We have to talk about Craft Beer - Part 2: Perspectives August 27 2014, 0 Comments

Part 2: Altering perspectives

I joined CAMRA in the otherwise ordinary summer of 1974. Finishing my teens, I was badly in need of a cause. All the big ones had gone, so I chose beer.

The Campaign was three years old but had just invented the term ‘real’ ale and with this new brand drew in impressionable young people like me, leading us towards interesting beer in the same way Brewdog has managed to do for our children and grandchildren.

I came to see cask-conditioned beer – a term first coined by the head of soft drinks at Bass Charrington – as the best. I relished discovering each one, as my personal quest to prevent their extinction took me to every county of the UK.

Far more importantly, meeting and sharing my new obsession with people of all ages and backgrounds gave me a start in the world like no other.

The road to Spui

My first doubts about the sanctity of cask ale began in 1976 on a trip to Amsterdam. An afternoon saunter down a road less travelled from Centraal Station to Spui was interrupted by the urge to turn right down a narrow alleyway.

It was divine intervention not signage that led me to the Gollem café, where in four hours I drank my way through seven or eight beers that challenged everything I knew. They were Belgian, bottled and strikingly different not only from any beer I had yet encountered but also from each other. It was love at first flight.

Nowadays I enjoy beers from most heritages and styles, finding in each some that are cleverly made or authentic, while others are dull or plagiarised. I have no truck with people who believe it is impossible to define good beer. It is obvious – the clue is in the taste.

Writing the World Atlas of Beer, I became obsessed by what constitutes traditional beer. I wanted to understand why cask ales had ceased to be made anywhere but in the UK – until I realised they had only ever been British. It had not been that other countries had moved on, it was that they were never there.

Inconvenient truths

Commercial brewers are charged with trying to match two incompatible demands – to make beers that are interesting and appealing at the same time as being cheap and accessible. This ends up meaning that the type of beer a nation prefers is determined not through local tastes as by the things that affect it cost.

In Britain, where labour and land prices are high and the duty on beer is both punishing and gathered within a month or so of its completion, brewers are incentivised to make light beers that race from grain to glass as quickly as possible. Hence modern British beers are relatively low in alcohol and simple in style. Only in the UK is a 3.5% alcohol beer considered ‘normal strength’.

This need for speed is why British lagers are not allowed 8 to12 weeks of essential cold-tank conditioning to strip out their gunkier flavours.

The reason cask-conditioned beers are finished in the pub cellar is not to deliver perfection so much as but rather as a way to save on time and space. It is an excellent example of playing a bad hand the best you can.

DORA and all her children

In Victorian Britain ‘small beer’ was a safer way than the polluted water supply to deliver water to workers in agriculture or heavy industry. Made from the second running off a mash, it fermented to about 3% alcohol, while proper beers in contrast had a declared strength of 5 to 5.5%, likely underestimated. Export and special brews were stronger.

The Liberal Party acquired support from Temperance activists after it lost the barons of brewing to the Tories in the 1870s. In 1914 they found themselves in government at the outbreak of a major war and compelled to introduce special powers for the duration of hostilities. Their Defence of the Realm Act introduced pub closing times and a cap on the strength of beer at 4% alcohol.

After the war, high duty imposed on re-legalised stronger beers helped reflate Britain’s shattered economy and by the time brewing had started to return to normal, Hitler had provoked a re-match. By 1945 British consumer expectations were at a new 20th century low.

In our time

Food rationing continued to 1954, by which time new business methods had persuaded shareholders that efficiency and profitability mattered more than reputation and product in determining success. Thus brewing fell victim to indiscriminately applied new technologies that enabled cost cutting.

This was the world into which my generation of CAMRA members stepped, with our collective misunderstanding of what constituted traditional British beer.

Porters and most serious stouts, pale ales and IPAs, after dilution, were replaced by variations on light ale. The better ones were finished at the pub, while others came pre-packed as ‘keg’, a word made for spitting. Early CAMRA mistook the best available for the best possible. When defining “good beer”, we made the right call for our times, but not one likely to last through better times.

Meanwhile

The radical swerves of the 20th century had left UK brewers with few options to make beers tasty and yet Britain’s brewmasters remain the undisputed world champions at getting an awful lot of flavour out of relatively little.

In the third piece in this mini-series I will try to explain how they achieve this. Sadly, it has relatively little to do with those aspects of beer production that the purists’ credo holds dear.

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Tim Webb served on CAMRA’s National Executive for seven years, running the Great British Beer Festival for the first two, then heading up publicity and publications.  He has since written numerous best selling beer books, thus far translated into nine languages. In his spare time he runs a small publishing company and booksellers (booksaboutbeer.com).