somerset, barrels — their source a closely guarded secret — are cooed over like newborn babies: ‘This one was used for Pedro Ximenez — smell it!’
Though much of the beer ends up in bottles or kegs, the SPBW have nonetheless welcomed this new (old) development with a mix of bewildered surprise and ‘we told you so’ delight.
It might not be ‘from the wood’, but it has been ‘in the wood’, or ‘through the wood’, and that is close enough.
On 3 November, 1973, around six hundred members of the Campaign for Real Ale descended on the Staffordshire town of Stone to protest against Bass Charrington’s plans to close the local brewery, Joule’s.
The march was led by CAMRA Chairman Christopher Hutt, author of The Death of the English Pub, and organised by Terry Pattinson.
They were joined by locals, members of the Transport and General Workers Union, and the town’s brass band. The march was scheduled to begin at Westbridge Park at 3:15 p.m, and, after a circuit round the town centre, wound up at the cinema, where Hutt gave an impassioned speech.
In 1975, Dave Bennett, a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, proposed a formalised ‘vocabulary of taste’ for beer to rival that used by ‘wine snobs’.
It seems to have been a publication of some sort, and we’ve put out feelers to confirm that, and perhaps get sight of a copy.
In the meantime, we’ve gleaned from the Daily Mail of 17 February 1975 that Bennett attempted to dodge accusation of pretension by suggesting that beer should have a ‘smell’ instead of a ‘bouquet’, and proposed the following rather down-to-earth flavour descriptors:
- black treacle
- rhubarb-like tooth-sharpening
Treacle, mice, metal and grease? Not so much French château as the two-up-two-down terrace. We rather like ‘brothy’, even if we’re not quite sure how it applies to beer.
It would take another ten years for anything like this approach to take hold within CAMRA, and then not without opposition (for more on which see Des De Moor’s essay in the 2011 anthology CAMRA at 40).
This post is something of an extended footnote to a passing observation we have made in the first draft of our book. Expect more of these in the months to come.