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How ‘conservative coded’ is cask ale?

Is cask ale right wing, left wing, both, or neither? Is cask, in American terms, ‘conservative coded’? It’s complicated.

Last week a row blew up when an industry body concerned with cask ale announced plans to promote its newest campaign on the right wing GB News channel.

The controversy was more intense, perhaps, because this happened in a week when even GB News seemed to concede that some of its presenters had gone too far.

Observing this news from across the Atlantic, American drinks writer Dave Infante asked for context via social network BlueSky:

any british drinkers on here that could weigh in on how ‘conservative’ cask ale is coded in the uk?

Travelling on a bus across Somerset, we did our best to answer in a series of quick replies.

But, actually, this feels like a topic worth digging into in more detail, and now we’ve had more time to reflect.

What do you mean by ‘cask ale’?

Literally, cask ale refers to a method of dispense, as explored in-depth by Des de Moor in his most recent book.

But here, we’re talking about its place in British culture. What it means, or signifies.

For many people, cask ale is synonymous with brown bitter, produced by companies hundreds of years old, such as Arkell’s or Shepherd Neame.

It’s horse brasses, Inspector Morse, dimple mugs, shire horses, blazers with badges, regimental ties, red trousers, vintage cars, cricket, golf, Alan Partridge with his big fat shot of Director’s.

A pint of your finest foaming, if you please, stout yeoman of the bar.

This version, or view, of cask ale is distinctly ‘conservative coded’, for one particular idea of what conservatism means.

What do you mean by ‘conservative’?

In Britain, as in the US, conservatism is fractured.

The Conservative Party, AKA the Tories, was for many years the party of the landed gentry, the military and the Church.

They were literally conservative, as in, resistant to social change, and supportive of existing social hierarchies.

Then, in the late 20th century, the Conservatives pivoted under Margaret Thatcher to a more radical form of conservatism.

It prioritised deregulation, low taxes and free market economics, with less emphasis on social class and tradition.

Especially if it got in the way of growth.

You might almost categorise these two factions as (a) cask ale Tories and (b) lager lout Thatcherites.

The latter group, to deal again in broad stereotypes, were less about shire horses and tweed, more Porsches and pinstripes.

There’s no doubt that the late John Young of London brewery Young & Co was a conservative.

Indeed, it’s been suggested he was somewhat further to the right than that gentle word might suggest.

He was also a dogged traditionalist who clung to cask ale throughout the 1970s, arguably playing a large part in saving it.

Then, on the other hand, you might look at the families behind Watneys, Whitbread and the rest of the Big Six.

While supporting the Conservative Party, they were entirely unsentimental about cask ale.

In pushing keg bitter, then lager, throughout the post-war period, they were regarded as the enemies of cask ale.

It was in that context that the script got flipped and cask ale became an element of the counterculture.

An old photo of people marching with a brass band.
CAMRA marches against the closure of the Joules brewery at Stone, 3 November, 1973, with CAMRA chairman Christopher Hutt at dead centre.

Cask ale as a radical cause

Whether the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was left or right wing was something we researched in depth a decade ago while writing Brew Britannia.

Early members of the campaign included “everyone from National Front members to Maoists”, as one interviewee told us.

People who wanted to preserve tradition and turn back the clock found themselves campaigning alongside those who wanted to give Tory brewery owners bloody noses and champion ‘small is beautiful’ principles.

Broadly speaking, though, CAMRA was about challenging powerful capitalist interests (Watneys) and was sometimes talked about as a sort of beer drinker’s trade union.

It seems to us that many of the newer generation of microbrewers shared this rebellious, challenger mindset, even if their owners’ personal politics varied widely.

In the 21st Century

As we keep saying, cask ale’s political image is complicated, and only got more so in recent years.

As ‘craft beer’ arrived in the UK, cask ale came to be regarded by some as a relic, and CAMRA as an obstruction.

Self-declared rebels and revolutionaries like BrewDog (we know, we know – check out chapter 14 of Brew Britannia) made keg beer their cause.

For a stretch there, that meant even small scale cask ale was perhaps regarded as ‘conservative coded’.

Even though BrewDog, Camden and other successful keg-focused UK craft breweries proved to be the most purely capitalistic of the lot.

And much to the irritation of radically-minded cask ale brewers, especially in the North of England.

But in these days of the supposed culture war ‘conservative’ isn’t just about your attitude to economics. It’s also about your stance on feminism, gender, racism, Brexit, vaccination…

Nigel Farage, the most prominent champion of Brexit, made pints of cask ale part of his personal image, and the preservation of the crown-stamped pint glass a key talking point of the ‘Leave’ campaign.

As beer writers are fond of pointing out, cask ale is uniquely British (terms and conditions may apply) and so lends itself to nationalist posturing.

Cask ale is also associated with ‘proper pubs’. For many, a proper pub is the very dream and ideal. For others, it’s an idea loaded with danger signs: doesn’t it just mean white, male and possibly, or probably, racist?

CAMRA has also struggled to convincingly counter suggestions that racism and sexism are baked into its culture – though perhaps headway is finally being made on that front, at the cost of alienating members who liked that.

One final test

If you were writing a fictional character who is a conservative (right wing) what would you have them drink?

Depending on the flavour of their conservatism, it might be Champagne, wine, port or brandy.

If they’re a filthy rich City type, they might go for the most expensive lager on the bar – or a keg IPA, these days.

But in most instances, it would be a pint of cask ale, right?

That’s certainly what Conservative Party politicians like to be photographed holding, even when they don’t drink.

Look, we know it’s almost a decade old, but do give Brew Britannia a read. It goes into much of the above in plenty of detail and should help you work out your own answer to this complex question.

14 replies on “How ‘conservative coded’ is cask ale?”

I’ve always thought of cask beer as left wing. Branch meetings in the 70s were full of trade union activist types expressing their hate of the ‘Big 6.’ I find that they typical cask drinker today is knowledgeable about beer and politics and rarely has a good word for the Tories. Disclaimer: I live in Merseyside where Conservatives are hard to find.

I would second that, with reservations. It must be said, though, that many of the images conjured up by real ale brewers have been anything but left wing – a comforting vision of olde England figures large in much of their advertising. And who can forget the appalling “Bottle of Britain” advertising campaign peddled by Shepherd Neame in the 2000s – it was the kind of utterly unfunny racist nonsense that could have been written by the Brexit campaign a few years later.

Cask ale is associated with conserving or bringing back old ways of doing things, and with small and independent businesses. All of those things may be conservative, but aren’t necessarily. Conservation isn’t necessarily conservative – ask a Green. Wanting to go back to the past isn’t necessarily conservative – it depends what it is you want to ‘bring back’, whether it’s white supremacism or a fully-funded NHS. Even supporting independent businesses isn’t necessarily conservative – it’s not the Left who support big corporations, after all.

So people like Farage can tap into the backward-looking associations of cask ale, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that they own that territory. What tips the balance, I think, is the way that cask ale links to things that can’t be associated with the Right. I’m thinking about “real ale”, and the way the movement for “real ale” emerged at the same time that people were advocating “real bread” and “real cheese”, made in the old ways without mechanisation or adulteration. The crucial thing about “real ale” in this respect is not that it’s the good stuff, or even that it’s the real stuff: the point is that it’s the real stuff that should be the norm, should be available to everyone. CAMRA was never a Campaign for the Availability of Artisan Ale (At An Economic Price) – although a lot of contemporary writing on craft beer takes precisely that position. It was, and should be, a Campaign for the Ale Everyone Drinks to be Real (Again). And those associations – with quality for all, with social justice in the provision of basic foodstuffs – aren’t available to the Right.

Left or Right, Cask is in the fringe with the weirdos in society. It crosses urban/rural, rich/poor boundaries but it’s not mainstream, is “traditional” and it forever seems out of touch.

It is beards, folk music, silly t-shirts, Iron Maiden on the book cover, Hobgoblins and “quaffing”. It’s probably also both fox hunting and wellies, and ex-miners in crumbling towns, and that’s sadly why it’s dying out.

At the very tiny pinnacle it’s high quality and forward-thinking, and marketable, and inoffensive but that’s really niche, and by the time we’ve found that pint we’ve already got a Madri or Neck Oil and have given up caring about Labour or Tories.

What the debacle with Cask Marque has shown is that it’s not just the consumers who are weird, but the industry leaders are also unfit to drive any change.

In its early days, CAMRA was part of a general reaction in society against the modernising, centralising trends of the 1960s, something that had been embraced by both major political parties. This was also represented by the railway and canal preservation movements, Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” and “The Good Life”.

Yes, CAMRA was organised like a trade union, but it appealed both to cultural conservatives yearning for Ye Olde England, and left-wingers wanting to stick it to big business.

I’m not sure that nowadays liking cask beer has any political connotations apart from suggesting you’re probably getting on in years. Maybe, as the previous commentator suggested, it marks you out as an individualistic person, which is not a characteristic exclusive to either Left or Right.

Also well done for a balanced and thoughtful contribution to this debate.

On the demand side I see it as apolitical. If anything those Britons I’ve known that like it, in and outside the beer culture, edge leftist, but at bottom liking good beer has no political stamp. It is about (finally) gastronomy, good taste, good things, call it what you will.

Ditto the supply side or related marketing initiatives, as it would be a rare bird among the brewing and marketing flocks who don’t want to sell/market as much as they can.

But selling beer – any beer – is a hard job, as Fritz Maytag has stated. There is no royal road to the geometry of successful branding and promotion, even with a fine product.

Some get it right, many more don’t. I hope those who make and sell cask today get it right, not because it has any image of politics or culture I cherish, but for its status – at its best – as one of the world’s great epicurean experiences.

I cast around in the news media media a bit to get a sense of the kind of beer politicians who take photo-ops in pubs drink. There are clearly a few that show cask ale being drawn or consumed by, say, Farage, Cameron, Boris Johnson, even an early black and white picture by Margaret Thatcher. She appears behind a line of hand pulls hoisting a very dark beer, early 1960s or earlier. In her case, it was the period that clearly explained this: almost all draught beer then was cask. For more recent politicians, I suspect it is the apparatus of the handpulls, often colourful pump badges, and overall cask “atmosphere” that explains their beer choice. It makes a good picture compared to turning a small metal lever of lager, and the dark amber or copper is nice to look at vs. the pale yellow of most lager. That’s all it is, in my view. Here is a recent image showing a Liberal Democrat hoisting a pint of real ale: There is a similar one out there for Nick Clegg.

I think it was Sigmund Freud who once said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I marched through Stone on 3rd November 1973 and for old times sake I’ll be getting round a few of the town’s pubs on Friday 3rd of next month.

It’s all been scrambled recently hasn’t it? I think of Agatha Christie as being fairly conservative in her outlook, but today if someone were to write crime fiction featuring a war refugee immigrant as the brilliant detective, you would not assume the author was conservative, would you? For what it’s worth Poirot drank creme de cassis and shit like that, but he kept bottled beer around for Georges to serve to his police officer guests.

As a bit of trivia I believe when Mr. Gladstone bought a house in London he bought it from a member of the Guinness family.

As much as I love B&B this post is a tad naive and childish.

They fall into the trap of cask v craft rather than good v bad. The persistent association by them of CAMRA = racist, old fashioned etc is a shame, and an indication of out of touchness.

“The persistent association by them…”

We didn’t create that association, we’re just observing it. For example, it’s not so long ago that a pub listed in the Good Beer Guide was the centre of a major news story about a display of racist dolls. The Campaign has been fairly open about the struggle to do the right thing on social issues and has faced a backlash for doing so. We can’t just ignore that kind of thing when we’re trying to answer this specific question. We are not CAMRA PR, despite having been members for quite a while now.

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