Brew Britannia Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Smoke Signals: We’re Not Stuck in the Mud, Honest!

Moor brewery wall sign: 'No fish guts.'

In recent weeks the Campaign for Real Ale has been sending coded signals: it isn’t hidebound or dogmatic, it can change, it is hip to where it’s at, Daddy-O.

First there was this press release referencing an article in the latest edition of the Good Beer Guide:

A growing number of brewers are looking at alternatives to isinglass as a clearing or ‘fining’ agent in their beers, the 2017 Good Beer Guide (GBG), published by the Campaign for Real Ale, CAMRA, reports. Isinglass is made from the swim bladders of fish – and as more and more drinkers today are vegetarians and vegans, brewers are looking at alternative ways to serve crystal clear pints.

The press release, and the article to which it refers, aren’t calling for more unfined beer (though the former does quote Roger Protz seeming to do so) but that’s certainly how the BBC and other outlets reported it. (Later corrected.) The reason, we suspect, that CAMRA’s communications staff got so especially annoyed at this misrepresentation is because they laboured hard behind the scenes to get a message that all the key players were happy with. This is the kind of thing politicians deal with all the time: ‘I think it’s time to consider whether oranges might not deserve a place in the fruit bowl alongside apples, in certain circumstances,’ says the Minister; MINISTER SLAMS OUR GREAT BRITISH APPLE reads the headline. Because carefully composed, nuanced messages are rarely news.

The real point was intended to be, we think, that (a) CAMRA knows about this stuff on the outer fringes of ‘craft beer’; (b) it acknowledges that good beer can be made this made way; and (c) it is watching with keen interest and an open attitude.

On a similar note was last week’s announcement that, for the first time, a canned beer has been certified as ‘real ale’ by the Campaign’s technical committee. At the most basic level this is a statement of fact — the TC counted yeast cells in the packaged product and gave it the thumbs up — but of course it’s much more than that. In 2016, cans are a ‘craft’ thing, and certainly seem to dominate the crafty end of our Twitter feed, and this is about CAMRA finding a way to connect with that constituency. We don’t think it’s too much to describe it as a gesture of friendship. (But craft cynics might see it as co-opting or Dad dancing, while real ale hard-liners will see pandering.)

Here’s something we said in our big Brew Britannia follow-up blog post in 2015, in relation to the decision that beer in key-keg could be considered real ale under certain circumstances:

[That’s] how we expect CAMRA to play this in the years to come – slow change without big announcements – merely the occasional sounding of a dog whistle through selected channels. That way, they will hope to avoid scaring away conservative members many of whom (not all) also happen to be older and therefore, for various reasons, make up the bulk of the active membership.

That still holds true but perhaps the whistles are getting more frequent and more audible?

quotes real ale

Opaque Bitter, 1986

“We like to think that Nicholas Breakspear, the only English pope, was a member of this race of inspired brewers, for Brakspear’s draught bitter is undoubtedly the best to be had in England. It is not, of course, clear and cold or thin and gaseous. It is flat, opaque, warmish and tastes of hop fields in the English summer. It also has the supreme advantage of making you slowly, but not too slowly, drunk.”

John Mortimer, ‘That Elusive Ideal: The Perfect Pub‘, New York Times, 5 October 1986

(N.B Original has American spelling of ‘draft’.)

opinion real ale

‘It’s Meant to be Like That’: 2015 Edition

Tandleman has long been an outspoken critic of unfined beer, primarily on the grounds that hazy beer looks bad and, in his experience, usually tastes bad.

We haven’t always been receptive to that — the idea that clear = tasty, cloudy = rough is, we’re certain, a learned cultural prejudice — but in recent months, Mr T has made an ever-more persuasive case for why everyone should share his concern: it is confusing people, dragging down the quality of cask ale overall, or at least threatens to, and is damaging public confidence.

We’re not completely convinced there’s a trubocalypse underway, not least because most ‘normal’ pubs and the people who drink in them aren’t remotely interested in the politics of unfined beer. The following recent Twitter exchange, however, suggests there might well be an issue at the specialist end of the market (click the date below to read the whole thread):

Now, half-arsed bar staff have been using ‘It’s meant to be like that’ as a deflection probably for as long as beer has been sold — we remember being given a pint of vinegar in a pub in Salisbury and the chap behind the counter insisting ‘real ale is meant to have a tang to it’ — but this new angle on the same wheeze isn’t good news.

Perhaps hazy-beer-brewers labelling their products with a warning is no longer sufficient — maybe breweries who want their beer served bright should also state that clearly on the pump-clips and keg lenses, and shout about it on social media? It would be difficult for bar staff to say ‘Oh, it comes hazy’ if the point-of-sale material states boldly otherwise. And there’s plenty of historical precedent:

Brickwoods advertisement, 1912.
From 1912.

Cloudwater specifically has another problem: that name, which rather implies that all its beers might be ‘fantastically cloudy‘.

Beer history opinion

The Meaning of Clear Beer

'Draft light beer' by Danato Accogli, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
‘Draft light beer’ by Danato Accogli, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

How important it is for beer to be absolutely clear is one of the fault lines between ‘real ale’ culture  and the emerging cult of ‘craft beer’.

It seems fairly obvious to us that the fetishising of clarity is a relatively recent phenomenon arising from a desire among consumers for ‘objective’ indicators of, and simples rules for judging, the quality of the beer they were drinking.

Here’s what brewing scientists Morris and Moritz had to say back in 1891:

Beer nowadays is demanded in absolutely brilliant condition, and however good it may be in other respects, it will be returned to the brewer as unsaleable if it is in the least cloudy or turbid. That such is the case is probably due, first, to the importation into this country of Lager… and to the substitution in public houses… of the old-fashioned mugs by glasses… It is owing to this demand for brilliancy… that clarification is now almost entirely artificially effected.

They go on to distinguish between types of turbidity (cloudiness): (a) from hops, (b) from yeast, (c) as a result of bacteria and (d) resulting from flatness. Were consumers rejecting ‘haze’ outright as an easy way of avoiding C and D?

‘A Drinker’, the author of 1934’s A Book About Beer, was a keen fan of ‘beer from the wood’ and a critic of over-carbonated, filtered bottled beer. He or she also provides an early example of a ‘beer geek’ being accepting of un-clear beer (our emphasis):

The contribution of the eye to the savouring of a beer, however, is not so liable to confusion as the contributions of the other senses. The drink is looked at and the eye determines the clarity and colour. At one time beers were frequently cloudy and they were none the worse for that cloudiness… But to-day bright beer is demanded everywhere and, in consequence, if a beer is cloudy it is more likely to that it has been drawn from the bottom of the cask… [p55]

In other words, cloudy beer could be good in theory, but, because no-one makes intentionally cloudy beer any more, it has become a danger sign.

Eventually, the ability to achieve both absolute clarity and a good head of foam became a sign of technical excellence in brewing, according to Andrew Campbell’s 1956 Book of Beer. But, again, there is an implication that absolute clarity rather belongs, along with artificial carbonation, on the Dark Side. But surely most consumers were simply concerned about avoiding being palmed off with slops, or getting a bad gut. Here’s something from Tom Berkley’s 1955 semi-fictional comic memoir We Keep a Pub:

‘Ere!’ cried a voice. ‘Wot’s this ‘ere?’

‘Just a sec,’ I said.

A burly navvy was holding a mug of ale up to the light.

‘Wot’s this ‘ere?’ he asked again gruffly.

A glance was enough to show me what was wrong. It was some of the ale Mr Grainger had just spoilt. Taking the mug, I emptied it into a drip can, and just to make sure, refilled it and held it up to the light.

‘Hmm — it is cloudy, isn’t it!’ I muttered. I drew off two or three pints and tried again. It was worse.

By that time mugs were being raised in all parts of the room, to a steadily increasing chorus of ‘What’s this ‘ere?’

I hurried to the saloon.

‘Mr Grainger, that mild ale is coming up muddy.’

‘Can’t help it; they got to drink it.’

‘But they won’t.’

What we find interesting in that passage is that the beer apparently tasted OK to most if not all of the punters. Perhaps that first ‘burly navvy’ had a particularly sensitive palate, but the others seem just to follow his lead. Pavlov’s dog? (Or maybe we’re reading too much into a fairly slight bit of entertainment.)

When the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood came along in the 1960s,  they objected furiously to metal casks, kegs, artificial carbonation, filtering and chilling. But, in 1971, their leader, Arthur Millard, went a step further in one interview:

[Keg beer] tastes nasty, it blows you up like a balloon, and it costs too much. In a lot of pubs nowadays, one’s dealing with just automatons behind the bar. They only need an ignoramus with a spanner to stock it and serve it. It’s as clear as a bell: all the young men hold it up and say ‘What’s wrong with this? You can see from here to Hampstead Heath through it.’ The younger generation grow up knowing no different, having been introduced at an early age to the clear stuff with bubbles in it. [‘Not a Keg to Stand On’, Christopher Ford, Guardian, 6/3/71.]

We’d love to have been able to ask him to clarify and expand upon this point, and to check whether he was accurately quoted. What he seems to be saying is:

  1. That using clarity as a proxy for quality leads to a lack of discernment among customers.
  2. That ‘the clear stuff’ is not as good as the occasionally hazy.

Which brings us up to date: the current enthusiasm for unfined beer among ‘craft beer’ drinkers, and their relatively tolerant attitude to cloudiness if the beer tastes OK, seems to us to be about demonstrating ‘discernment’. It’s a way of saying:

I do not make judgements based on superficialities. I am educated and know the difference between bacterial infection and wholesome goodness. I put flavour first.

The risk, however, is that we simply end up with a new and equally simplistic formula: CLOUDY=GOOD.

‘Ere!’ cried a voice. ‘Wot’s this ‘ere?’

A bearded graphic designer was holding a mug of ale up to the light.

‘It’s clear as a bell. Ain’t it got no hops in it? Ain’t it craft?’

Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Cloudy beer, flat beer

The head on a particularly lively Belgian beer.


We continue to watch with interest, if not burning enthusiasm, the emergence of unfined beer in the UK, accompanied by a discussion about British drinkers’ willingness to accept haziness.

We were reminded by a distinctly soupy pint of St Austell Tribute in a pub the other day that there is a distinction between ‘wholesome’ haze intended by the brewer and the kind of cloudiness, presented without apology, that ought to ring alarm bells — a sure sign of a careless publican.

People might come to accept hazy beer but how can they tell good haze from bad cloudiness? That’s a whole other level of consumer education.


At a pub beer festival recently we were served a pint that, by the time we’d sat down, was completely flat. We drank it anyway and, you know what? It tasted fine. We’re big fans of a head on our beer but this did set us wondering: why?

We don’t expect a head on other beverages like wine or scrumpy cider, and a mirror-like surface is almost a mark of quality in a well-aged barley wine or Belgian lambic beer.

After the recent mania for unfined beer, how long before someone markets a deliberately flat one? The accidentally flat beer we drank tasted sweeter and more cloying than it would have done with some condition but that’s nothing for which a brewer couldn’t compensate in formulating the recipe.