As I've pointed out before, the real ale rhetoric and mythology emanating from CAMRA and its members invokes the image of the "working man" (a namby-pambyism for the "working class") in its efforts to tug at the heart-strings and gain sentimental special-case treatment.
If real ale is "traditionally the drink of the working man" then surely my hometown of Barrow-in-Furness is swimming in it. The town has been declared "the most working-class place in the UK" by the website locallife.co.uk.
I hate to be the one to shatter the working man/real ale myth: I can report the most working-class town in the UK is a swamp of alcopops, smoothflow, megalager and megacider.
Casual perusal of town centre pubs (see picture) on a Friday or Saturday night reveals the "working man" drinking smoothflow, megalager, megacider and alcopops. Sometimes, on special occasions, in the same glass with a shot of Blue Bols for added luminosity under the UV.
The Duke of Edinburgh Hotel, The Cross Keys and the Ambrose deserve honourable mentions for stubbornly persisting in attempting to sell a variety of cask ales despite indifference from the population of 70,000.
The Duke of Edinburgh opened its bar in November 2006 with eight handpumped lines. Their market research had shown that Barrow had far fewer real ale outlets than would be expected in a town of its size. As outsiders, from Lancaster, their conclusion was "lots of uncatered-for demand, we'll do lots of real ale, we'll be on a winner." It was not to be. Although, after a slow start, the bar is now popular as it brings a much-needed touch of city-bar atmosphere to the town, sales of real-ale are disappointing. Sales of the house lager and bottles of Pinot Grigio drive the business. Admirably, there is a no-alcopops rule despite rampant demand.
What's going on?
It's not metaphysical. It's not beyond understanding. As a habitual chatter-with-anybody beer-loving pub-goer I've been working out who drinks what and why for twenty years.
Here's my explanation: Poor people – let’s avoid euphemisms – don't like to be choosy. In the culture of places like Barrow, being choosy is frowned upon. Being discriminating is being a snob – and being a snob is a very bad thing. To be choosy necessitates rejecting something on offer. In a culture defined by hard graft and low pay, rejecting something (particularly food, and including drinks) for the subjective reason of taste is very bad form. Children are brought up with the mealtime fillip "you make sure you finish that: your dad's been hard at work all week to pay for that.” Swirling and sniffing your beer is met with “get it down your neck, you ponce.” I know.
My late grandmother always defended her use of cheap margarine rather than butter with the stern declaration "it tastes just the same". She always bought the cheapest, instant coffee because "it all comes from the same factory anyway". Having been born the youngest of twelve in what can only be described as a slum, she devoted her life to convincing herself that expenditure for flavour was wasteful – because there are no different flavours. My mother is not quite as bad, but almost.
Although the paradox persists that tastier beer is frequently cheaper than bland beer, it is bland predictable beer that most prefer. Seeking out beer for the sole reason of flavour is wrong, even immoral.
Messages such as those about craftsmanship, food miles, sustainability, wholesomeness, tradition and locality are largely lost on this demographic. Cajoling the “working man” into a reverence for heritage and tradition is to force him to look to the past, but the past is a bleak place. The criteria for choosing beer are, as they have always been, the four Ps – peers, palatability, predictability and price.
Part of the CAMRA romanticised belief system is that in a golden age of cask ale, the “working man” was savouring his pint of cask ale and caring deeply and knowledgeably about it. In CAMRA’s Marxist perspective, this simple affordable pleasure has been rudely stolen by exploitative mega-brewer fat-cat capitalists using brainwashing by marketing and advertising to sell over-priced industrialised swill to the lumpen masses. Swashbuckling CAMRA will overthrow this mendacious ruling class and reunite the grateful working man with his real ale! The phrase “real ale revolution” isn’t used in ignorance of the political connotation of the expression.
Suggested evidence for this alleged golden era is that the older working class generation often tells us – “we were choosy about our beer, we went to the pubs where it was good, and we were always on the lookout for a bad pint”. A presumption is made that seeking out a good pint demonstrates connoisseurship: it doesn’t. When more consistent keg beer arrived it lifted the burden of an irksome chore. Members of my extended family are still baffled by my preference for “poncey” cask ale while supping their vapid Boddingtons and Tetleys Smooth.
I bought my first pint at the age of fourteen in the Peacock Inn, Cavendish Street, Barrow-in-Furness. It was a Saturday lunchtime and the morning overtime shift workers from the shipyard filled the pub. I just asked for “a pint of bitter”; I think it was Tetley’s; I was just emulating my dad while trying not to be noticed. “I tried selling cask ale but gave up a year ago. The lads round here didn’t like the taste. They just stick with Carling and John Smiths,” the landlord told me recently. Nearby, the Blue Lamp, a Thwaites pub, sells no cask ale. It tried. It gave up.
I went to my first CAMRA beer festival when I was nineteen-year-old shipyard apprentice. I enjoyed some of the beer but I wasn’t inspired to join the organisation. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. But CAMRA hasn’t gone away and twenty-two years later I’ve finally worked out the big reason (there are others) why I haven’t felt motivated to join despite being a keen cask ale drinker:
CAMRA patronises the working class by implying they can’t make an informed decision.
I know that many CAMRA members will vocally proclaim their working-classness as if that counters my argument and demonstrates the working classness of cask ale but it must be remembered they are a small minority. If all CAMRA members accounted for all real ale consumed, they would be getting through 19.5 pints each, every day (figures from The Intelligent Choice: The Definitive guide to the Cask Ale Market 2008-9 and CAMRA’s current membership of 94,585). If anything, CAMRA's Marxist rhetoric has only proved useful as recruitment tool for the organisation. I don't believe it has been remotely useful in boosting the interests of craft brewers at the expense of macro-brewers. All it does is fuel the dedication of the most vocal and active of CAMRA's membership.
I look forward to your comments (but I’m ducking for cover.)