Smutty pumpclips: no thanks

We wrote this for the head-to-head feature in the most recent issue of CAMRA’s BEER magazine. You can read Simon “Reluctant Scooper” Johnson’s argument in favour of “Ginger Tosser” et al over at his blog. This is the unedited text we sent them with never-seen-before deleted scenes and bloopers a few extra sentences. If this kind of dynamite material doesn’t convince you to join CAMRA just to get the magazine, nothing will…

Smutty pumpclips with badly-rendered ‘busty wenches’ and willy-waving vicars do nobody any favours. They don’t sell beer. They rarely, if ever, make anyone laugh. And, perhaps worst of all, they give the knockers another stick with which to beat beer and those who drink it.

Wine producers don’t market their lovingly crafted, artisanal products this way because they know they deserve to be taken seriously. Nor, for that matter, do German breweries, of any size. Perhaps British ale brewers are naturally self-deprecating?

Smutty pumpclip apologists will say that it is po-faced and middle-class to complain about them (as if the middle-classes have a monopoly on good taste). They will also argue that a ‘wacky’ pumpclip does sell beer. They argue that it grabs attention at the point of sale and so, for minimal outlay, helps the little man stand-up to the giant marketing budgets of the bigger breweries. Yes, the occasional pint of a rudely named beer might sell on novelty value, but that won’t win longer term converts. People watched the Carry On films, for a while, but they didn’t save the British film industry.

The long-term survival of good beer, and especially cask ale, depends on it being accepted as a mainstream product for men and women with discerning taste (like free range meat or good cheese) rather than a niche product for a small number of punning oddballs.

Think about Thornbridge’s pumps and their success in competing for attention on the pub bar. Their simple, colourful, contemporary design stands out from the competition without being the graphic equivalent of Colin Hunt, the attention-seeking office joker from The Fast Show. It doesn’t offend or embarrass anyone and, importantly, appeals to people who might not normally consider drinking ale.

We’re going to put more words into the mouths of those imaginary critics: “This is superficial nonsense! It doesn’t matter what the pumpclip looks like, or what the beer is called, only how it tastes.” But it does matter. Even before we’ve tasted a pint, the way it looks in the glass, its name, provenance and, yes, the image on the pumpclip, are stimulating the pleasure centres of our brains. They say you eat with your eyes and we think the same is true of drinking beer.

Or not. One particular turn off for us is when beers have names that refer to urine. Seriously, who wants to be thinking about wee when they lift that glass to their lips?

Is old keg the same as new keg?

Watneys Red Barrel: detail of beer mat c.1968

In the ongoing discussions about whether CAMRA should or should not do more to support quality kegged and bottled British beer, one of the key sticking points is this: what makes the kegged beer of today any better than the bland kegged beer of the 1960s and 70s which provoke the campaign’s founding?

Or, to put that another way, is ‘new keg’ just the same shite as ‘old keg’?

Having read Martyn Cornell’s marvellous Beer: the Story of the Pint recently, we were prompted to contrast the motives of the makers of ‘old keg’ — big conglomerated breweries like Watneys — with those of the new breed of keg brewers.

Old keg: post-World War II, cask ale got weaker and became more temperamental until, to paraphrase Beer, a change of landlord or barmaid could be enough to push punters towards less exciting but more reliable bottled beer. Sales were dropping alarmingly. Kegged beer was the breweries’ response to that — a way of ensuring consistently adequate quality (less vinegar) but at the cost of excellence. The cask versions of their beer at the time were hardly earth-shatteringly brilliant either.

New keg: some smaller brewers, with a focus on flavour and quality, whether you agree with them or not, believe their beer tastes as good if not better without cask or bottle conditioning. (“Too fizzy” and “too cold” are subjective complaints). Others might prefer to cask-condition but, to expand their business, as an expression of beervangelism, or a bit of both, want to get their beer into as many venues as possible, and believe kegging will help them achieve that. Many of these beers are stronger, more intensely flavoured and much more varied than the cask conditioned beers commonly seen in the average pub.

What do you think? Are they the same thing?

Winter edition of CAMRA's BEER magazine

The latest edition of CAMRA’s excellent BEER magazine is available online for members. We’ve got a little piece in it in which we go head to head with The Reluctant Scooper on the subject of smutty pumpclips.

We argue that they’re rubbish.

(There, that’ll save you wading through our whole argument.)

If you’ve read the article and want to argue or agree with us, the comments below are a good place to do it. We’re also on Twitter @boakandbailey.

The Birth of CAMRA in the Independent

We see today yet more coverage of beer in the Independent.

Will Hawkes has been writing excellent beer-related columns for some time now and we should all support his efforts in writing about beer as if it is a mainstream, normal thing that ordinary people are interested in, rather than some bizarre niche interest.

This article is particularly interesting because Will has managed to elicit comments from the founders of CAMRA on current debates around ‘craft keg’. As we read it, they dismiss the idea that CAMRA ought to campaign for it out-of-hand, while apparently confusing it with Fosters but, ultimately, they do conceed that there might be such a thing as good keg beer.

Their comments on the sandals and beard image of CAMRA members echoes Tandleman’s post on the same subject and subsequent comments . They suggest that a very small number of distinctive individuals are stealing the limelight and defining the whole organisation, which chimes with our thinking.

Our wish list for a beer consumer organisation

With various embryonic entities popping up to answer the call for a body to champion all good beer, regardless of whether it’s ‘real ale’ or not, here are a few things that we would like to see in a British beer consumer organisation.

1. We want it to be serious, measured and perhaps even a little boring. We think even the venerable CAMRA fails on this front sometimes, allowing passion to spill over into bad temper. UPDATE: Beior.org in Ireland seems to get this right.

2. To work constructively alongside CAMRA. That doesn’t mean necessarily always agreeing with them, but at least getting along well enough to manage joint events or campaigns. It certainly means that cheap jibes about beards and sandals are out.

3. A focus on quality, taste and the certification of ‘good beer’, probably through blind taste test panels. We wouldn’t care if that meant some beers from big breweries got the stamp of approval, or if it meant that some small breweries get some harsh feedback.

4. Avoid distracting, divisive side-campaigns — e.g. “drink British craft beer” — and stay out of politics. As the beer blogoshire shows, people who love beer, when they get off that topic, can turn out to have very little in common. Trying to get them to agree on anything other than that well-made beer is where it’s at would spell disaster. Promote good beer and leave it at that.

5. Achievable objectives. Here’s an example: reduce the number of pubs in the UK where there is no beer a member of said organisation would want to drink. That might mean more cask ale; or it might just mean a bottle or two of good beer in the fridge.

We still think, with a bit of creative thinking, CAMRA could take this on this without compromising its core values but there doesn’t seem to be an appetite to do so, leaving a gap in the market for something else to emerge.