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A Real Obsession With Authenticity

Real Burgers sign.

Though the Campaign for Real Ale weren’t the first to talk about ‘real’ beer, their enormous success in the mid-seventies did popularise the term and, before long, a whole range of other consumer products were having their ‘realness’ assessed.

The very first edition of What’s Brewing contained an exposé of a pub which was pretending to serve beer direct from a barrel on the bar while actually pumping it from a pressurised container in the basement, and it didn’t take long before those were known as ‘fake’, ‘false’ or ‘bogus’ barrels. ‘Fake handpumps’ became a similar source of irritation.

In 1974, Michael Hardman went mad with ‘real’ in an article about the Cambridge Beer Festival for What’s Brewing:

The whole event had an atmosphere of reality. The beer was real. The food was real (bread and cheese). The occasional bursts of music were real. And, most important of all, the people were real. There was no synthetic beer, no processed food, no piped music… typical of the events which big business tries to push on the gullible public of England.

Real people!? This is surely an expression of Phildickian paranoia from a time when people imagined we’d soon be eating flavoured vitamin pills for dinner, confusing androids with humans and listening to nothing but Switched on Bach.

Real fire from the cover of Good Beer Guide 1984.Before long, ‘real lager’ (German or Czech) was being described as the alternative to the ‘ersatz’ license-brewed variety. In 1978, CAMRA voiced its support for CAMREB — the Campaign for Real Wholemeal Bread. The 1983 Good Beer Guide mentions ‘”real” bottled beers’ and includes an article entitled ‘Real Cheese Please’. The 1984 edition (detail from cover, right) contained an article about ‘real fire’ heating as, for the first time, the presence of a suitably authentic blazing hearth was indicated in pub listings.

In the last forty years, CAMRA’s approach has been imitated by various other campaigns, giving us real education, real pet food, real books, real gravy, real milk, real farming, real beauty…

That last, of course, was a marketing campaign by cosmetics company. Hmm. Maybe we need an overarching Campaign for Real Realness, perhaps with a technical committee, to guard against ‘fake real‘?

7 replies on “A Real Obsession With Authenticity”

Sadly, the bun fight continues. Staring with a basic defintion of Real Bread being that made without any artificial additives of any kind (which rules out anything up to about 95% of the loaves we buy), the current Real Bread Campaign seeks and shares ways to make bread better for us, better for our communities and better for the planet.

The Real People, I remember them. And don’t knock Wendy Carlos.

Well, exactly.

My view is that at bottom, real anything is a conceit, a construct useful to the time just as industrial efficiency and mass production were once lauded as the panacea in their time – a time still very much with us actually and more important than ever, viz robotics and so forth. We all want the real, the authentic, the true, the green, the fresh, the local (albeit many of these notions are in direct contradiction), so our fancy creates what we need. It’s a harmless enough meme, but hey, someone grew the barley and hops in the real ale, and agribusiness probably had a lot to do with it, metal barrels (or say, heat exchangers and other such equipment in the brewery) are a triumph of metallurgy and other sciences which took the mind candlepower of 10,000 PhDs to achieve or perfect, and so on.

Even the addition of priming sugar and finings to real ale to enable it to condition quickly seems a late Victorian piece of nifty science. Finings were around before then but adding sugar was only made possible after the mid-1800’s and it took science to figure out how much of each reliably to add to obtain the expected results. Not to mention that adjunct use – only possible due to modern transportation and refining methods – was introduced partly to assist beer becoming clearer faster.

I’ve had cloudy real ale that is lousy and keg ale that is divine. Nonetheless I am a lifelong supporter of CAMRA and its objectives because their heart was in the right place and there was a particular issue, from a traditional beer flavour point of view, with circa-1970 (British) keg beer, but one should not push matters too far in the realm of the real, IMHO, since what is real or natural is often an artificial notion with very real (sorry) limits.


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