Monday 15 August 2016

Browned off

Squaring up for a fight
Occasionally you read an article and you not only disagree with the conclusions, but you also dispute all the premises upon which they are based. In other words, you think: what planet is this person on? So it was with this report in the Morning Advertiser of a speech by Pete Brown at the GBBF about the relationship between craft beer and real ale.

Personally I am bored to death with this issue, which really only vexes people who spend too much time in the world of beer (yes, I did actually write those words), but if we are going to discuss it, let's not set up fake arguments to inform our conclusions.

He asserted that some people claim 'craft beer' is a marketing term with no relevance. Really? I've never heard that in any conversation I've been involved in. It is certainly not something real ale drinkers on the ground are likely to say - only industry insiders, by which I include beer journalists such as Pete Brown.

The article then goes on to assert that "[Pete Brown] then ... shut down real ale fanatics’ defence that the brew only came in kegs and craft beer was just sold in bottles or cans." It's not clear whether the heavily loaded term 'fanatic' is Pete Brown's term or the Morning Advertiser's, but such language is uncompromising and certainly not suggestive of being open to discussion and debate. More relevantly, I have never heard anyone make such an assertion, not have I read it in anything written by a lover of real ale. I get the impression that real ale drinkers are fully aware that craft beer comes on tap as well as cans and bottles, so I regard the premise behind the conclusion to be flawed. I have heard the perfectly sensible argument that the term craft beer can be applied to some real ales. Not all, of course: no one would seriously describe cask versions of Tetley Bitter or Greene King IPA as craft.

We real ale drinkers are apparently are hostile to craft because, he asserts, of its American origin. Again, not an argument I've ever heard expressed. I am fully aware that some real ale drinkers regard craft as the new keg, and it is not entirely unreasonable for drinkers who remember with a shudder beers such as Double Diamond, Trophy and Red Barrel to be extremely wary of what they judge to be the attempted rehabilitation of something they utterly loathed. They had good reason: real ale was insidiously being replaced by keg in the 1960s and 1970s, even to the extent of getting rid of handpumps so that you couldn't tell whether a beer was real or not until it was served. I was a student for four years in the Warrington area, then a town with three breweries, and we knew of only one pub that had handpumps; what real ale there was almost always came through electric pumps that were identical to those used for keg. Pete Brown came of drinking age in 1986 and the microbrewery revolution took off while he was still in his twenties, so he cannot fully appreciate why the term 'keg' is a such dirty word for many more experienced drinkers.

He asserts that Americans don’t discount real ale as "boring and British", and that the contrary is the case. I've not heard anyone assert that Americans do think that, but I have read British craft beer aficionados make exactly that point about real ale, so perhaps he should direct some of his criticisms in their direction. In the CAMRA circles I move in, craft is rarely mentioned: there isn't a real ale Taliban at work determined to root out all deviance from the path of real ale purity. When it is mentioned, it is more along the lines of "Fine if people want it, but not for me", which is pretty much my attitude. It seems to me that it's only people in the bubble of the industry and beer journalism who see a significant schism between true believers and heretics. They're too close to the subject - or perhaps like rock journalists in the late 1970s who all converted to punk overnight, decrying the Genesis albums they'd been praising 6 months earlier, they're anxious not to appear old fashioned and fuddy-duddy.

If Pete Brown was trying build bridges, he hasn't succeeded, but having come across his antipathy to CAMRA types previously (even though he actually joined in 2012), I'm not sure he was trying to. In general, I detect a certain impatience that some of us refuse to be persuaded by the arguments of those who regard themselves as experts. They seem to forget that customers can spend their own money on what they like, and if they don't wish to buy craft beer, they don't have to. Drinking beer - whatever form it takes - is meant to be a pleasure: it is not an evangelistic duty, nor ultimately is there any right or wrong. In my local which sometimes has up to 11 real ales, there are plenty of drinkers who choose lager or John Smiths Smooth. I would never berate them - it's what they want, after all - so why should we real ale drinkers be criticised for our choices?

Ignorant people would probably regard me as a real ale fanatic, because cask real ale is the only beer I really enjoy, but they'd be wrong because my preference is driven by my taste buds, not dogma. Even real ale in a bottle isn't to me as good as draught. I have tried craft beer a number of times, out of curiosity as much as anything else. I wrote in June last year about the Pied Bull, a brewpub in Chester: "They're also brewing their own craft beer of which they gave me a sample, which I found quite heavily hopped. Not my bag, but not too bad at all." To be more specific, I found it full of flavour, but as the half pint went down I could increasingly detect the carbonation. My few experiences of craft have led me to conclude that if I were in a social situation where such a beer was all that was available, I'd find it more than tolerable. However, I'd still prefer real ale.

Some other beer bloggers have broader tastes than I do: both Tandleman and the Pub Curmudgeon have written about having enjoyed a pint of lager in certain circumstances, whereas the last time I drank a pint of keg lager was more than a quarter of a century ago when my line manager bought me one in error. Before that was in the 1970s, but that's through personal preference rather than some fundamentalist principle. Each to their own.

I also like tea and drink quite a lot of it. I occasionally drink coffee. Personal choice, not tea fanaticism.


  1. I still firmly believe that real ale is something worth championing in its own right, though. And you might be interested in my Opening Times article on Craft Wars which argues that the antagonism has largely been fanned by the crafties.

  2. A firmly expressed counterpoint, Neville, as ever.

    I'd be inclined to cut Pete a bit of slack given that he was charged with giving an entertaining speech -- some of what you describe is 'rhetorical flourish' intended to give a bit of colour. We don't do enough of it (footnotes apply) which is why some people find us 'dry'! And it's why Pete gets to go on the telly and radio and raise the profile of beer.

    'Craft beer is a marketing term' -- we've heard this said, or seen this written, so many times. Here's one instance but there are many more. I reckon it's said as much by 'crafties' as by 'traddies', though. Or have I missed a nuance here? (Entirely possible.)

    And that point about how Americans find real ale quite sexy *was* aimed at craft beer fans, I think, rather than at CAMRA, but hard to say for sure without seeing an actual transcript of his speech. We made much the same point in a post about BrewDog's new cask-style 'live beer' the other week: that having ditched cask in a big huff a few years ago, they must have been feeling silly watching their American pals raving about it, and coming over all excited about brewing it for Wetherspoon's.

  3. Token Yankee response: the average American drinker of beer other than sex-in-a-canoe sort will probably view cask-conditioning is the pinnacle of craft of brewing ale, at least those who are aware of it. Brewers doing it are seen as brewing more skillfully and authentically than the canoe-sex brewers.

    And I think I don't know any CAMRA people who *don't* know that Americans see it that way. Do British crafties?

    Paul's got a very plausible point about BrewDog's sort-of return to common sense.

    Wait. That's not Paul Bailey, but one of Boak&Bailey. Whoever then.

  4. Interesting points, everyone. I accept, Bailey, that Pete Brown was perhaps exaggerating for entertainment purposes, and that I have formed conclusions from a fairly brief press report rather than a transcript.

    I was arguing from the point of view of a CAMRA member at ground level (I hold no position, although I currently write the weekly CAMRA column in our local paper), My own experience is that craft doesn't often feature in conversations. I don't find the hostile anti-craft attitudes that are often ascribed to CAMRA members. I'm reminded of the 1970s when punk began and the music press kept on claiming that there was intense hatred between punks and hippies. I was just a couple of years older than most punks; I had long hair and still wore flares. Sometimes I'd go to a punk club in Liverpool - and faced no hostility whatsoever.

    I dislike media-fomented rivalries that don't really exist - except when people start to believe the tripe the press often comes out with, as in the recent EU debate (if you could call it that) where xenophobia and racism were fanned irresponsibly.


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