Monday, 13 June 2011

Real ale lingo

I'm sometimes amused, or slightly irritated depending on my mood, by the language that certain real drinkers tend to use.  For some reason, there can be a tendency to speak or write in the pompous style of a country squire bestowing his custom upon the local inn.  Some examples:

Sample ~ drink.  "I sampled the Timothy Taylor's ..." i.e. I had a pint of ...
Partake of ~ drink.  "I think I'll partake of the Copper Dragon." i.e I'll have the ...
Wickets ~ row of handpumps.
A pint of your finest ~ pint, please.
Mine host ~ licensee, as in "Mine host in the Pint and Cliché was ..."
My good man ~ yes, I've heard this.  Cringe-making.
Serving wench ~ I've actually heard this, and it's even more cringe-making.
Beer engine ~ handpump.  Technically correct, but still naff, as hardly anyone uses the term. 

It's no wonder that Viz magazine so tellingly took a pop with their 'Real Ale Twats' comic strip (worth googling), which Wikipedia described as, "Three rather pompous men who speak in an affected style and only drink real ale, even going so far as to keep extensive 'reviews' of all the real ales that they have supped.  Also known to criticise lager drinkers."

In a recent CAMRA magazine I saw a female brewer described as a 'brewster', with an explanatory note that this was the term for a women brewer. Well, it was once, but it isn't now: a woman brewer today is called a brewer.  My Collins Dictionary doesn't even list the word 'brewster' (except as a person's name), because it is now completely obsolete. You wouldn't refer to a woman working in a bakery as a 'baxter', or a woman who spins cloth as a 'spinster'.  Explaining the obsolete word may be interesting, but using it as a current term is pretentious.

Then there are the dismissive terms for lager:  chemical fizz, chemical lager and one I've only just come across, zombeers.  It is here that real ale lingo ceases to amuse and begins to grate.  I recall working at a beer festival (I forget which one) when a group of young women came and asked for lager.  My neighbouring CAMRA stereotype folded his arms and said loftily, "This is a beer festival", so I stepped in and found them golden beers they were happy with.  But he was wrong anyway:  lager is a beer.  If you're going to be a pedant, better make sure you get your facts right, but it was his attitude that was wrong: supercilious, bordering on hostile.  No prizes for guessing whom they came to for their refills, which I didn't mind at all.

Does this matter at all?  I think it does, because as a real ale drinker I don't want to associated with pomposity, pretension, crass condescension or arrogance.  In my experience, most real ale drinkers don't talk or write like this, but those who do help reinforce the stereotypes that some people like to foist upon us all.  Also, it makes sense, particularly when you are trying to communicate with the general public, to use everyday language.  In-jokes, jargon, archaic language and gratuitously insulting people's drinks will at best make reading your text heavy-going and at worst put people off altogether.  Not a successful method of getting your message across.

P.S. I'm surprised I omitted the word "quaff" for "drink" from my list.


  1. craft beer is the new real ale - complete with attitude and self-righteous "fans".

  2. Quite agree, and what made the Real Ale Twats so funny was that it was disturbingly close to the truth ;-)

    A guy called Richard Sanders used to tape-record his pub visits: "And we're now crossing the threshold of the Dog & Duck to sample some of Timothy Taylor's finest..."

    There used to be some good examples on Stonch's blog but he's closed it down now.

  3. Who are you actually complaining about? Pedants who write about "beer engines", pretentious writers who use "sample" when "drink" would do, or idiots who insult the intelligence of bar staff by saying things like "my good man"? They're not the same people, and they're not all equally annoying, shirley.

    As for the 'brewster' at the Horse and Jockey, I got the strong impression from the article in question that she chose the title herself; I've certainly seen it adopted by women brewers.

    Never seen the old "chemical fizz" attitude in the wild, either. I really must have led a sheltered life.

    I think you've just been struck with the horrible realisation that lots of people think real ale enthusiasts look a bit ridiculous. The thing is, lots of people think enthusiasts for anything look a bit ridiculous. Just ignore the mockery, I should (well, laugh at it if it's good, but then ignore it).

  4. Thanks for your comments, Phil. I'm not complaining about any group, and I realise what I've quoted (all of which I've come across) was said by different people. This post is just some rambling thoughts rather than a carefully structured essay - hence the label 'chatter'.

    My reference to the term 'brewster' had nothing to do with the Horse and Jockey, which I've never heard of.

    I take the simple view that in a time when gender-neutral terms are increasingly preferred - actor (not actress), police officer, seafarer, firefighter, chair or chairperson - it is perverse and pretentiously antiquated to use an obsolete term that we don't actually need.

    To any who bemoan this ("I'm a chairman, not a piece of furniture"), I'd point out that language changes all the time, and it's always been the case that some changes are deliberate rather than evolutionary. The famous split infinitive, for example, was invented by classically-educated pedants in the 18th century.


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