Thursday, 6 July 2017

Beer from somewhere, or from anywhere?

People often draw a connection between the modern craft beer movement and the birth of CAMRA forty-odd years ago – championing small producers against big, bullying corporations and promoting choice, quality, innovation and diversity. However, I would argue that the two arise from very different roots, and that the apparent similarities are a lot less than is often supposed.

The 1960s were a period of dramatic change, where progress and modernity were the watchwords, and anyone who sought to stand in the way was condemned as negative and fuddy-duddy. It was the era of the New Britain that was to be forged in the white heat of the scientific revolution, and this spirit was keenly embraced by both of the major political parties.

However, as the 60s turned into the 70s, the downsides in terms of the destruction of the traditional and familiar became increasingly apparent, and there was a backlash in popular sentiment. E. F. Schumacher’s bestselling book Small is Beautiful is often seen as epitomising this trend, and it gained wide public recognition in the TV sitcom The Good Life. This was also reflected in greater concern for environmental issues, more interest in preserving old buildings rather than sweeping them away, the rise of railway preservation, and of course the real ale movement spearheaded by CAMRA. This movement had the virtue of spanning the political spectrum, by appealing both to left-wingers wanting to fight big corporations, and conservatives nostalgic for vanishing traditions.

But, at the time, CAMRA was entirely seen as trying to support something that was in danger of dying out. Real ale was something produced by small, stick-in-the-mud family breweries that had escaped the takeover frenzy, or by neglected backwaters of the Big Six, and sold in unmodernised locals to a predominantly middle-aged and elderly customer base. At this time, microbreweries scarcely figured on the agenda, and there was no product innovation, merely an attempt to keep what we already had.

Of course, as we know, this touched a wider chord, and the big brewers started reintroducing real ale to many pubs, and introducing new brands such as Ind Coope Burton Ale to meet the demand. But this wasn’t something groundbreaking – it was merely a recreation of an old recipe. It could be argued that there wasn’t really any innovation in the cask sector until the appearance of golden ales in the late 1980s.

Likewise, microbreweries didn’t really appear on the scene in any significant numbers until well after the birth of CAMRA, and when they did they were generally just brewing beers in the established styles. The appeal was that they were small-scale and local, not that they were any different. If there was any innovation, it was in reviving old styles such as cask stout and porter. And the first wave of beer exhibition pubs were just showcasing a variety of brews from around the country that hadn’t previously been available locally.

In its early days, CAMRA was basically about enjoying and championing something that already existed. The self-referential aspect of beer enthusiasm, whereby beers were brewed and pubs opened specifically to please aficionados rather than the general drinking public, was some way in the future. The multi-beer free house was a fairly early development, but in terms of beer styles I’d say it didn’t really happen until the “pale’n’hoppy” movement of the 1990s. Even golden ales were an attempt to produce a cask beer for mainstream drinkers with some of the appeal of lager.

In the USA, the rise of the large corporate brewers had pretty much entirely wiped out the independent sector, and also most stylistic variety, so the beer revival had to start from a much lower base. Prohibition had been a major contributory factor, of course – surely something similar in the UK would have seen the end of the likes of Hook Norton and Bateman’s. While it took a lot of inspiration from CAMRA, at least in its early days, I’m sure something similar would have happened in the USA anyway.

But, without any established framework of traditional styles, American brewers were much freer to experiment, with the result that there was incredible outpouring of stylistic variety. There also wasn’t the aspect of defending tradition that was a key element in this country. Eventually, of course, they came up with their own defining national style – the heavily-hopped American-style IPA. Over time “microbrewing” metamorphosed into “craft beer”, and then made it back over the Atlantic to inspire the current British craft beer movement.

Significantly, a major theme of this was kicking against not the giant international brewers, but Britain’s established real ale culture. It is very well summed up by Bailey of Boak & Bailey here:

“In the UK, used to describe a ‘movement’ arising from c.1997 onwards which rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture. Brewers aligned with this ‘movement’ will probably produce kegged beers, and may even dismiss cask-conditioned beer altogether. As much about presentation, packing and ‘lifestyle’ as the qualities of the product.”
And this is something that is very different from what is generally understood as “real ale culture”. It is heavily focused on innovation and pushing the boundaries of style, taste and strength. It broadly rejects the traditional and established. It is overwhelmingly urban - the archetypal craft brewery is in a railway arch, its real ale counterpart in a small market town or in farm outbuildings. It celebrates technological innovation such as kegging and canning. It is avowedly internationalist and, while it may sometimes claim “green” credentials, it rejects a locally-focused, “back to the land” approach in favour of sourcing both ingredients, especially hops, and inspiration, from all round the world.

As you will have gathered from reading this blog, this kind of thing doesn’t strike a chord with me at all. I’m not against it, and indeed have enjoyed many beers produced under the craft umbrella, but, as I argued here, there’s a big difference between what you like as a consumer and what you pursue as a leisure interest. There’s obviously a big area of overlap, as after all both are broadly about “quality beer”, but the wellsprings of sentiment from which real ale and craft grow are essentially different things. One is, at heart, about tradition and roots, the other about modernity and innovation. It’s basically the Somewhere versus Anywhere division expressed in beer.

It’s very difficult to put your finger on the modern “craft” movement, and I certainly make no pretence to being a general social commentator. I blog about what I like, value and understand. But Boak & Bailey tried to grasp it in this post about The craftification of everything. It’s a complete departure from the established concept of “premium” products as an expression of good taste and status, and is more a case of trying to express your personality and values through your choice of consumer goods. If you choose a craft beer, it says something about you, or you hope it does.

18 comments:

  1. The commonality between camra & crafties is not beer. It's the pointlessness of the endeavour. Where they differ is that from appearance, the crafties appear to be enjoying themselves whilst the camra's appear to be only filling the time of their retirement

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    1. From the perspective of someone not yet retired the CAMRA folk look like they are having a great time!

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    2. They are joylessly going through the motions, afraid of what they will see if they stop. What they will see is the void.

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  2. Interesting and accurate summary I think. In the US we are onto the post modern phase. "Craft", whatever that means, has mainstreamed and replaced wine as a measure of one's social worth and standing. It isn't just for hipsters anymore. It has begun to be "productized" to use the current marketing parlance.

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    1. I'd go beyond that and say it is becoming as soul-less as the corporate brewers the likes of the BA rail ad nauseum against. My local breweries all make decent beer, but when 60-70% of their revenue is from the beer tourist trade there is little incentive to be genuinely local, and I fear that once the day trippers bugger off elsewhere there will be a contraction.

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  3. I have to say the "Somewhere vs Anywhere" aspect only entered my head half-way through writing this post, and so isn't perhaps as fully developed as it could be. But I did touch on this distinction here here, and I'd say it represents a basic truth that real ale and craft beer are cultural concepts, not just definitions.

    Hence why some keykeg beer may be "real ale" in a narrow technical sense, but never will be spiritually.

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  4. The majority of real ale sold in the UK is manufactured in huge warehouse-like industrial estates and distributed nationally. Wherever you go, same old shit. GKIPA, Doom Bar, Bombardier, etc etc. There's simply no sense of location.


    Craft on the other hand tends to be locally made and locally distributed. The craft beers on the bar will be completely different in Liverpool as to Brighton.

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  5. "Craft on the other hand tends to be locally made and locally distributed."

    What? Like BrewDog and Beavertown?

    And the whole point is that it's about cultural identity, not precise definition.

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    1. I don't see much of beavertown round here. Can't remember ever seeing it. We tend to get Oakham, Milton, Buntingford, Adnams, Moonshine, that kind of thing. Up in Nottingham you see Blue Monkey, Rock Mild, Castle Rock, Flipside etc. I'm sure in Manchester you get Marble, Cloudwater, whatever - the reason I don't really know, is because those beers don't make it down here very much. If you want to try different craft breweries, you actively have to travel round the country to find them, as craft beer offers tend to be locally sourced, unlike the majority of real ale sold, which is much more industrial and corporate in its nature.

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    2. The pump clips may be local, but the actual liquid could come from "anywhere", there's seldom much sense of local identity in the liquid which could just as easily come from Chicago or Milan. When a beer is hop-led and everyone is using the same hops from Oregon or Tasmania, then it's no surprise that the liquid is the same.

      In contrast the nationally-distributed brands do have some legacy sense of place, albeit diluted - think Newky Brown versus Boddies versus Pedigree versus Mann's Brown. There are good reasons and a whole heap of history behind why London beers were traditionally brown and sweetish, whereas Burton beers were paler and more bitter, even if most of those named are no longer brewed in the original place. And that does feed into different drinking habits, certainly among the CAMRA crowd - if you put Cheshire and Staffordshire CAMRA types at the same bar, you can guess what side of the border they come from by the colour of their beer.

      There's a few breweries trying to infuse themselves with some local terroir - the most obvious one is Eddie Gadd promoting Kent green hops as a "thing" - the nature of green hops is that you have to use them within hours of picking, so few brewers outside the immediate area will bother to dash down the motorway. Hopback reviving the tradition of hop growing in Surrey is another great example, slightly more tenuous is Cloudwater using the Lees yeast.

      But in general there's little sense of place in "craft", even if the clips are different.

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    3. But it is the proudly local craft brewers who have re-discovered these old traditional styles - porters, IPAs, imperial stouts, etc - long after the big real ale corporations abandoned them in favour of ever decreasing costs and increased profit margins.

      Craft is all ABOUT maintaining and showcasing tradition and heritage, far removed from the corporate lowest-common denominator brewing of the real ale industry.

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    4. What sort of "proudly local craft brewers" are we actually talking about here?

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    5. The regionals have done as much for trad styles - Fullers porter etc. And the new boys seldom do it with a sense of place (with some exceptions) - there's nothing British about gose or saisons, but they get put alongside other styles. And I'd suggest 80% of them are all doing a variation on the same old C-hop APA, nowt traditional about that.

      "This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome"

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  6. I like your explanation of the motivations of CAMRA volunteers. Interesting that most of the active volunteers come from a specific section of mainly older, male, leftish guardian reader types, often retired from public sector employment. Not many small C conservative traditionalists among the active base, though I found a few among the inactive. A while back when I wrote up a stagger for your OT a number of people asked whether the name was me and confessed to being members but had never attended a meeting saying things like “I saw the state of them when I go to beer festivals, too many beards” I think there is a further difference to what is the importance of beer. You can have an opinion on what beer you like, join a club to support it, but never consider it important enough to involve yourself further. You are the only right-wing nationalist I have encountered amongst them, for sure.

    As for your use of anywhere’s or somewhere’s. It’s a bit of a nebulous concept anyway that needs better formation. Not just your use of it. The concept being to address the differing world view of urban city dwellers to sub urban dwellers using ideas beyond education levels, social class, income & wealth etc.

    I think a better view of the difference in crafties / camraites as applied to beer is simply generational and the market conditions & life priorities faced. Your reaction to the market in the 70s was to join and gain an affiliation to CAMRA where you have accepted the concepts it formulated as truths. If you had a clean sheet and started today you’d no doubt follow the crafties.

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    1. I'd say there are rather more political conservatives in CAMRA than you might think, but they tend to keep quiet about it. As a general rule, people of conservative inclinations are less vocal about politics than left-wingers anyway.

      What motivated people to form CAMRA in the 1970s and what motivates them to remain active today aren't necessarily the same thing. And, as I've written before, I suspect the circumstances that led me to become a keen pubgoer when I turned 18 back in 1977 wouldn't apply to the equivalent young person now. How many 18-yo lads regularly go out for a pint with their dad? A lot less than in 1977, that's for sure.

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    2. I think a lot of fathers and sons pursue shared hobbies. It tends to be things you can do with kids though. Most people I know who fish or repair & build bikes & cars do so from a hobby started with their father. Most sports fans follow the team their fathers took them to see.

      My guess is that for most, boozing is something done with mates of ones own generation than shared with a parent. Even in the era of modern parents that want to be friends with their children, which would make your own introduction to your hobby relatively unique. Though I can see how it would lend itself to an appreciation of the traditional through seeing the world through the eyes of a member of an older generation.

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    3. In many working-class communities, where son tended to follow father down t'pit or into t'mill, having a pint with dad would have been a rite of passage.

      Not that I'm claiming to be working-class, of course...

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  7. I'm not really sure about your comments regarding technology, where really you are only considering how it is dispensed. In the production of the beer the level of technology involved is generally only related to the size and age of the brewery, not whether it is a 'real ale brewery' or 'craft brewery'. And some of the most celebrated craft breweries are most firmly not about fancy technology (Burning Sky, Wild Beer Co). Without wanting to sound too much like a craft beer twat, I would say the hallmarks of a craft brewery are much more about experimentation and making something interesting/different tasting rather than modernity for the sake of it (though it must be said the 'interesting/different' often ends up being a hundred variations of IPA). How it is marketed is often 'modern', but that's just the demographic.

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