This post contains hits upon a few of our favourite themes in relatively few words: Ian Nairn, class, and the similarities between real ale culture and post-2005 craft beer.
In 1974 the architectural and cultural commentator Ian Nairn wrote an influential article in the Sunday Times which was reckoned at the time to have been partly responsible for the sudden leap in membership of the then young Campaign for Real Ale. That story is covered in Brew Britannia, Chapter Three, ‘CAMRA Rampant’ and the original article, we are assured, is going to be included in Adrian Tierney-Jones’s upcoming anthology of beer writing. (Disclosure: it will also include something by us.) Here’s a sample, though, to give an idea of Nairn’s angle:
[To] extinguish a local flavour, which is what has happened a hundred times in the last ten years, is like abolishing the Beaujolais: after all it’s red and alcoholic, might as well make it in Eurocity to an agreed Common Market recipe. The profits would be enormous, and the peasants wouldn’t know the difference… but the peasants are fighting back.
But here’s something we hadn’t seen until recently: the response from readers of the Sunday Times published a week later, on 7 July 1974. First, there’s an angry publican, Eddie Johnson of Chipping Ongar, saying something that, with a few changes, could be a comment on 21st Century craft beer culture:
Once more the voice of the middle class is raised in righteous indignation and is busily telling the working class what to drink… Would it surprise Ian Nairn to know that many years ago, when keg was first introduced and sold side by side with draught beer from the wood, keg was a runaway best seller? I worked in the London docks at the time, and 27 out of 30 docker bitter drinkers switched to keg… You see beer is a working man’s drink… It’s not to be spoken or written of in trendy, mannered language. It can’t be appreciated sipped out of half-pint dimple mugs by the chaps in their beards and jeans after a hard day’s sitting down the office.
This is part of a conversation that goes round in circles based largely on assertions: the thing I like, that was trendy 15 years ago, is humble, honest and straightforward; the thing they like, that’s just become trendy, is a symptom of snobbery and a symbol of elitism.
The ‘the half-bitter brigade’, Mr Johnson goes on to say, ‘stand in a pub at the bar stopping good punters from reaching it, talk in loud voices about the quality of the “cookin’,” and spend about 30p in three hours.’
And there’s also another nugget of evidence to suggest that the CAMRA stereotype beard and the hipster stereotype beard are the same thing.
(For more on the idea that 1970s outspoken real ale drinkers were regarded as what today would be called ‘hipsters’ in the popular press see also our posts ‘Beer Bellies or Blazers?’ and ‘Cask Ale as Premium Product’, both from 2013.)
Another letter in response to Nairn, from A.S. Roberts of Manchester, was more appreciative, and expressed the wish that his article would spur people to action, specifically:
1. Refuse, under any circumstances, to drink keg or over-carbonated beer, even if it means going without.
2. Join CAMRA in the hope that, given enough members, its voice will become too loud to be ignored.
3. Press for the abolition of liquour licensing (particularly licensed hours), the big breweries’ greatest friend.
But this correspondent was pessimistic:
I wish I could share Mr Nairn’s optimism in believing that this battle can be won, at least in our generation. When a brewery or pub has gone, another does not grow in its place.
The funny thing is that, depending on where you draw the victory line, CAMRA did win this battle within a few more years (Watney’s began to brew cask ale again, real ale became a embedded as a concept), and also new breweries did begin grow in the place of the lost ones — lots of them. As for pubs, well, maybe not quite so much, not yet.
The final letter was from John Dugdale of the Telford Development Corporation, responding to Nairn’s suggestion that the New Town there ought to revive the expired Wrekin brewery: ‘[We] are investigating the proposal with gusto.’ As far as we can tell, this didn’t come to fruition, but perhaps there’s a story to tell for someone who has time to look at local records.
We’ll have a bit more Ian Nairn himself tomorrow.