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THE CRAFT BEER BUBBLE: But People Like Cask Beer

For some time I've wanted to write a series of posts titled "The Craft Beer Bubble" that will highlight some of the basic elements of beer drinking culture that my peers forget. 

These were prompted in part by somebody, wrongly in my opinion, exhalting that the "Beer Bubble had burst and that Beer is mainstream now." This was aided by this excellent post atThe Snap and the Hiss about drinking culture misunderstandings. 

Whilst this was always going to be one of the topics covered in these posts, the events of a certain AGM from last weekend have pushed it to the front of the queue. There is an element of beer drinking that is easily missed or forgotten amongst the interior squabbling about the relevance of Europe's largest consumer group CAMRA. (I won't be covering the events so for those a little behind, this Boak and Bailey piece nicely rounds things up.) 

People like cask beer. 

People prefer cask beer.

There are a large number of people that are still drawn to pubs that serve a good pint of ale. For them, the fonts (or wickets, oh yeah) are where the eyes are pulled. The choices are singled out based on colour, strength, familiarity. They know what they like and they know what is good. They don't always agree upon bitterness, haziness, adjunct flavourings or even silly names but they could pick out off flavours better than most without knowing their names. 

And those people have never heard of Colin Valentine. They've never heard of Lynn Attack or Bradley Cummings. They've never heard of Beer Compurgation or Boak and Bailey or Pete Brown or The Beer O'Clock Show. They will make up a large part of that missing 90% who didn't vote; heck a lot won't make up any part of the 180,000+ team. Some will like a discount or a voucher. Most won't give two hoots whether a large macro business is involved in their beer or online shop. The passing of any motion at the weekend will make no difference to their drinking experience this Monday morning or for many a morning to come. 

It won't, by the way. For all the talk of the impact of who is a National Executive and what CAMRA policy has changed, that after work pint for the cask drinking folk outside of that bubble will not change, despite suggestions otherwise. 

That sector of cask beer drinkers is much greater than our squabbling online bubble. 

I like cask beer. It still makes up the majority of my annual beer drinking. Most of the time I am looking forward to that after work or last orders pint. And I want it to be cask. I want that texture and mouthfeel more than a gassy, heartburn inducing, coldness on the majority of days. Does that surprise you? Does that sound prehistoric? Perhaps not every drinker ranting on the internet makes their point coherently but the point remains the same: people prefer cask. It isn't always for stubborn, argumentative reasons. 

Having said that... 

I may as well give my thoughts on the weekend's events and the discussions that have followed. 

When I awoke Sunday morning and caught up on the news breaking from Saturday I'll admit to skimming through tweets and headlines to get a feel for the room's mood. Many were threatening to leave CAMRA and I actively encouraged them to do so. Empty threats are exactly that. There is little point in trying to change an organisation's mind or at least let them know what you think if you aren't going to follow through with this. The number that may leave is unlikely to register against the sheer numbers that will stay but it is still a stance worth making. Maybe the recruitment drivers will notice a little 2018 drop. 

That isn't to say that I have decided either way. It is hard to see what my CAMRA membership achieves more than the odd moan on social media about what they are not doing. That leads to being told to go and make an active difference myself but the truth is the tales from other war-weary adventurers who have tried the same has sapped my enthusiasm. Everybody else has hit a brick wall - what makes anybody think I'm the demolition ball waiting to swing? 

No, the wrecking ball was the Revitalisation Project and the decisions have been made. There will be changes but not on the scale most of my peers wanted. CAMRA will remain the same and so it is a time to evaluate whether I stand by the core values. 

It is questionable as to whether I gain benefit from my membership. I’ve never used one of the ‘Spoons vouchers. I have zero interest in ABInbev owned website discount codes. I would estimate though that I save close to £200 a year in the local pub with my card – however all of that goes in the tip jar rather than my bank account. 

The group has become like the Leeds United Supporters Club – something that exists but doesn’t do so for my benefit. I wouldn’t join the Leeds United Supporters Club and try and turn them into Huddersfield Town fans; though a better analogy may be that I wouldn’t join and insist they represent all Yorkshire football clubs.

It relates back to the term Real Ale over Cask Beer. If CAMRA would just champion cask beer and nothing else then I'm with them all the way. It wouldn't stop me drinking other dispenses but I know I would be aiding in the protection of my favourite sale point. But the discussion over what is deemed Real Ale, added to bottle conditioned beers and keykeg, increases ambiguity. 

It is the ambiguity that I wanted to see changed.  CAMRA can't have it both ways. If non-cask is a threat then Belgian and/or German beer - long championed - must be dismissed. Otherwise it contradicts itself. If these remain then that craft keg they fear needs embracing. It is one or the other. 

It is the ambiguity that I wanted to see changed. Cask is good but only when kept well. But bad cask is okay if it's cheap. Expensive cask is inferior to cheap cask regardless of condition. And keg is bad in all forms unless it is real-ale-craft-key-keg. All other types of keg are evil.... unless they are from certain countries. 

It is the ambiguity that I wanted to see changed. All lager is bad. But we can support Pilsners or Helles or Kolsch or similar styles if we have been doing so for a number of years. Nobody else can brew it. And don't call it lager.

CAMRA Culture

The culture that arose from some of those that were mentioned at the beginning of this post was around discounts and strange terminology. I've been in the pub where somebody around my age has asked for a CAMRA discount only to be rebuked. 

"But you advertise yourself as a CAMRA pub." 

Sat at the bar at the time, I didn't stay quiet. "What does that mean - a CAMRA pub?" 

"No they do, they say they are a CAMRA pub." 

"Where does it say that?" 

... "It sells real ale."


...."It sells real ale. It would just be nice to recognise my card with a discount."

Active members of CAMRA have a defensive line about the organisation that stems from years of false accusations or sweeping generalisations made from a few encounters - something I've done myself in the past. They are also quick to deny the discount culture which is, I'm afraid to say, undeniable. It was also brought up at the AGM but... 

A CAMRA pub is not a thing. A Real Ale pub is not a thing. They are terms and pigeon-holing brought on by CAMRA culture. If you have to make a policy relating to the endless whimpering and hounding of staff then a revitalisation is certainly needed. 

The future 

CAMRA will thrive regardless of what is written here or in other posts. None of the 90% will leave based on the weekend's motions. Some of the 10% might. It is within their right to do so. There are other causes that may better represent you for £26 a year, they just might not be beer related. 

I don't think the Revitalisation Project has done much to change my perceived problems within the group. Cider, Wetherspoons, Supermarket price increases and Robinson's Dizzy Blonde will still remain in their promotional material proving their continual contradictory existence to the complainants. But for those who just want to drink a pint of cask beer at the end of a long day, whether you or I support any of those ideals matters not. The bubble still often forgets those that just like beer served in their chosen way.  


Katie said…
You're right! The bubble is very much still in tact and for many, it'll never be burst. That's okay, because craft beer - which I'm loathe to call it in the pub, because it's just beer after all and it puts the punters off - has fans of its own and will survive without the bubble folk. But I like both, plus all the crappy versions of beer in-between. What I can't hack is snobbery, and as soon as that comes into play, be it from real ale fans or craft ale fans, that's when I roll up my sleeves. Beer is fun, it's something to enjoy. To stand and gripe at the bar because you have no discount, no "blondes" on tonight or nothing by Verdant is to be a tiresome git. I make it part of my job to let people know so. (Also, thanks for the shoutout!)
Anonymous said…
The bubble will never die. It needs itself. It is self perpetuating.
Kieran Lyons said…
Good read. Sometimes you have to step back and see the bigger picture.

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