Why is Camra still getting beer history so very badly wrong?

Excuse the indentations in my forehead, that’s where I’ve been banging my head hard against my desk.

I’ve been reading the “Beer Styles” section in the just-published 2014 edition of the Good Beer Guide. Ron Pattinson gave a comprehensive triple kicking last year to the effectively identical section in the 2013 GBG, and yet this year the GBG’s claims about the history of British beer styles are still just as horribly, awfully wrong. It’s as if nothing Ron, or I, or other researchers into the history of beer have written over the past ten to 15 years or so had ever existed: a stew of errors, misinterpretations, myths, erroneous assumptions and factually baseless inventions. All of the errors, frankly, even before Ron gave them a good pounding back in 2012, were heartily demolished (apologies for the sound of my own trumpet) in my book Amber Gold and Black, published three years ago (and which sprang, as it happens, from a series of articles published in Camra’s own What’s Brewing on the history of beer styles). But since the GBG sells far more every year than AG&B has, that’s many thousands of beer lovers being fed gross inaccuracies about the history of the beers they drink, and only a few thousand getting the truth.

Rising Sun Enfield

Pale and stock ales advertised as on sale at the Rising Sun, Enfield circa 1900: you won’t find stock ales in many style guides, but they were aged versions of the drink otherwise sold “mild”, in other words, “old ales”.

What exactly is the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide getting wrong? Let’s begin with its insistence that “pale ale” and “bitter” are different products, which leads to the nonsensical statement (p29, last paragraph) that “From the early years of the 20th century, Bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” This is completely wrong, and a total misunderstanding, as I pointed out back in 2007 here. From the moment that bitter beers started to become popular in Britain, around the beginning of the 1840s, “bitter beer” and “pale ale” were used by brewers and commentators as synonyms. There never was any difference between the two. Why did “pale ale” come to be appended as a name mostly to the bottled version of bitter? Because generally in the 19th century brewers called the drink in the brewery “pale ale”, and that’s the name they put on their bottle labels, but in the pub drinkers called this new drink “bitter”, to differentiate it from the older, sweeter, but still (then) pale mild ales.

The section also claims that pale ale was invented because IPA was “considered too bitter for the domestic market” – total made-up rubbish, there is no evidence anywhere for this, and if IPA was “too bitter for the domestic market”, why did so many brewers advertise an IPA as part of their line-up? The weaker pale ales, below IPAs in brewers’ price lists, simply reflected 19th century brewers’ practice of selling two, three or four examples of each beer type, ale (that is, old-fashioned lightly hopped ale), porter/stout and the newer bitter/pale ale, at different “price points” (to use a modern expression) for different budgets. Thus, for example, the Aylesbury Brewery Company in 1899 sold four grades of pale ale, BA (for Bitter Ale), at the IPA “price point” of one shilling and sixpence a gallon (almost all “IPAs” sold at 1s 6d), BA No 2 at 1s 2d a gallon, BPA at one shilling a gallon and AK at 10 pence a gallon; four grades of mild ales, from XXXX at 1s 6d to XA at 10d; and three black beers, from Double Stout at 1s 6d to Porter at 1s. Shepherd Neame two years earlier was calling all its four grades of bitter beers “India Pale Ale”, from “Stock KK India Pale Ale” at 1s 8d a gallon through East India Pale Ales Nos 1 and 2 at 1s 4d and 1s a gallon to East India Pale Ale AK (sic) at 11d a gallon.

That brings us to the section on IPA itself. There’s the usual canard about the original IPAs being “strong in alcohol” to survive the journey east, although as Ron P has shown conclusively, at around 6 to 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume, 19th century IPAs were in the middle of the contemporary strength range, and weaker than 19th century milds. The GBG also asserts that India Pale Ale “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, and “the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to fashion beers that were pale bronze in colour.” Wrong again – for a start, pale ale was around from at least the second half of the 17th century, a good hundred years before the Industrial Revolution began, as I showed in 2009. Second, almost ALL beers called “ale” in the 18th and 19th century were made from pale malt, as Ron Pattinson has comprehensively demonstrated with extracts from actual brewers’ records, which led eventually to “ale” meaning any malt liquor pale in colour, with “beer” restricted to the dark kinds, stout and porter, something I wrote about here. So in appearance, IPA wasn’t new at all. What it was, was the first bitter, well-hopped pale ale, as opposed to older sorts of pale ale that, following the style of malt liquors in Britain of the post-1710s “ale” type, were hopped (unlike the original unhopped ales) but less-hopped than “beers” such as porter and stout, and which were sold either “mild” (fresh) or “old” (aged).

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A tale of two beer festivals: GBBF versus LCBF

If I had wanted confirmation that the “non-macro” British beer scene is now split into two separate camps, serving different constituencies, with remarkably little cross-over between them, considering that both sides are dedicated to the pursuit of terrific beer, two events a couple of weeks back could not have made it clearer.

In West London, the Campaign for Real Ale’s annual Great British Beer Festival at Olympia delivered the products of around 350 different cask ale brewers to some 50,000 people over five days. Meanwhile, over (almost symbolically) on the other side of the city in East London, at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green, the first London Craft Beer Festival, on for three days in a considerably smaller venue, served beers from just 20 brewers, (only four of whom were also at GBBF*), most or all of it dispensed from pressurised containers that would have kegophobe Camra members fobbing with fury.

The most remarkable contrast between the two events was not the rather different attitudes to the idea of how “good beer” could be dispensed, however, but the very different sets of people attending each festival. The GBBF crowds were a wide selection of the sort of drinkers you might find in any pub in a middle-class area, minus the families though mostly male and skewed, it appeared to me, towards the over-40s – indeed, I’d say the number able to get to Olympia using their Boris bus pass (ahem – like me) was considerably greater than in the pub population at large.

The GBBF crowd

The GBBF crowd: older, mostly male. Your dad’s beer festival

The LCBF crowd, in contrast, was in parts almost a parody of hipsterdom: man buns and “ironic” short-back-and-sides with beards, plenty of checked shirts and Converse All-Stars, and with the hipster “ironic band T-shirt” (where you display on your chest the image of a beat combo popular with teenyboppers in the late 1980s) replaced with the “ironic beer T-shirt” (Tusker lager – I must dig out my Foster’s Special Bitter T-shirt from 1994 …). There were far more women as a proportion of the audience at the LCBF, and the age range was considerably narrower (and younger) than Olympia: I was older than 95 per cent or so of everybody else at the Bethnal Green event by a good 20 years, and (unlike Olympia), while there were plenty of beards, I was wearing one of the very, very few showing any signs of grey.

your little brother's beer festival

The LCBF crowd: younger, hipper. Your little brother’s beer festival

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So who are the big beery twitterers?

Beer-drinking twitterbirdJamie Oliver, the thick-tongued TV chef and hugely successful restaurant entrepreneur (and son of an Essex pub landlord), has 3.3 million followers on Twitter. Which is, you’ll not be shocked to hear, about 2,600 times more Twitter followers than I have. Indeed, it’s quite possibly more followers, my very rough survey suggests, than all the tweeters about beer in the world, (including brewers, bloggers, beer writers, pubs and bars and ordinary drinkers who tweet occasionally about the drink), have  together, in one big overlapping and multiple-counted pile.

But how many “regular” beer tweeters are there? And how many followers do the most popular ones have? Here’s my entirely unscientific and probably definitely unreliable take on the beery tweeting scene.

In addition, there’s a poll for you to fill in, just to try to get an idea of the overlap between people who read beer blogs (or at least, people who read this beer blog) and people who follow tweets about beer on Twitter.

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In defence of old men with beards

OMWBAWYIt happened, I’m guessing, about the time that the first wave of Camra members were hitting their late 50s and early 60s, that is, at the beginning of this century. If “real ale” had been pejorated almost from the beginning as the drink of men with beards, generally accompanied by sandals, soon after the millennium the cliché became old men with beards, sitting in a corner of the pub clutching a half-filled glass of something tepid, lifeless and tan-coloured in their wrinkled, liver-spotted hands.

Rooney Anand, viridian monarch at Greene King, seems to have been one of the first to favour the expression, complaining in 2002: “It’s time to explode the myth that real ale is for old men with beards. It’s not, it’s for everyone.”

Since then, the meme has trundled on, gathering speed: “Cockermouth brewer Jennings hopes to use Cask Beer Week to shatter the stereotype that bearded old men are the only ones who drink real ale” (Times and Star, Cumbria, September 2004); “real ale … seen as only for old men with beards and beer bellies” (BBC website, December 2005); “pubs full of old men with beards who drink real ale” (Farmers’ Weekly, April 2008); ” real ale drinkers … smelly old men with beards” (Metro, October 2008); “Normally when people think real ale, they picture old men with far too much facial hair, reeking of pipe smoke” (Metro again, August 2011); “real ale drinkers … crusty old men with beards” Hull Daily Mail, October 2011; “Real ale … for old men with beards and woolly jumpers” (Scotland on Sunday, October 2011); “real ale … a flat, warm brown liquid that old men with beards drink” (Bristol Evening Post, April 2012); you’re getting the idea. Continue reading

Endangered beers

Beers, like animals, can be endangered species: some can even go extinct. Nobody’s seen West Country White Ale in the wild for more than 125 years.

Camra, I’m very pleased to say, has recently decided that it could be doing much more than Make May a Mild Month for promoting endangered beers, and has set up a Beer Styles Working Group to look at ways of plugging and encouraging endangered beer styles of all sorts.

I’ve managed to blag my way onto the working group, mostly because I’m keen to point out to Camra members, and beer festival organisers (and brewers) that endangered beer styles in Britain go a long way beyond mild, stout and porter, and to try to get the other half-dozen or more endangered British beer styles recognition and promotion as well: and maybe even get some of the extinct beers remade. (That’s the advantage of beer: it may turn out to be impossible to resurrect the mammoth, but reproducing a vanished beer style generally only requires the will, a recipe and the right ingredients.)

So what ARE Britain’s vulnerable and endangered (and extinct) beer styles? Here’s my personal checklist: Continue reading

Real Camra versus the revisionals

Is this newspaper report about ructions on Tyneside the start of civil war in the Campaign for Real Ale between “Real Camra”, those who hold to the original verities, that all keg beer is bad, and “Revisional Camra”, a younger set who argue that the campaign needs to accept “craft” keg?

I very sincerely hope not: Britain needs a “beer drinkers’ union”, and whatever criticisms anyone might have, Camra is and is likely to remain the best organisation to represent the concerned beer consumer that we have.

But the division in the Tyneside and Northumberland Camra branch reported on by the local Sunday Sun newspaper under the headline “Beer war erupts” does seem to have taken place along a faultline that I predicted 18 months ago, when I suggested that if Camra did not take care

it is going to become increasingly irrelevant to the real concerns and desires of keen younger drinkers unfettered by a too-rigid application of the tenets of the Founding Fathers. Instead it will become a beery equivalent of the Royal British Legion, the only active members those at or approaching bus pass age.

The problem is that any Camra member younger than 40 wasn’t born when the Campaign began, cannot remember what all those beers that so revolted the Founding Fathers, such as Whitbread Trophy and Courage Tavern, were like (and they were, truly, very poor indeed), and they simply will not accept the mantra “all keg is bad” if it clashes with their own current experiences.

Those experiences, I suggest, are that some modern “craft” keg can be very good indeed, and certainly much better than badly kept cask. And if you try to tell them that it’s irrelevant whether or not they enjoy a particular beer, if it’s not served from an unpressurised cask it must automatically be cast into the outer darkness, they will regard you as an unreconstructed old beardy who is stuck back in the days when “internet” is where you tried to put a football.

I’m not in any place to pass judgment on the argument between the Tyneside and Northumberland Camra old guard and the youth squad, since I know only what little I have been able to gather from the Sunday Sun article, a comment piece from the local Journal newspaper’s website and from links provided by Tandleman on his blog. The battle seems to encompass a number of different issues, including proposals for a new website, and the choice of beers and ciders at the branch beer festival, as well as “craft” keg, and it has ended up with two different websites running under the “Canny Bevvy” label used for the branch’s newsletter, one (the “official” site) dot-co-uk and the other (the “revisional” site) dot-com.

But I suspect the statement on the website run by the “revisional” wing of the branch sums up what a lot of Camra members under 35 feel:

Beer and cider should be most of all about having fun, experiencing new things and if you can, supporting local producers and pubs. We don’t mind if a landlord wants to use more modern technology to keep their beer in tip top shape, or if there’s another fruit flavour in our cider. We don’t even mind if a brewery wants to have their beers served from a keg. After all, surely it should be up to the person who creates something how they think it’s best to drink it, and for pub-goers to decide if they like it?

You can argue all night about whether that’s the best position to take in modern Britain to safeguard great beer. All I will say is that it’s an argument Camra is going to be increasingly hearing from its younger members, who have tasted and liked craft keg beers. What happened in Tyneside and Northumberland branch when the “revisional” wing put forward that argument, according to the “revisional” website, is that

the “beards” started shouting things about “mutiny” and “bringing the campaign into disrepute” and a great deal about why they didn’t want to change.

which might, some may suggest, be the surest way to drive away the new young enthusiasts Camra needs to keep it going as the Founding Fathers pass through their sixties and head towards their seventies.

Beer bloggers want you to drink keg, says Camra chairman

Excuse my intemperate language, but I’ve just been reading some total lying crap by the chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale about beer bloggers. Apparently we’re the “bloggerati” (eh?), and we’re “only interested in new things”, and for beer bloggers, Camra’s “40 years of achievement means nothing, as the best beer they have ever had is the next.”

Unfunny Valentine

What utter bilge. Colin Valentine’s presumably not a stupid person, but he’s evidently never heard of the Straw Man fallacy– or maybe he has, but he thinks his audience is too stupid to spot it. The Straw Man fallacy involves setting up a totally distorted and easily demolished version of your opponent’s proposition, demolishing the distorted version without tackling any of the points in the real proposition, and finishing with a smug grin and – if your audience has failed to see the deceit – a standing ovation.

What has rattled Colin’s cage so badly that he felt the need at the Camra AGM to attack with lies and distortions a group of people that includes not a few Camra members who have given, over decades, a great deal to the campaign and to the promotion of proper, tasty beer? Apparently it’s because some members of the “bloggerati” (a name chosen, presumably, to make us sound like a shadowy secret organisation up to some Dan Brown-ish plottery) have been “making calls for Camra to embrace craft beer”.

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Maybe they should have kept to ‘revitalisation’. And dropped the ‘ale’

The biggest mistake that Camra made, I fear, was to change its name in 1973 from the original “Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale” to “Campaign for Real Ale”. The second-biggest mistake was to have ever used the word “ale”, rather than “beer”, in its title.

Am I serious? Surely coining the phrase “real ale” was a superb marketing tactic, enabling the campaign to put across its message simply and effectively: that it supported traditionally brewed and served British beer against the tide of over-carbonated keg ales and lagers that threatened to destroy this country’s drinking heritage. Would an organisation with similar aims, to stop cask beer disappearing, but called, I dunno, “Anti-Big Brewers Alliance” or “Confederation Of British Beer Lovers and Experts” have risen to become what the National Consumer Council declared as early as 1976 to be “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”?

Maybe. But as the campaign approaches its 40th anniversary next year, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that its name, and the mind-set that name creates, makes Camra today part of the problems facing beer in Britain, as much as it may still be part of the solution.

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Michael Hardman MBE – Mighty Beer Enthusiast

Congratulations to Michael Hardman, one of the four founding members of Camra, appointed an MBE (that’s Member of the Order of the British Empire for my overseas readers) in the New Year’s Honours List “for services to the Campaign for Real Ale and the brewing industry”.

Since Michael has probably done more, in his way, to promote the cause of good beer in Britain than almost anyone else alive or dead, and yet remains remarkably little known even in the UK, an MBE is the least recognition he could get from his country for 37 years of service to the national drink, with Camra, with Young & Co as the London brewer’s long-serving PR man and, until very recently, as PR man for Siba, the independent small brewers’ organisation in the UK. An MBE is what they give you for being school lollipop lady*.

Without the pioneering efforts of Michael Hardman, first chairman of Camra, first editor of What’s Brewing, Camra’s newspaper, editor of the Good Beer Guide from its second edition in 1975, when it became a proper, professional effort, to 1977, there would probably, today, be fewer than half a dozen small breweries in Britain making cask ale, less than a thousand pubs selling it, and there certainly wouldn’t be the 550 or more new breweries in the UK that drinkers can currently enjoy, all direct beneficiaries of the good beer movement that Michael Hardman helped push-start.

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