Category Archives: CAMRA Man

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 2

More random notes on pubs where I’ve recently drunk or attempted to drink mild, in alphabetical order (i.e. in no order at all).

The Story So Far: I’ve identified three recurring Themes in my visits to (mostly) unfamiliar pubs, none of them particularly cheerful:

  1. Not Enough Drinkers
  2. Pub Food Is Dead
  3. Spoons Has Pros and Cons

(We’ll get to Theme 2 in a minute.)

Also, I’ve written about twelve pubs – seven of them with mild on – and got up to the letter F. Avanti!

the Friendship, Fallowfield
I first knew the Friendship as the pub I used to go to on the way home from Saturday shopping, back in the 90s; the beer was cheap and they had rather a good jukebox. I didn’t go in for a few years, and the next time I visited they’d done the place up and were serving Thai food; ever since then I’ve had the place filed under “done up recently, Thai food”. Well, it was lunchtime when I visited, but a weekday lunchtime; the big, light, airy, modernised-traditional pub interior of the Friendship was quiet as the grave. No food of any description, and precious little beer (being sold; there was plenty available). Theme 3, then; also, looking at the three regular Hyde’s beers and the Beer Studio faux-guest and the Kansas Avenue faux-guest – plus an actual guest from down South somewhere – I couldn’t help wondering if there are just (ladies and gentlemen, Theme 2!) Too Many Beers. To be fair, the whatever-it’s-called that used to be Hyde’s light mild was really nice – and cheap – so there’s that.

the Gateway, East Didsbury
Spoons. Busy-ish, as they tend to be. No mild of any description. Sticker, though – Spoons generally seem to have cleaned up their act on the sticker-location front. (When I visited the Gateway for the Winter Warmer Wander the guy behind the bar went into a bit of a rant about how the sticker sheet had gone walkabout, and how this always happened in Spoons. So he’ll be happy, at least.)

the Goyt Inn, Whaley Bridge
I had a bit of a route planned on the Saturday when I went to Whaley Bridge – two pubs there, then back to town via New Mills Newtown, Disley, Hazel Grove… Opening times are a bit of a bugbear when you’re planning a trip like this, as they set a definite limit to how early it’s worth setting out; I was pleased to notice on Whatpub that the Goyt Inn opened at 11.30. I got to Whaley Bridge at 11.30, to find the Goyt Inn (“Always a Warm Welcome”) closed and dark. I hung around in case they were just a bit slow opening up, then headed out to the Drum and Monkey, which opened at 12.00. Back in Whaley Bridge, post-D&M, I hung around a bit more – perhaps it was a typo and they opened at 12.30? – then went to peer in at the window to check that what looked like the darkness of a closed pub wasn’t just a fashionable natural-light effect. The barman saw me and unlocked the door – not to usher me in, but to tell me they weren’t open till 2.00. I went and got the train to Disley. (Couldn’t work out how to fit in New Mills Newtown. Another time, maybe.)

Great Central, Fallowfield
Spoons, Saturday. Pleasantly quiet, i.e. quite a few people in. Half of Titanic Classic Mild – pretty good. Bottle of Ticketybrew Blonde – very nice indeed. Realised that the reason it gushes like crazy when I drink it at home is probably that I don’t store it chilled. Not that Spoons do either, but if the fridges are on for all the hours they’re open that comes to the same thing. Honestly, these modern craft brewers and their supply chain requirements! (This has nothing to do with mild – Ed.)

Grey Horse, Manchester city centre
I’m rather fond of the Grey Horse – a properly pubby pub, despite its size – but to get the most out of it you need to have (a) somewhere to sit and (b) time to drink more than a solitary half, and this Saturday lunchtime I didn’t have either. Hyde’s Old Indie – not my favourite, not least thanks to the awful name, but basically fine.

the Grove Ale House, Hazel Grove
As I mentioned wrt the Crafty Pint in Stalybridge, there seem to be two types of micropub. The Crafty Pint was Type 1 – “not many in”. The Grove, I’m afraid, was Type 2 – “absolutely nobody in” – and it won’t be the last we meet. It’s a nice little bar, the landlady was friendly – recommending Jake’s and the Samuel Oldknow, neither of which I managed to get to – and the mild was good (although for the life of me I don’t remember whose it was). It’s just that there’s a limit to how much of a good time you can have in a pub when there’s nothing to watch or listen to but the sunlight bouncing off the walls and your own thoughts. I’m not the world’s most sociable drinker, Lord knows, but I do like to feel that I could talk to somebody if I wanted to. Not Enough Drinkers, I’m afraid.

the Harewood Arms, Broadbottom
Getting to Broadbottom (from Hyde) was memorable – rather than shlep up to Newton for Hyde for the train, I got the (mini-)bus from outside Morrison’s – but I remember very little about the Harewood Arms, other than that it was rather dark inside (pubs used to be, didn’t they?), there was a Howard Town mild on (which was fine), and they had a Tiny Rebel collab(!) on keg. They’ve clearly got someone behind the bar who knows their stuff. A few years ago I saw a “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale” sticker on a keg tap – presumably KK – at the Harewood; still the only place I’ve ever seen that, sadly.

the Head of Steam, Didsbury
The Head of Steam is one of my favourite pubs anywhere; I’ve spent many a happy lunchtime there, getting quietly smashed on ludicrously expensive Belgian beer. That’s the Head of Steam in Durham. How’s the little brother in Didsbury looking? Not so clever, I’m afraid. We got off on the wrong foot straight away: I scanned the bar, saw nothing resembling a mild and asked the obligatory question-expecting-the-answer-No, only to be directed to something other than a mild (see also Ford Madox Brown). In this case the ‘mild’ label had been attached (literally) to Cameron’s Strongarm. The bartender compounded the offence as he pulled my beer, remarking with a knowledgeable air, “Yep, Cameron’s Strongarm ruby mild”. I’ve got nothing against Strongarm – it’s a fine beer when it’s on form – but mild it ain’t. Also, no sticker; my form was graced with a rubber stamp. I retired to my seat, picking up a copy of the beer menu on my way; this was my last call of the day and I fancied something decent to finish off with. More small irritations: the beer descriptions were chatty and twee (spare me the gnomes of Achouffe!); they also seemed to have been downloaded from somewhere or other into a fixed-format template, with the result that almost all of them cut off with a string of dots rather than… I looked for St Bernardus and couldn’t see any of their beers listed – odd, that. I decided to go for something on keg instead (the Strongarm wasn’t on form, incidentally); back at the bar, my eye was caught by a tap saying Waterloo Récolte, so I asked about that. This led to irritation number… I’ve lost count… when the bartender went into raptures about how very organic and pure the beer was, what a very good choice it was of mine, and basically how it would suit me, sir. While all this was going on I glanced over his shoulder and noticed some St Bernardus bottles in the fridge. Hey ho. The Waterloo Récolte was very good, to be fair, but as a pub-going experience this wasn’t the greatest.

the Horse and Farrier, Gatley
Big old Hyde’s pub. Got there on the bus from Northenden (top tip: don’t). It was Saturday afternoon and the pub was buzzing; the bartender was quietly, efficiently and (as far as I could see) quite happily working flat out. Is this another Theme? I think it might be. Theme 5: There Are Still Pubs. Everyone seemed to be having a good time; it was a nice scene to dip into, however briefly. Plus, the whatever-it-is-that-used-to-be-light-mild was in good nick and very welcome.

the Joshua Bradley, Gee Cross
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I had a bit of a route planned on the Saturday when I went to Glossop via Hyde and Broadbottom. Opening times… you know this bit… so I was pleased to notice on Whatpub that the Joshua Bradley (not too far from a station on the Hyde line) opened at 11.00. Only it didn’t, obviously. Massive ‘roadhouse’-style dining pub, set back from the road and on a steep rise, unlikely to get any passing trade to speak of – except me, and I was there at 11.30 on a Saturday. When it was closed.

the Kenilworth, Cheadle Hulme
Being in Cheadle Hulme with a bit of time to kill before the next bus back to civilisCheadle, I wandered back up the bus route and happened on the Kenilworth. It’s a GK pub, so not promising – but it was on the Mild Magic list, so what the hell. I don’t know what announcement I’ve missed, but they were going big on Moorhouse beers, with the new and rather stylish pump clips – including the ever-reliable Black Cat. Glad I dropped in.

the Lord Nelson, Urmston
Urmston’s odd if you’re not used to it. There’s the centre – which I’ll get to another time – but then there’s… all these other bits… consisting to quite a large extent of streets with houses. I know, what are the chances of finding houses in a suburb – it’s just odd to work out a route from railway station to nearby pub, and then find yourself turning corners from one residential street into another. Anyway, I got to the Lord Nelson in the end: a huge Holt’s pub, with about five people in the entire place. Then I downed my half of 3.2% beer and headed back down somebody’s street.

the Lowes Arms, Denton
Having missed out on the Joshua Bradley, I decided to make a quick detour to Denton before hitting Hyde. The Lowes Arms is a nice old traditional-looking pub, with a small but decent beer range including Tweed‘s Chester Mild – an unusual dark mild, lightish in colour and texture, not very sweet but with a touch of ‘roast’. Nice stuff, anyway. I don’t think they can be getting much CAMRA trade; asking for a sticker provoked a long, initially incredulous, discussion, before somebody found the envelope underneath something, as usual.

Malt Disley, Disley
This looked like a nice little bar, in quite a surprising location – not the first or the last, either (and it’s another Theme: Craft Is Everywhere). At first glance, it looked like a good place to kill the 40-odd minutes before the next train. The beer was fine, too – well, the mild was going off, but it was replaced without hesitation; the bartender even offered to tap me a half of the mild that was coming on, straight from the barrel (I declined). The problem was people, or the lack of them: just like the Grove, there was no bugger there but me, and just like the Grove, it got on my nerves after a while. Shame.

Ten pubs with milds on (I’m including Malt Disley), two without, two closed; two Spoons’, five (non-JDW) free houses, three Hydes’ pubs and one each from Holt’s and Greene King. (Running total: 17 with a mild on, seven without, two of which passed something else off as a mild; the seven are a Holt’s pub(!), three Spoons and three free houses (Crown Northenden, Drum & Monkey Whaley Bridge, Head of Steam Didsbury).

In part 3: pubs from M (for Monton) to S (for Stockport).

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 1

I haven’t been posting about this year’s Mild Magic – Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s annual ‘treasure hunt’-style celebration of mild and the pubs that serve it. I haven’t been taking notes on the mild I’ve drunk, either. I have been taking part, though – to the tune of 4850 pubs visited, from Cheadle to Stalybridge and from Eccles to Whaley Bridge. This year, rather than document the individual trips I’ve made, I thought it might be interesting to go through the pubs in an arbitrary (i.e. alphabetical) order and see what memories I can dredge up as we go along. So here goes. I’ll do twelve at a time to stop it getting too boring (hopefully).

the Ape and Apple, Manchester city centre
I visited this town-centre Holt’s pub on a weekday lunchtime. It was silent as the tomb; this, I’m afraid, is going to be a Theme. (Ahem. Theme 1: Not Enough Drinkers.) In the time it took me to drink my half, one person left and one came in, leaving the total clientele at 2 (until I left). The beer was in good nick and the bartender was chatty, asking me about Mild Magic and where I was up to with it.

the Ash Tree, Ashton under Lyne
This is a large, two-storey Spoons, where my wife and I had lunch one sunny Saturday. I was feeling the worse for wear after a long and stuffy tram journey, some of it through some rather unprepossessing surroundings. (I read recently that Droylsden was getting a micro-pub; I’d like to wish the proprietors all the luck in the world.) As for the Ash Tree, it’s a Spoons, although with the slight added interest of being on multiple levels. It was busy, naturally. I had a pint of… something not especially memorable. Top tip: the bus to Stalybridge (if that’s where you’re headed) stops right outside; time it right and you can effectively wait for the bus at one of the downstairs tables. (We didn’t time it right and had a longish wait on the pavement outside.)

the Bishop Blaize, Old Trafford
How do you get to the Bishop Blaize? You just get to the Bishop Blaize. To put it another way, you just walk. Not particularly keen on a 10-minute walk from the nearest tram stop, I worked out a route involving getting a bus from town; unfortunately this also ends with a 10-minute walk through the shadow of the United ground. Another big Spoons, anyway; another un-memorable mild; and another 10-minute walk, back to the tram.

the Cheshire Ring, Hyde
When I visited on a Saturday lunchtime, the bartender asked if I wanted a sticker before he’d started pouring the mild, which is either impressive customer service or a testimony to how little of the stuff they sell. Formerly a Beartown tied house, the pub still had a wide range of Beartown beers when I was in – including the dark mild, which was rather a good example of the ‘fruity, fairly uncomplicated’ sub-style. I was sorely tempted to stay for another half of something – some of the other Beartowns looked good, and there was a beer from Black Hole, who rarely disappoint – but I had places to go and halves to drink, so I moved on.

the City Arms, Manchester city centre
What is there to say about the City that hasn’t already been said? Well, exactly. So it’s no great loss if I can’t remember a damn thing about my last visit – apart from noticing that it was busy on a weekday evening, and that they didn’t appear to do food any more. Shame if so – I’ve got fond memories of their sausage sandwiches – but they are operating with a Spoons right next door. (Another couple of Themes for you. Theme 3: Pub Food Is Dead; Theme 4: Spoons Has Pros And Cons. We’ll get to Theme 2 later.)

Crafty Pint, Stalybridge
The micropubs I’ve visited on these excursions fall into two categories; this one’s in the more comfortable of the two, which is “Not Many In”. The centre of Stalybridge, that Saturday, fell into that category itself; we wandered up one street and down another, wondering where everyone was and what on earth the town would be like on a Sunday. (We didn’t go in the local Spoons, to be fair, which might well have answered the first question (Theme 4).) Anyway, there weren’t many in the Crafty Pint, but enough to keep a hospitable buzz of background conversation going; enough, too, to call the bartender back from the cellar, or the kitchen, or the loo, or wherever he’d got to when we came in. (Wherever it was it must have been some way away – they were calling him for several minutes before he surfaced.) Once again I don’t remember much about the beer; what I do remember is a story in the local paper about Stalybridge Labour Club flying the red flag, to honour a Communist-sympathising member who had recently passed on. The old bloke’s son came out fighting; asked if the Union flag would have been more appropriate, he told the reporter that his father would have seen that as a symbol of the British Empire, “where the sun never set and the blood never dried”. You tell ’em, son.

the Crown and Anchor, Manchester city centre
More about pub food and Spoon’s. I visited the C&A, as nobody is calling it, on a weekday evening; I hadn’t planned a food stop into my route and was pleased to see food menus on all the (numbered) tables. I ordered a pint of mild, trading up(?) to a pint of Two Hoots when it turned out mild was off. Then I asked if I could order some food, and was surprised to find the answer was No – apparently they generally stopped serving food between 7.00 and 7.30. This, I thought – and still think – was extraordinary, and not in a good way. Since the darkest (i.e. earliest) days of pub food, has it ever been known for a pub to serve food in the evening, but stop serving at 7.00? Is it any wonder that people go to Spoons if they want food with their beer? Then again, in a world where people are going to Spoons, how much food trade can there be left for a place like the Crown and Anchor? It’s a death spiral, really, and by now we’re a good way down it (Theme 3).

the Crown and Kettle, Manchester city centre
If I’m ever in Manchester and have the yen for a really nice, comfortable, pubby pub which also has a good range of beer from contemporary breweries, I generally go to the Smithfield. Which is a shame, because the C&K (as nobody is calling it) ticks all those boxes in good style, and I always enjoy it when I do go there. On this occasion I didn’t really get the full experience – what with only stopping for a half of mild – but I remember that the beers looked good; the keg board, in particular, had a very striking selection of potential Halves of Something Silly. Another time. Promise.

the Crown Inn, Northenden
This was my second visit (ever) to the Crown; the last time was for the Winter Warmer Wander, and they didn’t have any qualifying beers on then either. In fact I’m pretty sure I had the same golden ale then (Weetwood Cheshire Cat). Other than that: it’s a pub. Quite old. Lounge and public. A few regulars. TVs. Only a few regulars, which doesn’t bode particularly well for them (Theme 1), particularly given that it was a sunny Saturday afternoon.

the Drum and Monkey, Whaley Bridge
The pub is a health-giving ten-minute walk away from the centre of Whaley Bridge (and from the Goyt Inn, of which more anon). The name might lead you to expect an inn sign along these lines; actually they’ve gone for something more like this, harking back to a celebrated advert. Not a mild in sight, but when the very young barman had served the very young couple in front of me, he served me a half of something pale and local, which was fine. (O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us… I suspect the word ‘old’ would figure quite a lot.) Then I was off back down the hill into Whaley Bridge.

Eccles Cross, Eccles
A big Spoons (is there any such thing as a small Spoons?), handily placed for the end-of-the-line tram stop and the tram to Ashton, if that’s where you’re headed (although if you are I’d recommend breaking the journey at least once). There were a couple of dark beers on the bar, but neither of them was a mild; I had a half of Peerless’s This.Is.Eccles, a stout which presumably is popular locally (and it was pretty good). The pub was buzzing. I noticed that their ‘community’ noticeboard included a sweepstake for the Lotto bonus ball, with every number with a name by it; the significance of this, of course, is that the pub has (at least) 59 regulars.

Ford Madox Brown, Rusholme
What do you know, another Spoons – that’s four out of these first twelve. An odd experience here: having scanned the bar and ascertained that there weren’t any milds on, I was about to order something else, but thought I’d better ask anyway. The bartender pointed to a porter, which (I now noticed) had had a ‘Mild’ label attached to its pump clip. I argued briefly, but there wasn’t really any point – if that was the beer they were treating as mild, that was the beer I was going to be ordering. It was a decent enough porter, as it goes – not a mild, though (and, of course, not all milds are dark anyway). The pub was comfortably busy, even on a weekday lunchtime.

Seven pubs with milds on, five without; four Spoons’, six (non-JDW) free houses, two Holt’s pubs. In part 2: pubs from Broadbottom to Urmston – or rather, from F to M.

What happened?

A quick post on the CAMRA Revitalisation story, this time covering what’s actually happened.

Here (again) is what we had before the vote:

2. The objects for which CAMRA is established are:

  1. To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale;
  2. To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  3. To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  4. To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  5. To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  6. To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;
  7. To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  8. To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  9. To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  10. To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

And here’s what we’ve got now:

The objects are:

  1. To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  2. To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  3. To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking
  4. To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type
  5. To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

How does 10 go into 5? Here’s what’s happened. First, three objectives (the old objectives 2, 5 and 6) have been reworded and updated, fairly uncontroversially.

Old:

  • To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  • To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  • To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;

New:

  • To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  • To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  • To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

No real change there; the old objectives struck a balance between specificity and generality (“British real ale” in the first, “the traditional British pub” and “beer” in the second and third) which is preserved by the new versions.

Second, there’s one new (and very welcome) objective:

  • To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking

Third, four objectives have effectively gone into one.

  • To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  • To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  • To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  • To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

These have all been replaced by the very broad wording of the fourth new objective above:

  • To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type

I can understand the rationale for losing the second and third of these ‘old’ objectives – is “the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale” really in danger of extinction? does BEER need its own line in the constitution? I think losing the first and fourth is regrettable, though. Note that the fourth, while it refers to a whole range of forms of publication, doesn’t actually commit CAMRA to producing any specific type of media; if the Exec proposed to replace CAMRA Books with a Whatsapp group, the wording of the objective wouldn’t stop it. The same goes for the first of the four, for that matter; I referred to it in my earlier post as “the GBG objective”, but I might as well have called it “the WhatPub objective”. Either way, telling the world where cask beer in particular can be found is a very specific undertaking, which isn’t necessarily covered by the objective of becoming a Beer (And Cider) Oracle. Score +1 to generality, -1 to specificity.

Fourth, another two ‘old’ objectives have been dropped without replacement:

  • To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  • To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;

I referred to the first of these in my earlier post as “the GBBF objective”, but obviously it doesn’t carry a commitment to any particular event. If CAMRA does want or need, now or in the future, to scale down its commitment to national-scale events, retaining this objective wouldn’t actually have stopped it doing so – although losing the objective may make it a bit easier. I’m not sure why the second of these has been dropped; presumably not because it’s enormously ambitious and lacks any specific real ale focus (cf. new objective 4). Overall we’ve lost an objective focused on real ale, but we’ve also lost one that focuses on everything from malt whisky to blue WKD, so that’s -1 to both specificity and generality.

Fifth and finally, the vote that was lost. What was the first – and, you might think, fairly fundamental – objective of CAMRA

  • To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale

has gone. This is the one that was supposed to be replaced by

  • To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers

but this (much broader) replacement didn’t quite get enough votes. This was to be a dramatic broadening of CAMRA’s remit, from “the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale” to “the interests of all pub goers and [all] beer, cider and perry drinkers”; whether you’re drinking Pinot Grigio in a gastropub or Kopparberg in a car park, CAMRA is the campaigning organisation for you! Or it would have been, if this change had passed. Since it didn’t – and the old objectives had already been deleted en bloc – it’s -1 to specificity without any gain to generality; CAMRA is (officially) no longer the voice of the real ale drinker, but it’s not the voice of all beer drinkers in general either.

Add up all these subjective scores on an arbitrary scale, and you get a net change of -3 in specificity and 0 in generality. This may explain the disgruntled reactions to the changes from some quarters, the sense that CAMRA has missed the boat and fallen irrevocably behind the times: yes, CAMRA has cut several of its ties to ‘real ale’, but no, it hasn’t made an equal and opposite commitment to…

Well, to what? There’s an odd sense of a proxy battle to this debate. Nowhere in the proposals does the Exec refer to craft beer; at no point do the new objectives specify that CAMRA looks favourably on contemporary beer, innovative beer, forward-looking beer, beer made with passion, beer brewed by brewers under independent ownership… or any other form of words that may be used to divide the craft sheep from the macro goats. The choice before us isn’t between real ale and craft beer (defined in whatever way you prefer); it’s between real ale and all beer. This is one of the reasons why the debate, despite the passions it’s aroused, has left me cold. I can understand (although not agree with) people who want CAMRA to extend its remit to include Jaipur on keg as well as on cask, but embracing Carling into the bargain would seem like a step in the wrong direction. Be that as it may, this is why I’ve referred throughout to ‘specificity’ and ‘generality’, rather than ‘traditionalist’ and ‘moderniser’ or ‘cask’ and ‘craft’ – ‘specific’ vs ‘general’ is what the changes are actually all about.

This leads to my second point, which is that the result we’ve got is a mishmash of different levels of specificity and generality – “real ale, real cider and real perry”, “beer, cider and perry”, “beer, cider and perry of any type” – but that this is nothing new. Several of the old objectives refer to “real ale”, but there’s also a reference to “beer” and one to “alcohol”: CAMRA was already trying to lean both ways, towards real ale specifically and towards beer and pubs generally. Moreover, the fact that there’s still a reference to “real ale” in the objectives has nothing to do with the failure of that one resolution to pass; the old objectives were all deleted by a separate resolution (and that vote did pass, which on balance is just as well). “Real ale, real cider and real perry” – and no other beverages at all, craft beer shmaft beer – are specified in one of the new objectives, put forward by the Exec.

The full story of the changes, then, is nuanced, qualified and generally not very exciting. In bullet points:

  • CAMRA was already committed to supporting beer and pubs in general, alongside a set of objectives to do with real ale; the changes were about shifting the balance between these two things.
  • The Exec proposed to retain a core ‘real ale’ objective but commit CAMRA more explicitly to supporting beer and pubs in general.
  • Members who voted agreed overwhelmingly with the Exec’s approach, barring a single change which shifted CAMRA further towards a more general remit than some members were happy with.

In short, a change of emphasis within CAMRA’s existing set of objectives has been broadly accepted by the members, but toned down a bit in one area. Shock, horror.

 

All or nothing

A quick note on CAMRA’s “Revitalisation” project.

The changes recommended by the Executive, following three rounds of membership consultation, are currently being put to the membership. What this means in practice is a change to CAMRA’s Articles of Association, detailing what CAMRA is actually for.

Here’s the current Article 2:

2. The objects for which CAMRA is established are:

  1. To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale;
  2. To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  3. To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  4. To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  5. To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  6. To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;
  7. To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  8. To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  9. To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  10. To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

And here’s the proposed replacement list:

The objects are:

  1. To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  2. To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  3. To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking
  4. To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type
  5. To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers
  6. To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

(Proposals from the Revitalisation Decision Web site.)

There are three types of change here. Firstly, out of the ten ‘objects’ (I think I’ll refer to them as ‘objectives’ from now on), five have been dropped without replacement:

  • To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  • To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  • To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  • To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  • To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

So, out go the Good Beer Guide objective, the What’s Brewing/BEER objective, the CAMRA Books objective and the GBBF objective. I appreciate that all of these are currently a substantial drain on CAMRA resources, but I’m dismayed to see the in-principle objectives simply disappear: are these not things that CAMRA ought to find some way of doing? The fifth objective that’s been dropped is the one about improving standards in licensed premises (in general; no reference to real ale). I’m not sure how much of that CAMRA does at the moment, but it seems like a good idea; again, I’m not crazy about losing it without good reason.

Secondly, there’s one entirely new objective:

  • To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking

No quarrel with that here, although it could be argued that it doesn’t go far enough – it might have been good to come right out and specify that we’re talking about health benefits. But that’s a minor nitpick, and overall I wouldn’t have any trouble voting for this one. (Although the question of voting is more complicated than it might seem; more on this later.)

That leaves five ‘old’ objectives which can be matched up with objectives on the ‘new’ list – and here, of course, there have been some changes.

First,

  • To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;

is now

  • To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity

There’s not a lot wrong with that – unless, of course, you feel that real cider and perry are different enough from real ale, and have enough of an enthusiastic constituency of their own, to merit being floated off from CAMRA altogether. But perhaps that’s for another Consultation.

Secondly,

  • To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;

is now

  • To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage

The two ‘as’ clauses in a row are a bit inelegant, but otherwise this seems fair enough. I’m not quite sure what that specific reference to ‘the public bar’ in the old objectives was meant to achieve, but it’s fair to say that its moment as a pressing issue (if not its moment as a phenomenon) has gone.

Thirdly, the conservationist-sounding

  • To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;

is still just about visible within the much broader

  • To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type

Perhaps the conservationist approach to beer is old hat; perhaps the battle to stop real ale dying out altogether is one that’s been won; perhaps that much broader terrain – provision of information to people interested in beer of any type – is the new world for CAMRA to conquer. I wonder.

Fourthly,

  • To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale

is now

  • To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers

That’s a great deal broader, and I wonder whether it’s something that CAMRA can really hope to achieve. It may address the ‘craft’ elephant in the room, but the other big background issue – declining levels of volunteering and activism – is surely exacerbated by giving existing activists such an expanded brief.

The last modified objective,

  • To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;

hasn’t changed that much; it’s now

  • To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

‘Where possible’ sounds a bit weaker than ‘in every manner possible’ – implying that in some situations it won’t be possible at all – and there’s the cider issue. But this one, again, broadly seems fair enough.

Put it all together, and what you’ve got is an organisation turning away from real ale – and from specific activities it’s currently carrying out, associated with real ale – in favour of a much broader and less prescriptive remit, albeit that some references to real ale survive in among the references to ‘beer’ tout court. I wonder how an organisation with a growing activist deficit is going to find the resources for this new, longer task list. Perhaps the new ‘objects’ will be shiny enough to attract a new wave of members and encourage the existing armchair membership to get active. Alternatively, perhaps they’re written vaguely enough to cover a continuing decline in grassroots membership activity; CAMRA in the longer term could become less a campaign, more a head office sustained by a largely passive, dues-paying membership – think Oxfam or the Consumers’ Association (the charitable organisation behind Which? magazine).

I’m not hopeful about the first of these possibilities, and I’m not entirely convinced the Exec is either. Where I think I do differ with the Exec is that I’m not happy about the second possibility. In the end I only voted in favour of the ‘moderate drinking’ and ‘best interests of the customer’ objectives. But that in itself points to a problem with the way the new ‘objects’ have been put to the membership. The changes are being put forward as a series of ‘Special Resolutions’, each of which needs to get a 75% Yes vote in order to pass. One resolution, in effect, deletes the old objectives; the next six each put forward one of the new objectives. There’s an obvious danger here, or rather two dangers. What if the ‘deletion’ resolution gets the magic 75%, but only one or two of the new objectives reach that level? CAMRA could end up as an organisation whose sole objective was the provision of education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type. Conversely, what if some – or all – of the new objectives pass, but the ‘deletion’ resolution doesn’t? All ten of the old objectives would remain in place, alongside whichever new objectives were passed – CAMRA could end up officially committed both to the narrow (‘real ale’) objectives and to the broader ones (cider, beer in general, pub-goers in general). (If the second of these does happen, incidentally, I’m one of the people you can blame; I voted against the ‘deletion’ resolution.)

One more list. All in all, it looks as if the CAMRA Executive

  • does want to make cider and perry’s place in the campaign official;
  • doesn’t want to be tied down to running festivals, publishing books and all that stuff;
  • does want to do something to square the ‘craft’ circle, but
  • doesn’t really know how (which is fair enough; neither does anyone else); and
  • does want to keep the Campaign relevant to new generations of drinkers, but
  • doesn’t want to make the Campaign’s survival depend on a revival of grass-roots activism.

I disagree, more or less strongly, with most of this agenda (if this is the agenda) – which is why I’ve mostly voted No. But I guess it’s a bit late in the proceedings for a suggestion like “How about just campaigning for real ale?”.

 

Val-de-ree!

It’s the time of year when Manchester CAMRA branches do their bit for the licensed trade by encouraging members to set out on a “Winter Warmer Wander”, thus bolstering pub receipts at this difficult time of year. (Note to CAMRA people reading this: hi John! Also, why is it in December? Wouldn’t January make more sense?)

Rather than separate posts for different areas, I’m going to post a quick round-up with subheadings.

The Good Ones

Last December Wine and Wallop had RedWillow Thoughtless on when I called. Alas, not this time – but they did have the chocolate stout Heartless, which is always welcome and was in very good nick. I was equally impressed with Magic Rock Punchline – a chipotle porter – at Brink. I like Brink a lot but never seem to spend any time there; I would have rectified the omission this time, but the place was packed out (I think there were as many as 30 people there).

Less stellar but decent were Gloucester Six Malt Porter at Pie and Ale and Manchester Brewing Pick Me Up in the Paramount (JDW), a coffee porter which was fine but a bit tired. The Paramount was every bit as full as Brink, which is to say that there were about 300 people in there. (On the same day, incidentally, I looked in at the Waterhouse (JDW), but thought better of it when I saw that the crowd at the bar was three deep.)

The Near Misses

Ashover Liquorice, in the Castle, was probably a really good liquorice stout. It certainly tasted strongly of liquorice – much more so than Ticketybrew‘s Invalid Stout, which was made with tons of the stuff. It’s a near miss for me because I don’t actually like liquorice, or not when it dominates the flavour as it did here.

Origami Mullered (Crown and Kettle) is the only old ale I’ve had this year – if we’re being picky, the only actual winter warmer – and it was really good. It would just have been even better if they’d had the courage of their ‘old ale’ convictions and not added ‘seasonal’ cake spices. Similarly, Ridgeside Kodiak – one of the adventurous choices on the bar at Reasons to be Cheerful – struck me as a hottish, slightly over-cranked porter, and only lost points when I learned that it was a “maple and pecan” porter. (I had it on keg later the same week; it didn’t taste so ‘hot’, oddly enough, but I still wasn’t getting the crunchy nut cornflake effect.) R2BC, like Brink, is a small, friendly bar with an excellent range of beer, and I always want to spend a bit more time there. This time was no exception. I dashed out to get my bus – after debating whether to wait fifteen minutes for the next one, and chance it on being home when I’d said I would – and ended up waiting the full fifteen minutes at the bus stop. (And I was home in time.)

Not Actually Dark

Hyde’s and their pubs aren’t really getting into the spirit of the WWW this year. I’ve had a couple of their “Beer Studio” beers: Mahogany Summit in the Fletcher Moss and oddly, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW); Yankee Pumpkin Ale in the Vic. They’re both basically darkish mid-strength bitters, although the Mahogany Summit does have an interesting ‘roasty’ finish; you could just about imagine you were drinking a stout if you didn’t look at it. There were also no dark beers at the Gateway (JDW) – I had hopes of Kelham Island Smoke on the Water, but it turned out to be a smoked pale beer; or at the Red Lion, where the Marston’s name over the door is as much a guarantee of bland predictability as it once was of quality (I had Snecklifter); or at the Smithfield (Kennet & Avon Caen Hill Hop), or the Great Central (JDW) (Brightside Topaz); or at the Friendship, where I havered between Hyde’s Lowry and someone-or-other’s Fireside Ale, unable to read the a.b.v. on either of the pump clips, and eventually jumped the wrong way. (The Internet tells me that Lowry is actually over the magic number of 4.5%, and that the Fireside Ale is under – and that it’s brewed by Greene King, although they keep very quiet about it.)

Not Actually Qualifying (plus Not Actually On The List)

None of the eight pubs in the previous paragraph had any dark beers on (let alone old ales), and most of them only had the one beer over 4.5%. After less than satisfactory encounters at the Vic and the Red Lion, I was in the mood for something dark – and it had been a long time since that Heartless at Wine and Wallop – so I bobbed into the Turnpike for a half of Samuel Smith’s Extra Stout. It was on keg, of course – Sam’s stout isn’t available on cask anywhere (unless you know better…) – but it was fine; if it was sold more widely, and if people bought keg stout for the taste, I could see it taking market share from Guinness. (Of course they don’t, and it never will, so the point’s academic.) Elsewhere, the Arndale Micro Bar, last time I passed, was listing three more beers than were actually on sale; this struck me as odd, given that they only had one pump idle at the time. One of the phantom beers was a draught stout, but none of the beers that were actually available was either dark or over 4.5%, so I passed. I was less scrupulous at the Crown (Northenden), having made a special trip out there; I had a pint of Weetwood Cheshire Cat, an unexceptional but agreeable golden ale, and found a corner to watch the match.

Are You Man U, You?

Watching the footie at the Crown was actually quite pleasant, which I fear doesn’t bode well for the pub – there were only about twice as many people in there as TV screens. Liverpool v Everton was still playing at the Red Lion and at the Vic; both of those were absolutely rammed, to the level where you have to keep up a constant stream of warnings and apologies to get from one side of the room to the other (“sorry… mind your backs… excuse me… coming through…”).

I made it to Fallowfield a bit later in the afternoon and decided to hit the Friendship before the Great Central, thinking that the latter wouldn’t have the game on and the former probably would – although I did also think that the Liverpool game would probably be over by this time. Good news: the Liverpool derby had indeed finished. Bad news: the Friendship was now showing the Manchester derby – Manchester United and the other lot – while also, apparently, trying for a world record for the number of people they could get into one room. I’d thought the Vic was busy, but this was something else. To get across the room – which included getting to the bar – you basically had to keep up a constant stream of warnings and apologies, and then push hard. You know when you’re at a gig, and there’s a support act on who nobody really cares about, but there are about eight rows of people at the front jealously guarding their positions for when the headliner comes on? Picture that, except that you need to get to the front of the stage in order to get served. My sticker-requesting technique – smile, make eye contact, ask directly and succinctly, say thankyou – was heavily tested today, never more than at the Friendship. (It worked, though – at least, nobody got at all narky about having to fossick around for a bit of sticky paper on one of the busiest days of the year. Which reminds me – why do we do this in December?)

The Scores

Everton equalised, apparently; I don’t know how they managed that. I don’t remember the score for the other match. As for the beers, in sixteen pubs I’ve had

1 old ale
4 porters
2 stouts
7 ‘other’ qualifying beers (>4.5%)
2 non-qualifying beers

7/16 – a bit on the low side, sadly.

The Twist Ending

After all that, I’m afraid I won’t be participating in the Winter Warmer Wander 2017, even though the sixteen pubs I’ve visited put me well on the way to a t-shirt to add to my collection. (Don’t knock it – my stash of CAMRA t-shirts and polo shirts makes packing for summer holidays much simpler.) At my first stop this afternoon, reaching for my sticker sheet, I found it wasn’t there; this didn’t worry me until I got home and found it wasn’t here either. So farewell then, my stickers for Brink, the Castle, the Crown and Kettle, the Fletcher Moss, the Ford Madox Brown, the Gateway, the Paramount, Pie and Ale, Reasons to be Cheerful and the Smithfield. As much as I like some of those places, I really don’t want to do all ten of them again – and I can’t see myself getting to 24 without them – so I think that’s going to have to be it for this year.

 

 

 

Stocport and elsewhere

This is another Winter Warmer Wander roundup, covering pubs I’ve visited (a) in Stockport (six of them) and (b) elsewhere (another five). (NB I know about the misspelling.)

There’s a lot of pub-crawl potential in this year’s WWW, but only in Manchester and Stockport; elsewhere the pickings are a bit slim. In Chorlton, which you would have thought fairly target-rich, only one pub is listed: the Sedge Lynn (JDW). Here I had a choice between Phoenix Wobbly Bob – a perennial presence at the Sedge Lynn – and Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime. I wasn’t entirely sure if the latter would qualify – or what style it actually is – but a quick google while I was waiting to be served satisfied me that Ratebeer, at least, call it a porter, so that’s what I ordered. I’d reckoned without the manager, who intervened – midway through the predictable hunt for the sticker sheet – to tell her staff (and me) that Brodie’s Prime didn’t count for the WWW. Not feeling entirely sure on the style point, I said something about strength, to which she replied “Yes, it’s got to be 5% or over”. We got it sorted out in the end – at least, I let her know that the cutoff was 4.5% and I duly got a sticker – but things were surprisingly combative for a while there. I guess the Sedge Lynn doesn’t feel any need to drum up custom.

There were three pubs on the Fallowfield/Didsbury route, but you wouldn’t want to walk between them. Down at Parrs Wood, the Gateway was serving Stockport Ebeernezer, which looked like the most interesting option of two or three beers that qualified on strength only; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t a vaguely Christmassy dark ale but a porter. Up the (tram) line at Wine and Wallop, there were a couple of good options and one excellent one: RedWillow Thoughtless, a 9.4% imperial stout, which (predictably) was very nice indeed. More cask stout at the Friendship in Fallowfield, and a bit of local brewery news (news to me at least): as well as the Beer Studio range, a couple of the Hyde’s pumps were dispensing beers under the “Provenance” label. I may be doing Hyde’s a disservice, but if this means anything it seems to mean “in the style of beers from region X”, which is more or less the opposite of what the word ‘provenance’ generally means. Anyway, my Hyde’s Dublin stout was a nice enough beer – a light-bodied, dryish, easy-drinking stout.

Then there was Urmston. Earlier in the WWW, the Prairie Schooner had had a Winter Warmer from Ticketybrew on, but sadly this had gone by the time I got there. Tatton Yeti only really qualified on strength, but it was a very nice beer. I didn’t go anywhere else in Urmston – the Hop House already had the shutters down – and it was a bit of an excursion for the sake of a half. I liked the look of the Prairie Schooner a great deal, though; at first blush it looks like a small bar/bottle shop of the Heaton Hops ilk, but there’s a more comfortable seating area behind the bar, going back quite a long way. Like the Sip Club in Stretford, it’s one of those places I shall be sure to visit the next time I’m visiting that part of Manchester; unfortunately, like Stretford, Urmston is a part of Manchester I hardly ever do visit. Speaking of Stretford, I got accent-checked by the driver of the bus I got home – Sorry, where? “Chorlton”. Oh, right, Chorlton! (Twenty minutes from here, mate. Also, printed on your timetable.) Admittedly I am a Southerner by origin, but that hasn’t happened to me in thirty years. But then, I don’t go west of the A56 that often.

As for Stockport, I saved it this year till I only had six slots left to fill & could do it in a day. (If six sounds unambitious, read on – & note the a.b.v.s.) Coincidentally my local CAMRA branch had a Stockport crawl planned; I was hoping to join it, but on the day we had something else booked. So it was as a solo drinker that I hit town and went straight to the Swan with Two Necks for a half of – inevitably – Robinson’s Old Tom. It was on hand pump, it was in good nick, it was big, malty and 8.5%, and by the time the bartender had got round to signing my sheet it was almost all gone. Shame – that snug looked very comfortable. From there I headed to the (Portwood) Railway, where I’d ordered a half of Rossendale Pitch Porter – an old friend – before noticing that the Phoenix pump was dispensing a 7% beer called Humbug. (The Rossendale beers have had a redesign, incidentally, and look rather good. They’re also insanely cheap if my half was anything to go by (£1.25!) – although this may just be the Railway, and/or my Chorlton expectations colliding with Stockport.) Anyway, I can report that Phoenix Humbug is terrific – a pale barley wine, sweet all the way down but without ever becoming cloying. My second ‘old ale’ of the Wander, and one to put alongside Old Tom.

Back to town then, where the Baker’s Vaults presented me with a similar multiple-qualifer challenge: Old Tom or Titanic Plum Porter Special Reserve? Well, Old Tom obviously, but I was curious enough about the PPSR to ask for a taster. (It was fine.) Then a couple of new venues, at least to me. The Remedy Bar and Brewhouse is every bit as ‘craft’ as that sounds – bare brick, railway-sleeper benches, big steel vessels, that style of thing. On the bar I couldn’t see any of their own stuff, but they did have a (I’m sighing as I type this) Bad Seed/Trembling Madness collab called Descent into Madness. It was a 7% imperial stout and it was fine. On to the Petersgate Tap; also a very un-pub-like venue, but considerably less rock’n’roll and more cafe-bar, as compared to Remedy, and a lot more to my taste. There was a choice here: Elland 1872 or Liverpool Organic Kitty Wilkinson stout. I’m a confirmed fan of the Elland, but it is 6.5%, and by this stage I fancied easing off a bit. So Kitty it was (4.5% chocolate & vanilla stout, well kept, very drinkable).

On past WWW Stockport trips I’ve finished up at the Crown, but on my last couple of visits I’ve found it hard – despite the huge range of beer they offer – to find one that really called to me. This time I headed to the Magnet. Cryptic Round One stout was 4.9% and fine (I know, but you try remembering what the beer actually tasted like at the back end of a session like this). I finished off with a half of evil keg. RedWillow, like Marble, seem to have got a bit of a new lease of life recently; the Perceptionless “New England IPA” was terrific (and not particularly hazy, for what that’s worth).

Counting one beer per venue (in other words, not counting the Pitch Porter) and adding in the details from the previous post, that stacks up as follows:

Central Manchester and Salford
Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2
No qualifying beers: 1

Stockport
Stout: 3
Porter: 0
Old ale: 3

Everywhere else
Stout: 2
Porter: 2
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 1

Total
Stout: 10
Porter: 7
Old ale: 3
Other >4.5%: 3 (Prairie Schooner, Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

Compared to previous years, cask porter has held very steady, and cask stout has grown and grown – if there’s one tangible success the WWW can point to, it’s that. Old ales, barley wines and winter warmers, though – where are they? Setting aside Robinson’s and Phoenix – both of whom, interestingly, brew a strong ale all year round – the breweries just didn’t seem to be trying this year. On the bright side, the number of pubs not actually putting the right kind of beers on – either not understanding the point of the Wander or just not bothering – has fallen dramatically; as recently as 2014 there were almost as many strength-only beers on my list as the rest put together. Overall, this year’s Wander has to be counted as a success; congratulations and thanks to the organisers.

Maximum darkness

Time for this year’s Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA Winter Warmer Wander.  The point of the Wander is to get round as many as possible of the nominated pubs and bars (40 this year), and – most importantly – to have a “cask conditioned stout, porter, old ale or barley wine (or if none available, any other premium beer 4.5% or over”) in each one.

In this, the first of two posts, I’ll focus on my experiences in the town centre pubs included – quite a lot of them this year.

I was in both the Micro Bar and Cafe Beermoth the day after the WWW began this year; this wasn’t me being quick off the mark, though, as I’d forgotten all about it and consequently didn’t tick them off. I went back to both the following week to do it properly. Nothing looked like qualifying at the Micro Bar – no Boggart Rum Porter in sight this year; they had Titanic Cherry Dark on, but this is variously described as a ‘fruit beer’ and a ‘black bitter'(!), and is in any case only 4.2%. I had Kelham Island Riders on the Storm, a perfectly pleasant hoppy brown bitter which (just) qualified on strength at 4.5%. Pickings were on the slim side at Cafe Beermoth, too; several of their keg lines had high-to-silly a.b.v.s, but only two of the cask beers qualified. I asked after the 6%er, but this turned out to be an IPA; so, Okell’s St Nick it was. This is a “full-bodied, dark-coloured beer with an aroma of fruit and malt” to quote the brewer; it’s 4.5%, and it was fine.

Incidentally, Cafe Beermoth have an infuriating system of listing all their beers in a standard format in a row of plain signs above the taps on the back wall – a standard format which includes a.b.v., brewery and town of origin, but not style. Given that they tend to stock beers that are off the beaten track this inevitably results (for me at least) in an extended conversation with the bar staff, something like this:

What can I get you?
– Er… what kind of a beer is Drummond’s Deplorability?
That’s an IPA.
– Oh, OK. What’s the, er, Flintlock Don’t Come The Raw Prune?
That’s a plum porter. Would you like a taster?
damn, plum, I could have guessed that… No, I’m fine. What’s the JSD Chasmatic?
[sigh] …And that’s a stout. Is it a dark beer you’re after?

It’s a lose-lose situation – the person behind the bar obviously thinks I’m a timewaster, and I end up giving in and getting a pint of the second or third thing they mention, whatever it is, just so as not to prolong the embarrassment. Memo to Cafe B: styles, please! (They surely can’t make a living selling exclusively to people who already know every beer they sell… can they?)

Elsewhere in town it was dark beers all the way. Well, almost; the Terrace had Titanic Plum Porter on keg, but nothing at all that qualified on cask. Howard Town Super Fortress, a 4.4% ‘ruby ale’, was both the darkest and the strongest thing going. Another couple of places that didn’t make much impression on me either way were the Town Hall Tavern (the aforementioned Titanic Plum Porter – fine, albeit dearer than I’ve had it elsewhere) and Pie and Ale (Sonnet 43 Create Those Moments, a “spiced pear and brandy porter” which worked far better than I expected it to). The Castle has in the past been somewhere to linger, but Christmas party season seems to have started particularly early this year; it was standing room only when I called, so I drank my Saltaire Triple Chocoholic and got out. (No sign of Old Tom at the Castle, incidentally; I haven’t seen it there since this time in 2012. Shame.)

Two of the city centre’s four Wetherspoons’ – the Paramount and the Waterhouse – are on the WWW trail. Digressing slightly, I was pleasantly surprised to see that both of them had Ticketybrew bottles in the fridge; rather excitingly, the Waterhouse also had a keg font for the 6% Ticketybrew IPA. This was a fine beer when I had it in an unlabelled bottle a few months back, but I’ve never seen it since; sadly it was off at the Waterhouse, so the wait will have to continue. Great to see Duncan & Keri getting a bit more exposure. As far as the WWW goes, it was Brightside Season Four stout at the Waterhouse and Stockport Stockporter at the Paramount – both rather good and well-kept. (The Paramount actually had four different qualifying beers on, including the Elland 1872 porter which was their house beer for a while (as ‘Paramount Porter’). I’m guessing the regulars really like their dark beers.)

eggsDown on Bridge Street, Brink had a small but well-chosen range of beers, including Squawk Porter – really excellent, one of my beers-of-the-Wander. The landlord commented that mine was only the third sticker he’d given out, and admitted to feeling a bit let down by CAMRA’s promises of extra custom; I said that the bar’s non-standard opening hours had probably knocked it off some people’s lists. Be that as it may, I’d recommend anyone to get down there – it’s a really nice little dive bar with excellent beer at decent prices. Anyone concerned about the War on Christmas will also be glad to learn that Brink appears to be resisting the politically-correct orthodoxy of the so-called ‘Scotch’ egg.

Carry on down Bridge Street and you leave Manchester altogether, but since there’s only one Salford pub in the WWW I’ll include it here. The New Oxford is an old-style ‘beer exhibition’ pub: one of those places with 10+ handpumps, mostly dispensing beers from local-ish breweries which don’t have much of a profile. It’s the kind of pub that seems designed to attract CAMRA members and tickers, in other words, and like others of the same type (the Magnet or the Portwood Railway) it’s built up a regular clientele who aren’t either of those things, but live nearby and fancy a drink from time to time. I guess you’ve got to make a living. Anyway, the beer of choice at the Oxford this time was Empire Porter. (Empire: a small brewery in Slaithwaite. You live and learn.) Perfectly decent porter, even if the name’s about as appealing to some of us as “Colony Gin” – and well-kept, not that I’d expect anything else at the Oxford.

That just leaves three local beer institutions. The youngest of the three, the Smithfield, is my favourite Manchester pub bar none. You can find as good a beer range in a few other places – including the Paramount, if my last visit is anything to go by – but none of those has the atmosphere of the Smithfield, which I’d characterise as classic pub ambience with a bit of ‘bar’ to lift it (pale walls, unmatched sofas instead of bench seating – that kind of thing). They had two stouts on, one at 5% and one at a rather fearsome 10% – and both at recognisably beer-like prices (none of that “£6 for 2/3” caper). I considered the silly-o-clock option but wimped out and got the 5%er, viz. Blackjack Stout – and very good it was too. My visit to the Piccadilly Tap was less successful; they had some good stuff on, but the Exit 33 stout I went for was a bit puny, tasting to me more like a rather tame dark mild with a bit of added roastiness (a ‘black mild’?).

And finally Esther, the Marble Arch. Time for a quick confession. The Marble Beerhouse was my local as soon as it opened (1999?), and I’ve been a loyal and mostly enthusiastic drinker of their beers ever since then – even though for most of that time I would have killed for a brown malty bitter. Round about 2011 I had a lightbulb moment – triggered, appropriately enough, by a Marble beer – and ‘got’ the pale hoppy beers the cool kids were all talking about (and which, of course, Marble had been brewing all along). And I haven’t really had a bad word to say about Marble since then. But I confess that, between 2011 and 2015, Marble’s beers weren’t always as interesting, or as solidly accomplished, as I might have liked.

Now, though – blimey, as they say, Charlie. Marble’s current range includes several beers, particularly in the 5.5%-7.5% range, which are really excellent. Earl Grey IPA, Damage Plan, Built to Fall and Extra Porter are all absolutely superb beers; Damage Plan in particular is a beer to dream about. I had a half of Built to Fall on cask at the Marble Arch when I visited; it’s great on keg, but the lighter carbonation and more rough-edged flavour profile of cask really brings out the character and complexity of this beer. (I suspect the same wouldn’t be true of Damage Plan, but I’d love to find out.) It’s not a ‘winter warmer’, mind you, so I preceded it with a half of Magic Rock Dark Arts – which was also very good. (Just not quite that good. Marble really are on a roll at the moment.)

Thirteen pubs, thirteen winter warmers? Not quite, I’m afraid:

Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2 (Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

I noticed last year that old ales were thin on the ground compared to porters and stouts; the trend’s clearly continued, sadly. Let’s see if the news is any better when I hit Stockport.

Blue velveteen again

Night was falling rapidly and rain spattered the pavements as we embarked on our evening mission. A fearless band of battle-hardened topers, prepared for a long evening’s pubbing, foregathered at Never Say Never, the atmospheric Tibetan eaterie famed for its real ale and authentic Himalayan pork scratchings. Some familiar faces were on hand – Big Len, WG and Cajun Bill were soon joined by Green Vera, JoJo, Motormouth and Anthony Burtonshaw. Needless to say, the beer flowed and so did the repartee! JoJo was concerned that we might be driving other punters away, but most of us thought that the people on those tables had just decided to move away at the same time (“it’s not as if anything actually smashed,” Big Len pointed out). Golden Hind Yellowjack was sampled, and was variously rated “tasty and refreshing”, “tired and unconvincing” and “is that what I’ve been drinking?”. We would have stayed to check out some of the alternatives, but time was short. “Time is short!” said Cajun Bill and he was right. We moved on.

Just down the road, Café Paradise was serving its usual eclectic range of real ale, craft beer, real cider, speciality gin, over-proof rum, high-class cocktails and coffees-with-a-kick to its usual eclectic clientele of mums and toddlers. With only four staff on hand behind the bar, we all had plenty of time to reconsider our choices while we waited for our halves. New arrivals were filtering in; Sandwell and Dudley arrived together, to nobody’s surprise, and promptly got into an argument with Snowy the Beer Monster. Zenith Mango and Mint Old Ale was sampled and rated “off”, “I think it’s just… no, it’s off” and “no, that’s definitely off”; Ulan Bator An Ale That Is Pale was variously rated “really good”, “just like all the other hop-forward pale ales”, “OK, it is just like all the other hop-forward pale ales, but it is a really good one” and “mmm, yeah, maybe”. “Wagons roll!” said Snowy and we moved on.

Outside in the wet, the wet rain was lashing down wetly, while the darkness was darkening to an even darker degree of dark. The welcoming light of the welcoming open door of our next destination cast a welcoming glow on the wet dark pavement, welcoming us in (get on with it – Ed.). We could see that Bleep and Booster was a bit busy, but our intrepid band wasn’t going to be put off by a little thing like that. Once we’d all got in and closed the door behind us, the bar was a bit on the crowded side, but it was manageable – I think almost everyone had at least a square foot of floorspace. It wasn’t chilly, either! I was thinking of making notes on my beer, but five minutes after we’d arrived it had all gone; perhaps it evaporated. I didn’t fancy my chances of getting another, so I stayed where I was, admiring the bar staff’s crowdsurfing techniques and exchanging recommendations with Big Liz and Small David. Twenty minutes later who should turn up but the ever-elusive Metalman; the last I saw he was in the third rank at the bar, deep in conversation with Sandwell and Dudley. He said he’d catch us up, but I didn’t see him again. “Move ’em out!” said Small David – he’s got a surprisingly loud voice – so we did.

Down the road, Scran lived up to its name, plying our hungry band with a choice of amuse-bouches: for the vegetarians, a tartlet of goat’s cheese and red onion marmalade served with a quenelle of celeriac and mustard-seed puree on a bed of pressed radish and candied chestnut bound with a woodruff emulsion garnished with preserved sorrel leaves drizzled with walnut oil, in a basket; for the meat-eaters, half a pork pie. Needless to say, the pork pies didn’t hang around for long! Neither did the beer – I think I’d worked up a thirst in the previous bar. Half a pint of something pale and hoppy with with half a pork pie; half a pint of something black and stouty with another half a pork pie – food matching doesn’t get much better than that. I caught up with Big Len and Mister Jones; we talked about beer, as far as I can remember. It was a very nice half an hour, but like all half hours – indeed, like all half pints, not to mention half pork pies – it was soon over. “Hey ho my dearie-ohs!” said WG, calling time on this stage of our adventure in his own inimitable way; I stuck a couple of tartlets in my pocket for later and we moved on. (I found them again this morning.)

I went for a second half at our next port of call, too. Ordinarily I would have stuck to the one, but Very ‘Umble is no ordinary bar – and its in-house beers are no ordinary beers. On the grapevine I hear that sales have slumped a bit since the introduction of their eccentric “full names only” policy, but the bar still insists on it: as they say, you don’t point and mumble when you’re in Very ‘Umble! So I went to the bar, took a deep breath and ordered a half of And Hast Thou Slain The Jabberwock? American Amber Stout, which I followed up later with a half of O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! Imperial Pale Ale. (Word to the wise – make sure you pronounce the punctuation!) It was nice stuff, though I wasn’t sure where the paprika and wild garlic notes were coming from in the pale ale; I’d have asked at the bar, but I didn’t fancy going through all that again. Our party seemed to have grown again; WG was holding court at one end of the table, while in another corner Geoffrey of Monmouth was arguing about bicycles with Green Vera and Small David. “Is it about a bicycle?” I considered interjecting, but as it clearly was there didn’t seem much point. A party of roving tumblers came across to our table at this point and conducted some very impressive table-top juggling before our very eyes; what they did with two silk handkerchiefs, a pencil and a beermat defies description, not to mention belief. “Hello Kitty!” said Jimmy the Hat, and we moved on. (I kept meaning to ask him what he meant. Maybe next time.)

At the Lamb and Flag, three different beers and a cider were sampled and pronounced “disappointing”, “wait, did I order cider?”, “‘anging” and “…hmm”. I wasn’t too surprised – I don’t go to the Lamb for unique, interesting and high-quality beers. (But then, I don’t go to the Lamb.) Danno disagreed with Robbo and Kevino about the pub’s pricing strategy and a lively discussion ensued around the table, centring on the feasibility or otherwise of (a) non-conventional supply chain models in brewing and (b) that thing they did with the silk handkerchiefs, the pencil and the beermat. The juggling was assessed and variously rated “physically impossible”, “just a matter of skill and dexterity”, “a matter of physically impossible levels of skill and dexterity, more like” and “yeah, well”. “Excelsior!” said Danno – rather loudly, if I’m honest; people looked round – and we moved on.

The Quartile is the opposite of the Lamb in many ways; if I tell you that the Lamb offers cheap but undistinguished beer, colourful soft furnishings, bright lighting and cheerful and efficient staff, that tells you most of what you need to know about the Quartile. And so it was that I sat on the edge of our group, in an under-lit corner of a quiet and sombrely furnished room, looking out onto a dark street, drinking beer in a style I didn’t recognise from a brewery I didn’t want to admit to not having heard of. Mind you, I was pretty far gone by this point, so I wasn’t bothered. The decor certainly didn’t put a damper on the conversation: I can confirm that both Big Liz and Cheesy Pete have very strong views on the subject of Amsterdam, although what those views are now escapes me. “Oi oi!” called Motormouth and we moved on.

The evening’s festivities were due to terminate at celebrated alt-folk craftorama the Bird in t’ Hand – or the Bird in t’ Hand o’ t’ Man wi’ t’ Bag in t’ Box to give it its full title. Our experience here was mixed. I had a very nice half of Totally Craft Sammy the Stegosaurus (a West Coast-style IPA), but the venue wasn’t as welcoming as we might have liked. It seemed that the upper floor had been double-booked by a local Wiccan coven and a group of neo-dadaist performance poets. By the time we arrived any risk of unpleasantness had passed – the two groups were getting to know each other through an impromptu rap battle – but it did mean that that floor was pretty much out of bounds to casual visitors. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the monthly thrash metal disco hadn’t been in full swing on the ground floor. Some of us tried to get into the spirit of the thing, but for me it was too much, too metal, too late. “Come on, get down and do the funky boogaloo!” called Anthony Burtonshaw, but by that time I’d already moved on.

All in all, it was an evening of good beer in good company, not to mention good half pork pies. Shame I made it all up.

Author’s note: any similarity between this wildly improbable fabrication and Trafford & Hulme CAMRA’s Chorlton Challenge is entirely coincidental. (Apart from the bit about good beer in good company.)

Remember the name

I bought four bottles of beer the other day – four different beers from the same brewer, that is. The supermarket was having a bit of a push on them; the four of them had their own little cardboard display unit. Plus they were included in a ‘four for £6’ offer, so it seemed like a no-brainer.

There was an amber ale, “brewed in Burton-upon-Trent”. It wasn’t very nice. It was quite a deep brown in colour and tasted of diluted malt extract, with a very slight bitterness on the finish and nothing much in the way of carbonation. Essentially it tasted as if someone had set out to imitate an old-school sweetish bitter, but done so on a very tight budget. This was the only one of the four in a clear bottle, but it didn’t taste skunked; it just tasted rather boring.

Then there was a pale ale; mysteriously, this one was “brewed in the UK”. It was certainly paler than the previous one, and tasted a bit lighter, with some acidity and less of that syrupy sweetness. I wouldn’t say it rose to the level of ‘pleasant’, though; it was a bit of a struggle to get through the whole 500 ml.

Things started to look up a bit with the red IPA (also “brewed in the UK”). Only a bit – I’m not saying I’d buy it again – but I could drink an entire bottle without too much effort. ‘Red IPA’ was stretching it, though. With a beer like Hardknott Infra Red, you get something like the ‘red’ (or brown) equivalent of a black IPA: tarry bitterness and hop aroma overlaid on a heavy, sweetish old-school bitter. This wasn’t like that (or anywhere near that good). Basically it was rather like a combination of the other two – so ‘red’ meaning ‘dark, sweet, old-style bitter’ and ‘IPA’ presumably meaning ‘sharp-tasting and vaguely hoppy’.

After one beer that was disappointing and two that were positively hard to finish, I wasn’t expecting much from the fourth; this was a special ale and “brewed in Burtonwood”. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite liked it. Another darkish, sweetish bitter, but this time with a more interesting flavour and with a bit of body and strength to it; it wasn’t a million miles from Fuller’s ESB, albeit less complex and a bit less sweet.

So what are these boring brown supermarket beers, with their conservative flavour profiles and their multiple brewery locations, and why am I bothering you with them? They’re Sharp’s Doom Bar, Atlantic, Wolf Rock and Sea Fury, respectively. (Incidentally, none of the labels claimed that the beers were brewed in Cornwall; the labels for Sea Fury and Doom Bar specifically said they weren’t.) As you’ll probably remember, Sharp’s was a small Cornish brewery, which sold out to Molson Coors in 2011. At the time there was very little wailing and gnashing of teeth among beer enthusiasts, partly because most of us only really knew Sharp’s through Doom Bar, which was pretty unexciting even then (although personally I rather liked it). Most of us followed Pete Brown in giving the news a cautious welcome; I certainly did, as you can see from my comments on that post. Pete’s argument at the time was, firstly, that this was a good move for Molson Coors (“This marks the creation, or reinvention, of a national brewer with a big commitment to cask ale”); secondly, that if Doom Bar did get blanded out by its new owners this was no great loss (“It’s only been going since 1994 and the original recipe was from a kit, so it’s not as if there is any heritage here that’s about to be trashed by a big corporate”); and, thirdly, that Molson Coors were promising that Sharp’s head brewer Stuart Howe would be able to do his own thing (result!), and if that didn’t work out he’d jump ship and go and do it somewhere else (also a result!).

I think these were perfectly reasonable opinions at the time, not least because I held them myself. However, with five years’ retrospect we can see that there’s a lurking contradiction between Pete’s first two points. Is it such a good thing for a mega-brewery to develop “a big commitment to cask ale”, if the cask ale they’re committed to is a shadow of its former self? Conversely, can we laugh off Doom Bar getting dumbed down & blanded out – we weren’t drinking it anyway – if the new and even blander Doom Bar is going to be in our collective face, thanks to that “big commitment”?

In retrospect, I think this contradiction betrays a blind spot concerning the difference between a product and a brand. It’s not surprising that the two should get mixed up in people’s minds – they’re thoroughly mixed up in practice – but it’s still worth taking a couple of philosophical steps back. Let’s say that you’re given a taster of a beer, without knowing its name or that of the brewery, and you like it enough to seek it out and buy a pint: in that situation, you’re buying a product purely because of the qualities of the product. At the other extreme, say that your name is Finlayson, you’ve gone to the pub to celebrate a win on the lottery, and the first thing you see is a pump dispensing Finlayson’s Lucky Number (NB not a real beer) – obviously you’re going to have a pint of that, but for reasons which have nothing to do with the quality of the beer. The product and the brand are different things, although they’re welded together by the act of actually buying the thing – you can’t give money for the brand without experiencing the beer, and vice versa.

What makes it complicated is that, in practice, there aren’t that many ways to brand a beer that are completely disconnected from the beer itself – at least, not since the ASA got all spoilsport-y about associating alcohol with “irresponsible behaviour, social success or sexual attractiveness”. So what you tend to get is the presentation of product quality as a brand. The goal, in other words, is to create the impression among customers that the name of a particular beer, or a particular brewery, is the mark of quality. From that point on, as far as customers are concerned their buying decisions are based on product quality – that’s why they like the brand. But the brewer doesn’t have to sell on product quality; all they need to do is sell the brand, while doing whatever’s necessary to maintain the association between the brand and product quality. This may mean keeping quality high, but it doesn’t have to; it may just mean keeping prices high (“reassuringly expensive”, anyone?).

You can see how this applies to Doom Bar. A brand which is supported by a history of product quality is a strong brand, one which a corporation might well want to own. But the product that’s associated with that brand, once it’s been bought, doesn’t have to continue that history. The brand makes the proposition about quality, backed – implicitly or explicitly – by history and experience. The product doesn’t need to live up that proposition – it just needs to be palatable enough not to drive repeat customers away. Consider Stella, again; AB-Inbev are still trading on the name and history of the Brouwerij Artois, 28 years after it ceased to exist.

So, what do you get when a large brewery buys out a smaller one? We get one less brewery, and the larger brewery gets the assets of the smaller one – including the beers themselves, the beer brands and whatever other assets the smaller brewery had: brewkit, plant and buildings, yeast strains, employees, distribution channels and so on. In the 1960s and 70s, the key assets would have been the tied estate; these days it’s the brands. Now as then, there are no guarantees for the people or the brewkit – or the beers. For corporate brewers – and for anyone trading much above the face-to-face, word-of-mouth, farmer’s market level – a strong brand is far more valuable than a high-quality product; and this is the case even when the strength of the brand has been built on the quality of the product. (I had Stella Artois once, in Belgium, in the 1970s. It was good stuff.)

In short, takeovers turn beers into brands – or rather, they turn a beer-with-a-brand into a brand-with-a-beer. Even when the new corporate owner of a beer is genuinely committed to maintaining its original quality, the corporate scale creates new dangers. Brakspear Triple survived two changes of ownership – Brakspear was bought out by Wychwood in 2002, Wychwood by Marston’s in 2008 – only to fall foul of fluctuations in supermarket beer demand. In recent years the beer has been brewed primarily (perhaps exclusively) for the supermarket ‘premium bottled ale’ market – a big market in terms of potential sales but a very small one structurally, putting the future of the beer in the hands of a few beer buyers. And so it was that, in the words of a Marston’s spokeswoman quoted in June’s What’s Brewing, “Due to the decline in demand from consumers, Brakspear Triple bottle-conditioned beer was delisted by key retailers which inevitably meant we were unable to continue with the production and sale of it.” This is not to say that everything would have been rosy if Brakspear had refused Wychwood’s offer; the brewery might just have closed down, historic double-drop vessels and all. But it does show that a takeover doesn’t secure the future of any beer, even where the new owners have a genuine commitment to the beer – and not just the brand.

Whether AB InBev’s commitment to Camden Town and Meantime is to the beers or the brands, time will tell. (Sorry, make that Asahi‘s commitment to Meantime.) But I think anyone who bet on the key personnel or the original recipes still being in place in another five years would be very optimistic indeed. The brands, on the other hand, have got a bright future ahead of them. (Well, Camden’s have; given AB InBev’s enforced divestment, I’m even less optimistic about Meantime.) Just like Doom Bar.

According to Pete’s blog post in 2011, Stuart Howe was officially going to “[stay] doing what he’s doing but supported by more investment in the brewery and greater distribution capability” (although Pete expressed some scepticism about whether this would work out). According to a comment on the post from Kristy McCready, who was doing PR for Molson Coors at the time, “100% of Sharp’s beers will be brewed at the brewery in Rock under the creative brilliance of Stuart Howe … no wing clipping, crass marketing, kegging, moving to Burton or anything other than business as usual for Sharp’s but with more investment behind it”. 100% of Sharp’s beers brewed at Rock? We’ve seen how that worked out. As for Stuart Howe, he left Molson Coors last year for Butcombe (which itself has recently been bought out by the Jersey-based Liberation group). Meanwhile, Doom Bar is going strong, an awful beer powered by the reputation Sharp’s built before the takeover – along with equally feeble beers like Atlantic and Wolf Rock (and the surprisingly decent Sea Fury).

The beer landscape has changed an awful lot since the 1970s, but in key respects it hasn’t changed that much. The big companies don’t want good beers for their quality, they want them for their market share and their branding – and those things don’t require high quality beer, even if high quality beer is what they were built on. One of three things happens when a small brewery is taken over: the beers are kept on with the same quality and standards; or they just disappear; or they’re kept on as brands fronting for inferior products, impostors standing in for the beers they used to be. I think history shows that the second is more likely than the first, and the third is most likely of all – particularly now that brands are such a key asset for breweries. In short, takeovers are (still) bad news.

 

Campaign for the Revitalisation

As you probably know, CAMRA’s recently asked its members to vote on the organisation’s overall policy and direction. There are some interesting things about this vote. One is that – despite the heading in the leaflet that’s been sent out – we’re not being asked what CAMRA is for. The question being asked is who CAMRA is for – who should CAMRA represent in future? If you’re someone who feels very strongly about the English pub, that’s how you’re going to answer this survey – regardless of whether you believe that the future of the pub would best be served by the reintroduction of the Beer Orders, or by having all ‘failing’ pubs compulsorily purchased and ownership transferred to J. D. Wetherspoons, or by the repeal of the sm*k*ng b*n, or for that matter by leaving well alone. This is odd – it’s not as if they were short of space on the form.

The question, anyway, is ‘who should CAMRA represent?’ and the choices are these:

  1. Drinkers of real ale
  2. Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry
  3. All beer drinkers
  4. All beer, cider and perry drinkers
  5. All pub-goers
  6. All drinkers

Another odd thing is that we’re instructed to select one option only; I naturally went for option 1, but not without regretful backward glances at 2, 5 and 6. There’s also one very odd omission; see if you can spot it. (Two words, first word begins with ‘c’.)

No matter; it’s

  1. a harmless bit of navel-gazing
  2. a bold experiment in participatory democratic policy-making
  3. a pseudo-participatory (or ‘spectacular’) façade behind which the real policy-making process has probably already taken place
  4. a bit of fun

I anticipate a victory for the status quo, particularly given the multiplicity of alternative options (not to mention the absence of the c-word). What was more interesting – although it’ll probably be even less influential – was the ‘free text’ question, giving us the opportunity to explain why we were voting as we did. Naturally, I took the opportunity – and, half a second after I pressed Enter, I thought ‘this would make a nice quick blog post’. Alas, my words had already disappeared into the ether, but here’s what I think I said.

Can ‘real ale’ be defined consistently and comprehensibly? If so, is ‘real ale’ – as we’ve just defined it – a good thing? And if it is a good thing, does it need any support?

If the answer to these three questions is Yes – as I believe it is – the survey answers itself: there is such a thing as real ale, it is a good thing and we still need a campaign for real ale. If CAMRA turned its back on cask beer – to embrace beer in all its forms, or to represent all drinkers – then we’d need a new campaign for real ale. Since there is a Campaign for Real Ale, it seems only economical to use the one we’ve got.

The other advantage of keeping the focus on real ale is that other campaigning priorities follow naturally from it. So I’d vote

YES to campaigning against unreasonably high taxation on beer: real ale has always been an affordable luxury (if it is even a luxury)
YES to campaigning against neo-prohibitionism, which risks depriving a generation of the opportunity to drink real ale
YES to campaigning for pubs, which are after all the only place where real ale is available in either cask or key keg
And (very importantly) YES to campaigning for beer quality: if every pub in the country was serving real ale the job wouldn’t be done, not until they were all serving well-made beers in good condition (that’s the campaign’s original objective, ‘the revitalisation of ale’)

But I’d vote

NO (reluctantly) to campaigning for cider and perry; the definition of ‘traditional’ cider has never been a good match to the definition of ‘real ale’. Besides, APPLE is reaching the point where it can function as a separate organisation; let them sort it out.
I’d also vote NO to giving any official endorsement to ‘craft beer’ (unless it’s real ale), for similar definitional reasons. In any case, a campaign for craft beer might or might not be needed, but the Campaign for Real Ale isn’t the place to start it.
And NO to denigrating any other beer purely because it isn’t real ale. Nobody at leadership level in CAMRA does this anyway, but we could do with getting the message out a bit more clearly.

This last point is one I feel strongly about, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. I drink keg beer fairly often – including the kind that’s not ‘real ale’ – and when it’s good I’ve been known to rave about it. I’ve even had a couple of keg beers I’d class as better than their cask equivalents. But that’s me as a drinker, not me as a CAMRA member. I don’t think CAMRA should be campaigning ‘for’ good keg beers – not even those two – any more than CAMRA should campaign for particularly good types of gin or wine or coffee. What we can expect from CAMRA, though, is that it doesn’t campaign against beers without good reason.

At its core CAMRA is a single-issue campaign – and, despite how specific it is, ‘real ale’ is the best way to give that single issue a focus. But it’s a campaign, not a cult. What we want, if we’re members of CAMRA, is more, widely-available, good-quality real ale. That’s probably also going to be reflected in what we drink, given the choice – but if we do range more widely, frankly that’s nobody’s business but ours.

Update 5th April In comments, Rob Nicholson writes:

there is nothing wrong with CAMRA’s current values and aims except they are not vibrant and needy enough to get the next generation engaged. Sadly that’s a big “except” as without active members, the campaign has no future in the long term not matter what it supports. If CAMRA doesn’t change *something*, then it’s almost signing its own death warrant.

A few thoughts in response. Firstly, CAMRA isn’t going to run out of members any time soon. Where we do have a problem is in converting fee-paying members to active members – but that’s a problem faced by membership organisations of all kinds. In these days when nobody ever needs to face an evening with nothing to do and no social contact, the allure of serving on a Branch Committee or similar is necessarily reduced. In any case, if the problem is how to engage people who are already members of CAMRA, why should we imagine that adopting new values will do the job?

Secondly, let’s suppose that CAMRA membership – not just active membership – is heading for a demographic cliff, as the bus-pass contingent near the end of their drinking career, to put it no more bluntly than that. (I don’t believe this is the case, but I may be wrong – I haven’t seen the figures.) Does that mean CAMRA needs to attract young people? This is the usual conclusion, but it doesn’t follow. To see why not, look at the age profile at the average beer festival on a busy day – which is to say, everything from 18 to 80, with a bulge in the mid-20s and another in the 50-70 region. Then think what the age profile of CAMRA would look like if we were massively successful in recruiting under-25s, every year for the next ten years. It wouldn’t just keep CAMRA going, it would transform the organisation completely. I’m not saying this would be a bad thing – it might be a very good thing – just that nobody is actually arguing for it: nobody is saying that we need to turn into an organisation consisting mainly of young people. But if we directed all our recruiting efforts to young people – and if we got it right, which is a big ‘if’ – then that’s what would happen.

I don’t think anyone’s got a hidden agenda here; I think it’s just a case of not thinking it through. What CAMRA will need – if and when that demographic cliff catches up with us – is a steady supply of new members, but ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘young’. I see something similar at the traditional folksong sessions I go to. The room typically divides into two groups: the old stagers, who got into folk in the 1970s and never gave it up, and the new recruits (like me). Some the new recruits are in their 20s, but most of us are much older; traditional song didn’t knock on my door till I was 47. What CAMRA needs, as our own old stagers get older and greyer, is something similar: a continuing supply of new members of all ages. (Which, as far as I can tell, we are actually getting.)

But let’s suppose (thirdly) that we do need to attract young people. In that case we’re basically in the position of trying to second-guess the population group that is most conscious of image, branding and group identity, and cares most about the microcosmic cultural shifts which make one fashion statement cutting-edge and another old news. So, er, good luck with that. Nobody knows what’s going to be hip next year – people are paid a lot of money to answer questions like that, and most of them get it wrong. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed not to work is to pitch to where we (old gits) think young people are now. In the unlikely event we get it right, the message will still be hopelessly wrong by the time the intended audience gets it. Failing that, we can either guess what the next big thing is going to be, or stick to what we were going to put forward in the first place. Will real ale be hip in 2017? Probably not, but who knows? (Did anyone see dimple mugs coming?)

In short, changing our values to appeal to young people is a complete shot in the dark – but, fortunately, we don’t need to appeal to young people;  we probably don’t even need to appeal to new members in any large numbers. We do need to ‘activate’ existing members, but – considering that these are, by definition, people who joined CAMRA with its current aims and values – changing the organisation’s values isn’t going to be the way to do it.

In fact, the more I think about this ‘revitalisation’ exercise, the more I don’t know what’s going on!