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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 30 May 2011

CAMRA. Shotgun. Foot. Again.

So CAMRA have been inventing new enemies again.

Zythophile informs us that, according to chairman Colin Valentine, beer bloggers hate CAMRA, hate cask ale and wish everyone would just drink keg beer.  We have no respect for history and can't even define our beloved 'craft beer' properly.

What's set Colin off is the growing contention that keg beer has changed over the last forty years, and that some brewers who create amazing cask beers now also produce amazing keg beers.  In Colin's strange little world, the fact that one has some carbonation and the other doesn't makes the one with carbonation evil.  Some bubbles make, say, keg Camden Pale or Punk IPA more similar to Watneys Red than to their respective cask versions.  And if we tolerate them, we'll all suddenly want to drink really shit keg beer again.

"What's Brewing, Mr Ludd?"

CAMRA chairpersons have form when it comes to creating imaginary enemies on which to vent their spleen and look tough.  One of my first ever blog posts saw me first try out my ranting style when Col's predecessor, Paula Waters, thought it would be a good idea to use the one occasion when CAMRA has the ear of the national press to suggest that lager drinkers who might be curious about trying real ale were not welcome at the 2006 Great British Beer Festival.

But I'm not going to rant here.  I don't need to.  As I tweeted over the weekend, it's far more damning simply to draw attention to what these people say.

It's just such a shame that when CAMRA is doing so much good, the chairperson - of all people - publicly says something that takes it back to the dark ages, that deliberately antagonises people who are by and large on the same side - people who are in total agreement when it comes to CAMRA's stated aim: "CAMRA promotes good-quality [sic] real ale and pubs, as well as acting as the consumer's champion in relation to the UK and European beer and drinks industry".

The fact that as one of the more visible of those nasty bloggers who has argued passionately for good quality keg ale, I also write the annual Cask Report which has been credited with doing quite a bit to spread cask ale in pubs, is something which seemingly does not compute in this paranoid, binary 'us and them' world. For Colin and for Roger Protz - who has also recently attacked 'noisome bloggers' for daring to suggest that, after having largely achieved its aim in saving real ale, after forty years CAMRA might just be able to, y'know, evolve to take account of the fact that it's not 1971 any more - we don't want to encourage CAMRA to evolve; we want to destroy it and all it has achieved.

I really am not interested in going over the same old "the clue is in the name, idiot" arguments.  Instead, I want to make one observation.

Over the last four years, while I've been doing the Cask Report, I've spent a great deal of time reviewing research on the reasons why more people don't drink more real ale more often.  Some of the most important pieces of research have been done with CAMRA.  We work very well together.

The main barriers to cask ale - according to the people who don't drink it, or drink it only occasionally, are as follows:

  • Lack of knowledge - people simply don't know where to start
  • Lack of confidence - linked to the above, not knowing what to order.  People regularly say that if samples were offered, they would try them.  The irony is that those who already know real ale are perfectly comfortable asking for samples; those who really need to try samples are not.
  • Lack of a reason - they're perfectly happy with what they're already drinking.  (To them, lager is not horrible 'chemical fizz', and you're not going to convince them it is by telling them they have no taste.  And wine is a perfect drink when you want flavour, complexity, sophistication, and something to match with food.)  For most people, while many of the stigmas around real ale have disappeared, there's nothing about it that makes them think they have to try it.  It lacks the social currency and image values that would make it a cool choice at the bar.  (Remember, this doesn't apply for everyone - just the vast majority of people who don't drink it).
  • Issues around quality - it's inconsistent, and a bad pint can put off a novice for life
  • Image - from some.  It's important to distinguish between two negative stereotypes here.  The geeky, socks and sandals image of real ale does not exist for mainstream non-drinkers - it's only people who go to beer festivals already who worry about this stereotype.  But the other negative stereotype - which happens to be completely untrue when you look at the stats - is that it's a drink for old men with flat caps and whippets.  In the words of one focus group respondent, drinking real ale on a night out is not going to help you pull. 
He's actually far more likely to be drinking John Smiths Smoothflow, you know.

Those are the main barriers to "promoting good quality real ale" in pubs.  CAMRA know this - they are an active and vital part of the coalition that directs me to write the Cask Report, and some of this is from their own research.  So you'd think that these would be the issues that CAMRA would devote most of its time to addressing.

Instead, an admittedly unscientific trawl of press releases, online chatter, articles and speeches by people like Rog and Col, suggests that in many of their most visible interactions with the public, CAMRA mouthpieces spend most of their time addressing the following:
  • Cask breathers are bad - thou shalt not put a blanket of CO2 on top of thy beer to extend its life
  • Keg ale is bad - bubbles are dangerous
  • Lager is horrible chemical fizz - i.e., it's bad
  • The tie operated by large PubCos is bad
  • Not being served a full pint of beer is bad
  • Big brewers of real ale buying smaller brewers of real ale is bad
  • Pretty much anything that's not 'traditional' (whatever that means) is probably bad
Now let me be the first to point out that beer festivals, particularly the Great British Beer Festival, the Good Beer Guide, campaigns like Mild Month and so on, do a great deal to promote cask ale in a really positive way.  A lot of what the professional arm of the Campaign for Real Ale does is excellent.  And there are one or two of the issues above that I actually agree with!

But I'm suggesting that what the campaigning arm of CAMRA talks about most is parochial, uninteresting to 95% of beer drinkers, and does nothing - absolutely nothing - to address what CAMRA knows are the biggest barriers to achieving its stated aim.

I've never heard CAMRA calling for a widespread campaign to give samplers out to novice drinkers.  I've never seen them effectively trying to address the image issue (please, no one even try to suggest the horrible 'pint head' thing does anything other than damage real ale's image further.) In terms of education, one might argue the Cyclops scheme addresses this - except I've just been involved with two separate research projects among real ale drinkers and not one person in 15 focus groups across the UK has ever seen it.

MISSING: Have you seen this beer rating scheme?

Keg versus cask, cask breathers etc are of deep, passionate interest to the most committed, active, vocal CAMRA members.  They're of no interest whatsoever to the average beer drinker - the potential real ale drinker.

Those advocating that CAMRA might consider evolving to reflect the reality of the modern beer scene do so because they recognise that CAMRA has a vital role to play in the promotion of good beer.  We do so because we recognise that setting up a 'campaign for good keg beer' entirely misses the point - it makes issues of dispense method and carbonation when these are NOT the issues, and it formalises an antagonistic relationship between two factions of people who are equally passionate about great tasting beer.  I don't want to bring up the Judean People's Popular Front again, but seriously, can you not see the parallels?

Whenever I or anyone else says anything like this, the same thing always happens.  Many CAMRA members write to say they agree with me.  One or two, Tandleman being the main example, usually disagree with me but do so in a way that is based on rational argument, engaging with the issues raised and challenging my view of things in a reasonable, constructive manner.  But the people with the loudest voices and the biggest potential to engage in constructive debate shy away from direct argument, retreat to their heartland and make tub-thumping speeches at conferences and in What's Brewing where they seem genuinely offended and outraged that these newly-imagined enemies of CAMRA even DARE to suggest such heresies, because if CAMRA were to, I dunno, allow Meantime keg beers or Freedom lagers to be sold with gas at beer festivals, before you know it we would all be zombies drinking Watney's Red - itself miraculously back from the dead.

These two beers are EXACTLY the same.  Can you not SEE that?

Guys - you are doing your campaign - and real ale - a grave disservice.  I know you'll never agree with me, but can you not at least see that in making this post, I'm not attacking real ale?

Most beer bloggers are passionate real ale advocates - it's just that we, like the public, judge a beer on how it's made and how it tastes rather than how it's served.  And for that, Chairman Col et al think we are the enemy.

The irony is that thanks to his hostile, knee-jerk approach, with this constant paranoid focus on the wrong targets, keg-drinking bloggers like Mark Dredge, Zythophile and RabidBarFly do more to usefully, truly promote real ale to new converts than someone like Colin Valentine ever will.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

May Vlog: East Anglia

I think we're quite slick in a rather chilled out way on our latest Vlog.

Peter Amor takes his bow-tie to Elgoods, a brewery like you have truly never seen before, that's over 200 years old.  The young whippersnappers who took it over are now in their fifth generation, and there's a lovely laid-back feel to Peter's brewery chat.

I got to go to the Fat Cat in Norwich.  Norwich is a bit out of the way so the Fat Cat doesn't get talked about in the same breathless terms as North Bar, Rake, Cask & Kitchen, Sheffield Tap etc, but it's been doing the same thing as those places for much longer - 20 years this year to be exact.  Thirty cask ales on at any one time, and over 50 bottled craft beers from around the world.  How can they get the throughput they need to keep so many casks on?  Well, despite being in a sleepy Norwich suburb, it's packed - all the time.  We were filming on a Thursday mid-afternoon and it felt like a Friday night.  A truly great pub, worth braving even East Anglia Trains for.



Next month we're going to Cornwall to visit St Austell brewery.  If you think there's a pub as good as the last ones we've been to in the vicinity, let me know!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Stoke Newington Literary Festival gets its own exclusive beers - got a name for them?


"Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today."

Edgar Allan Poe (Former Stoke Newington resident)




Last year my wife Liz, AKA the redoubtable Beer Widow, created the first ever Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  Somehow, it worked, and it was a truly great event, so this year it's happening again, from 3rd to 5th June.  The line up includes ex-Bond villain Steven Berkoff, Johann Hari, Alexei Sayle, Jon Ronson, Howard Marks, Matt Thorne, Dan Cruikshank, Stella Duffy, Rowland Rivron, BBC 6 Music’s Shaun Keaveny, and of course a nepotistic beer and book matching talk from me.  You can get more details and buy tickets for all events from here.

Like last year, I've been putting together 'Pete's Bar' featuring a range of tastefully selected drinks donated by very wonderful sponsors including Budvar, Quilmes, Thornbridge and Hendrick's gin.  But this year we also have two unique beers thanks to our local brewers.

Redemption Brewery in Tottenham, just up the road from the festival, has created and brewed a summer ale that will be sold in the festival’s own bars as well as at The Jolly Butchers, another collaborator on the project.  Meanwhile, Brodies in East London has created a seven-hopped spectacular to offer festivalgoers a choice of unique local brews.  These beers will only be sold in Stoke Newington during the festival.  Liz even went along and helped brew one of them, with Emma from JBs:
L-R: Nice Andy from Redemption, The Wife, Emma, Beer Queen of the Butchers, pretending to read book. Really drinking beer.

Today, we're launching a competition to come up with a linked pair of names for these two sibling beers from different breweries - one light and refreshing, the other hoppier and bigger in flavour, both gorgeous, both perfect to accompany a summer's weekend spent feeding your brain.

Andy at Redemption, James at Brodies, Emma at The Jolly Butchers and I will judge the names and award a host of beer and literature-inspired prizes, including 2 free tickets to my Beer & Book Matching event on Sunday 5th June, the chance to pull (and drink) the first few pints and signed copies of my Beer Trilogy: Man Walks into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory.

Suggestions should be sent to info@stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com, @Stokeylitfest on Twitter, or via the festival's Facebook page, where you can also receive updates about the festival and other beer sponsors. Competition closes 5pm on Friday 27th May.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Bombardier Beer Writing Competition winning entry: The Stonemason's Tale

Not much time to blog at the moment - sorry about that.  Too much paid writing (although there's never too much paid writing) and helping the Beer Widow organise this year's Stoke Newington Literary Festival.

Biggest apology goes to the Milton Crawford, winner of the Oxford Brookes/Bombardier Beer Writing Competition.  I announced that he was the winner a month ago, and haven't yet published his excellent winning piece, so I must do so now.

There are two reasons for the delay: about 75% of the blame is for me because I'm too busy and disorganised.  25% is because I was waiting to see if we could get the essay published first in a national newspaper or magazine.  Charles Campion was looking after this.  He's infinitely more well-connected than I am, way more charming and much more respected.  Yet even he met with a brick wall when trying to persuade people to publish something about beer.  One food and drink magazine even went so far as to say, "We like it, it's a very well written piece, but we do not publish features on beer, we just do wine."  How a food and drink magazine can say this categorically about any food and drink - how it can be not just an attitude or preference, but a publishing policy decision - is beyond me.  But that rant is for another post.

I'm proud that I can publish here a piece of writing you can't see in the national press - they don't deserve it.

Congrats again, Milton.



THE STONEMASON’S STORY
By Milton Crawford

‘You’re drinking that like water,’ I said with a laugh as I stood at the bar and watched my friend George glug the top half of his deep auburn pint in one indulgent guzzle. A shaft of low sunlight caught his glass as it reached the horizontal in front of his mouth. There was a flash of red and gold. I watched his throat work hard, swallowing the liquid in rhythmical gulps, before he placed his glass down on the bar with emphasis and gave a long gasp of satisfaction. The liquid in the glass slopped about slightly like a gentle swell in the English Channel on a serene summer’s day.

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ he said, once he had sucked some air into his lungs. ‘A friend of mine was remarking just the other day how in medieval times every man in this country drank beer instead of water because the water could not be trusted. I knew that already, in fact, but what surprised me was the amount that they drank.’

He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and swept his long blonde ringlets from his forehead. His hair was damp and darkened around his temples as he tucked the dry ringlets behind his ears. It was the first really warm day of the year and as the sun dipped and cast long shadows across the stone-flagged floor, and the air outside began to cool slightly, it remained warm and sticky inside our village pub. There was a hum of conversation from around the low-ceilinged room and the cries of playing children and barking dogs shimmered in on the warm air. George placed his large, rough hands on the edge of the bar and leaned his weight slightly against them as though he was trying to move the bar backwards an inch or two. He was a stonemason with powerful arms and shoulders and I believed that if he tried he probably could move the bar if he really wanted to. The landlord – a tall, slim fellow with a long neck and glasses – leaned his right forearm on top of the pumps and listened. George liked to tell a story.

‘A man would be drinking beer from when he woke in the morning to when he went to bed at night. He’d have half-a-pint for breakfast, a couple of pints through the morning, three or four in the afternoon, when he was hot from working, and then, in the evening, another three or four with his friends.’

‘Sounds like old Roger,’ chimed in the landlord with a chuckle, ‘he’d be in ‘ere every day for a breakfast pint if I let him in.’

George looked directly into the sun and took another gulp from his glass.

‘Nine pints,’ he said, turning to us again with his face that looked like it too had been roughly chiselled from stone. ‘That was what the average medieval man drank every day of his life. I suppose that would be quite weak ale, but you must admit, that’s a fair amount of beer. When my friend told me that, I tried to think what the life of a stonemason might have been like in the middle ages. I certainly wouldn’t fancy cutting stone – and especially not lifting it – after a few pints.

‘I often think of those times when I’m on the marshes at the edge of the village and I gaze across to the city. The cathedral spire is staggering to us now. But just think what it must have been like to the people who lived when it was built. Those people would only have seen one or two storey buildings their whole lives, and then this spire – this one-hundred and twenty-metre pinnacle of stone – pierces the sky and aims up to heaven like an enormous javelin. Can you imagine how awestruck those people must have been?

‘The main body of the cathedral took thirty-eight years to build. That’s a man’s entire working life now and back then, by the time he’d finished, he wouldn’t just be ready to retire, he’d be just about ready to die!’

George laughed and lifted his glass once more, draining it entirely.

‘You fancy another?’ he asked me.

I supped up.

‘I’ll get these,’ I said. The landlord soundlessly picked up our glasses and pulled back on the hand pump. I heard the ale hit the bottom of the glass and froth slightly.

‘Imagine if I had been told,’ continued George, ‘when I was an apprentice in my late teens, that I would be working on the same building for my entire life. I’d be about halfway through it right now. Of course, you’d be proud of playing a part in such a towering achievement as a cathedral, but I’m glad I have the variety of work that I do. You see, there’s plenty of differences between how people lived then and how they live now; a lot of similarities, too, but a lot more differences.’

The two fresh pints were served to us and we both took greedy mouthfuls of the cool ale.

‘One of the main differences, I think,’ George said, ‘is that there was more of what you’d call a community then. For one thing, people didn’t have cars or much other form of transport. They couldn’t drive off somewhere when they felt like it. They were stuck in their village and they had to get along with the people who lived around them. There was also no such thing as television or cinema or radio or the internet. What did people have for entertainment? Each other, of course; and beer!

‘When I imagine how the villagers worked back then, I think of how the fields would have been full of people having to dig the earth by hand. All the time they would have talked to each other as they worked. At the site of the cathedral there would have been hundreds of them working together with no mechanical noise other than the sound of hammers and chisels. The stonemasons would have been chiselling and chatting away at the same time. Conversation gets drowned out these days. On building sites there is the constant din of machinery. In the fields, there is no need for lots of people, because the farmer has his tractor and chemicals to do all the work for him. Instead of talking to each other we turn on the TV. We call people our “friends” on the internet but they’re people we haven’t seen or spoken to for twenty years.

‘But there are still places that you can go to feel part of a community. I’m not a religious man but I’ve heard that church-goers live longer because they have the feeling of belonging. “Churches are social glue” someone said to me once. Well, I like to think the same of pubs and I reckon someone should do a study on the positive health effects of going to the pub. All you hear about is bad things about drinking but for me the pub is the only place I can go to tell a story and hear other people tell stories. It gives me an opportunity for companionship. It’s a place where I feel the warmth of my fellow men – and women – rather than watching on the news about another murder or atrocity or war.

‘For this reason I say that beer is as essential to me as water. But it’s not really the beer itself. Of course I love drinking, but I value above that the social element of going to the pub. Human beings need all kinds of nourishment. We need food, sleep and shelter. But we also need to feel part of something that is bigger than us. We scoff at the middle ages. We laugh at how ignorant and filthy the people must have been then. But just think: that cathedral is still standing and how many buildings that are being built now will still be standing in eight hundred years’ time? We can learn a lot from them if we stop and think about it a little.’

‘Like how to drink nine pints every day?’ asked the landlord.

‘Well,’ said George, with a poker-face, ‘at least I can feel happy when I leave here, having drunk four or five, maybe, that I’ve got a comfortable bed to lie in whereas medieval man probably had to drink nine pints just so he could get to sleep on his straw mattress!’

The landlord laughed and George smiled once more. And as the dying sun sent its red-orange glow through the stone mullioned windows of the pub for the final time, his face was illuminated and looked to me at that instant like a westward facing sea cliff when the sun seems to falter slightly, then finally dips below the horizon
.