Monday, April 28, 2003

Real Ale and me

Glenn Reynolds is making some kind of pro-British pro-Australian political statement in favour of by drinking Newcastle Brown Ale and Fosters Lager. That's fine by me. Neither beer would be my first choice, although both are certainly quite drinkable. (I suspect trying to find Coopers Pale Ale in America is hopeless, however).

I grew up in Australia. In Australia, we like beer. Australian beer is mostly lager, is mostly mass produced by a small number of large companies, and this has been the case for at least a century. As well as light coloured lager, there are also darker beers: a little bitterer in taste, but highly carbonated and also drunk cold. (Not unlike Newcastle Brown ale, actually, but browner). In Sydney, the light beers were traditionally called "new" and the dark beers "old".

Traditionally, an Australian's choice of brewer was made on regional and sectarian grounds. That's right. Sectarian grounds. Until about 1950, Australia was a very sectarian place. People were either Protestant (ie English or Scottish) or Catholic (ie Irish). Our schools were essentially segregated. Catholics were excluded from the Melbourne Club that used to run Australia's private sector, and were discriminated against for the best private sector jobs. (The federal government is constitutionally required to treat people of all religions equally. One consequence of this is that able Catholic people tended to get jobs in the federal government, and the national capital of Canberra remains the most Catholic place in the country to this day as a consequence). And, at least in Sydney, our beer was also segregated. There were two big brewers. Tooheys was owned by Protestants, and Tooths (which also owned the Reschs brand after a 19th century merger) was owned by Catholic interests. And people drank the beer of their own community.

In other states, there tended to be only one big brewing company: Castlemaine (brewers of XXXX) in Queensland, Carlton and United Breweries (CUB, brewers of Foster's, Victoria Bitter, and Melbourne Bitter) in Victoria, and Swan in Western Australia, and West End in South Australia. (For some reason, an independent brewery named Coopers, which to this day makes some of Australia's best beers, never got swallowed up by a larger company). Fiercely parochial, Australians did not drink beer that came from a different state.

However, something known as the "Beer Wars" took place as part of the general corporate excesses of the 1980s. Loosely, all the brewers were consolidated into two groups. CUB bought a one or two smaller brewers (plus Tooth/Reschs in Sydney) and started selling its Victorian brands nationally, and internationally. (They attempted selling Fosters to Australia and indeed much of the world. Australians, just to be spiteful (although they generally claim it is because the beer is too sweet) took to drinking VB instead. (Although the old Tooths and Rechs brands are still produced in small quantities for traditionalists, the focus is now on CUBs national brands). After a series of amusing incidents in which 80s entrepreneur and America's Cup victor Alan Bond ended up both bankrupt and incarcerated, Castlemaine, Swan, West End, and Tooheys all ended up belonging to Lion Nathan of New Zealand. Lion Nathan's beer brands still remain highly regional. Queensladers still generally drink Castlemaine and South Australians West End. (Perhaps Scott will tell me why it is South Australians drink beer from such small glasses).

So that was what I knew about beer in 1991, when I first came to England. Amongst Australians, English beer has a reputation for not being very good. Go into most English pubs, and you will find most people drinking lager (although from pint glasses - Australians drink their beer from smaller glasses, although the actual size varies from state to state). When you actually buy a pint of this lager, it is generally weak and tasteless: not good beer at all. Check up on its alcohol content and it is around 3-3.5% alcohol, which explains why it is weak and tasteless. Oddly enough, these lagers all seem to have the names of foreign beers, even though they are brewed "under licence" in the UK. Heineken is common. Foster's is also common. Carsberg - Danish in theory - is common. In their original Dutch, Australian, and Danish forms, these beers are all at least competently made lagers. However, the low alcohol English versions are not.

However, as I said, when I first came to England these are what people generally drank. You could also buy Guinness, and something called "Bitter", of which John Smiths was an example. Not bad, but not really my taste. And there were also these funny hand pumps that you saw in some (but not all) pubs, from which rather frothy but not very bubbly looking liquids of various colours were being poured for some slightly scruffy looking customers.

I am normally a deeply curious individual, but from some reason I didn't investigate what was being poured using these hand pumps. I spent the next few years improving my ability to appreciate fine wine and single malt whisky. These were splended pursuits from which I got much pleasure, but still, when I drank beer I continued to simply drink not very good lager. As the years went on, the English people themselves seemed less enamoured with this terrible lager. Two common brands of lager for which the original versions hailed from La Francophonie: Kronenburg 1664 and Stella Artois, became steadily more common. These were more expensive than most other lagers, but were made to the same recipe and level of alcoholic content as the original French and Belgian versions. Stella even very successfully promoted itself using the slogan "reassuringly expensive". This was interesting, but it didn't really address the question of why the English had been drinking such dreadful lager in the first place.

In any event, at that point I returned to Australia for four years, leaving the question unanswered. A year ago, when I returned to the UK, I wouldn't say I was determined to get to the bottom of it, but I was at least interested. I had known vaguely for a few years that there was something called the Campaign for Real Ale in the UK, but I had know idea what it referred to - not even that it was connected to the funny hand pumps. With some good advice from the owner of a Southampton boutique beer shop who I met in a bar in Belgium, I started experimenting with real ales, which are of course the frothy liquids without many bubbles that come from the handpumps. They are quite inexpensive, and there are lots of different ones as they generally come from small breweries. They take a little getting used to, as they are less carbonated than keg beer, but once you have got used to them, you discover something that the English seemingly go to great trouble to conceal, which is the English actually make extremely good beer. Real ales come in a variety of different flavours and styles, and the best are absolutely lovely. (Some can be quite strong, too. Whereas a lot of lager drank in England is maybe 3.5% alcohol, real ales normally fall in the 4.5-5.0% range, and some of them are rather stronger than that).

The question is, just why is it that most beer consumed in this country is as awful as it is. Given the English do make high quality beer, why do so few of them drink it. The answer is not unrelated to something I wrote earlier in this post, although not the thing that most people expect. And that is this. "In Sydney, the light beers were traditionally called "new" and the dark beers "old". The reason for this is simple. In the 18th and 19th century, most English beer was what is now called "real ale". In this type of beer, after primary fermentation, the beer is poured into a cask. The yeast is kept in the beer, and the beer undergoes secondary fermentation over a period of time in the cask. This process also causes the beer to carbonate itself. This process was never suited to Australian conditions, because the hot climate meant that the beer would generally spoil when it was supposed to be undergoing its secondary fermentation in the cask. Therefore, when the "new" process of producing lager was invented, Australians took to it very quickly. In this case, the beer is fully fermented, then filtered to remove the yeast, then carbonated and stored in a tightly sealed keg, ready for immediate drinking. This is also suited to large scale, industrial brewing, which came into being in Australia earlier than in most other places. (Australias "old" beers also adopted much of this process to attempt to produce something as close to the old ale as possible, but didn't really succeed, instead creating something different). Thus Australians drank lager.

And what happened in England?. Well, eventually, in the last few decades of the 20th century, the British brewing industry also consolidated. Brewing lager was more suited to a large scale industrial process, and the resulting beers were longer lasting. (Cask beers need to be looked after or they will go bad). Essentially these are the same issues that led to the switch to lager in Australia, except that in Australian the climate made them much worse). Lagers were introduced and promoted heavily. The tax system taxes by alcoholic content, and therefore there was a financial incentive to make weak lager. The brewers owned lots of pubs, so lagers became the main thing available in many pubs. For some inexplicable reason the public went along with this, when revolution would have been more appropriate. (The fact that the lagers sold were "foreign" may have helped. Real Ale is a very British thing, and selling lager as the sort of thing that trendy people overseas drink, and not the thing that your old fogey parents drink, may have helped. It may also simply have been that real ale doesn't taste very good if it is not properly looked after, and it may be that many pubs didn't look after it. It goes bad easily. At least for a boring lager, the beer is of consistent quality).

In the form of the story told by the Campaign for Real Ale, the product was in terminal decline, until their brave organisation came along and campaigned to save good beer in this country. Eventually, they increased awareness and there has been a renaissance in good small English breweries. There is undoubtedly a fair bit of truth in this. The number of small breweries has increased. CAMRA is a fine organisation. However, there has certainly been a trend towards small breweries making high quality beer in other countries as well. They exist in Australia, and in America. The trend back to good beer in England is probably also another example of this. People are less interested in large mass produced products than they were a couple of decades back. There has been a move to quality specialist foods. The rise of microbreweries everywhere is part of this. People are richer, more willing to pay for quality, and more aware of quality. (Interestingly enough, this is coming through in the market for lager, too. Heineken, having long produced a weak, inferior product for the British market, have recently stopped doing this and their British product is now higher strength and produced to the same recipe as the much better product they sell in the Netherlands and just about everywhere else).

All that said, real ale drinkers are still not predominately younger people. Not all British pubs sell real ale. The trendier a bar is, the less likely it seems to be that it will serve anything but keg beers and bottled beers. (This would be okay, if they were interesting bottled bears from Belgium, but they are always Corona, Budweiser, and that kind of crap). Some pubs that do sell it don't look after it properly, and a bad glass can put you off it. (the J.D. Wetherspoon chain of pubs serve a wide selection of excellent ales, and go to great care to make sure that they are fresh. However, they don't have televisions in their pubs. When watching Arsenal v Manchester United last week, I thus went to a non-regular pub. They only had one real ale, and it was served the wrong temperature and wasn't fresh). On the good side, the increased interest in real ales has led many small breweries to also sell bottled versions of their beers. Sainsbury's, which has easily the best alcoholics drinks buyers of any of the major supermarket chains, has been stocking quite a few of them. So things are not that bad.Thereis progress still to be made. However, belatedly discovering fine English beer is something I have enjoyed doing.

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