Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

Continue reading “Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?”

Alternate History: XXXX instead of IPA

Imaginary keg font with 1977 Food Standards labelling recommendations.

The UK Government’s 1977 Food Standards Committee Report on Beer is a strange but illuminating document. It records how certain words and phrases relating to beer were being used at a certain point in time and, in its recommendations, most of which were ignored, presents a vision of what might have been.

After representations from CAMRA and others, the Committee agreed that beer needed clearer labelling. Their proposals were that draught beer point-of-sale information (pumpclips) ought to contain:

  • A declaration of the amount of the amount of malted barley used.
  • An indicator of strength based on the ‘XXX’ system, referring to original gravity rather than alcohol percentage in the finished product.
  • Disclosure of carbonation above 1.5 volumes.

Their proposal for the gravity bands and acceptable (but not compulsory) text descriptions was as follows.

  • Up to but not including 1035 — Light — X
  • 1035 up to but not including 1041 — Special, Heavy — XX
  • 1041 up to but not including 1047 — Export, India Pale Ale (IPA) — XXX
  • 1047 up to but not including 1062 — Strong — XXXX
  • 1062 and above — Extra Strong, Barley Wine — XXXXX

In the explanatory notes, they say this of IPA:

“India Pale Ale” (“IPA”) was originally brewed to have sufficient stability for export by sea to India and “export” probably came into use as a modern equivalent. These beers were originally stronger than those brewed for the home market and our impression is that consumers expect them to be rather stronger than ordinary beers. We recommend that the use of these two descriptions should be restricted to beers in the third band (XXX). We realise that there will be some beers which have been called “export” which are stronger than is given by this band. Any limitation of names must create anomalies, which are the more to be regretted if the claim to the name has a reasonable basis in terms of the original meaning of export.

They also suggest banning the use of the words ‘best’ and ‘premium’ on beer packaging. If they’d reported this year, they’d probably have added to that list ‘craft’, ‘crafted’, and so on.

On that basis, a pumpclip for a keg IPA with an original gravity of more than 1047 (that is, stronger than about 4.5% ABV) might have looked something like the one we’ve mocked up in the picture above. Weird, huh?

Alternate History

Last night, we got a bit counter-factual and asked ourselves this: if the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) had never appeared on the scene, where would British beer be now?

Maybe, without CAMRA, we’d have got new breweries and better beer anyway, eventually, through some other mechanism.

Maybe ‘craft keg’ was historically inevitable.

Maybe, even if it had died out, cask-conditioning would been revived later, and been as trendy as barrel-ageing and pseudo-historic recipes.

Our guess: the SPBW would have seen a massive rise in members after the Alexandra Palace Beer Festival picket of 1972, at which CAMRA stole the limelight, and of which more another time. The founders of the SPBW would have stepped aside to make way for more serious-minded campaigners, including some of those we now associate with CAMRA. The SPBW, with a decade’s worth of baggage (ridicule) would never have gained as many members as CAMRA (thirty thousand by 1975!), and might have been less slick, but it would have achieved some of the same things, i.e. encouraging new breweries to open and established breweries to resume production of cask beer.

Conclusion: CAMRA didn’t create the demand for better beer, but channelled and expressed it brilliantly in those early years. It gave a voice to a great mass of people who wanted something other than bad keg bitter.

If you have thoughts on what might prove to be an emotive question, feel free to express them below in the contemplative tone of a university professor who has eaten well, drunk a little port, and is feeling a little drowsy in front of an open fire. (In other words, no shouting, please.)

UPDATE: Tom Stainer at CAMRA HQ has reminded us that there’s a long article by Martyn Cornell in What’s Brewing, May 2011, on exactly this subject. It’s an interesting read for those who can get through the login.