Friday, 18 November 2011

In Praise of Real Ale

Subtle, diverse, refreshing, tasty if a little unpredictable, offered in thousands of varieties from hundreds of makers - not wine but British-style real ale. For years it has been the lazy default assumption of journalists and others that traditional real ale was in decline or narrowing to a niche market of discerning well-off middle-aged to elderly middle-class men in places like Shrewsbury and Eastbourne. The opposite is happening: its use is increasing against the trend for most drinks and pub services, supermarkets are now well-stocked with a good range of bottled real ales and the trend is extending to new groups of people, especially young people and women. The one domestic market it will never reach is people who seek oblivion through premium lager.

Real Ale has two weaknesses. One is because of that very variety: fifty or sixty years ago, strong regional breweries dominated trade plus a few nationals. The choice of real ales in nearly all pubs was limited even over a whole year, but a few names kept cropping up. Now the market is split between a huge number of competing beers which pop up all over the country, the only nationally familiar one is Greene King IPA and a drinker unfamiliar with the varieties may be put off by the range of unfamiliar names and instead of experimenmting or asking the bar person for guidance, opt for something really familiar like Foster's or (mea maxima culpa for even mentioning the stuff) Heineken. The other concerns quality. Because real ale is a live product, it can go off and keeping it is a little more demanding than keeping those mass-produced lagers. Consequently, quality can vary, though in many pubs it's uniformly high.

There is also that tired slur about "warm beer", beloved not only of some (but by no means all) Australians and Americans, but also of those far too numerous English (I except the Scots and Welsh) who like to join in sneering at themselves. "Warm" can only mean at or above room temperature. If you get served real ale like that, send it right back. It should be cool. It should not, however, be ice-cold. An ice-cold drink anaethesthetises the taste-buds. Real ales are almost all tasty, so you don't want to zonk out the taste-buds. On the other hand, presented with an American Budweiser, for example, zonking out the taste-buds is the best thing you can do. In fairness to Aussies and Good Ol' Boys, of course, in hot countries ice-cold anything not poisonous is attractive.

Let me tell two true stories.

The scene is a busy real-ale pub in Northumberland about fifteen years ago. Two thirtyish women approach the bar in high spirits, clearly looking forward to having a drink together. As they get nearer to the bar, however, those confident smiles are replaced by signs of uncertainty. They stop dead. They look at one another for guidance.

"What shall we have?" asks one, eying the impressive array of about seven real ales and four lagers.

"Er...lager," the other replies. "A lager, please."

Scene Two is in a small real-ale pub in Essex this year. Most of the clientele in this particular pub are, say, 40+. In walk two studenty young people - an attractive, slightly punky girl and a slightly geeky-looking lad. They share a word as they view the choices.

"What'll you have?" asks the barmaid. The expected answer for many years would have been something like "one Stella and one vodka-and-lime."

"Two milds, please" the lad replies. The barmaid is surprised and checks the order. That's what they want. The mild is Oscar Wilde Mild, a recent winner of the Campaign for Real Ale's Champion Beer of Britain award.

Now just let me dream a moment about Nelson's Revenge, Doom Bar, Reverend James, The Black Douglas, Landlord, 6X, Late Red, Mersea Mud, Workie Ticket...

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