My life in real ale

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and join CAMRA

Posted by Stu on March 23, 2015

All my (legal) drinking life, I’ve drunk real ale. One of my first proper jobs was collecting glasses at a local neighbourhood pub. It was a 1980s new build pub, all fake fireplaces and horse brasses attempting to fool you into thinking you were drinking in an old fashioned country pub, instead of on the outskirts of a Barratt Homes housing estate.

When I reached eighteen, I moved up to the hallowed position of barman, and, pretty quickly, on the advice of the regulars, I eschewed the bland lagers the pub sold and started drinking Proper Bitters. I started on Banks’s Bitter and Mild, and finally made the move to Marston’s Pedigree, which remained my standard beer for the remainder of my tenure at the pub.

Pedigree was unlike anything else I’d tasted, the rich malts danced on my tongue and the sharp hops begged me to come back for another sip. This was undertoned by the egg-like notes from sulphur-rich Burton water, which, far from being unpleasant were the absolute hallmark of the beer. My tastes may have changed since then, but at the time, Pedigree was a world away from what I was used to.

From then until now, real ale was my go to drink. I may have had the odd macro lager at home or in a club, but, given the choice, 9 times out of 10, I’d always plump for whatever was on cask.

I continued in this vein for most of my 20’s, but all this changed when I had my introduction to craft beer. I remember seeing James Watt and Martin Dickie from Brewdog being interviewed on TV. They were two guys, much like me, who were passionate about quality beer. Finally, there seemed to be a brewery that was aimed at me. I thought to myself “I must have this beer”.

I’d like to say I was hooked instantly, but the shock of the new meant it took me a few goes to get into it, but I finally did, in a big way, and I’ve never looked back since.

I laughed at Brewdog’s early CAMRA-baiting publicity stunts, and, as a slightly less cynical sort back then, it helped further cement in my mind that CAMRA Was Not For The Likes Of Me. It was the preserve of men with beards and sandals with socks - the Real Ale Twats from Viz.

So, what’s changed? I guess I’ve got older for a start, I’m probably a bit less hung up on what people think about me, and I’m definitely a lot more ‘into’ beer these days (also the discounts help).

But I guess, the thing that spurred me on, is that I want to make a difference from within CAMRA. I read Boak and Bailey’s fantastic Brew Britannia, which gave me a real insight into the early days of CAMRA and what an important campaigning group they’ve been for good beer. This seemed to me to be something I wanted to be part of.

However, times have changed from the days of Watney’s Red Barrel, and I don’t think cask vs. keg is a useful distinction to make anymore. In fact, if anything, some of the mass market cask beers (naming no names, but you know the ones I mean) are probably just as bland as the keg bitters of yore. These bland cask ales are also so omnipresent now, it means smaller breweries struggle to get a look in.

I still think cask beer is a great thing, and, in the early days, CAMRA did a fantastic job of preserving that tradition, but that battle has been won. We need to focus on quality beer, brewed by people who are passionate about the product they create, not obsess about serving method.

It’s abundantly clear that some styles don’t suit cask. I’d much rather have an cold and fizzy American IPA for example, and conversely, I’m much happier having my English bitters cask conditioned.

I’d also like to see the praises of unfiltered beer to be sung more. Most ‘traditionalists’ would claim a hazy beer to be ‘off’, but, for me, an unfiltered, raw beer that has been brewed without the addition of finings is far preferable to a crystal clear pint, and I’d like to see CAMRA promote this a bit more in publications and festivals.

On a cultural point as well, there’s also a lot more I feel CAMRA can do to encourage more women into the world of beer (or rather, stop putting them off). From a ban on sexist pumpclips, to a code of conduct at festivals, there’s a lot CAMRA can do to encourage a more friendly atmosphere at festivals, and in beer culture in general. Robbie Pickering put together a great draft motion a few months ago, which is well worth a read.

While I don’t think my joining CAMRA is going to start a beer revolution overnight, I do think it’s important that if you have strong feelings on what CAMRA should be about, then you should probably join. The member base is overwhelmingly made up from the older generation, and it’s up to us younger lot to represent who we are and what we think good beer should be about. I don’t intend to turn up to my local branch meeting shouting the odds and forcing my views on others, but the odd gentle prod wouldn’t go amiss.

Even without people like me trying to make a change, I’m quietly confident that things are on the move. Chatting to the owner of my local off-licence, he told me that a quite active member of the local CAMRA branch will look at you as if you’ve suggested murder if you offer him a growler of keg, but will quite happily take a couple of cans of Beavertown Gamma Ray off the shelf, so maybe a change is in the air already.