The Rise of Real Ale

Whether you call it craft beer or real ale, the unstoppable rise of the microbrewery means West Country beer drinkers have never had more choice (or more quality).

This feature was first published back in Crumbs Bath and Bristol October 2012 and has been republished as part of the #Crumbs100 celebrations. Vote for your favourite ever Crumbs cover here.

Do you remember the bad old days? In 1971 the UK brewing industry was in what seemed like terminal decline. Sure, there was an expanding population of drinkers, but what they were buying into in their millions was very much the ‘modern’ way of drinking – chiefly mass-produced, pasteurised beers, dispensed under pressure in a consistently homogenous style. You know: basic lager.

The ‘proper’ breweries were in a panic, smaller ones consolidated into large industrial behemoths, each one speeding up manufacturing processes – and slashing costs – to the detriment of quality and choice.

Uncomfortable with these developments, four drinkers decided to set up the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale (or ‘CAMRA’, for short), an organisation dedicated to promoting the quality and diversity of British beer, and supporting public houses as a focus for community life. Yes, beards may have been worn. (But we’ll come back to this later.)

A movement, however, was beginning. Two years later, CAMRA coined the term ‘Real Ale’ to promote unpasteurised beer that undergoes a secondary fermentation in its cask, and is served without any additional gas. Their name changed – now the ‘Campaign for Real Ale’ – but the acronym remained.

Apart from the more recent inclusion of bottle- conditioned beer within a wider definition of ‘real ale’, little has changed in the past 40 years – except that it’s become increasingly clear that history is on their side. CAMRA now has more than 140,000 members (men and women of all ages), and maintains its core values whilst championing a range of beer-related issues: the promotion of small breweries, reforming licensing laws, reducing tax on beer. (We’ll come back to this later too.)

And hurrah! In large degree thanks to CAMRA, the number of UK breweries has doubled.

Rewind some of the way back to 1986, and America had been enduring a similar fate – rampant brewery consolidation and beer homogenisation – ever since the end of the Second World War.

Lacking the brewing heritage of Western Europe, Americans who were sick of the situation turned to home brewing – kudos to their president, Jimmy Carter, who’d made it legal in 1978 – as the only way to experience the beer traditions and styles of other countries. In time, many home brewers set up small commercial outfits – soon to be known as ‘micro’ or ‘craft’ breweries.

This feature first appeared in Crumbs Bath and Bristol issue 2

What is clear, of course, is that these separate movements are true brothers in arms: CAMRA and the craft beer movement are intrinsically linked, having both been cast from the furnace of a faltering beer industry that had lost sight of what good beer should be all about.

Today, most real ale is produced by small brewers in tiny batch processes. Beer recipes are traditional, with an emphasis on quality over margin; they use large amounts of grain and hops, and minimal amounts of cheap additives like corn and sugar. Restrictive marketing and advertising budgets limit their distribution reach – but that’s kind of the way they like it. It stands to reason, therefore, that most (but not all) real ale brewers are craft brewers by definition – most British beer drinkers will, therefore, have been drinking craft beer for years.

However, there are differences. Craft beer, for one thing, is not so tethered by the restrictions of CAMRA’s real ale straight jacket. This means that, as a craft beer drinker, you are just as likely to enjoy a force-carbonated German wheat beer served icy cold as you are a revived 19th Century Imperial Russian stout in a room temperature pint glass. It’s all good, as they say in the US.

We could happily end our story here, Real Ale and Craft Beer drinkers holding hands, merrily skipping off into the sunset together. But alas, nothing is ever that simple. With labelling comes image – and with image comes prejudice, and that prejudice is causing great divides in the UK drinking culture – and at a time when we actually need solidarity against mundane mass produced alcohol and declining pub visitors too.

CAMRA, through their campaigns, awards and sponsorships have become synonymous with real ale. Unfortunately, their demographic is stereotyped as male, over 40 – and predominantly bearded. Whilst this can be unfair, it’s hard to deny that there is an older male voice that dominates at branch level and which tends to dictate local policy – something that can manifest as a stubborn refusal to engage with large swathes of the young and/or female beer drinking population.

The craft beer scene can feel equally clique. Brash marketing techniques, ultra-hopped high ABV beers and premium prices all add up to sense of style over substance – and undrinkably strong products, at least for ‘session’ use – to those more used to a quiet Sunday afternoon pint in the local. Given the similarity in definitions of craft beer and real ale, it seems odd that the perceived images are so wildly different, then – until you remember that one is fundamentally British and the other American.

Now, of course, is not the time for division in the ranks. Pubgoers are being driven back to their living rooms by George Osborne and his 30% tax on a pint. Real ale and craft beer drinkers would do better to put aside their differences, welcome the wider population on board, and unite in common cause.

But all is not lost. Many breweries realise that pigeonholing is doing nobody any favours. Why produce just one style of beer, when you can have cask, keg and bottle? Both low ABV and high ABV has its place. So do all the styles: dark, blonde, white, smoked, fruit and so on.

The West Country certainly has its fair share of new and innovative breweries. Bristol Beer Factory, Arbor Ales, Moor, Devilfish, Otley, Harbour Brewing, The Wild Beer Company and Tiny Rebel all blur the perceived barriers between craft beer and real ale by producing a range of delicious brews in all styles. Many breweries – Great Western Brewing Company at Hambrook is one – offer seasonal beers alongside old favourites: mellow hot weather specials like their Summer Nights, Christmassy things like Cock Robin, and everything in between.

And the new breed of beer bars embrace everything without prejudice too. London establishments often have more than 20 cask and kegs on, while Bristol has the Colston Yard in Colston Street, Beerd and Robin Hood (both St Michael’s Hill) and The Hop House (Clifton Village), each serving a huge range. With the BrewDog bar and the Bristol Tap opening soon, things are looking up – and we doubt Bath will remain behind for long.