What’s Brewing, August – September 2015 – Agony Column

Providing much needed help for the writers to What’s Brewing.Whats Brewing AugSep 15

It’s all rather mundane stuff in August to be honest. The ‘star letter’ from A C-C of Newhall is particularly avant garde though, ‘Internet vital to engage our younger members’ – apparently this is how the younger members communicate but sadly for most CAMRA members there is no description as to what this ‘internet’ is. I have a suspicion that computers could be involved. Seriously though, at their AGM they discover that 11 out of their 500 membership is active, and average age is 51. Nobody is surprised at this stat, but it is sad.

My theory is that all the writers are so old that the kids have flown the nest, grateful to get away. Hence they were on holiday during the submission time for last month – before the schools broke to get a good price. Pontins gets so crowded during the school hols. Now in the September edition we are back to good form.

KR of Beckenham thinks that CAMRA are ‘hell bent on supporting the micros to the detriment of the longer established brewers’. Quite so, who would want to drink a pint of something hand crafted a few miles away when there’s a good reliable pint of Greene King IPA on offer. NW of East London adds a new descriptor, ‘urine coloured’ – for modern pale ales presumably. I have yet to see breweries follow his lead in describing their beers thus, likewise the Farrow & Ball colour cards do not use this. Indeed it is confusing as from personal experience I have seen a number of hues. Several appear to think that CAMRA is becoming far to inclusive, no, not just a laissez faire attitude to craft keg bashing, but cider! Cider is clearly not real ale. AP of Hartlepool mentions ‘cider and other fringe drinks’, NM of Eastleigh suggests that cider drinkers should set up their own organisation.

Women, Beer and CAMRA

dea-latis-website-header_v1Women, beer and CAMRA, which is the odd one out? Looking at all the desperate campaigns and articles in What’s Brewing, looking at the demographic in Bermondsey on a Saturday morning, comparing GBBF and say, Craft Beer Rising, the answer is clearly CAMRA. What got me thinking was an article by Annabel Smith, a founder of Dea Latis in What’s Brewing.

Without presuming to understand what goes on in women’s minds let me give you my observations, gleaned from watching women in pubs, Bermondsey and well, everywhere.

– women are not put off by alcoholic volume, they enjoy say, 250ml of 12% alcohol

– women like nice glassware

– women do not want high liquid volumes

You know what, it sounds an awful lot like what I want too!

Let’s go back in time. Pubs were full of men, lots of them were manual labourers. And what did they want? Fluid replacement and to be able to go to work the next day. 3.5% session bitter? Perfect.

Think about it. Six pints is over three litres, is it really enjoyable to drink that much liquid, whatever the taste? If any men are in denial about drinking six pints in a session by the way, whatever the government says is safe, then it scales down also. It’s generally a lot of liquid for the flavour (notwithstanding some notable weaker beers nowadays, some of them real ales too. Thornbridge Wild Swan, Kernel Table Beer, Otley Tri-O and Moncada Summer Blonde spring to mind.)

Snap. Back to today, it’s now 40 years since wine bars became the sophisticated place to drink. Everyone cares about something local. And America has discovered that Fuggles is not the only hop. Everything about food and drink is going extreme, from coffee beans that have been passed through the intestinal tract of a coypu to beef from cows that have personally massaged every day. Likewise beer.

In the cities where they are, craft beer bars and microbreweries are cool places to drink. City pubs rarely cut it.

In general women have resisted the charm of session bitters, real ale and CAMRA since they began. You can lead a lady to the pub but you can’t force her to drink a pint.

By contrast, the ‘craft beer’ scene has everything to attract both sexes equally, as it should be. The most amazing range of flavours, strengths, complexities, styles and glassware. Nobody is hung up about whether a flavourless, odourless gas is added to the beer or not.

One of the reasons why I love the ‘craft beer’ scene is the great generational and sexual equality in it. I don’t want to look at a bunch of old gits in sandals at a CAMRA festival, I’ve got a mirror for that.

So, of course women like beer, who wouldn’t? CAMRA need to be more inclusive of other beers, then they will be more inclusive of women.

What’s Brewing, June – July 2015 – Agony Column

Whats Brewing JJ 15 2Providing much needed help for the writers to What’s Brewing.

In June, regular correspondent DS of Chelmsford is bemoaning choice, too many ‘unknown and often undrinkable’ beers. So give up now all you new brewers, DS wants to stick with what he knows. It was like that back in the seventies, ah, the good old days.

But what of the kidz? FC of Whitley Bay thinks that left well alone the ‘youth will embrace the values of their elders’ when they are ready. I don’t think FC has had a chance to visit the Bermondsey beer mile yet.

The voice of reason comes DH, president of a Uni real ale society who identifies their enemy as bland, flavourless beers and reads CAMRA’s original mission as giving consumers ‘greater choice and quality’.

In July, carbon dioxide and the dreaded ‘c’ word get a proper hammering. SB of Quedgeley says the enemy is keg and lager. So basically it’s back to WW2, the Germans and their lager are the enemy. That’s how many years of brewing tradition gone west then? LW of Worcester thinks that a ‘focus on quality’ is a bad thing. Oh dear.

Honestly, when you read stuff like that I really do consider leaving CAMRA but then you read Bob Southwell, the Volunteer Voice this month. Whilst not endorsing the ‘c’ beer revolution he does recognise the outdated ideas of CAMRA in some respects. Under the heading ‘Have we just become moaning relics’ he declares the need for action before CAMRA has the same fate as dinosaurs. Articles like this give me hope.

One of these days CAMRA is going to have aggravate a large minority of its members (and risk their resignations) in order to progress and increase membership. Or else another organisation will be more attractive and CAMRA will end up like the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood.

What’s Brewing, April – May 2015 – Agony Column

WB Apr May  15Providing much needed help for the writers to What’s Brewing.

In April it’s all about ‘Craft chaos’ and ‘zombie beers’. The great festival organiser MJ suggests that cask ales are easier to serve and dispense. To be honest this argument can be lanced with a suggestion that an adequate electricity supply is the answer. It remains the fact that a keg beer is much more likely to be served in the condition it left the brewery than a cask one. Dr DW of Crewe introduces me to the phrase ‘zombie beers’ – marvellous! CAMRA must surely take its rightful place as a latterday van Helsing and see off the undead beers. But hey, that’s suggesting there is life in these beers of a type that we can only fearfully comprehend. What dark forces are at work here? Are carbon dioxide and pasteurisation the devil incarnate?

The price of beer. AS of Cottingham points out that it costs more in bottles. £6.88 a pint! There are a few beers I wish I could buy at that price. Let’s draw breath and compare with the wine world, people don’t expect to buy a bottle of house red for the same price as a bottle of Chateau Petrus. Why should beer be any different?

Voice of reason – mention of the month – Prof GO asking for beers to be dispensed in thirds at festivals more widely (and therefore can we have more interesting strong beers).

In May we learn that ‘craft beer’ is a con trick. Even Fosters are using the word ‘crafted’! That’s the problem with words MH of Goole, anyone can use them. Basically there are crap ‘craft beers’, there are crap cask ales and anything that says crafted is almost certainly crap. Let your tastebuds decide! Obsession about an extra few pence a pint, love of mild (but nobody actually drinks it) and the need ‘familiar’ beers are also mentioned, oh dear, only one me and all of them.

Voice of reason – mention of the month – MC in volunteer voice, ‘diversify or die’. Prophetic.

What’s Brewing, February – March, 2015 – Agony Column

Whats Brewing FebMar 15It’s been a while but these people do need help.

In February, SK of Dumfries believes that some microbreweries are ‘sneaking their product in under the radar’ due to lack of definitive terms. Indeed many of these enterprises produce NO REAL ALE! They are riding on the coat tails of the burgeoning real market apparently, ahem, I think you will find it is the other way round actually. And CAMRA’s initial raison d’être? Good beer, imho.

Many thanks to TW of Cambridge, acknowledging that post-CAMRA, over 40 years on things have changed a tad. He is certainly down with the kidz.

In March, the real ale brigade are out in force. Oh dear where to start? A nemesis of mine, DS of Chelmsford questions whether TW of Cambridge should be in CAMRA. It’s been a dilemma of mine too. Some of us prefer to foment change from within though. DJH of Woking simplifies matters, craft beer is keg beer, pressurised bright beer in fact. He clearly hasn’t had a pint of London Murky recently.

The balance is provided by IM of Aberdeen who has noticed 20-somethings enjoying fantastic beer in Brewdog bars, as anyone unblinkered will do. Why should CAMRA support Belgian and Czech beers but not artisanal UK beers?

CAMRA – Whither or Wither

camraCAMRA have been troubling me for some time. I know there will always be the hardliners who believe that the term real ale is enshrined in stone and should never change but what worried me more was the article in What’s Brewing January by Steve Bury, one of CAMRA’s top 40 campaigners.

Entitled ‘Is Campaign starting to lose its way?’ he fears that CAMRA is starting to send out mixed messages about craft beer. For Steve the word artisan conjures up a picture of a poor French tradesman. Leaving aside the rampant stereotyping, no Steve, an artisan is a skilled tradesman not a mass production factory worker – and exactly who I want to brew my beer.

If my tipple of choice is ‘craft beer’ then perhaps I should be considering whether to be a member of CAMRA at all, I am Steve, I am. The Cyclops system which helps bar staff describe beers is another evil because it includes beers that are not real ale. Perhaps a simpler system would be just to put ‘good beer’ on the handpumps and ‘bad beer’ on the keg lines.

Where we agree is that the lines are blurring. Where we disagree is whether this is a good or bad thing. The definition of real ale is a millstone around CAMRA’s neck completely ignoring the taste of the beer and the care with which it has been made.

Let me take you back…when the founding fathers sat down what was their aim? Was it to prescribe the only method for brewing (ignoring that of the rest of the world) or was it to try to promote good, well made beer? Remember, back then there was no good keg beer and small brewers were predominantly cask ale. The definition of real ale was a neat way to define the good beer, simple as.

And so it remained for another twenty years or so when new brewers, often Americans(!), decided that they could make beer just as well for keg dispense with the added bonuses of consistency and shelf life. And boy, did they add flavour along with the CO2.

I have always liked or disliked beer according to flavour, and yes, carbonation can be too high, just like real ale can be too flat. If I am taking a bottle of beer home with me I don’t want to have to interrogate the vendor as to production method, I want to judge on taste. Surely the founding fathers wouldn’t disagree with that?

Personally I want to support the small, artisanal producer over the big brewer – though I do respect what some of them do. Surely the founding fathers wouldn’t disagree with that?

As Steve Bury suggested, I have been seriously considering resigning from CAMRA on principle. I want to be part of an inclusive group that promotes small over big, flavour over blandness, moves with the times and attracts a demographic I can associate with.

At the risk of rampant stereotyping, ten years ago, aspirational young women were drinking a glass of chardonnay (nothing wrong with that btw), now they are down the Bermondsey beer mile drinking a half of 6% modern IPA from nice glassware and talking to the producer. They are not drinking a pint of 4% session bitter in an old pub and choosing between a windows or sleeve glass. The demographic at CAMRA beer festivals, however interesting and good the beer, is plain depressing.

Wake up CAMRA and smell the new hops!