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:
The idea that there are two types of beer — living, wholesome and natural vs. industrial, dead and soulless — clearly overlaps with concerns about additives and chemicals, but that latter anxiety is much, much older. As Ron Pattinson said in a post earlier in the week, “Just about as soon as the Free Mash Tun Act became law in 1880, some began to campaign for ‘pure beer’… brewed from malt, water, hops and yeast alone.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, that campaigning was a serious matter — in 1900 hundreds of people Manchester and the surrounding areas were poisoned by beer containing arsenic (PDF) — but as the 20th century wore on, lobbying for pure beer became the preserve of cranks and dabblers.
Fairly early in its existence, however, CAMRA realised the sheer rhetorical power of the idea of ‘chemical beer’, and this cartoon, from the November 1972 edition of What’s Brewing (then a rabble-rousing tabloid-style rag) is typical:
When Michael Hardman, one of CAMRA’s four founders, published Beer Naturally in 1976, he beat the same drum, conflating the issue of purity with an opposition to practices such as pasteurisation, filtering, and the use of hop extracts:
Beer at its best is a reflection of a golden field of barley, a reminder of the rich aroma of a hop garden. Scientists can argue endlessly about the merits of the man-made concoctions which go into much of today’s beer but the proof of the pint is in the drinking… the best of British beer is produced from the gifts that nature gave us… The story of beer is a story of nature and of craftmanship; a story of farmers and brewers who create beer naturally.
Roger Protz’s 1978 paperback Pulling a Fast One was an attempt to do for beer quality what Christopher Hutt’s The Death of the English Pub had done for pub culture, and now stands as a fantastically evocative snapshot of the issues of the day:
In June 1976 I asked Peter Scully, head brewer at Tolly Cobbold in Ipswich, whether he used potatoes, onions, and pasta flour to help brew his beer… Members of the Campaign for Real Ale had earlier returned from visits to Tolly with [such] alarming rumours… The use of adjuncts and malt substitutes have become a major problem in recent years and some of the beer brewed in Britain would not be classified as such in countries that have strict laws governing its production. [p69]
He goes on to sing the praises of the Reinheitsgebot and the Isle of Man’s Pure Beer Law, as Hardman had done before him, and this would become an increasingly strong thread of CAMRA’s campaigning throughout the 1980s.
Graham Lees, another founder member, had moved to Germany where he became something of a Reinheitsgebot evangelist. In a piece for the 1987 Good Beer Guide he wrote:
The Germans have a word for it — chemiebier. Not for them the dubious substances which brewers in other lands mix in with their hops and malt.
That piece was part of a wider push in 1986-87 which saw beer purity become a key campaign issue — another stick with which to beat the reviled Big Six brewers.
Some brewers saw it as a marketing opportunity but most seem to have resented the idea that they should be required to declare the ingredients used in their beer.
Since then, perhaps with the rise of speciality beers containing all kinds of strange ingredients, beer purity seems to have taken a back seat in CAMRA’s campaigning.
The idea that there are some things that simply shouldn’t be put in beer continues to bubble under, resurfacing every now and then in a new configuration. In around 2001, for example, CAMRA came out in support of organic beer, and, ten years later, BrewDog began to criticise big brewers for using ‘loads of chemicals’ and ‘fish guts’ (isinglass finings).
‘Chemical beer’ might be lazy language, and it might, in many cases, betray a lack of scientific literacy, but it is powerful, and we suspect will continue to haunt the discussion for years to come.