Why cask ale matters — sticking up for CAMRA


A recent post of ours about the Good Beer Guide set off a wider debate about CAMRA‘s focus on cask ale, at the expense of other good beer, a point which Tim picks up here.

Just after we started blogging, we posted about the use of the word “craft” beer, and why we preferred it to “real ale” as a concept.  Re-reading it, I would still agree with most of the sentiments but I feel the need to stick up for real ale a little more now than I did then.

As a beer lover, I adore the fact that my favourite pints in the pub will rarely taste exactly the same.  I like that the fact that you can get amazing-tasting beer at relatively low strength — I can’t think of many sub 4% “unreal” beers that taste great, whereas I can think of many wonderful cask ales at that strength.

Sometimes we think that the UK could do with a “craft beer revolution”, one that focusses on the quality of the beer, not the way it’s produced.  Certainly beers like Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn Lager which are unreal by the time the hit the UK are fantastic gateway beers for people who aren’t that bothered about beer.

However, if there is less emphasis on cask ale, is there a danger that it will decline again?  As Jeff and Dave and various others point out, looking after and serving real ale is a chore.  Why would you do it unless you loved the stuff?  It would seem to be an obvious thing to get rid of if you run a pub company — as Jeff has pointed out, the margins are often worse, particularly for beer from small breweries.

So why do pub companies bother stocking cask ale (albeit often a limited selection) and how come so many landlords sell it even though they “don’t personally touch the stuff“? Could it be something to do with a national pressure group that rewards you in publicity for stocking the stuff?

I do get frustrated with narrow-minded attitudes towards lager, and what I call the “four legs good, two legs bad” dogma that many CAMRA members seem to subscribe to.  But we’re still members of CAMRA (albeit not active ones) because we would still like to see more cask ale around and a greater choice in the places that do stock it.  And while we hate the “take it to the top” campaign, there is a lot of other grass-roots stuff going on (“LocAle” springs to mind) that is helping to promote good beer in a wider variety of places.


Inside the mind of CAMRA

We hope CAMRA appreciates the brilliant if unsanctioned work of its activist bloggers. All the paid-for PR and press releases in the world can’t compete with the kind of insight we get daily from Maeib, Tandleman, Steve and others.

Recently, all three have come into their own, explaining the murky world of Good Beer Guide selection to outsiders in posts like those linked above. When we questioned why a particular pub wasn’t in the Good Beer Guide a few months back, Steve commented here, chased up with his contacts in the region in question, and then posted a detailed response here. Although Steve is careful to remind everyone that he isn’t speaking on behalf of CAMRA when he blogs, he certainly boosts its image by doing so.

We still don’t understand why, in some towns, the GBG lists so many indifferent Wetherspoons and Greene King pubs; and we’d rather be told, straight up, which are the most interesting pubs in town, rather than those with the most consistent beer quality (inconsistency is half the fun with real ale, right?); but at least we know now that the decisions aren’t made by robots or at random.

How do you maintain a good beer culture?

En Español

La Ronda (the Spanish speaking version of the Session) takes on a weighty philosophical topic, with Jorge Mario of Columbia asking:

How do you construct, consolidate and maintain a good beer culture?

I’m going to define a good beer culture as one where there are lots of different breweries, and where there is a good range of beers available. In other words, there should be choice for the consumer. Spain has a great bar culture, but I would be being kind if I said there was a great beer culture there.

The question of creating a beer culture from scratch is a fascinating one, but I don’t feel I know enough to comment. (Perhaps some US bloggers could help?). But here’s a few suggestions for what you need to maintain a good beer culture.

Pride is good, but palate is better

It’s good to be proud of your brewing heritage. But it’s important to be proud for the right reasons — does it taste good? The Germans are very proud of their beer, but this usually translates to being proud of drinking your local beer, just because it’s local. When the big corporations take over local Germany breweries, they almost always keep the names and the brand identity.

Whereas I get the impression in Belgium that people are proud of the fact that Belgium produces such a weird and wonderful range of beer, and this must surely help maintain the hundreds of breweries that you find in this tiny country.

Get organised — grass-roots campaigning

You can’t really talk about the British beer scene without mentioning CAMRA. We have our little moans from time to time, but there’s no denying that CAMRA saved cask ale. In doing this, they have promoted a culture of supporting small breweries and offering choice to the consumer.

The focus of CAMRA on real ale can make for a “four-legs-good, two-legs-bad” mentality at times — all real ale must be good, and all “unreal” ale is bad. Then again, a narrow, well-defined focus makes for an effective campaign.

Support your local decent pub

This one is obvious really, but the easiest to put into action – if you have a good pub that is committed to offering a range of beers, support it! The UK would not be able to support the hundreds of breweries it does without all those pubs creating the demand, so get down to your local and start boozing!


Can a pub with football on the telly be any good?

Portugal warming up at the 2006 World Cup in Germany
Portugal warming up at the 2006 World Cup in Germany

CAMRA guides to pubs often praise the absence of a TV screen, and indeed, a big sign outside a pub boasting Sky / Setanta sports and a big screen is usually synonymous with mediocre beer.

I can see why people hate TVs in pubs, because they can distract people from conversation and detract from the atmosphere.

But occasionally, I do want to watch a football match in the pub, and I always have to compromise on the quality of the beer (and pub) to do so.

Has anyone got any suggestions for places in central London that are really good pubs with nice beer that just happen to have a screen? Or are the two mutually exclusive?

I suppose what you need is a pub that has several sections, where you can keep the football in a discrete area, so everyone’s happy.  In Germany, both during the World Cup in 2006 and the European Championships this year, loads of cafes and bars got in screens, but put them outside, helping to create a fantastic street party atmosphere.

Incidentally, Zeitgeist is pretty good for big sporting events, but you have to choose your night carefully, as Bundesliga and Germany qualifiers get priority!


Beer Exposed – what's that all about?

Anchor Porter
Anchor Porter

We’ve been invited to this Beer Exposed event in London at the end of September. I can’t quite work out what to make of it.

The good side – lots of brewers from around the world will be there. That said, the choice is a little weird — as well as excellent breweries from Britain (Fullers, Exmoor, Harvieston), Belgium (Liefmans, Westmalle*) and America (Great Divide, Goose Island, Anchor etc), there’s also a lot of dull “world lager” — eg Tsingtao, Quilmes, Cristal from Cuba and no less than four bland Polish breweries. Although, if Zywiec bring along some Porter, I’ll be first in the queue.

The mission of the event is to “explore, educate, enlighten”, and to this end there are various talks and walks run by various beer celebs. Star turn for beer geeks must be Garrett Oliver, doing various sessions on beer with food, including beer & cheese and beer & chocolate pairings. Many members of the British beer-writing gliterati are also there, and some of the sessions look very interesting indeed.

But… the whole thing smacks a bit of “beer is the new wine” to me. There’s quite a hefty entrance fee — £14 in advance, £17 on the door, which doesn’t include any of the beer walks or talks. Lots of the talks are focused on beer and food. There’s no-one over the age of 30 on the promotional material. There’s even a bloody dress code. Although if this is mostly to stop the sexist t-shirts, I don’t mind so much…

There’s also no mention of real ale, which is perhaps why I’ve not seen much mention of this in official CAMRA press or on their website. They do have a stand there, though, so hopefully real ale is not going to be entirely neglected in this sensory exploration. While I firmly believe that there are some great non-real beers in the world, real ale is an important and uniquely British part of the beer story.

So — an interesting radical approach to extending the appeal of beer, or a pretentious marketing exercise? Are tutored tastings and food pairings the way to enlightenment? If this kind of exercise helps people learn about wine, why not apply it to beer?

We’ll go along with an open mind and report back…


*are they bringing monks??

Beer Exposed is on at the Business Design Centre in Islington from 25th-27th September. You have to pick a four hour slot to attend. You can find a full schedule of events, plus details about the speakers, sessions and who’s exhibiting on the Beer Exposed website.