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The Challenge of Objectivity

Detail from a Watneys Red Beer Mat.

As we start lining up interviews with the current generation of British brewers, rather than those in retirement, we find ourselves reflecting on what we can do to make sure our book remains objective. We’re interested in them because they’re part of a bigger story, not because we think they’re awesome. What we don’t want to do is parrot their PR, puff them up, or get drawn into fawning. (Under an awning..?) There’s plenty of that about already.

We’ve already had our objectivity tested a couple of times. One of the things we are determined to avoid is merely repeating the established CAMRA mythology — ‘we saved beer’ — which has been polished to a sheen with years of repetition, but it’s hard when you speak to founder members and early activists not to get swept up in the excitement of it all. That’s especially true when they are nice fellers, and you’re sharing a pint.

What’s working so far, we think, is asking challenging questions, without malice, and as politely as possible.

It is also helpful to speak to ‘the enemy’. A chap who worked in PR for a big brewery in the seventies was very helpful in giving an alternative view of CAMRA in its heyday. We’ve also managed to dig out a few contemporary articles which set out how the Big Six felt about CAMRA at the time. (They didn’t like it.) It’s a shame that we missed the chance to grill E.C. ‘Ted’ Handel, head of PR at Watney’s in the early seventies, though.

What we need to do, for balance, is find the modern equivalent of Mr Handel — someone from AB-Inbev or Diageo perhaps — and ask them what they think of CAMRA and the current craft beer boom. But what would be in it for them?

10 replies on “The Challenge of Objectivity”

I think you should get brewers (or people) who’ve been in the trade for quite a few years and ask them not about the beers they make (sell), but about the job they do and how things have changed in since they started. Perhaps you could also try to get them to speak more as consumers than brewers.

It’s been interesting trying to get people to talk to us as actors in the drama rather than as commentators on it — many of them have written books and/or articles of their own.

the modern equivalent would probably love it given that everyone and their mother is craft beer these days — Molson-Coors spearheaded this approach with their ‘it’s all beer’ schtick a couple of years ago.

And, unlike E.C. Handel, they’d be slick enough to know that saying anything mean about ‘the opposition’ from a position of power reflects badly on them and sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ narrative.

There was a fascinating feature on the Food Programme a while back where they had a range of beers being tasted by somebody from one of the megacorps, a beardie and a professional food-taster. The interesting part was when they tasted the megacorp’s lager. Megacorp Man said it tasted clean, crisp, fresh, modern etc; Beardie said it tasted of nothing at all. So the taster got the casting vote – and she said it was a delicate, subtle blend, with a faint taste of this and a faint aroma of that, and with all the potentially harsh flavours cleverly toned down to avoid putting anyone off.

You can see where I’m going with this. It’s fundamental to the self-image of CAMRA that Big Six keg beer was imitation beer, and generally a bad imitation of beer. What if it wasn’t bad at all? What if it was just different – and, perhaps, different in a way that appealed to more people? What if the Big Six were actually… sort of… right… in their own way?

I know, I know. I’ll wash my mouth out immediately. I just think it’d be really interesting if you could get somebody from one the big brewers who didn’t want to jump the craft bandwagon, but who was willing to talk about cask ale as a niche market that just didn’t interest them much.

The Big Six PR chap we spoke to made a compelling case for keg bitter as a response to a consumer revolt against bloody awful cask ale. The response could have been investment in cellars, training, quality inspection, etc., but, instead, they went down the keg route, partly because they were also getting the message that people wanted colder, fizzier, more ‘refreshing’ beer.

So, they didn’t think they were making bad beer — just beer that would have ‘wide appeal’.

Maybe a new consumer organisation is required. One to campaign to bring back red barrel?

I believe the brand is currently in Heinekens portfolio

Cripes — what if, like all those hop varieties that got ditched in the seventies for being ‘too American’, Red Barrel was actually just ahead of its time?

That would certainly be ironic about Red Barrel.

Getting a AB-Inbev or Diageo rep. would probably end up being something similar to the Jonas Magnusson video visiting Stella Artois (The video Pete Brown blogged about recently “The mischievous Swede and the truth about Stella Artois”).

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