Careful now

Some afterthoughts on my last post, starting with the promised response to Pete.

In 1971/72, CAMRA quite reasonably figured they should get around to defining ‘good beer’ a little more closely. The problem is, what constituted good beer back then was very specific, and the tight, technical definition of ‘real ale’ has become inadequate.

I think this is the nub of it (which should save time). According to this argument CAMRA not only should be, but always has been, a campaign for good beer; it’s just that the main threat to good beer in the early 1970s came from mass-market keg, and “real ale” (considered as shorthand for “the kind of good beer we’re campaigning for”) was consequently defined as “not keg”. Nowadays there are lots of varieties of good beer which don’t qualify as “real ale”, and so the definition is getting in the way.

Sorry, Pete, but I think this is backwards. I call in evidence Robinson’s Old Tom, and other non-bottle-conditioned bottled beers of style and distinction. It’s true that CAMRA officially refers to bottle-conditioned beers as “real ale in a bottle“, and there have been occasional attempts to rally the faithful against bottled beers that aren’t bottle-conditioned, but they’ve never got much of a head of steam behind them. Non-b.c. bottled beer doesn’t have a bad name in the way that keg does, and the reason is that most of us drink it and we know that it’s often very good. So should we start referring to the likes of Old Tom as a “craft beer”? I’m sorry, I’ll type that again. So why should we start referring to the likes of Old Tom as a “craft beer”? The fact that they aren’t “real ale” has never got in their way: people who like good beer are capable of recognising it irrespective of labels.

The point isn’t that the label of “real ale” is too narrow to encompass all good beer; the point is that “real ale” refers to one specific front in the campaign for good beer. Cask vs keg is the part of the broader campaign which was of overriding importance when CAMRA was founded; it may not be as important now, but I’d argue that it hasn’t gone away (or else there’d hardly be any call for someone to write a Cask Report). Lots of keg bitter out there, or should I say keg “smooth” – which has come to be seen as a style in its own right (and you can’t get it out of those funny big pumps). Lots of room for promotion of “real ale”, even if “real ale” isn’t the be-all and end-all of good beer.

I’m an amateur folk-singer, and I frequently get into similar arguments about what is and isn’t “folk”: people will insist that a brand-new song should be seen as a “folk song”, because it’s in the folk style or it has the folk spirit, or something. Dig a bit deeper and what you often find is that they’re using “folk” as a synonym for “good”: it matters immensely to them that the label of “folk” should be stretched to cover what they’ve just written, because otherwise you’d be saying it was no good. Something similar seems to be going on when we’re told that “real ale” ought to be stretched to cover specially selected examples of keg beer, or else replaced with a new label that will be easier to stretch. I’d much rather answer the question of whether a keg BrewDog or Thornbridge beer is “real ale” with a flat No, and then consider the completely separate question of whether it’s any good. (Which it might be, or it might not; the scoreboard on a recent tasting of Thornbridge keg by some bloggers I trust could be summed up as “good but cold, fizzy and lacking in subtlety”. As for BrewDog, to my knowledge they brew some stupendous beer – on cask. I think their current commitment to keg is pushing contrarianism to daft and counter-productive lengths. So no change there.)

Anyway, back to Pete:

I would bet my house that for most CAMRA members, ‘real ale’ means beer that has been made ‘properly’, with love, and care, by people who care about taste.

I agree that those are the connotations of “real ale”, but that’s a long way from saying that that’s what it means. Do most CAMRA members think that all beer that’s been made ‘properly’ (etc) is “real ale”? Do they think that cask ale ceases to be “real ale” if it’s been thrown together any old how – or, more realistically, if it’s been brewed in industrial quantities by a company that’s run by accountants? I’d be surprised if many people did. I think most people who care enough about the term “real ale” to use it are aware that it’s not a synonym of “good beer”.

The whole point of ‘craft beer’ is that it is vague enough to encompass a broad church of beer. It’s imprecise, but most people would guess what it means and broadly agree on what is and isn’t craft beer.

It says “hand-made, possibly with twigs in” to me – which clearly rules out these people‘s products, in or out of a keg. Seriously, the great strength of “real ale” is that it means the same thing whether you care about it or not. “Craft beer”, at least in the UK, seems to mean nothing much more than “a beer made by a member of the club of people who like using the term ‘craft beer'”.

Oh, and it’s not a ‘marketing exercise’ – it’s popular because it works for fans of great tasting beer

I didn’t say it was. I said it was “an arbitrary bit of marketing jargon that a few brewers and their fans like to apply to their beers”, and I haven’t really been persuaded otherwise. But perhaps I’d qualify that now to “arbitrarily imported” – I’m coming round to thinking that the term does, just about, mean something in the USA.

Ah, the USA… home of many fine small breweries and many drinkers of strange and interesting beers, several hundred of whom came through here after learning about my post via BeerAdvocate or Reddit. I was going to say something about their reaction and what I learned from it, but I’ve spent long enough on this already. More another time. Here’s one comment I particularly enjoyed:

To be fair, when reading a UK blogger’s opinion on beer, you have to take into account the effects of insular dwarfism on the island’s beer, beer culture, and the palate of those consuming beer.

This is a frequent phenomenon in the natural world and to critique the behavior of the British isle’s population without taking it into account would be unfair. When you take into account the isolation and limited resources an island habitat produces, it makes sense that beer would slowly evolve to survive with a lesser amount of fermentables, hops, carbon dioxide, and refrigeration.

Consequently, when someone from this environment sees a beer with high IBU’s and Alcohol content, it is seen as a grotesquely large freak of nature and is likely to offend their encoded notions of how beer should be produced.

Discuss.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 8 December, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink | Reply

    You are lucky that your folk singing, coffee praising friends exist to provide such good analogies. They illustrate your points well.

    They aren’t new points mind. I’ve made many of them myself in my blog or replies to comments, but they are correct points. Well done Phil. (Of course I would say that wouldn’t I?)

    The comment about insularity is a good one. So many of us forget we are an island. Damn, I’m sure some don’t even know.

  2. MichaelN
    Posted 8 December, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink | Reply

    I couldn’t make up my mind if the comment from the Good Ol’ US of A is tongue-in-cheek or not. Then I remembered it was by an American and therefore must be free of irony or any other form of humour.

    If you live on an island you ought to be insular, the words have the same root. But the US is the most insular country I have ever visited, dividing the word into “us” and “weird foreigners (probably commies”.

    ” To be fair, when reading a US blogger’s opinion on beer, you have to take into account the effects of federal dwarfism on the country’s beer, beer culture, and the palate of those consuming beer.

    This is a frequent phenomenon in the natural world and to critique the behavior of the USA’s population without taking it into account would be unfair. When you take into account the isolation and limited range of resources their remote location produces, it makes sense that beer would slowly evolve to survive with a uncontrolled amount of fermentables, hops, carbon dioxide, and refrigeration.

    Consequently, when someone from this environment sees a beer with low IBU’s and Alcohol content, it is seen as a grotesquely stunted freak of nature and is likely to offend their encoded notions of how beer should be produced.”

  3. Posted 8 December, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

    It seems pretty straightforward to me. Keg beer isn’t real ale, and never will be. Not all real ale is good, but some is spectacular. Both keg andcask can be crap. It’s a tough world, but we need to cope with a bit of uncertainty here and there.

    There’s an American clothing comany called FUBU – For Us, By Us. That’s as close to your definition of craft beer as I can think of. It seems a bit insular, doesn’t it?

    That quote is hilarious, whether it’s straight or ironic.

  4. Posted 22 December, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    It’s quite possible to have good beer that isn’t technically real ale, and it’s nothing but good news if more pubs serve Real Lager (as it were).

    But I think the key point here is that it’s historically all about the infrastructure. You can serve good beer beyond real ale, but once you rip out the pumps, the independent distributor folds, or the brewery either goes bust or stops brewing it, you can’t easily start serving real ale again. This was basically the point of CAMRA, right?

    If you do have good breweries, distributors who aren’t vertically integrated and who handle a wide range of beers, and pubs with proper cellars and pumps, though, you can do Real Lager, Real Cider, Weird American Stuff In Bottles, Real Ale, and even Caffreys if some bugger will insist on drinking it.

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