Some of what I’ve been reading in the beer blogosphere reminds me of conversations I’ve had with coffee-lovers. I’m thinking in particular of some American coffee enthusiasts who I used to share a mailing list with, one of whom was a good friend of mine; we could talk about most things, but I rapidly learned to leave the topic of coffee well alone. For her there was a definite hierarchy, with those ignorant souls who bought ground coffee at the very bottom (I’m not sure she knew instant coffee existed). Slightly above them were the well-meaning ignoramuses who ground coffee in bladed machines instead of using a specialised burr grinder, and the poor fools who ground batches big enough to keep for a week instead of grinding it fresh every time. Then there was the question of how to brew the coffee: filter machines were right out, since you really had to make espresso if you wanted to taste the coffee at all. Stove-top pots were all right in their place, but really there was no excuse for not investing in a large machine with dials and spigots – at least, not if you were at all serious about coffee. But even then – even if you regularly ground a single cup’s worth of coffee beans and tamped it down in your own personal Gaggia – you’d still be missing out if you’d bought those coffee beans pre-roasted. Really, anyone who took coffee seriously had to roast their own beans; until you tried it you just wouldn’t know what you’d been missing. My friend put all of this over in a teasing, jokey tone, but beneath that she was deadly serious: we even fell out at one point, when she congratulated me on buying a burr grinder and told me the next step was to get a proper machine instead of a “steam toy”. (That would be a Moka Express ‘steam toy’, as used by basically the entire population of Italy.)
One happy day, the conversation on that list turned to tea. At last, I thought – a topic on which I’d have the home advantage. American kitchens can’t even be relied on to contain an electric kettle: what could these people know of dunking pyramidal teabags, buying Sainsbury’s Red Label to take back to your student flat (or Brown Label if money was tight), distinguishing between Earl and the parvenue Lady Grey, the horrors of British Rail tea, the still greater horrors of instant tea, the joy of tea and a Mars bar, lemon tea in the afternoon, the smoky intoxication of Lapsang Souchong at night, or the glorious wakeup call of that lifesaving first cup of the morning? A million memories, a million cups of tea.
What did the coffee people know of all that? Precious little; they hadn’t had tea-drinking lives as I had. But what they did know about – and could talk about at some length, to my dismay – was how to brew first-flush Darjeeling, the difference between green tea and white tea, where to get the best Keemun and Oolong, what the best blend of Keemun and Oolong was, where you could get the best blend of Keemun and Oolong… and so on. The conversation rapidly entered realms of connoisseurism where I couldn’t follow. I was strongly reminded of the Brian Aldiss short story in which visiting aliens ruin English literature by attaching inordinate importance to minor figures like Robert Louis Stevenson and Maria Edgeworth; their attention generates an endless supply of new works, all crying out to be read, catalogued, studied. (I’m not sure of the title of the story, but there’s a Spanish translation here.) Somehow this was not what I had meant: too much attention was being paid, or the wrong kind of attention, or attention was being paid to the wrong thing.
What’s this got to do with beer or beer blogging? I was born in 1960, so I can remember when the beer landscape was dominated by Double Diamond and Worthington E and bleeding Watney’s Red Barrel. Thanks to Richard Boston’s sterling work in the Graun, I was a CAMRA sympathiser before I ever tasted beer. The first time I drank beer it was Fuller’s London Pride, dispensed from a polypin into paper cups. It was laid on for the roadies setting up for an Albion Dance Band gig at my school; my friend was there as a cheap informal gofer for the roadies, and I was there with my friend. I estimated afterwards that I’d got through ten or twelve cups by the time it went sour at the end of the afternoon. (I don’t remember anything at all about the gig itself; apparently I spent most of it sliding on the parquet in my socks. Happy days.) The second time I drank beer, it was keg Watney’s, and it was deeply unsatisfactory – cold and gassy, with a flavour without any depth. The third time it was cask Buckley’s, and I was in beer heaven. My experience of the contrast between beer 2 and beer 3 (reinforced by foggy memories of beer 1) told me that Richard Boston was telling the simple truth: there was real ale and then there was imitation ale. Cask ale was a many-splendoured thing – and mass-market keg was about as good a substitute as cold pricklies are for warm fuzzies.
For me, then, the point of CAMRA – and of caring about real ale more generally – was partly to celebrate some extraordinarily enjoyable stuff, but only partly. It wasn’t an Ale Drinkers’ Guild, it was a campaign – and that word ‘real’ was what put the CAM in CAMRA. Keg Watney’s wasn’t a poor example of beer, it was a poor imitation of the real thing. And this was a recent development. Once – and not that long ago – there had been no keg ale, just as once there had been no processed cheese or Chorleywood bread. Once all ale had been real. The ultimate aim of CAMRA, as I saw it, was very much the same as that of a campaign for real bread or real cheese: to make it real again, for everyone – just as it had been real before, for everyone. In short, to bring about a world where every pub and club serves cask beer to its customers. Whether it would be good cask beer was secondary (admittedly a very strong second). Whether it would be interesting or original or unusual cask beer would come a long way down the list; to the extent I thought about that at all, I thought that regional variation was another thing that should be restored, and that in itself would create near-endless opportunities to taste new and interesting beers.
In short, my ideal world was one with at least as many pubs as we have now, but one where every pub supplies a couple of decent session-strength cask ales, plus the odd speciality, from a local brewery. It still is: as far as CAMRA’s concerned, I think that would be Job Done. (Which makes this a surprising bit of good news, although (a) time will tell on the rent-gouging front and (b) they really ought to put a top coat on that woodwork.) But there are moments when I wonder whether I’m facing the same way as some of my fellow bloggers. When I’m told that this is what a pub should look like – and that caring about how many of those taps are keg is an irrational prejudice; when a beer festival can look like an ale-themed episode of Endurance (Most beers were around 9% and bragged tongue-wrecking IBU levels); when I’m told that these self-important clowns are the stars of independent brewing… something feels wrong. Somehow this is not what I thought I was getting into: it feels as if too much attention is being paid, or the wrong kind of attention, or attention is being paid to the wrong thing.
Nothing sums up the mentality I’m getting at better than the label craft beer. What does it actually mean? I can just about understand how it might at least seem to mean something in the US, where (thanks ultimatelypartly to Prohibition) the large brewers are really large, and there’s a high degree of overlap between “buying from a micro” and “buying something decent”. An American beer drinker who swore off the fine products of Coors and Anheuser-Busch wouldn’t miss much good beer by doing so, and they certainly wouldn’t miss much real ale. But even in the American context it’s a vague and marketing-driven label, combining lack of precision with self-congratulatory smugness: part of the definition of “craft beer” is that it’s something we brew and appreciate, unlike all those other breweries churning out their yellow fizz (let alone all the poor fools who drink it). If you try to apply it more widely and consistently it falls apart: do Yuengling make “craft beer”? If so, why? If not, why not?
In Britain, I honestly don’t know what “craft beer” means, to the extent that it’s supposed actually to mean anything. I know what it connotes – brewers with passion and imagination, interesting and different beers, pushing the envelope and so on and so forth – but I don’t know how you could draw a line that says that Beer A is a “craft beer” and Beer B isn’t. Being a micro doesn’t make you a craft brewer; being a volume producer, or investing in lots of shiny kit, doesn’t stop you being one. And, of course, being in a cask doesn’t make it a craft beer – and being in a keg doesn’t stop it being one (perish the very thought!).
It begins to look as if “craft” as an adjective doesn’t actually mean anything: it’s an arbitrary bit of marketing jargon that a few brewers and their fans like to apply to their beers, for reasons best known to themselves. Alternatively, perhaps the people using the term do have something in mind, and “craft beer” is something you just know when you taste it. The only trouble with that is “craft” is obviously a term of approval, and different people are going to have different takes on which beers deserve that approval. You say Thornbridge and BrewDog are in the vanguard of the keg revolution, and a lot of cask ale is bland and mediocre; I say Timothy Taylor’s Best is the queen of beers and BrewDog are a bunch of overhyped chancers with beers to match. Who gets the “craft beer” label? The only way it’s going to have any consistent meaning is if it’s defined by someone, or a group of someones, who everyone else listens to. All due respect to the stars of the beer blogosphere, but I’d rather be the arbiter of my own tastes.
“Real ale” suggests to me something unadulterated, universally available and frequently quite basic; “craft beer” suggests beer brewed by beer geeks for beer geeks, with recipes as elaborate as you like and prices to match. It’s as if it had become impossible to get a decent cup of tea in a cafe, and our response was to sing the praises of white tea and Keemun/Oolong blends. Millions of people, in this country, used to go to pubs regularly and drink cask beer. That this staple workingman’s drink has been almost entirely pushed aside by inferior substitutes is a tragedy, and one which still deserves to be campaigned against. There could be a Euston Tap in every city in the country, doing a thriving trade selling black IPAs and cherry lambics to the cognoscenti, and CAMRA’s work wouldn’t be done; it would hardly be begun.
With his customary lack of ambiguity, the Curmudgeon recently warned against “a redefinition of ‘real ale’ as stuff produced by obscure small breweries and consumed by pretentious middle-class tossers”. A line about catching more flies with honey springs to mind, but essentially I don’t think I can improve on that, other than by saying that the danger is less that the old term gets redefined than that it gets sidelined in favour of a new and more malleable alternative. Continuing the quote:
Surely two of the great virtues of “real ale” are that it has a crystal clear definition, and that it is something that is available to ordinary drinkers in ordinary pubs. The risk from that approach is that you may end up casting aside the brews upon which the real ale revival was founded, such as Wadworth’s 6X, Marston’s Pedigree and Greene King Abbot Ale, and that you also end up casting aside the pub in favour of the specialist urban yuppie craft beer bar.
Amen to that. Long live real ale! Down with craft beer!
Update For the benefit of everyone coming over here from Beer Advocate and Reddit, I’m not saying that everyone using the term “craft beer” in the USA is wrong. I’m not saying that the term “real ale” should be used instead in the USA. I’m aware that things are different in the USA. I haven’t studied the history of Prohibition in detail, I’ve never tasted a double IPA, I don’t have any opinion about Yuengling and no, I don’t work for Coors. I am not writing about beer in the USA. Please amend the title of this post, at least in your mind’s eye, to “Down with Craft Beer In The UK (Reserving Judgment On Whether The Term Is Appropriate Anywhere Else)”. Thankyou.