Sorry - really long post - really big topic.
I’ve seen lots of conversations recently that all come together around a central theme that is, to my mind at least, one of the key themes for beer this year. Namely this: factionalism and blind prejudice – on various sides – is threatening to kill, or at least stall, the beer revolution.
|The people's front of Judea and the popular Judean people's front. Or is it the other way round?|
It first struck me when Martyn Cornell expressed his dismay that seven of the supposed ten best beers in the world are Imperial Stouts, which began a war of indignation that has currently run to almost 150 comments on his blog. Then, after my recent posting on a very good-natured and enjoyable beer versus wine matching dinner, Cooking Lager temporarily dropped his comedy mask to make the very good observation that in wine, you never hear people promoting good wine by slagging off cheap wine. And, last week, I was talking to Zak Avery about my growing concern over negativity in the beer scene, and he said, ‘wait till you see my next column’. Zak published his thoughts on the subject yesterday, arguing for more inclusivity and tolerance.
As Zak says, the passion that people have for beer can only be a good thing, and I would never want to deter anyone from expressing their passion. I’d just ask you to think about the way in which you express it (and by the way, I’m not exempting myself here – I’ve been guilty too).
When I first started writing about beer, I was infuriated by CAMRA because it was the only voice in the UK championing good beer, and it did so in a way that I felt was blinkered, bigoted, and downright insulting to beer drinkers who were not already part of the club. CAMRA-friendly beer writers would not only dismiss mainstream beers as ‘industrial yellow fizz’, but also their drinkers as brainwashed morons. It was only half a step away from the nasty abuse of ‘chavs’ or ‘pikeys’ under which class prejudice hides today – sometimes not even that far.
CAMRA has since changed and become more open, and has seen its membership double. I think the two are not unrelated. (From now on, I’m going to refer to the rump of unreconstructed CAMRA diehards who hate anything new or different as Old CAMRA, to differentiate them from the broader-minded but still real ale-loving mainstream CAMRA).
But CAMRA is no longer the only voice championing good beer. We now have what Zak refers to as the ‘crafterati’ – beer bloggers and other vocal drinkers who champion great beers from or influenced by the North American brewing scene. I’d like to believe I was among the first of these in the UK. But now I look at what Martyn calls ‘the extremophiles’, and I’m seeing a similar unpleasant snobbery to that of CAMRA ten years ago – just coming from a different direction. Where the rump of Old CAMRA members still dismiss even quality Czech and German lagers as ‘yellow fizz’, the extremophiles similarly deride ‘Boring Brown Beer’. Each dismisses vast swathes of beer, denigrating perfectly good brews simply because they are not of the style they prefer.
Old CAMRA and the extremophiles do at least agree on one thing – that any beer brewed by a big brewery must be shit. In the US, the definition of Craft Beer hinges on the size of the brewery rather than the ingredients and processes used, or the passion of the brewer. Over here, Old CAMRA now forgets that it was regional brewers like Young’s and Greene King who kept real ale alive long enough for the micros to arrive, casting them in the role of evil big brewers oppressing the micros, while extremophiles dismiss their beers as hopelessly square and bland.
All of this is childish, and ultimately damaging for beer – all beer.
I just got back from the SIBA conference, where one of the prevailing attitudes was inclusivity about what makes good beer. During the closing panel session, Roger Protz cut an increasingly isolated figure as he defended CAMRA’s stance on only promoting cask ale. One minute he said CAMRA could only ever promote real ale because that is what it is for, suggesting that this forty year-old body is simply incapable of changing to reflect changing times. The next minute he boasted that CAMRA had proudly defended Budvar for twenty years. The brewers of quality British lager – some brewed locally – who were in the room were left scratching their heads as to why CAMRA could promote a foreign quality lager but not a British one. Roger confessed to enjoying some quality keg products and exhorted fans of them to form a campaign for keg ale. But in doing so he missed the whole point – it’s not about cask or keg. It’s now about a broader championing of good beer in an age where method of dispense is no longer the key differentiator of quality. The audience - comprising mainly of cask ale brewers - was then asked if they thought CAMRA should broaden its remit. A show of hands revealed roughly 80% believed CAMRA should – and I repeat, these are brewers of cask ale. Roger said he was ‘horrified’ by this result.
At the other end of the scale, we had a Guild of Beer Writers meeting last week, and after the meeting, we all enjoyed pints of Gales Seafarers, Adnams Bitter and London Pride. These beers were perfectly kept, wonderfully tasty, but some of us who might be counted as ‘crafterati’ (me included) felt a need to justify or at least comment upon the fact that we could enjoy these ‘boring brown beers’ as much as we did. I’ve enjoyed great pints of Greene King IPA on occasion – in the right pub at the right time – and I now reject a beer scene where anyone needs to be defensive about that, just as much as I reject a beer scene that says cask ale is the only beer worth drinking.
There was a different aspect of the same thing with some of the criticism of the Proud of Beer video. Why was Carling in there? Wasn’t this supposed to be a video promoting craft beer? Well, no. It was supposed to be a video promoting the British beer industry. Because if Old CAMRA, the extremophiles, those arguing that SIBA brewers are parasites, those who believe Molson Coors are going to close down Sharps (even though the Cornish brewery has just had some brand new fermenting vessels delivered), those who hate beer tickers, those who say cask is dead, those who say keg is de facto shit, those who think any beer with under 50 IBUs is shit – if you could all just lift your heads out of you navels and look around for a bit, you’d see the real picture.
There’s a war on drink at the moment, and beer is the scapegoat. Every article on Britain’s binge drinking epidemic uses the pint as its frame of reference, despite the fact that beer sales overall are nose diving while wine and spirits sales increase. Tax on beer has gone up by 26% in the last two years, and will go up by another 7% in this month’s budget. Beer is massively under-represented in popular press coverage, and most people in the general public still perceive it as uninteresting and not for them. Pubs are closing at the rate of 29 a week.
So if you care about beer enough to write about it, or evangelise it in any other way, it would be really great if you could do so positively. Anyone who looks in on our industry, our beer scene, from the outside, sees a pack of squabbling kids. If you’re a curious drinker who might try beer, it puts you off pretty quickly. If you’re a minister wondering whether the industry deserves a break, you see a fragmented and ineffective lobbying body. By focusing on internal battles, we’re allowing wine and spirits on one side and teetotallers on the other to reposition beer as something not worth bothering with. We simply don’t make Planet Beer look like a very attractive place to be.
I’m not saying don’t be passionate about your favourite beer or favourite beer style. But I would ask you to try one experiment. If you do write about beer, and you write something about a beer you like, and you use what you regard as a crap beer as a point of comparison, save it and put it to one side. Then, try to write the same piece without slagging off inferior beers. Now, find a friend whose opinion you trust, who isn’t as passionate about beer as you, and ask them which they think reads better, which makes them want to try your beer – the one that praises the beer on its own merits, or the one that slags off what it is not?
Also – anticipating the first wave of comments and cries of hypocrisy here – I’m not saying never be critical, and I’m not saying don’t call bullshit when you see (or taste) it. But do judge something on its own merits.
Think of, say, a Jay Rayner restaurant review. He does negative reviews – and how – but he does these on the basis of the restaurants own merits or lack of them, visiting it, and taking it on its own terms. He doesn’t slag off a kebab shop for not having a Michelin star, or a provincial family-run restaurant for not being in the West End.
See what I’m saying? I hope so. When I slagged off Stella Black, for example, I did so on the basis of tasting it, judging it as the super-premium lager it claimed to be. It was revealing and sad that Cooking Lager expressed surprise that I had actually tasted it before slagging it off – what does that say about our perceived prejudices?
What I am saying is two things:
Firstly, let’s not draw these ideological lines in the sand any more. Let’s try to celebrate beer.
Secondly, when we celebrate the beers we love, let’s do that, rather than constantly using what they’re not as a frame of reference. Because you know what? It’s lazy, and it comes across as really insecure.
I look forward to all your positive, inclusive and constructive comments, people.