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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Sacred and the Profane

Boak and Bailey direct us to a report by Britain's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which is trying to figure out what its mission is in the age of craft beer. This presents the organization with an entirely new set of challenges than the ones it was created to address. Confronted with an influx of mass market lagers and cheapo non-cask knockoffs, a group of drinkers in the 1970s set about trying to protect full-flavored ales served on natural carbonation at the pub.

They made a fateful decision to define the object of their protection thus: "Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide." That definition became a rallying cry, and eventually, a theology. For thirty-five years, this was a perfectly serviceable definition--until British brewers started making full-flavored ales in the American fashion--kegged and artificially carbonated. Bit by bit, CAMRA got crosswise with craft.

To address that, the organization went on a "revitalisation" project. A couple relevant comments from their findings:
There is no doubt that, on the market today, there exist some keg and other non-cask beers that are high-quality products -– brewed with first-class ingredients, often matured over long periods, unfiltered and unpasteurised. In some cases, keg beer contains live yeast and is subject to secondary fermentation in the container. It is, to all intents and purposes, real ale up to the point that carbon dioxide pressure is applied in the cellar. 
Some of these products, by most measures, are far superior to some of the lower-quality, mass-produced cask beer common in pubs -– some of which, it is alleged, may be subject to very minimal, if any, secondary fermentation despite being marketed as real ale. Yet today, in accordance with its policies, CAMRA champions the latter over the former. This naturally leads to the argument that, in order for CAMRA to return to its founding, fundamental purpose -– to promote the availability of good beer over the bad or mediocre -– it must revisit the technical definitions that govern the types of beer it will support.
For a decade, they've been prickly-to-antagonistic toward craft, but now have moved tentatively into agnosticism.
CAMRA should seek to promote awareness and understanding of the different factors that contribute to beer quality, to help consumers make an informed judgement about the relative merits of different types of beer. It should do this while advocating and promoting well - produced, well - kept cask - conditioned ale as the pinnacle of the brewer's craft and campaigning for traditional British beer styles to be safeguarded and celebrated. In practice, this means that CAMRA should ... permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.
Well, good for CAMRA--this is an obvious move. But why did it take so long?

Beer is a funny beverage. Although alcoholic, it's not much like Twisted Tea or gin. Beer is both a beverage knitted into society, and also an expression of society. Civilized humans have literally always made beer. They've drunk it together, sometimes in circles, from straws, sometimes in pubs or beer halls. It helps bind them together. They have used it as ritual and sacrament. Beer acts, as the whiskery old men of CAMRA demonstrate, as an affirmation: this is who we are.

Beer has become something like a sacred beverage to people all over the globe. And of course, any time you have something sacred, it means there's a vast world out there of the profane. Beer must be made and consumed in a particular way. To do anything else violates this sense of the sacred. This dichotomy doesn't emerge arbitrarily, though. Sacred things are those which protect and nurture the group; profane ones endanger it. In the case of cask ale, CAMRA issued an edict about the nature of British beer. They did this to create a very clear inner circle of protection: this is the thing we're talking about, and these are the things that endanger it.

In the US--as is our wont--we invented our own religion called "craft" beer and wrote up a theology for it, too. It was less about the specific type of beer made than who owned the means of production. Violators were excommunicated. The stain of ownership by the wrong group was so polluting members could not stay in the group. For the Brewers Association, this is an existential issue (and, I'd argue, pretty accurately so). Drawing these lines means protecting a strain of brewing from extinction.

One of my favorite beer stories involves the arrival of pale lager in Munich. Munich was, for centuries, a dark lager town. It was the sacred local beer, the one that both defined who Munichers were and bound them together in sacrament over mugs at the beer halls. There was an interloping type of lager from neighboring Bohemia, pale and coruscating, that had created an international sensation--one Munich ignored for five decades. So when  Spaten finally brewed the first batch of what they called a "helles," the local brewers guild went crazy. It nearly created a schism. (The great irony of this story is that the Bohemians had imported not only Bavarian lager-brewing when they invented pilsner, but imported a Bavarian to brew it.) It's hard to read that history and not smell the aroma of religious fervor.

There's no real point here except the observation that these passions are deep and real in beer. They may seem silly in the moment--CAMRA has suffered many guffaws as it's flailed about--but it's actually one of the wonders of this simple drink. It is so important to us that we sacralize beer--and profane anyone who dare challenge it. To those beyond the faith, this kind of devotion always seems silly. But the devotion has its uses; after all, cask ale is still with us. 


  1. This story of beer style as identity marker plays out everywhere, over and over again. You can hear it when people of Saaremaa explain that the mainlanders have difficulty handling their strong koduõlu, which they're not used to. You see it on the Norwegian west coast, in the mutual contempt between the raw ale brewers in the north and the boiled ale brewers in the south. And so on and so forth.

  2. Ted, would you believe this post was designed entirely to see if you still read the blog? That's only a slight overstatement.

    Lars, your recent reports have been part of my thinking on all of this.

  3. I've not read the B&B post in question, nor can I, as a CAMRA member, really be arsed to care about the Revitalisation Project other than to shake my head at its massive waste of resources. It gives the false impression that 1. there's something wrong or lacking with the current Campaign, and 2. that the Campaign has succeeeded in saving real ale -- it hasn't.

    The following makes me cringe a bit: "For thirty-five years, this was a perfectly serviceable definition--until British brewers started making full-flavored ales in the American fashion--kegged and artificially carbonated."
    I'm afraid your readers will get the impression that real ale was not full-flavoured prior to the advent of "craft keg" in the UK a decade or so ago. Because that would be an utterly wrong impression.

    Yes, the bulk of cask beer may have been "boring brown bitter" from the big, old, traditional breweries until a decade ago, but --as Boak and Bailey themselves have written extensively about and explained-- microbreweries started using citric US hops decades ago, and anyway, where *did* those pioneering Californians get their inspiration for SNPA and Liberty Ale?

    Even "boring brown bitter" is full-flavoured, just not full of citrus. Well, some's really bland, but I think that's the exception. Even the much-reviled Greene King IPA, which is actually a brown 3.6% ABV bitter, is a nice, malty drop when well kept and looked after. I'd take one over a Münchner Dunkel.

    Looking up that report, now that you've linked and drawn me to it, I see something else I do like, which CAMRA should be doing: "CAMRA should re-assert its definition of real ale and undertake an analysis, led by an appropriate group under direction of the National Executive, of whether or not there is cask beer on sale today that fails to meet this definition."

    IOW, work to improve cask beer.

    [CAMRA should support stocking non-cask British beer at its festivals] "Well, good for CAMRA--this is an obvious move."

    I disagree. Call me a fanatic or a fundamentalist, but just as you probably don't want to see citric IPA along side Edelstoff in Munich, I don't want to see keg beer alongside cask at a CAMRA fest. Offering foreign beers, to enable drinkers to experience them is one thing, but actively supporting competition to cask beer at home is another thing. It's a conflict of interest.

    It is a funny circle to have come around IAC, as a 50-something ex-Oregonian (immigrant) who went from Schmidt & Heilemann's to Summit & Deschutes, eventually then on to proper cask beer in England & Wales, to see the waify London hipsters decrying CAMRA's stodginess, when in fact it was just exactly that which enabled their Bourbon/vanilla/choco/bacon/maple/cucumber/coriander/chili/cherry imperial session kettle-soured white stout to eventually come to exist at all.

  4. The following makes me cringe a bit: "For thirty-five years, this was a perfectly serviceable definition--until British brewers started making full-flavored ales in the American fashion--kegged and artificially carbonated."

    I may not have been clear of my meaning here. What I was implying was that in the 1970s, the impetus for CAMRA was the threat of flavorless ales or (mostly also flavorless) lagers. They now have a tripartite market: flavorless lagers, craft beer, and cask ale.

    I disagree. Call me a fanatic or a fundamentalist, but just as you probably don't want to see citric IPA along side Edelstoff in Munich, I don't want to see keg beer alongside cask at a CAMRA fest.

    Yes, this is fundamentalism. Some breweries make weird stuff in Britain, but it's still largely a matter of dispense. The difference between a cask ale and a lager is huge and meaningful. The difference between a cask porter and a keg porter is far smaller.

    And beyond that, this is modernity, Nick. We can't go back to a time when CAMRA was founded. Now the world is rich with variation. CAMRA must adapt to the modern world and decide how to forward their favored beer in a market economy so that it's intriguing and alluring to drinkers. Nothing repels faster than a bunch of old men tsk tsking the kids because they're stupid and don't understand beer. It's a matter of tactics. You have to apply your activism to the political moment.

    As I think everyone knows: I am a giant cask ale fan. (My English beer friends think this is a tic of mine.) As someone who agrees with CAMRA that it is both one of the best products made by brewers and a unique expression of place, I desperately want it to survive. I don't think using the same tactics that worked in 1973 is the way to do it, though.