Friday, 11 February 2011
The first beer I bought myself in a pub was at pint of Wm Youngers Tartan Bitter. It was keg, it was cold, and it was fizzy . Not sparkling , not carbonated, not effervescent, nor lively. Fizzy.
I’m sure someone who paid more attention in science than me at school can do the working out to explain how putting a gas and liquid mix under pressure in an enclosed system leads to dynamic expulsion of said mix via the path of least resistance. Suffice it to say, the bus shelter nearest to the Rose & Crown paid a high price that night.
However, I came back for more. I cut my drinking teeth on fizzy keg bitter, and would happily argue its merits over whatever it was my fellow novice drinkers were having - probably Harp, Carling or Skol.
There was, I remember, a theory circulating that something called real ale existed, which, I was reliably informed, was so pure it wouldn’t give you a hangover. Where one found it and how it might be distinguished from other beers, I wasn’t sure.
Move on 30 plus years and the most recent round I bought was yesterday at the Canalhouse pub in Nottingham. A pint of Castle Rock Harvest Pale and two halves of Castle Rock Screech Owl IPA since you ask, drinking with a couple of fellow judges at the SIBA National Beer Competition. Both, like me, were members of CAMRA. Unlike me, both hold positions of some standing in that august organisation.
We were joined by other judges and the conversation, as ever amongst such company, was erudite, incisive and wide ranging. Mostly. At one point, it turned to the debate about what constitutes a craft beer. SIBA has introduced a keg beer category into its competition this year, and there has been a suggestion that CAMRA should broaden its remit to include craft beers of all kinds.
As Warren Zevon wrote, “I ain’t namin’ names”, but suffice it to say that those holding CAMRA office had no problem separating their personal views from their responsibility to members. Being just a rank-and-file footsoldier, I can safely say without causing a schism that I would have no problem if CAMRA widened its brief. For all practical purposes, its campaigns on issues such as beer duty and pub preservation, which have no direct impact on the quality of cask beer, mean it has already done so.
However, CAMRA is arguably the most successful single-issue consumer lobbying group ever formed, and you don’t mess with the spirit of that lightly. There have been campaigns with the vaguer remit of promoting quality beer before – Beautiful Beer, Beer Naturally – and they’ve foundered.
Defining what constitutes a craft beer and more importantly, which aspects of our beer culture are worth fighting for and which aren’t, is a complex issue. There are plenty of very large brewers who make thoroughly decent beers. There are also many dedicated, small, hard-working brewers turning out beers that are deeply unpleasant to drink.
I have a huge amount of sympathy with CAMRA joint founder Michael Hardman, who said in an FT interview this week “we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something.”
Like Michael , I regret the lager sneerers who denigrate those who drink other beers. Like my mates and I thirty-cough years ago, there still plenty of people having a perfectly good time over a few pints of very ordinary, mass produced fizz. Their night out is just as threatened by the decline of pub culture as is that of the craft beer connoisseur. It’s all worth fighting for.
If we ever need to show a united front, it’s now. I will happily march shoulder-to-shoulder with lager louts, cider-drinking wurzels and even the Beaujolais brigade to save the British pub. But I really don’t see anyone rallying the troops.