The hard stuff

Back to Brewhive anon; I just wanted to fit in one of my rare Session contributions.

The topic for The Session this month is “the hard stuff” – meaning hard issues; what in beer culture isn’t being talked about that should be.

I can think of a few inconvenient truths, elephants in the room and the like:

  • A pub is more than a place that sells beer. We generally think pubs are a good thing and would sign up to a campaign to save the British pub, but we haven’t got much of a clue how to save them or even what they need saving from: we don’t know (or don’t agree) when British pubs were at their best, what was good about them or what changes in pub management have been bad for them.
  • A nicotine habit is very hard to break; barring smokers from pubs will not lead many of them to give up, but will lead a lot of them to stop going to pubs. This in itself may have adverse health consequences. We’re told that the health benefits associated with low levels of alcohol consumption may actually be associated with having a healthy social life; if this is the case, the smoking ban will have impaired the health of some of the very people it’s supposed to be helping.
  • Pricing matters. Telling people they can find the money if they really want to isn’t the answer. Overpricing matters; feeling that you’ve been ripped off matters. Telling people not to pay a price if they think it’s too high isn’t the answer.
  • Expensive beer is not the same as cheap beer. While all draught beer is available at roughly the same price point, all draught beer will (continue to) attract similar drinkers. As with the smoking ban, people used to paying £3 for a pint will not suddenly change their ideas about what beer is worth if you start charging them £5 and £6; they just won’t pay it. Different people will, and for different reasons (the appeal of quality, variety and exclusivity, rather than the appeal of something to drink on a night out). Changes like this will affect the nature of pubs and bars.
  • A campaigning organisation is not the same thing as a membership organisation with a small minority of active campaigners. If you’re building the second of these, you can’t be surprised if you don’t end up with the first.
  • Cask beer comes out cloudy if it hasn’t been allowed to settle properly, and this is a fault – even if the beer is ‘meant to be cloudy’. Cask beer goes sour when it goes off, and this is a fault – even if the beer is ‘meant to be sour’.
  • Regular low-level alcohol consumption – mostly of beer – used to be normal in this country; over the last two decades it has been substantially denormalised, and there’s no sign that the process has stopped. People who don’t drink small amounts of alcohol regularly don’t stop drinking altogether; they do develop a different relationship with alcohol, and not necessarily a healthier one.
  • Unfiltered key keg complete with live yeast is real ale – real ale that continues to attenuate in the keg, can go sour, and can be cloudy if it hasn’t settled properly.

But I think the issue I’d really like to draw attention to is beer quality everywhere else. I went to Leeds today, and I went to North Bar on my way home. Of course I did – I knew they’d have all the beers I could want and a few I didn’t know I wanted. If I’d had room for another after that I would have looked in at the Brewery Tap, or possibly Friends of Ham. Leeds also has half a dozen Samuel Smith’s pubs and a similar number of Spoons. What the beer’s like everywhere else, I neither know nor care. But I feel as if I should care – at least, somebody should.

I first became interested in CAMRA when Richard Boston wrote about the campaign in the Guardian, albeit that I was officially too young to drink at the time. The impression I gained of CAMRA back then, which I’ve held to pretty much ever since, is that it’s a campaign for real ale everywhere: for as long as you can walk into a random pub in a strange town and not find real ale – for as long as Pete Brown can still find crap beer in Chesterfield – the campaign still has a job to do. And, when the glorious day dawns and the last pub selling John Smith’s Smooth replaces it with Spitfire or Bombardier, we go back to first principles and campaign for revitalised real ale. I’ve never seen CAMRA as a campaign for some real ale, or as a campaign for real ale aficionados – or even a campaign for some really good beer to be available if you know where to look.

The front line in the battle for decent beer isn’t in North Bar, Smithfield and the like; they’re well behind the lines. It’s in every pub that takes cask off altogether – or puts it back on; every pub where the cask beer is so dismal that you’d be better off with a bottle of Beck’s, and every pub that’s like that but then improves. I’m not volunteering to spend my spare time checking the quality of pints of GK IPA or Hobgoblin or Cumberland, let alone sticking my nose into keg pubs to check that they still are keg-only; I’d much rather be checking out what’s new and different at the Smithfield. But to the extent that CAMRA’s a campaign rather than a drinking club, that is the kind of thing that more of us CAMRA members should be doing. And, to the extent that beer blogs are about more than swapping tasting notes, that’s the kind of issue that more of us bloggers should care about.

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One Comment

  1. pubcurmudgeon
    Posted 5 September, 2015 at 7:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    Excellent post – little to disagree with there.

    I’m totally with you on the “denormalisation” of regular light-to-moderate drinking. While we as a society drink about the same amount as we did when CAMRA was formed, it’s much less woven into the pattern of everyday life.This is something I commented on a couple of years ago in Socially Unacceptable Supping. During your and my drinking career, the way people use pubs has dramatically changed, but it’s something that has crept up on us inch by inch.

    My local branch of CAMRA does make a serious effort to keep tabs on all its pubs, particularly through the monthly pub crawls (aka Staggers) on which, over the course of a couple of years, we aim to visit all the real ale pubs reasonably accessible by public transport. Indeed, this year the runner-up for our Pub of the Year was the Armoury, a classic Robinsons street-corner local. However, you can’t really blame people for wanting to spend their hard-earned cash in the Crown or Magnet where they will find a wide range of interesting beers and congenial company, rather than struggling through not-quite-off Doom Bar.

    In the early days of CAMRA, every pub sold “bitter”, and most sold “mild”, and the campaign was basically about encouraging as many pubs as possible to serve them in real form rather than keg or top pressure. But it has steadily evolved into a product category in its own right, a major factor being the mass conversion of many of the more down-market pubs to nitrokeg in the 90s following the Beer Orders. For real ale as such, that may be a good thing, but it does serve to further detach CAMRA from the ordinary drinker.

    It’s sad when you see people like py suggesting that real ale has no place in the classic estate boozer (where such survive) whereas forty years ago many of them used to shift vast quantities of the stuff.

One Trackback

  1. […] mentions a bunch of things we could discuss, had we the willingness, but particularly has words for his fellow members of Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). He asks a simple question. Is CAMRA “a campaign rather than […]

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