The monthly newspaper What’s Brewing has been the semi-public face of the Campaign for Real Ale since the early 1970s; but the Branch Bulletin, intended to be private, tells the same story without any PR gloss.
We were lucky enough to come into possession of a near-complete set of these newsletters, sent from CAMRA HQ to local branches, thanks to Sue Hart, a veteran of The Ring and a long-time CAMRA activist.
We’ve spent the past couple of weeks digging and digesting which gave us the urge to go back to our 2014 book, Brew Britannia, and 2017’s 20th Century Pub and fill in some gaps with new information.
In 20th Century pub, we wrote about the birth of the pub preservation movement as the rhetoric of Christopher Hutt’s 1973 book The Death of the English Pub turned into practical action.
We focused on the Pub Preservation Group and the work of Jenny Greenhalgh, Peter Lerner and crew, from the late 1970s onward, but here’s evidence that the work began in earnest a little earlier.
The earliest of the branch newsletters we have, from May 1975, includes a paper by Mike Dempsey of the East London Branch, a lawyer by profession, setting out what looks like the basis of much of the pub preservation activity that followed.
The paper establishes how the listing system works, how it might apply to pubs and how CAMRA members might go about using the system to prevent brewers (and especially the Big Six) from demolishing or altering pub buildings.
Here’s his concluding argument:
The fact that you may have succeeded in having a building included on the statutory list does not mean that your battles are over. The first thing that the owner of the pub will do when he learns of the Secretary of State’s decision is to apply to the local authority for Listed Building Consent to carry out the works which he intended to carry out in the first place. This means that you have got to put in hand the suggestions made in paragraph 4 above, and make sure that representations are submitted to the local Council at the appropriate time. Do not, therefore, be lulled into complacency as a result of your initial successes. You will only have succeeded when the pub reopens for business, unspoiled and preferably serving real beer, but there are, of course, many pubs which are worthy of preservation even if their beer is not. In these cases, the beer will have to be the subject of your next campaign.
Part of the reason for keeping up a blog and presence on social media is that the ongoing conversation draws new information out of the woodwork, such as the late Nigel Graves’ note on the 1979 Great British Beer Festival.
Nigel Graves was born in 1955 and died in 2004, at the age of 49. In 2014, his friend, Tim Sedgwick-Jell, edited an anthology of his writing as something by which friends and family might remember him.
As it happens, Tim reads our blog (or, at least, subscribes to the newsletter) and recently got in touch to ask if we’d like a copy of Far Be It From Me to be Hyperbolic because pubs, beer and beer festivals were frequent topics for Nigel’s writing. (If he’d lived a little longer, might he have started a beer blog?)
The bulk of his notes on beer and pubs are in one chapter – snippets, diary entries, letters and so on.
There’s a fiery letter to Wetherspoon corporate HQ, for example, sent in July 2000 after he was told he couldn’t bring his children into the Temeraire in Saffron Walden:
I believe your company was originally established to provide a type of pub modelled on that in George Orwell’s essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ and I know that several of your early pubs were given this name… Perhaps you would like to consider the following passage from this essay:
“The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden… Up at one end of the garden there are swings a chute for the children…”
For balance, in another piece he acknowledges that the general relaxation of the rules on kids in pubs then underway was great when you were with the kids, but less so when you wanted a session with “the lads”.
The extract that really grabbed our attention, though, was a diary entry written when Nigel was around 24 years old, giving an account of the 1979 CAMRA Great British Festival:
I actually went to the CAMRA organised Great London Beer Festival a few weeks ago. The usual unfriendly interior of the Alexandra Palace was as unalluring as ever, but had the added drawback of being cram-packed full of drunken wallies behaving as if they’d never tasted beer before in their lives, and demonstrating just about every [unattractive] male characteristic imaginable. Because of the tube-train conditions, it was impossible to sample any interesting new brews, or real cider, so I spent the evening drinking Ansells (wow, thrill!), avoiding steaming pools of puke an dodging spotty adolescents reeling around in search of the Gents. Great – I might as well have spent an evening in The Carpenters, or almost any other pub for that matter.
We like this because, as with the original CAMRA national festival in 1975, the official PR (necessary to gain a licence, of course) had it that the festival would consist of well-behaved connoisseurs gathering to sample beers in moderation. Pools of puke was not part of the image.
How many more valuable first-hand, contemporary accounts of key moments in British beer history are locked away in diaries, letters and company newsletters?
Or, worse, how many such accounts were taken to the tip or burned a week after the funeral?
We’ve found ourselves getting a bit excited when we find a new edition of the local CAMRA magazine, Pints West, in the display holder at The Drapers Arms, because we always learn so damned much.
The latest issue, for autumn 2019, is just out and is a good example of why we like it so much.
First, with #EveryPubInBristol in mind, there’s a comprehensive update on what’s going on with local pubs based on extensive fieldwork from the Bristol Pubs Group. It tells us which pubs have closed, reopened and changed hands, usually before we hear via social media.
We’re fascinated by the fate of The Merchant’s Arms in Stapleton which just sits there with its big, blank, boarded-up facade; Pints West always gives us an update – stalemate, apparently, with the owner determined not to re-open it as a pub despite its ACV status.
But there’s more: we don’t drive (and wouldn’t drive to the pub if we did, obviously) so the pub crawls focused on walking and public transport are always inspiring. This quarter, Vince Murray suggests a couple of trips in South Gloucestershire by bus while Duncan Shine gives a run down of all the pubs along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path. We’re already working out ways to tackle some or all of those on the list.
We were also struck by a piece in the last edition by Robin E Wild on the best value pubs in the area – a positive way to address the fraught issue of the sometimes exclusive price of beer.
In general, there’s an openness about it that shows CAMRA at its best. All breweries are covered with enthusiasm and honesty, regardless of their particular cask-ale credentials. Licensed premises of all kinds get a look in and there are heartening tales of local activism to save apparently doomed pubs.
Here’s everything that struck us as interesting, amusing or eye-opening in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from Burning Soul to the future of CAMRA.
First, some sad news: Mordue Brewery has gone into administration. Founded in North Shields in 1995, Mordue was best known for its Workie Ticket real ale. The Newcastle Chronicle includes some telling lines from co-founder Garry Fawson:
“We have been looking to get investment over the last 12 months but with no luck. We then put the brewery up for sale and again no serious interest, which was particularly disappointing to Matt and I… If you have won the amount of awards that we have and still no interest in buying the business then we are just lost for words, to be honest… [The] market has changed dramatically. It has shrunk whilst at the same time there are now more breweries than there ever have been before.”
Chris Small: I used to work for the NHS. The job was fine and I was pretty good at it. It was money and I had a little place in Edgbaston but I had quite a bit of debt and I didn’t really have any savings to make this work, so I sold close to everything. I sold the flat, all the furniture, everything that I had at the time. I had four things: a van, my clothes, my mobile and I had…I’m not sure what else, there was definitely a fourth thing…
What if we tasted beer in some sort of historic reverse? That is, starting with a particular type of beer as it is brewed today, and following it with previous episodes of the same beer… I ask this, and ask it this way, because the Game of Thrones returns Sunday, and like Zak Jason I didn’t start watching the series when it debuted in 2011 and haven’t since.
Emaillerie Belge is the last enamel advert producer in the Low Countries, and it has been making ad panels for Belgian breweries for almost a century… The company survived a tumultuous 20th century and several flirtations with bankruptcy. Now under new management, it’s working to recapture the glory days of the enamel ad industry, betting that its small scale, custom, and high quality output can succeed against low-cost, industrial enamel producers.
Nik [Antona] and Tom [Stainer] are quick to point out that a proposal to allow CAMRA beer festivals to include key kegs was supported by the necessary majority and many festivals are now supporting this change.
“A number of festivals have key kegs with explanations that are not dogmatic about the different ways beer can be served. I accept that we’ve poor about explaining this in the past,” Tom says. “We need to represent all pubgoers.”
“We may revisit Revitalisation in a few years,” Nik adds, “but in reality we’re doing it now. Younger people are drinking cask but they want to try different things – they want to drink good beer but not necessarily from casks.”
On the face of it, this is an odd thing to do. Breweries without taprooms may give you a taste of their beer, but they are hardly places to kick back and put the world to rights over a good session. They can be interesting for beer lovers, but, if we’re honest, setting aside the few with special architectural, historical or brewing points of interest, one is much the same as another.
But perhaps there is something deeper going on:
When we knock on the door of a pokey little brewery at the ragged end of a rainswept industrial estate, are we really responding to a soul-deep thirst to express our gratitude, in person, to the brewers of our much-loved beer?
The ‘Real Ale Twats’ strip first appeared in the adult comic Viz in 2001 and has a cult following among beer enthusiasts, because they recognise in it either themselves, or The Enemy.
We’re long-time Viz subscribers and spent a bit of time researching the RATs, as they are abbreviated, when we were writing Brew Britannia. A couple of people had suggested to us that the RATs might be the source of the popular stereotype of the bearded CAMRA member, assuming incorrectly (as did we) that it had first appeared as far back as the 1980s. That proved to be a dead end for the book but gave us a fresh appreciation for the strip, especially on those occasions when it felt as if the author was eavesdropping on beer social media.
Then, when we happened to connect via Twitter with its creator, Viz veteran Davey Jones, earlier this year, we took the opportunity to ask him some questions about how the strip came to be, and the source of its often painfully accurate observations.
The following Q&A was conducted by back-and-forth of emails with some light editing for clarity and flow.
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What prompted the idea of the Real Ale Twats? Was there some specific incident or person you had in mind?
I’ve always been a fan of the band Half Man Half Biscuit and they had done a song called ‘CAMRA Man’ which made me want to draw a strip along those lines. It’s got lyrics like “Weekend vintage car show, Dr Who aficionado” and so on.
Also I’ve spent quite a lot of time in pubs and the characters are sort of composites of types that I encountered. There was a bloke who used to come into my local in Newcastle who had a big beard and a beret and always seemed to be carrying several shoulder bags. He may not even have been a real ale enthusiast – I don’t think I ever heard him speak – but he had the right look, so I drew him. Probably very unfairly.
How did the editorial team react to the idea when you pitched it?
Back then I was part of the editorial team – there were five of us at the time, I think. I’ve since gone back to being a freelancer, working on my own. But in 2001 we were sat around in someone’s back garden, trying to come up with ideas, and I mentioned wanting to do this strip about real ale drinkers. As we were chatting about it, Simon Donald, who did the Sid the Sexist strip, started talking in this stupid ‘stout yeoman of the bar’ voice – “Hither barlord, a foaming tankard of your finest” and all that, and that seemed to fit.
The first strip involved the three characters going to a pub called The Murderer’s Arms by mistake, and ends with the main character getting a pint glass shoved in his face. Which is something that happens quite often in Viz cartoons.
How does a strip typically come together? How do you go about finding the seed for a story?
I just try to think of a pub-related theme that I haven’t done yet – vaping, or pub grub, or whatever. I enjoy doing ones that are vaguely autobiographical, or at least are exaggerations of thoughts that I’ve had myself. For instance, I’ve caught myself inwardly grumbling about all the people who only go to the pub over Christmas, crowding the place out and not knowing the correct rules of behaviour at the bar. So I got a couple of strips out of that, with the Twats pontificating about “amateur drinkers” and so on. It can be quite satisfying to make fun of yourself, especially if you’re the only one who knows that you’re making fun of yourself.
That’s interesting. It makes it seem a bit less ‘mean’, for want of a better word.
Yes, I do regard myself as being a bit of a Twat. It takes one to know one, to some extent.
But what about real ale – have you ever been a CAMRA member yourself?
I never got round to joining CAMRA. I don’t know why. I love pubs. When I was younger I spent a lot of time sitting in pubs on my own, and there’s nothing quite like it. You just sit there drifting from thought to thought, and tuning in and out of conversations going on around you, as the drink settles in. As I’ve got older I do less solitary drinking, but sometimes think I should go back to it a bit more, because you get to observe all these weird social dynamics and power games going on around the bar. All the boasting and one-upmanship. When you’re having a sociable drink with friends, you tend to miss all that, probably because you’re doing all those things yourself.
I drink real ale and like it, but I’m not knowledgeable about it. If it’s about 4 to 4.5 percent, and got ‘summer’ or ‘blonde’ or ‘golden’ in the name, I’ll probably give it a go. But by the time I get home, I’ll have forgotten what I was drinking. Having said that, my favourite beer is Wye Valley Brewery’s Butty Bach. I’m from Hereford, where Wye Valley Brewery is based, and whenever I go back to visit family I’ll have a few pints of that. Part of the reason they’re my favourite is that they sent me a free box of their HPA when I mentioned them in a RATs strip. I also like Wylam Brewery who are based in the North East, and who once sent a couple of crates of their assorted beers to the Viz office.
One of our local pubs in Bristol, a fairly down-to-earth place that doesn’t tend to have real ale on offer, has one of your RAT strips pinned on the wall, and that’s something we’ve seen a few times up and down the country. It feels a bit like a warning to us, or perhaps just an expression of frustration on the part of publicans. How do you feel about that kind of thing?
Yeah, I’ve occasionally seen them pinned up in pubs. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign that they hate real ale enthusiasts. I’ve never worked behind a bar, but I imagine it’s a job that often involves putting up with bores. Not all pub bores are real ale bores of course, by any means. But the main RAT character with the beard is definitely a bore, and I quite often have him holding forth to the bar staff, because they’re a captive audience. And as you say it must get quite frustrating to be subjected to someone’s pompous opinions for hours. But in general the strips are intended as a fairly affectionate piss-take, so I hope they’re pinned up in the same spirit.
What has been the feedback from readers over the years?
Readers will sometimes send in pictures of lookalikes who they’ve spotted in the pub. Some of them are, er, quite remarkable.
And CAMRA members? Have you ever received any complaints?
I don’t think CAMRA has ever complained, as far as I know. The Real Ale Twats are doubtless CAMRA members but they’re not really supposed to be representative. They’re stereotypes of a certain kind of pub-goer, really.
On a related note, what do you make of the number of real life real ale drinkers who identify themselves as Real Ale Twats?
It’s quite odd. I recently became aware of a Real Ale Twats group on Facebook, which has thousands of members. Which felt strange. I don’t suppose they’re all familiar with the Viz cartoon, but if they’re happy to laugh at themselves that’s probably a good thing. I think.
In recent years it’s felt as if the strip has fallen into sync with ideas around ‘mansplaining’ and the latent sexism of a certain type of know-all bloke. How consciously have you set out to make that kind of point?
It was never a conscious attempt to make a point, I don’t think. The characters just lend themselves to those attitudes. The types of people the RATs are based on are ones I’d see in the pub, a bit socially inept, coming out every night and making ham-fisted attempts at flirting with the barmaid. I’d imagine that a lot of women who do bar work can feel their hearts sink when they see a particular regular coming in through the door – someone who is going to spend the whole night on a barstool regaling them with witty banter, and spraying crisp crumbs in their face. And blokes going on and on about their divorces – “Best thing that ever happened to me!” repeated over and over throughout the evening. I think the RATs are scared of women but try to cover that up with bravado, which is fuelled by booze. A bit like Sid the Sexist in that respect, come to think of it.
Do you still think, in 2018, that real ale drinkers are a target worth satirising? Is there any chance of the RATs morphing into the Craft Beer Twats at any point, for example?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if the beardy, pot-bellied stereotype is a bit outdated. Maybe it is. Viz has always dealt with quite broadly-drawn stereotypes, but the characters somehow develop lives and personalities of their own. To some extent it becomes more about the characters than about satire. So as long as you keep thinking of situations to put them in, you keep drawing the strips. Actually there was a strip a few years ago which had the RATs looking down their noses at craft beer-drinking hipsters. I think it ended with the RATs starting up a ‘Campaign for Real Real Ale Campaigners’ or something.
Of all the RAT strips you’ve produced over the years are there any you think stand up particularly well?
I think my personal favourite was one where the RATs set off to their local, talking about the wide range of fascinating characters you meet in the pub, and then there’s a big picture of the pub interior and all the customers look, and talk, just like the Twats. The reason I like that one is that I spent quite a long time on the drawing and was quite pleased with how it turned out. Which doesn’t always happen.
Have you ever thought about a Real Ale Twats book? We suspect all of us beer bores would buy it.
Yeah, I’d like the idea of doing a collected book, but all the copyright belongs to Viz and the publishers, so it would be up to them, really. (I retired from the editorial six years ago, and went back to being freelance). I’m not sure there’d be enough material to justify a book just yet. But cheers for the vote of confidence.
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You can read ‘The Real Ale Twats’ in Viz on an irregular basis, in the Christmas annuals, and there is a sample on the official website. Images in this post were supplied by Davey Jones.
Beer Sommelier and Dea Latis director Annabel Smith said: “We know that the beer category has seen massive progress in the last decade – you only need to look at the wide variety of styles and flavours which weren’t available widely in the UK ten years ago. Yet it appears the female consumer either hasn’t come on the same journey, or the beer industry just isn’t addressing their female audience adequately. Overtly masculine advertising and promotion of beer has been largely absent from media channels for a number of years but there is a lot of history to unravel. Women still perceive beer branding is targeted at men.”
We’ve already linked to this once this week but why not a second time? It’s a substantial bit of work, after all.
There’s some interesting commentary on this, too, from Kirst Walker, who says: “If we want more women in the beer club, we have to sweep up the crap from the floors and admit that flowers are nice and it pays not to smell of horse piss. How’s that for a manifesto?”
It’s difficult for me to be unemotional about Draught Bass. It was part of growing up in Burton. But what are the facts.
The EU AB InBev careers’ website accurately describes the relative importance of their brands to the company.
“The UK has a strong portfolio of AB InBev brands. This includes, global brands, Stella Artois and Budweiser, international brands, Beck’s, Leffe and Hoegaarden, as well as local brands, including Boddingtons and Bass.”
We’re fascinated by the re-emergence of the Cult of Bass as a symbol of a certain conservative attitude to pubs and beer. You might regard this article as its manifesto.
April was a relatively quiet month because we went on holiday for ten days in the middle of it, but we managed a few decent posts nonetheless.
If you got something out of this lot, and the peripheral activity on social media, then do consider signing up for our Patreon. We’d love to get to to 100 sign-ups by the end of this year. Or, failing that, buy us a one-off pint — we’ve had a few of these already and it’s a lovely boost when they land in the inbox.
Kinnegar Rustbucket, at 5.1%…. smelled wonderful, taking us back to those days of a decade ago when Goose Island IPA was considered Way Out There, all orange and pine. Red-brown in colour, it tasted like a well executed, tongue-coating, jammy IPA of the old school, and gave the impression of being a much bigger beer. It was perfectly clean, nicely bitter, and just a touch peppery by way of a twist. What a breath of fresh air, and good value, too. We’d drink more of this.
(Side note: we had a couple of private messages from brewers of the back of this run of posts, offering follow-up information on what might have been wrong with beers we hadn’t enjoyed, and updating us on background goings-on that should mean better beer in months to come.)