The Session

Session #103: The Hard Stuff

For the 103rd beer blogging session, Natasha at MetaCookbook has asked everyone to think about what in beer culture isn’t being talked about that should be.

One thing that’s been on our mind lately — that is, for about the last 30 years or so — is class. ‘Craft beer culture’ is documented to the Nth degree but the voices of people who really drink in real pubs, in parts of the country not populated by newspapers columnists and academics, are not being heard.

This is not a new problem: ‘History from Below’ is the name of a project by a group of UK historians examining how the experience of working people in the past can be illuminated. While princes and politicians wrote letters, diaries and memoirs, there remains hardly any record of the voices of many people — of entire occupations, communities and cultures.

In the UK, beer and pubs are part of working class (US: blue collar) culture, but they are written about almost exclusively by people like us — university educated, middle class (US: white collar) nerds. That is, the chattering, writing, blogging classes.

'The Unrepentant Savagery of Working-Class People' from the Scarfolk Website.
‘The Unrepentant Savagery of Working-Class People’ from the Scarfolk website, used with permission.

So, at best, we end up with admirable but flawed projects like Mass Observation which record working class life, but only indirectly, filtered through observers and editors, and then packaged for the arguably voyeuristic interest of middle class readers.

Does the commentary of someone who grew up working class have any more validity in this context than someone who went to Eton?There’s almost a Catch 22 here: learning the necessary skills to research and write, and gaining the time, space and, crucially, confidence to do so promptly invalidates your working class credentials.

And middle class writers slumming in pubs they find hilariously grotty, chuckling at ‘nutters’ and ‘chavs’, is worse again.

Middle class writers aren’t completely useless but, if we want to be part of the solution to this problem, we need to learn to make ourselves invisible, to shut up and listen, and to stop showing off.

32 replies on “Session #103: The Hard Stuff”

I think you have to rethink all of this. Some people don’t consider themselves a breed apart from others they meet . Not everyone’s as class conscious as you perhaps. Personally I feel no requirement to “shut up and listen” when I’m in what you’d consider a working class boozer. I just be myself, and that isn’t quiet and introverted, as you know . Moreover I don’t go to certain pubs to “slum it” – I go because I like the place in question. Also, you see nutters everywhere. Posh nutters can be particularly rewarding and I love encountering them in boozers in nice bits of Sussex.

So basically that’s you responded to and I’ll get back to my banging hangover, cheers, thanks. STONCH

Real Ale and Craft Beer are both overwhelmingly middle class considerations.

I don’t know any other facet of life that is so obviously and fundamentally split along class lines.

This certainly wasn’t the case when CAMRA was formed, though. Indeed, back then, keg was promoted as the upmarket, aspirational product.

There are still substantial pockets of working-class real ale drinking – Greater Manchester and the West Midlands being particular examples.

The whole notion of an “aspirational product” is itself rooted in working class culture and the conception of the nouveau riche.

“Real Ale and Craft Beer are both overwhelmingly middle class considerations. I don’t know any other facet of life that is so obviously and fundamentally split along class lines.”

The Monarchy. House of Lords. Most MPs. The Judiciary. The top Civil Service. Sandhurst. Public schools. Oxford & Cambridge. Royal Ascot. Fox Hunts. Henley. Equestrianism. Badminton Horse Trials. Polo. Wimbledon. Over a third of the UK being owned by 1,200 families descended from aristocracy.

All egalitarian stuff: it’s real ale that’s driving the class divide. Why didn’t I see it earlier?

All upper class. I was talking about the dividing line between working class and middle class cultures.

If its got cask ale, its a middle class pub. Proper estate boozers have three types of lager, john smiths, strongbow and Guinness, and a keg mild if you’re lucky.

Despite what PY asserted about me on Curmudgeon’s blog a while ago, I do sometimes go to working class pubs, even non-real ale pubs; there’s quite a lot of them in Merseyside. Funnily enough, I don’t find the experience much different from drinking in other pubs, but then I don’t go into a pub as though I were on an anthropological expedition. Having said that, there’s no pub I regularly go to that I’d describe as wholly middle class.

I question whether there really is “catch-22” re: learning the skills of researching and writing somehow negating one’s “working class credentials.” Speaking from a U.S. point of view — there are many hobbies/passions where folks’ desire to learn more and immerse themselves in said hobby/passion brings them to expert level; and their command of facts and ability to express themselves is top-notch regardless of work status or wider education level.

I work in retail (one grade above minimum, on the “supervisor” wage”). My father was an insurance clerk, and my mother had many jobs, mainly in retail and service. I’m nearly 40. I’ve never been to university, or even have any A Levels.

I do prefer the Craft to the Cask (despite what my blog would suggest), but I’m the outsider looking in on the majority of things in life. Ostensibly working class, but having pretty much nothing in common with either the working or middle classes.

Explains a lot about the outlook and opinions expressed at Seeing The Lizards, anyway.

This does not translate well outside the UK and maybe even only outside England. I am the first generation to be born in a hospital and go to university but the Greenock tenement was left behind almost 60 years ago and the cousins of the clan lives in Canada, the U.S., South Africa, NZ and Oz as well as still in the UK at many economic levels. The class construct really doesn’t apply because of the fluidity of opportunity and mobility.

I think the idea that gaining the confidence to write about your experiences makes you middle-class is rather confused, not to say defeatist.

I’m sometimes conscious of not ‘belonging’ in a working-class pub, but rarely feel uncomfortable – or if I do it’s a discomfort I’m used to & can live with. I hate really middle-class pubs, though – always feel like I’m going to be chucked out. (I went to Cambridge and haven’t done a day’s manual labour in the last 30 years.)

I can’t help feeling this post perhaps says more about the author(s) than it does about anything else. I have been to all sorts of pubs over the years and have rarely if ever felt particularly uncomfortable (not even in the “dancing drunks” pub in Stockport town centre – Mudgie will know which one I mean)

Might that be a pub that I dropped into on a Tuesday afternoon, about 4.00, to find that I appeared to have gatecrashed a party which had been going on for several hours and had a bit of life in it yet – possibly two or three separate parties? (A pub which serves Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild?) How they were managing it, even at those prices, I don’t know – and perhaps don’t want to know.

No, one in a former jewellers’ shop. It’s the second stop on the annual Hillgate stagger, and early in the evening usually gives the impression that a long and raucous party is just winding down.

I know the one you mean, though.

A bit like the one when they said noone just orders a lager in the pub, yes this says more about the authors.

Very good at history but don’t get out much so not really comfortable in pubs perhaps. Doesn’t make the whole thing pointless because the history stuff is good but their observations about pubs today probably need a big pinch of salt.

just my two pennorth anyway, cheers

This has nothing to do with our feeling comfortable or otherwise — it’s about who has the right, or is best equipped, to document working class pub culture.

There is a big gap between “right” and being equipped. If we observe, analyze and report as writers who lacks a right? If this were true, we’ have to pack it in with writing about the cultural history of the experience of beer as none of us are the participant in the 1820s frontier drinking party we come across described in a diary. I don’t worry about rights when I attempt that sort of essay.

You have entered the neighbourhood, have you not, of the argument that men cannot write about women in novels. But to write a proper novel set in reality you must include men and women even though as an author you are only granted one gender existence. Can’t it be that anything written has the authors DNA and upbringing – including upper class git silly red pants – all over it and the readers take that into account? Won’t something that is well written express that but also accurately convey what is observed even if the author and subject come from something as arbitrary as separate English economic backgrounds?

There may be more working class/blue collar people who drink beer than others, but the crucial distinction I see is between consumers, of any social category, and those who write/mediate/publicize. It’s true in the wine world. The Robinsons, Johnsons, etc. do their good work but how does that connect to the City worker buying wine in a rush from an upscale chain or in Waitrose before dinner?

Very English discussion too, as Alan noted.


The wine comparison is good but it does lead quickly to an uncomfortable realization: what is the point, then, of me even writing this sentence.

Well, it’s two worlds connected, not by an umbilical cord, but with “something”. Writers do influence drinkers and trends. I read that lists and best values make the most impact on readers. And polls of course. At our LCBO, the wine items where almost any rating on the shelf is marked in the 90’s sell out very fast. But so do the discounted items.

I agree with B&B beer writers should ask the typical pub person, not the one specially interested in beer (or wine, etc.), why do you like this, or not like it? How do you learn about, or choose, new products? This isn’t done very often. I myself occasionally ask people these questions in a pub. Answers are always interesting. Eg. recently someone said he tried Shock Top for the first time, a friend had talked about it, and it is now his go-to beer. Another once said he found Heineken too heavy in taste, he prefers a Blue or Canadian, say. You get all kinds of reaction which needs to be better reported and discussed.


I was thinking a little of an existential “why?” in that comment.

While, yes, we are suddenly veering towards that 2009 crisis when certain people thought other people shouldn’t write about beer I think the greater point is really that as humans we are locked in out own internal subjective experience. Both alcohol and writing are, coincidentally, ways to break across the barrier of the nihilist individual isolation. Like orphaned colonies of a forgotten space empire out of a 1976 episode of Doctor Who, it’s all just a process of reaching out and expressing.

So go mad. Write “malty” FFS. Write about people in pubs unlike any you’ve experience if only to report that they exist. Was there really anything wrong or even disrespectful in what Tom and Bob wrote in 1821?

Bit depressed to find that people aren’t getting from this what we’d intended.

Here’s a comment I’m trying to make elsewhere:

“[EDIT: With the Catch 22 line,] I was writing about my own experience but was perhaps unnecessarily coy for various reasons.

“I grew up skint, in a working class family, and only got the confidence to write after ‘escaping’ (that’s the word everyone uses, not my choice) via university. At which point, my reflections on working class life are apparently suddenly invalid because I didn’t follow my dad into a career operating a lathe.

“The post was supposed to be a complaint about the middle class homogeneity of beer writing and a hint at a solution, but people who find us annoying I guess are always going to assume the worst.”

To be fair, it wasn’t clear you were talking about your own experience. It’s a bit condescending if you were talking about other people. Having clarified though, I do get what you mean.

Fair enough but I do think this is a local (as in English) perspective and concern. I am not being insistent by stating this again, just clarifying the extra source of uncertainty for me. Example: I had the occasion to have dinner this year at an eighth person table that included two members of the House of Lords and parliamentaruans elected from three nations. I spoke with them politely and openly as I would an equal in a convivial setting. I also made a point – in their company – of chatting with the security staff who was following the fitba on his radio. No one seemingly minded. If I was crossing up class messages and rules I really would not have cared nor known I was doing it. The evening went well.

Anyone who hasn’t read The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart really should do – the first third is a brilliant description of working-class life in Leeds in the 1930s and the early postwar period. He also makes it clear that within the working class there were many subtle delineators of status.

Whether anyone outside the working class can really speak for them or honestly reflect their culture is always going to be a moot point. In the 50s and 60s, there were plenty of novelists like Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow and David Storey who came from a working-class background and described working-class life, but in a sense the very act of intellectualising it sets them apart from their roots.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: