Geeky bubble, overpriced beer

Sign advertising real ale in London, 2007.

People sometimes criticise ‘craft beer’ for being a bubble or niche; for being the preserve of a small group of geeks, obsessed with obscure, strong beers; paying outrageous prices for them in trendy, specialist outlets; and not interested in ‘normal’ drinking in their local. Now, why does that sound familiar?

…the Fox in Hermitage… [boasts] a battery of beer pumps that would keep a CAMRA-man boring away for hours… Three brews from Courages, Lowenbrau lager on draught, Worthington, Morlands and even John Smith’s Yorkshire bitter at 36p a pint. That’s just a sample and I’d not even heard of some of the bottled varieties… The pints in the White Horse — a less pretentious and more typical village pub — are from Morlands. Better kept in my opinion than at beerarama down the road, and only 29p for bitter in the public, as against 34p in the saloon in the Fox.

The Daily Express, 6 August 1978.

The Goose and Firkin found a ready market, predominantly young, affluent and mobile with most customers coming from outside the area. The Campaign for Real Ale called the pub ‘too crowded, too noisy and too expensive’. Prices were certainly aimed at the top end of the market, with beers such as Mind Bender and Knee Trembler made at much stronger levels than most national brands.

The Financial Times, 24 February, 1982.

Only 33 per cent of those questioned had heard of CAMRA… and 70 per cent said they would not go out of their way to find a pint of ‘real ale.’

NOP Market Research: The British Pub 1977, as reported in the FT, 29 July 1977.

The Campaign for Real Ale… achieved considerable publicity and was largely responsible for forcing the brewers to re-think their marketing strategies. However, of the 78 per cent of beer sales classified as draught, only about 14 per cent is accounted for by ‘real ale’. This share is likely to be maintained but it is not expected to expand greatly.

The Financial Times, 21 March 1979.

In the Shires Bar opposite Platform Six at London’s St Pancras Station, yesterday, groups of earnest young men sipped their pints with the assurance of wine tasters… There were nods of approval for the full bodied Sam Smith Old Brewery Bitter, and murmurs of delight at the nutty flavour of the Ruddles County beer… In one corner sat four young men sipping foaming pints. They were members of CAMRA… and prove their dedication by travelling three nights a week from Fulham in South West London — four miles away. One of them, 22-year-old accountant Michael Morris, said: ‘This place beats any of our local pubs.’

The Daily Express, 03 April 1978.

The real ale champs launched a bitter attack on greedy pub landlords yesterday — and ended up over a barrel themselves… The Campaign for Real Ale slammed pubs that cashed in on the craze then admitted that its own London pub charged at least 10p too much for an extra-strong brew.. the beer that caught CAMRA’s experts on the hop was the 70p-a-pint Theakston’s Old Peculier served up at the Nag’s Head in Hampstead… But landlord Steve Ellis was quick to scotch claims that he was profiteering… “We have to buy Old Peculier through an agency and it costs us a lot,” he said… [Roger] Protz said several pubs in Central London had been barred from the guide for cashing in on the real ale revival… One Whitehall pub charged 51p for a pint of Ruddles County and another in the West End sold Fuller’s London Pride for 44p. Both beers cost up to 9p less elsewhere, said Mr Protz.

The Daily Mirror, 18 April 1979.

How do you maintain a good beer culture?

En Español

La Ronda (the Spanish speaking version of the Session) takes on a weighty philosophical topic, with Jorge Mario of Columbia asking:

How do you construct, consolidate and maintain a good beer culture?

I’m going to define a good beer culture as one where there are lots of different breweries, and where there is a good range of beers available. In other words, there should be choice for the consumer. Spain has a great bar culture, but I would be being kind if I said there was a great beer culture there.

The question of creating a beer culture from scratch is a fascinating one, but I don’t feel I know enough to comment. (Perhaps some US bloggers could help?). But here’s a few suggestions for what you need to maintain a good beer culture.

Pride is good, but palate is better

It’s good to be proud of your brewing heritage. But it’s important to be proud for the right reasons — does it taste good? The Germans are very proud of their beer, but this usually translates to being proud of drinking your local beer, just because it’s local. When the big corporations take over local Germany breweries, they almost always keep the names and the brand identity.

Whereas I get the impression in Belgium that people are proud of the fact that Belgium produces such a weird and wonderful range of beer, and this must surely help maintain the hundreds of breweries that you find in this tiny country.

Get organised — grass-roots campaigning

You can’t really talk about the British beer scene without mentioning CAMRA. We have our little moans from time to time, but there’s no denying that CAMRA saved cask ale. In doing this, they have promoted a culture of supporting small breweries and offering choice to the consumer.

The focus of CAMRA on real ale can make for a “four-legs-good, two-legs-bad” mentality at times — all real ale must be good, and all “unreal” ale is bad. Then again, a narrow, well-defined focus makes for an effective campaign.

Support your local decent pub

This one is obvious really, but the easiest to put into action – if you have a good pub that is committed to offering a range of beers, support it! The UK would not be able to support the hundreds of breweries it does without all those pubs creating the demand, so get down to your local and start boozing!


¿Cómo mantener una verdadera cultura cervecera?

English version

Jorge Mario, de Columbia, ha preguntado:

¿Cómo construir, consolidar y mantener una verdadera cultura cervecera?

Voy a definir una verdadera cultura cervecera como una, donde hay un montón de diferentes fábricas de cerveza, y donde hay una buena variedad de cervezas disponibles. En otras palabras, debe haber elección para el consumidor. España tiene una gran cultura de cervecerias y bares, pero no es decir que hay una verdadera cultura cervecera allí.

Continue reading “¿Cómo mantener una verdadera cultura cervecera?”

A real ale pub that doesn’t feel weird

Dark Star Espresso Stout
Dark Star Espresso Stout

On a recent business trip to Cheshire, I got billetted in Frodsham. My taxi driver volunteered the information that the pubs in town were decent and recommended the Helter Skelter.

Good call.

It’s pointedly a “real ale pub” but with an extremely mixed clientele and a genuinely relaxed atmosphere. There were lots of lads and ladies drinking lager, some middle-aged couples on a double date, a few old ladies on a night out and, of course, a huddle of men with beards having an earnest conversation over a notebook.

The beer was in astoundingly good condition. Phoenix’s West Coast IPA offered a late taste of summer and lived up to its marketing (a weaker Liberty Ale?) and Dark Star Espresso Stout was sweeter and chewier than from the bottle.

The beer was served with a sparkler, as you’d expect in that part of the world, but here it just seemed to give the head some body without turning it into shaving foam. I’m coming round to the idea.

What is this pub getting right? Friendly staff, for one thing. Lots of information, for another — a board behind the bar with a guide to the colour of the beers on offer is a stroke of genius. It helps that they’re not trying to beervangelise to anyone: there are no scary signs telling people off for not liking real ale, for example, and you can get a pint of Stella if that’s what you want.

And a bit of quiet background music doesn’t hurt, either.


La Ronda #3 – Una cata de cervezas virtual

English version.

Delirium ha organizado esta Ronda, en la que tenemos que proponer una cata de cervezas virtual.

“Suponed que lo que queréis es dar a conocer esta bebida a gente que por lo general no es bebedora habitual de cerveza….tiene que haber un mínimo de 5 y un máximo de 8 cervezas…Mejor no escoger cervezas elaboradas tan sólo en una microcervecería, accesibles tan sólo a unos pocos”

Como nos gusta beer-vangelizar de vez en cuando, hemos hablado mucho de este tema. Después de mucha consideración, optamos por la siguiente seis cervezas. Continue reading “La Ronda #3 – Una cata de cervezas virtual”