My Brew Britannia review, part 3 of 4: the critical part.
As you can probably see from the previous post on this topic, most of my doubts about the book had to do with history. Put simply, I had trouble with the overall shape of the story B&B tell – it’s not the shape that story has in my mind – and, although the content is mostly excellent, I kept stubbing my mental toe on the structure. This has three main aspects: where the story’s coming from; where it’s going; and the role of CAMRA.
To begin with, while the book’s subtitle is “The strange rebirth of British beer”, it doesn’t contain very much about what it was that needed to be reborn. The thing is, even the most dramatic processes of reform & revitalisation build on what was there before. I remember a letter to the Guardian about the English Reformation, challenging the idea that Henry VIII had founded a whole new church when he declared himself head of the Church of England. Quote: “Asking ‘where was the church before the Reformation?’ is like asking ‘where was your face before you washed it?'”. Like the English church, the British brewing industry was right there before anyone ever tried to transform or revitalise it, and had been for some time. Obviously the authors are well aware of this, but they begin the story with the first (major) reform campaigns, without doing much to sketch in the background. Hence some of my notes: “History of brewing industry consolidation/introduction of keg skated over.”; “Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)”; “Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved”. I’m not saying that this book should have been Amber, Gold and Black – on top of what it is already – but a few pages on what beer and brewing looked like pre-kegging and pre-Big Six would have been very welcome, both in general terms and as background to the rise of CAMRA. (On a side note, I’m pretty sure the authors know what ‘crystal malt’ is (although they put it in quotes), and I suspect they also know what the ‘air pressure’ debate (dismissed as “an obscure technical issue”) was about. Again, a few words of explanation would have been welcome (at least to the geekily-minded) and wouldn’t have slowed things down very much.)
Secondly, the authors tell the story of CAMRA – particularly in its early days – in oddly detached, almost cynical terms; there’s a lot about image, position-taking and organisational machinations, not so much about CAMRA as a group of people trying to achieve something. I’m not saying that the first generation of CAMRA activists were idealists or romantics, just that they were campaigning – against heavy opposition – for something worthwhile which they genuinely believed in. While the authors draw a parallel with the contemporaneous formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the Homosexual Law Reform Society and others, they underplay the association with contemporary environmentalist, ruralist and wholefood campaigns, which seem a much closer parallel. My (youthful) perception of CAMRA in the 1970s was that it was the ‘beer wing’ of a much broader and more diffuse countercultural movement, in favour of small scale production using traditional methods, against adulteration and industrialisation. To my eye the book doesn’t really capture this, or take it entirely seriously. (There is a reference to small brewers producing ‘pure, virtuous beer’ later on, but the phrase is presented as a marketing pitch; the overstatement is telling.) On the other hand, the big brewers’ reintroduction of cask bitter is presented in the same tit-for-tat style, as a dastardly plot to take the wind out of CAMRA’s sails; again, the framing of the narrative obscures a much simpler and more obvious reading, which is that this was a defeat for the Big Six (or, at the very least, an enforced change of direction).
What gets lost, or downplayed – or, at the very least, taken for granted to the point of being downplayed – is what CAMRA fundamentally was in that first decade: a highly political consumer campaign, using the tactics of political campaigns of the time, which protested against the effective destruction of British beer through the industrialisation of brewing and the monopolisation of pubs, and was more successful than anyone could have imagined. (Some would insist that CAMRA did no more than spearhead and give voice to a wider protest against the effective destruction, etc, and I think that’s arguable. It would still be a pretty significant achievement.) Whether, as of the early 1980s, CAMRA had won all the battles it was ever going to – “Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – is another question. Personally I’m more hopeful: the fact that the major pub chain with the cheapest beer (by a long way) is also the one with the best cask selection (by a long way) has got to mean something. I also think the presence of CAMRA throughout the contemporary beer scene is easy to underestimate. On ‘third’ measures, advocated by CAMRA, the authors write that the smaller glasses have only really been taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'”. Personally I can only think of two places where I’ve drunk beer in thirds more than once. One is the local J D Wetherspoon’s (home of the CAMRA token), which regularly offers three thirds for the price of a pint during its ‘beer festivals’; the other is a craft beer bar (10 handpumps, 20 keg taps) – which offers CAMRA members a 25% discount on cask. (Thus making the keg prices even more ouchy, ironically.)
As for where the story’s going, I think the difference between my point of view and the authors’ is summed up by that Mark Twain quotation, and perhaps by my rather grumpy note to chapters 11 and 12 – Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene? (To which I guess the answer is “yes, it is – partly”. Well, maybe.) I get the impression the authors look at places like the three Bristol bars in the Prologue and think – this is it – we’ve arrived! Whereas I’d be more inclined to think this, too, shall pass. (I’d still go in the bars, mind you – I may be grumpy but I’m not stupid.) Basically I don’t think ‘craft beer’, in any except the broadest possible sense, is the future of beer; there was good beer before that phrase was ever used, and there’ll be good beer after it’s been forgotten. Nor do I think people who would identify as ‘craft beer’ drinkers are numerically significant at the moment, as interesting as the beer they’re drinking may be. In terms of numbers, the state of British beer at the moment is still that a lot of people are drinking Tetley’s smooth and a very large number are drinking Carling; I’d love to see that situation change, but I don’t think it’s going to be craft beer that changes it. But this isn’t really a criticism of the book, more a comment on what I brought to it.
Lastly, a couple of points about ‘craft keg’. On craft beer itself, a definition would have been nice! (I know, I don’t ask for much.) To be fair, there is a thoughtful and interesting discussion of the term in chapter 12, but without any firm conclusion; when the phrase is used again in chapter 17 it seems to have drifted into marketing-speak, largely unmoored from what it had meant before. It would have been good to stick to a single meaning – or, if that’s not possible (which it probably isn’t), to put the narrative on pause and take a page or two to set out what the various meanings seem to be. Then there’s the issue of new-wave keg vs cask; here I felt the authors were trying to sit on the fence – again, for the sake of keeping the narrative going – and not really succeeding. So we learn that some people denigrate keg as ‘cold and fizzy’ (in quotes), only to then be told that “A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing’” (also in quotes); the implication seems to be that some people think they don’t like cold and fizzy beer, but they’re wrong. (Also, “whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself”; I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘in itself’, but as it stands this certainly hasn’t been my experience.) Rather than taking a view, I think the chapter – and the book – would have benefited from stopping for a moment to present the different views in a bit of detail.
Coming soon: part 4, which explains why, having taken all of this into account, you should buy this book pronto.