Consider: a Spar in a university area. It’s not a rough or down-at-heel area, granted, but it’s not exactly crawling with ageing prog rockers, either. In the fridge you can find London Pride, and Bombardier, and Pedigree, and Old Speckled Hen, and Abbot Ale, and Hobgoblin. There’s a local(-ish) contingent, too: Black Sheep bitter and Golden Sheep; Lancaster Bomber, Wainwrights and Double Century; Jennings Cumberland and Sneck Lifter; Holts 1849, Pendle Witch’s Brew. I haven’t actually checked this, but I don’t think Spar is a subsidiary of CAMRA; I’ve got to assume that people are drinking this stuff, and reasonably ordinary people at that. None of these are bottle-conditioned, and none of them are going to win any Most Startling Flavour awards; if you’ve been drinking bitter for any length of time, you wouldn’t be surprised by any of them. On the other hand, they’re all produced by real ale brewers, and as beer goes they’re all reasonably good – a couple of them are very good indeed. As I said in comments, I simply don’t recognise Zak’s (and others‘) panorama of bland or poorly-made cask beers in the UK, which is supposedly on a par with what CAMRA saw in the 1970s. If you could go into one high-street pub after another and find no real ales except Pedigree in one pub and nothing but London Pride in the next, then I might be tempted to agree. But in my experience this restriction of the choice to a couple of rather dull bankers isn’t the reality in pubs, any more than it was in this Spar; I’ve seen plenty of pubs with no real ales at all, but very few with one. And, as I say, these (including Pedigree) aren’t bad beers. Good beer is out there, and it’s reaching people. What Zak seems to be complaining about is that brilliant beer isn’t getting through to large numbers of people, but that’s surely a less serious problem.
And, speaking of what CAMRA saw in the 1970s, consider this as well. Boring beer: traditional recipe, traditional ingredients. Craft beer: new recipe, unlikely ingredients. Boring beer: brewed locally. Craft beer: distributed from the north of Scotland or imported from America. Boring beer: handpump. Craft beer: keg. Er… which side were we supposed to be on again?
Lastly, consider what happened to brewing in the US in the last century. It wasn’t pretty: first there was consolidation, then there was Prohibition, and after that there was a lot more consolidation. We thought we had it bad with Whitbread and Watney Mann, but by comparison with the States we came into the 1980s with a veritable forest of regional and family breweries still surviving. So buzzwords like “small” and “independent” really mean something in American brewing culture, because the alternative is, by and large, pretty grim.
Now, consider (enough with the considering already – Ed.) the implications of what I’ve just said. Brewing in Britain hasn’t been under the scythe of megacorp consolidation to the same extent (let alone the heavy roller of Prohibition). The US ‘craft beer’ fetish of brewery size and independence is a result of the weakness of American brewing, not its strength. Kegging is what you do to beer when you haven’t got the people or the expertise to tap a cask properly, or you haven’t got the drinkers to drain it before it goes off. It may have had serendipitous benefits, but US craft brewers’ adoption of the keg surely* wouldn’t have happened in the first place if the drinkers and the cellars for cask had been available: again, this is the result of a weakness rather than a strength. Even the current, much-discussed, dominance of intense and extreme flavours among US tickers can be seen as a characteristic of a relatively small community of beer-drinkers.
When family breweries survive; when people carry on drinking decent beer (or return to it after giving Worthington E a try), and pubs carry on cellaring it; when good beer carries on being drunk by large numbers of ordinary people; in short, when the brewing scene is strong and healthy: what do you get? You get family brewers selling in supermarkets and corporates keeping a presence in real ale; you get cask surviving repeated attempts to kill it, because it has its own benefits (as Pete also acknowledged) and those who do like it, like it a lot; and you get high visibility for some relatively low-strength, relatively moderately-flavoured beers, for the simple reason that a lot of people are drinking them in large quantities – and this is not a bad thing! A strong and healthy beer scene means London Pride in the supermarket and Old Speckled Hen sponsoring Dave; it means that while there’s weird and different stuff for those who are motivated to seek it out, there’s lots and lots of boring brown beer, for everyone who wants it.
The beers marketed as ‘craft beer’ aren’t an answer to our problems; they’re the answer to problems that we haven’t got.
*By ‘surely’ I mean ‘this makes sense to me, but I don’t know if it’s actually true’. Correction welcome if necessary.
(Updated 16/2/11 for clarity and accuracy and duplication and redundancy and duplication.)