Way back in the dark ages before blogs, before Twitter, and before Facebook, online chat about beer was hard to find. Only the most geeky of beer geeks would find uk.food+drink.real-ale, a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to real ale. The group is still active but a pale shadow of its former self. Fortunately its historical content has been archived by Google.
The term "real ale" gives the game away - it was, and still is, heavily pro-CAMRA. Undaunted, my brother Steve and I would wade in for a bit of beer banter. Some cracking arguments ensued. Often the core argument from the voluble CAMRAists went something like this: "making real ale cheaper will make it sell more." The Pickthall counter argument was "real ale is already cheap, and you are doing a disservice to the pubs brewers you are claiming to support by campaigning for cheapness."
It was great fun. Steve was browsing the archive recently and found this thread from 2002, in which the core argument rumbles on.
At one point, Steve is prompted to offer his manifesto for beer, so he did. Reading it now, what strikes us is how much of this has actually happened. Here's what Steve wrote:
One of the things that has to be done is for CAMRA to remove the phrase "value for money" from its manifesto. "Value for money" is a nebulous concept at the best of times but on this occasion it doesn't help real ale it only serves to commodify it. Beer isn't a commodity, it is a luxury (i.e. it is purchased and consumed entirely for pleasure), the only people who will benefit from the commodification of beer are the producers of low, low quality swill like Lynx and Ace.CAMRA has to de-emphasise dispense. Germany, Holland, USA, Belgium, Czech Republic all make great keg beer and CAMRA shoots itself in the foot whenever is bangs on about "Ask if it's Cask" (which means little to most people anyway). In the Seventies the keg beers CAMRA protested against were appalling beers, keg dispense was not the problem.Breweries have to shake up their marketing, they have to stop regarding it with suspicion and assuming 'a good product sells itself' - it doesn't.Stop banging on about 'tradition', many associate it with hanging, racism, rickets and old duffers ranting about National Service. 'Traditional' can also be understood as 'we have our heads in the sand', 'we are contemptuous of young people', 'we are dismissive of technological advance'. Anyone for 150 year old standards of hygiene? Tradition often is just a romantic view of complacency.Stop being disparaging about 'fizziness'. People like fizziness and real-ale's poor image includes the largely erroneous notion that it is flat.Improve product design. Brewers spend a fortune on bespoke embossed glass bottles and most of them look shit and go straight in the bin anyway (e.g. Youngs). They also spend a shed load of money on full colour labels, on some occasions full colour with metallic effects, this hugely expensive and looks absolutely crap. It would be better to spend that money on a good designer who could also design a specific glass for their beer to be drunk from, there is a lot of research which suggests people like drinking from the right glass for the product - it adds value.Provide more information about the product so consumers can identify flavours and malts and hops and so make fewer shot-in-the-dark selections. Not along the lines of 'brewed for 150 years with the finest hops and malted barley', this kind of anodyne expression shows contempt for the consumer - it is up to the consumer to decide if it is 'fine' or not. 'Floating drinkers' who do occasionally buy real ales are disappointed when they feel they have to finish a pint they don't like when better information may have allowed them to choose a beer they could have thoroughly enjoyed. (This also relates to thelanguage many pubs/PubCos spout about their products - 'quality', 'home cooked', 'finest' - often these are simply lies and the consumer doesn't fall for it).De-emphasise pint drinking. Pint drinking implies mindless guzzling rather than discriminating connoisseurship. Not to mention that a pint is too much for many people, particularly women.Strive for greater consistency. I know consistency can be difficult with real ale, but commercial products can't chop and change, they have to be the same everywhere every time or people desert them. The wine world manages to turn inconsistency into a virtue i.e. vintages, unfortunately the beer world can't do this as most beer needs consuming within days or weeks of production,Don't compete on price. Real ale MUST be more expensive than mainstream mass produced products, there is no way on this earth to make high quality more cheaply than low quality, any brewer who tries will suffer. Also, there is a perception along the lines of 'I thoroughly enjoy my Stella, Caffrey's etc. - how could anything cheaper provide this amount of satisfaction'.End the tied house system. The tied house system is mostly illegal in the USA and many European nations (I'm studying this in greater detail) for a very good reason - it stifles competition. Competition is good. Britain got a special exemption from the Treaty of Rome for it's 'traditional' tied pubs. This was an error. It is, of course, also necessary to restrict the anti-competitive practices of the non-brewing PubCos who permeate equally strangulatory ties.CAMRA and many real ale campaigners need to forget about 'competing with the ‘big boys'. Real ale is in a niche, this is not a bad thing, but you have to forget about getting real ale in the mouth of every pub goer in the country, it is not going to happen - this is a good thing, it makes real ale 'exclusive'. Real ale is never going to be able to attract alcopop drinkers likewise alcopops will never attract real ale drinkers - they are not in competition as they operate in different sectors.Cask breathers. The benefits outweigh the (unproven) drawbacks, the real ale fraternity has to be less disparaging about modern developments in general - it is holding it back.Ad campaign. A good campaign would be 'Real Ale worth paying more for' (or a message to that effect), part of the campaign would involve getting good beer in the hands of some intelligent celebrities.Ban press photographers from the GBBF. It is the quiet season and all they're looking for is a photo of the biggest fattest beardedest ugliest people quaffing real ale.
De-emphasise pubs, most pubs are considered to be awful places by many. Be less disparaging about modern 'trendy' bars, people are voting with their feet (and wallet) and moving away from pubs. The future of good beer may be in restaurants rather than pubs.