beer in fiction / tv opinion

Real ale as folk horror

It’s a standing joke amongst horror fans that you can make the case for almost anything to be part of the ‘folk horror’ sub-genre. But what about real ale?

This thought started with a conversation I was having on BlueSky about cultural cycles of reaction against technology in which I said:

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Campaign for Real Ale, The Wicker Man and the English Morris dancing revival all landed at about the same time.

The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy and released in 1973, is arguably the key text in understanding what folk horror means.

It stars Edward Woodward as a mainland policeman sent to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a girl.

He finds that the people of Summerisle practice a form of paganism and, though they’re a weirdly friendly bunch, he soon discovers that sacrifice plays an important part in their religion.

Other important examples of folk horror include The Blood on Satan’s Claw, directed by Piers Haggard, released in 1971, and the 1973 novel Harvest Home by American writer Thomas Tryon.

For a fuller explanation of what folk horror is, or might be, check out this post from Rowan Lee and, indeed, her entire blog.

The main point is that many of the stories concern secretive cults which are unwelcoming to outsiders and cling to arcane practices and rituals. Which brings us to CAMRA.

Calm down! I’m kidding. Sort of.

If you’ve read Brew Britannia you’ll know that Jess and I made the case there for CAMRA as part of a post-post-war reaction against modernity. After 20 years of space age, atom age technology, including keg beer and concrete pubs, it felt like time to get back to basics – and to nature.

We highlighted connections with preservation movements, protest movements, and E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

In 1976 CAMRA founder Michael Hardman even wrote a book called Beer Naturally (we have a signed copy) which opens with this statement:

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 and by methods which have been proudly handed down over the centuries. The story of beer is a story of nature and of craftsmanship; a story of farmers and brewers who join forces to create beer naturally.

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in an excellent tweed suit. Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie is behind him. They are in a lush garden.

Now, try reading that in the voice of Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, whose actual speech goes:

What attracted my grandfather to the island, apart from the profuse source of wiry labor that it promised, was the unique combination of volcanic soil and the warm gulf stream that surrounded it. You see, his experiments had led him to believe that it was possible to induce here the successful growth of certain new strains of fruit that he had developed. So, with typical mid-Victorian zeal, he set to work. The best way of accomplishing this, so it seemed to him, was to rouse the people from their apathy by giving them back their joyous old gods, and it is as a result of this worship that the barren island would burgeon and bring forth fruit in great abundance.

We’ve written before about the spooky potential of pubs, including The Green Man in The Wicker Man and, of course, The Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London. That’s not generally considered folk horror but those scenes on the Yorkshire moors could definitely be framed that way.

Beer loosens inhibitions. Beer puts people in touch with their animal instincts. Beer is magic.

The crossover between folk + horror + beer is perhaps best captured in a traditional song recorded by Traffic in 1971 as ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’:

“There were three men came out of the West
Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die…”

Just to run over those dates again:

  • The Blood on Satan’s Claw, 1971
  • ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’, 1971
  • CAMRA is founded, 1972
  • The Wicker Man, 1973

Much as I was enjoying my thought experiment, I wanted a sense check, and immediately thought of Lisa Grimm.

She’s a beer blogger and podcaster who I also happen to know enjoys folk horror. She says:

The Venn diagram of real ale, CAMRA, folk horror and – depending on whom you ask, more or less tangentially – mainstream archaeology in the mid-to-late 1960s and 1970s is not quite a circle, but there is a huge amount of overlap.

While archaeologists have always liked their beer (I’m pretty sure I learned more about beer than prehistory in my two degrees) popular archaeology fed into the eventual folk horror media landscape starting in 1968, when Richard J. C. Atkinson’s work at Silbury Hill was broadcast on the BBC.

This makes its way into Doctor Who in 1971 in The Daemons, which ticks all the boxes: a traditional pub called The Cloven Hoof, predating The Green Man in The Wicker Man by several years; televised ‘archaeology’ summoning an ancient evil (albeit one from another planet, in this instance) from definitely-not-Silbury Hill; good witchcraft; a maypole; and even some dodgy Morris dancers thrown into the mix.

There’s no way the pub in this episode – or, indeed, The Green Man – wouldn’t pass muster with early-years CAMRA. These look like hardcore real-ale spots with aggressively local-rural clientele. The punters literally out of central casting also fit the stereotype – all beards and tankards, no kegged lagers here!

The other thing Lisa flagged is that modern breweries are leaning into this connection.

She highlighted Verdant’s collaboration with the people behind the Weird Walk zine and their Ritual Pale Ale.

This made me think about other ways folk horror, or pagan imagery, or horror imagery, has leaked into beer branding.

Hop Back sprang to mind immediately with its grimacing green man mascot, as did Exmoor Beast.

Oakham also has a sort of green man crossed with a hop – imagine meeting someone wearing that for a mask in a Kentish field at midnight before the harvest!

These days, folk horror has also leaked into the mainstream in some interesting ways.

Detectorists isn’t horror, it’s a gentle comedy, but its creator Mackenzie Crook clearly knows the tropes. And his Worzel Gummidge was practically The Wicker Man for kids. Both shows feature beer and pubs conspicuously as a benign symbol of Englishness, and of life on the land.

Then there’s Morris dancing, another revived folk tradition that surged in popularity in the 1970s. I recently watched Tim Plester’s interesting 2011 documentary Way of the Morris about the rebirth of Morris dancing in the Oxfordshire village where he grew up, and the role his father and uncles played in the process. It was distinctly beer-soaked and blokey but Plester’s gloss on the story also made it feel somewhat spooky – or, at least, mystical.

Another interesting artefact, from 2018, is this excellent video for the song ‘Apparition’ by Stealing Sheep:

Reframing beard-weirdy finger-in-ear folkiness as something deeper, darker, and more magical is a clever trick.

And it might work in real ale’s favour.

bristol opinion

Our top 5 Bristol pints

What are the top five reliable pints in your town or city? That is, beers you always know you’ll find in specific pubs.

That question comes via Ross Cummins who set out his favourite five pints in Manchester in an excellent post on his blog earlier this week:

This is not a definitive list of best beers in Manchester, or best beers by Manchester breweries, this is a list of MY favourite pints, that I can get in Manchester.

This sparked some interesting follow ups on BlueSky where people pondered what a similar list for London might look like, for example.

And of course, it made a natural topic of conversation for us during one of our recent pub sessions: what would be our equivalent of this list for Bristol?

We found it hard because relatively few Bristol pubs that we like consistently have on the same beers.

The ale-focused pubs have a laudable variety of guest beers, but that means you rarely find any of the same stuff two visits in a row.

And lots of our favourite Bristol breweries also change their range regularly, so even in taprooms or tied pubs you might not be guaranteed to find a particular favourite beer.

In our selection, therefore, we have hedged our bets a little and sometimes suggested alternative beers.

We’ve also tried to balance what we actually really enjoy drinking versus what we would recommend to a visitor to Bristol, who maybe wants to try something local, and new to them.

Then we decided not to overthink it too much. It’s just a blog post! If you disagree, write your own.

So anyway, with all of Ross’s caveats and a few of our own, here is our list.

The exterior of a grand Edwardian pub with ornate gables, painted grey.
The Langton.

1. Butcombe Bitter at the Langton

The Langton for us, anyway, as it’s walkable from our house, but maybe at The Ostrich for out-of-towners.

We like Butcombe Bitter a lot when it’s good, and it’s reliably good these days. It’s also available in quite a few decent Bristol pubs.

It’s the closest thing we’ve got to a traditional brown bitter from an old family brewery.

Although Butcombe is only 40-odd years old, it was founded by a former Courage employee with the explicit intention of brewing Courage-style beer.

The most regular place that we drink it is probably The Langton but it’s quite schlep out of town and not a particularly remarkable pub. It just happens to be close to us.

And its Butcombe is almost always in great condition.

The Lost & Grounded taproom with bare tables, bunting, and an illuminated sign that reads COLD LAGER.
Lost & Grounded.

2. Keller Pils at Lost & Grounded

We visit this taproom more often than any other, and it’s partly because we like the range and styles of beer and partly due to proximity.

It was hard for us to pick a particular beer because our actual favourites do rotate.

Also, if we’re honest, we don’t always find they taste the same from week to week. So we’re going for Keller Pils for now.

A pumpclip for Oakham Citra beer.

3. Oakham Citra at the Old Duke

The Old Duke is a music-focused pub on the King Street Run in the centre of town.

Oakham Citra is hoppy catnip for us.

We always enjoy it, and it appears to be a regular beer here, together with its tamer pale-n-hoppy cousin Adnams Ghost Ship.

A pint of golden amber beer in a straight pint glass in a pub garden.
Young’s Ordinary at The Highbury Vaults.

4. Young’s Bitter at the Highbury Vaults

The Highbury Vaults has a well-deserved reputation for good ale, and for extreme proper-pub cosiness.

It also has a pleasant, shady garden for the summer.

We tend to switch between Young’s London Original (AKA Young’s Bitter, AKA Ordinary) and St. Austell Proper Job when we’re there.

We usually try both and settle on whichever is in the best condition. But they’re both reliably very good and often excellent.

A big gold ornament of a dog with a cluttered pub bar back behind.
The Swan With Two Necks.

5. Elmoor (Moor) at the Swan with Two Necks

Both the beer and the pub have become favourites of ours.

The beer is billed as a ‘Belgian pale ale’ and tastes a bit like something Brasserie de la Senne would produce.

It’s refreshing, bitter, still just about sessionable at 5.5%, if you take it easy.

This was tough

There were so many things we almost included, but couldn’t quite justify.

For example, we also wanted to include Bass. It’s still very much present in a surprising number of Bristol pubs – but not in any pubs we visit regularly.

That means we can make recommendations for places to try but have to stop short of a full endorsement for any one pub.

For a fuller view of what to drink and where, check out our Bristol pub guide which we’ve just updated for 2024.


The Blackhorse Beer Mile at Twixmas

Between Christmas and New Year we finally had chance to do most of the craft beer crawl that has emerged in my home town of Walthamstow, East London.

I say ‘finally’ because one of the last blog posts we published before the COVID lockdowns was about the number of breweries in Waltham Forest. Four years is a long time to leave something like that unexplored.

Before diving in, though, I just want to reflect a bit on how weird it was for me personally to be exploring this part of Walthamstow.

The illuminated sign for Signature Brew against a grey sky.

The overlooked island

I grew up in E17 and felt I knew it pretty well but I only came to Blackhorse Lane for the first time on a work trip a year or so ago.

At the time, I found it astounding that I had never walked this way before on foot, or explored the wider Higham Hill area at all.

The landscape and architecture are rather striking, with some huge Art Deco factory buildings and acres of post-war housing, alongside the occasional row of pretty Georgian cottages.

It’s an endangered landscape, too, with many 20th century buildings slowly disappearing to be replaced by vast new high-rise housing developments.

But when you look at the geography, it makes sense that I had overlooked it.

The area is bordered by reservoirs on two sides and you don’t go through it on the way to anywhere else. It’s almost an island.

Nor were there any ‘Walthamstow Wetlands’ to visit when I was a kid – only the Marshes, with a few paths, and lots of brambles.

Old industrial buildings plus new residential developments might be the perfect recipe for a beer mile, though.

Just think of all those young professionals itching for something to do at the weekend, and property developers keen to establish that this is A Place rather than a dead end.

A tumbler of clear golden IPA with the Hackney Brewery logo.

The crawl

Our exploratory walk took place on a grey Saturday before New Year, which is always a weird time for hospitality. But there was a surprising amount of life to be found.

We began our crawl at the top with a visit to the Tavern on the Hill rather than the Wildcard Brewery. We do, in theory, prefer pubs after all.

It was quiet but welcoming and we found both cask ales decent enough. (Ray was more critical than me, though.)

We’d be interested to come back when it is a bit busier; it felt like an inviting community space, only without much evidence of the community.

At the Hackney Brewery we had our standout beer of the entire crawl. Millions of Melba (4%) was a wonderful peach-raspberry sour that tasted like a Fruit Salad chewy sweet with a dry champagne-like finish.

The space was small but not busy, and overlooks a much bigger room crammed with brewing equipment.

It’s also a handy place to get a pizza delivered from round the corner – but do remember to use the free delivery discount code in the small print on the menu.

Exale was closed, which seems fair enough.

Beerblefish felt quietest of all – we were the only visitors for most of our mini session, but enjoyed their Rauchbier.  It’s cool that lots of breweries seem to be able to turn out decent versions of this style now, which is fun and show-stopping in a different way to pastry stout or super-hoppy IPA.

At the Pretty Decent Beer Company we were charmed by No Not the Buttons, a 5.5% Gingerbread Stout which smelled like a German bakery and tasted like liquid Printen biscuits, even down to a subtle herbal note. It had a proper cake-like finish which felt warming on a miserable day in a fridge-like tap room. You could almost sense crumbs on your tongue. I could Get Better at Tesco – what a great passive-aggressive name! – was a decent standard 4.5% session IPA. 

The space had a few more punters than previously, although this was mostly a couple of large families meeting up to coo over each others’ babies, so it felt a bit like we’d crashed a private party. (That’s on us, not the families.)

The Big Penny Social Club (formerly the Truman Social Club) is a hell of a space. It looks as if it ought to have X-Wing fighters parked about getting ready for an assault on the Death Star. But we struggled to work out who actually brewed the beer we were drinking, and where, without Googling. There was a very impressive Table Beer, branded Big Penny, which was a mere 2% and had a zingy sherbet flavour.

This was the busiest venue yet, with exhausted parents trying to entertain their kids with ping pong, arcade machines and various other games. The space is big enough to handle all this and still handle groups of drinkers of various sizes and ages.

Finally, we visited Signature Brew, which is another location where the actual brewing is segregated from the tap room. The latter sits in a temporary-looking cube. It was warm and cleverly lit with fairy lights, and felt the most like a pub of any of the taproom venues.

Black Vinyl Nitro Stout (4.5%) by Signature is clearly designed to fill a Guinness shaped hole in a hipster East London bar and, actually, does that very well – much more so than Camden Stout.

We will be back

The problem with doing a crawl is that you can really only do a couple in each place, and most had pretty lengthy beer lists, so we definitely need to come back.

Ideally in spring when it’s lighter and warmer, and we can enjoy walking around the area rather than rushing with heads down through the drizzle to the next covered space.


Golden Pints 2023 – the best pubs and beers of 2023

These end-of-year roundups are more fun to write than to read, aren’t they?

We feel the need to do it, though, to put a neat bow on the year.

It also forces us to reflect and remember rather than rushing through the checkpoint. Our constant refrain as we put these together is, “Wait, was that this year?”

And one important guiding principle is this: it doesn’t really matter, nobody really cares, don’t overthink it.

So there’s not always great science behind our choices. It’s about feeling more than facts.

The interior of The Swan With Two Necks with old wooden tables, red walls and a beer list on a blackboard.

Most visited in 2023

The pub we visited most in 2023 was The Swan With Two Necks in St Judes, an inner-city Bristol neighbourhood not far from the main shopping district.

It’s a ‘proper pub’ in the sense that chaos occasionally intrudes to make things interesting.

On one occasion we arrived shortly after someone had vomited everywhere leading to an immediate clear out of the premises. The Blitz spirit overtook those who remained. Then a mouse appeared and, high on floor cleaner, began to run in circles around the middle of the pub.

On another occasion snooker player and DJ Steve Davis was sitting at the bar. Well, fair enough.

And then there was the time someone asked the barman for a saw, hammer and nails and, between pints, made a wheelchair ramp out of a sheet of MDF.

It’s also handy-ish for the publess neighbourhood where we live, and a convenient place to meet friends from other corners of Bristol.

The back bar at Frueh em Veedel, with clutter including receipts, napkins, photos and enamel signs.

Best new-to-us pub in 2023

The place that immediately springs to mind is Früh em Veedel in Cologne:

“You might get a visit from a waiter, if they noticed you were empty before you did. Otherwise, it was a matter of plonking your empty at the right spot on the gleaming bar and picking up fresh beer at the same spot… It suited us, this less formal atmosphere, and we appreciated the peacefulness. The only sounds were the turning of the pages of a newspaper and the occasional conversation in concrete-thick Kölsch dialect between customers and barmen.”

“What, not Lommi?” The thing is, we found Früh em Veedel ourselves, and visited on a quiet weekday afternoon, all of which contributes to a certain sense of magic.

Perhaps when we go back again we won’t like it so much. Perhaps we were lucky to catch it at its most sleepy and charming.

If you visit in 2024, let us know what you think.

Best London pub in 2023

People keep asking and we keep saying “The Royal Oak at Borough”… but maybe not in 2024. Just before Christmas we visited The Lord Clyde, also in Borough, and it stole our hearts.

The Royal Oak has become brighter, tidier and more sparse, losing a little something in the process. But The Lord Clyde, despite also having recently changed hands, feels intimate and organic.

The beer is less exciting (Landlord, Pride) but beer isn’t everything.

We look forward to comparing these two pubs on further comparative visits in the next 12 months.

The exterior of The Kings Head, a narrow old-fashioned pub with a bay window.

Best pub for 2023

The refurbished Kings Head on Victoria Street in Bristol, now run by Good Chemistry, was also a pub we visited a lot in 2023. There are a few reasons for this:

  • it has out-of-town cask ale
  • it’s the prettiest historic pub interior in Bristol
  • other contenders have lost their edge

As we’ve discussed, it’s not always the first place we recommend to others because it is very small. It’s fun to watch stag and hen parties of 10 or 12 march in, completely fill the space, and then awkwardly about face when they realise there is no hidden extra room. What you see, those few seats and stools, is it.

But if you’re in a small party, or alone, you’d be a mug to miss it.

When we bumped into Kelly and Bob from Good Chemistry at an event in the autumn they mentioned that they were looking for another pub and our first thought was, “Oh, good.” They’re a safe pair of hands and know how to bring pubs into the 21st century without losing what makes them great.

The Lost & Grounded taproom with bare tables, bunting, and an illuminated sign that reads COLD LAGER.

Most drunk beer in 2023

We have to cheat here because, unlike with Bristol pub visits, Jess doesn’t keep a log. Recording every single pint on a spreadsheet would simply be a step too far.

We are, however, fairly confident that the beer we’ve ordered most often between us is Lost & Grounded Keller Pils.

It’s become a staple in Bristol pubs, if not the default ‘quality’ lager. And on our regular spring-summer visits to the Lost & Grounded taproom, where it’s at its freshest, we always try it, and often stick.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a wholehearted recommendation.

We were gutted when earlier this year someone told us they’d gone out of their way to try it but found it disappointing. As we keep saying, but perhaps not loudly enough, it has been wildly inconsistent – though less so in 2023. And it’s at its best when fresh.

Think of it more like the product of a Bavarian village brewery, rather than a Camden Hells competitor, and it might make more sense.

The Five Points taproom in Hackney, with outdoor seating in front of an industrial building.

Best beer 2023

Here’s how this award works: every time one of us reacts very positively to a beer, it triggers a debate. If we both agree the beer in question is remarkably good, Jess adds it to a list of beer-of-the-year contenders, with tasting notes. Then, in December, we review that list and interrogate our feelings.

The contenders this year were:

  • Cheddar Gorge Best, at The Merchants Arms, Bristol BS8
  • Harvey’s Porter, at The Royal Oak, London SE1
  • Five Points Railway Porter, at a couple of pubs in London
  • New Bristol Brewery Knopperz stout at their taproom
  • La Birrofila Prima Pils in Milan
  • St Austell Anthem, in Falmouth and again at The Merchants Arms
  • Five Points Gold at the Pembury Tavern, London E8
  • Zero Degrees Italian Pilsner, at Zero Degrees Bristol
  • Lost & Grounded 10 Years on Land (landbier) at the L&G taproom
  • Moor Brewing Smoked Lager at the Moor taproom

After much debate, we’re giving this one to Five Points Gold. We remember this session fondly and especially the feeling of being unable to leave the pub, or move onto any other beer. As we wrote back in September:

We love some Five Points beers (Railway Porter, the sadly defunct Pils, and Pale) but don’t get on with their Best Bitter. We find it muddy and confused. Gold, we assumed, would be like that, but more watery (it’s 3.4%) and less interesting… But, blimey, it was good. We spent quite a bit of time thinking about Boddington’s and Young’s Ordinary as they were in the past – very pale, very bitter, mysteriously alluring.

A pint of pale beer on a pub table with Thornbridge beer mats.

Best brewery 2023

Judging this was difficult but we went back to the principle that our emotional response is where the truth lies. And the truth is that when we walk into a pub and see a Thornbridge beer on the bar, we get excited: oh, yes, this is going to be good!

Jaipur IPA in particular continues to delight us as both a cask ale and keg beer

 And Lukas knocked our socks off in, of all places, a steakhouse in London where we went for a family event.

A glass of Westmalle Tripel in a busy Belgian bar.

Best beer of all time

For the record, the tide might be turning against Westmalle Tripel.

It’s a beer we always have in the house (minimum requirement: one in the stash, one in the fridge) and love deeply

 But in 2023, we found ourselves feeling increasingly affectionate towards De Ranke XX Bitter. And De la Senne Taras Boulba. And Augustiner Helles.

For now, though, it is still Westmalle.

The attractive, colourful cover of Desi Pubs by David Jesudason.

Best book of 2023

There have been some interesting books published this year, going beyond broad overviews and beginner’s introductions.

Guides to specific cities and types of pubs, for example, or studies of particular aspects of beer culture and history. Many of them have been published by CAMRA, or self-published.

The winner for us, and almost by popular agreement, it seems, is Desi Pubs by David Jesudason. As we wrote in our review in June:

“Overall, this is one of the most exciting books about beer and pubs to have been released in recent years… We hope for, and expect, a new edition every couple of years, as more Desi pubs are found, or founded.”

A Guinness branded bottle opener and two crown caps.
One of the objects Liam has written about on his blog, a 1970s (?) Guinness bottle opener.

Best beer blog in 2023

The blog that’s most consistently made our weekly round-ups this year has been powered by an ambitious project, which is always our tip for reigniting and fuelling beer blogs. The project is ‘100 Years of Irish Brewing in 50 Objects’, the blog is IrishBeerHistory, and the blogger is Liam K.

It’s been great watching the bones of a book emerge in real time, and seeing Liam challenge the fog of marketing-driven romanticism that clouds Irish brewing history. He’s up to item 15 so there’s plenty more to come yet.

And just for added spice, he also throws in the occasional piece of pub-focused fiction or poetry, proving he’s not totally opposed to a good story.

Final reminder: we’re done with Twitter

As we explained in our most recent newsletter we’re going to stop posting on Twitter (X, if we must) from 1 January 2024. If you want to chat, find us on another platform or two. Social media is in flux. Who knows if it will survive, or which platform might eventually host the bulk of the conversation. But we’re pretty certain it won’t be there.

opinion pubs real ale

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.