Once a year at the Old Spot pub in Dursley, Gloucestershire, barman Steve Herbert hosts a beer tasting for graduating students at the village school. He calls it finishing school for sixth formers. “The point is to get them off the fizzy, sweet stuff before they head off to university,” he explains, “so they don’t end up rushing into pubs, drinking shots and throwing up all over themselves.”
Welcome to Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale—a growing movement to preserve the traditional drinking habits of a culture whose relationship with alcohol is as historied as it is confounding. For years, Britain has seen the decline of local pubs. At present, 39 traditional boozers close each week. At the same time, binge drinking—and its attendant hooliganism—is on the rise. According to the most recent study conducted by Britain’s Office for National Statistics, more than a third of adults drink over the safe alcohol limit at least once a week.
What’s the solution to this cultural conundrum? According to a growing number of Britons, the answer may be fermenting at the bottom of a traditional cask of local ale.
Ales, commonly known as “bitter” in England, are the old-fashioned bitter beers best known for being served at room temperature to toothless men in rural pubs. They are brewed in the traditional way, using warm fermentation, which, with the addition of hops, produces a strong, herbal flavour to offset the sweetness of malted barley. Lagers, on the other hand, are brewed using modern refrigeration to produce a milder and arguably less complex flavour.
For decades, ales have lived in the shadow of their modern counterpart. But now, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, traditional ale’s market share nudged up 0.2 percentage points from the year before to claim 20.6 per cent of the overall market, while lager slipped by 1.2 points to 74.3 per cent overall. In a country where lager still predominates, the boost is the first gain for ale makers in generations. It also comes at a time when retailers are reporting increases in demand for ales. Tesco, the nation’s biggest off-licence retailer, has increased its selection of ales from 20 to 350 since 2005.
But will this slow resurgence of yeasty hops and malt be enough to save a traditional drinking culture in decline? Jonathan Mail, the head of policy and public affairs for the consumer advocacy group Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), hopes so. In his view, traditional pubs and ales are intrinsically linked in British culture: “You can’t campaign for one without campaigning for the other.”
This is because the people who are abandoning pubs for cheaper, more processed forms of alcoholic entertainment tend to be lager drinkers rather than imbibers of handmade, local cask-fermented traditional ales. Real ale (or “craft beer,” as it’s known among draft snobs) cannot be mass-marketed to trendy nightclubs or widely distributed in supermarkets, which makes it an excellent draw for the neighbourhood watering hole.
In the past several months, the campaign to save traditional ales and pubs has heated up across Britain. CAMRA currently boasts a membership of over 120,000, and late last year Britons watched a five-part reality series Save Our Boozer, which featured a handsome Yorkshire barman helping rural communities to restore and run their flagging locales. London journalist Kate Burt, meanwhile, has started a blog to save local pubs (www.savetheboozer.blogspot.com). She describes her mission in cultural terms: old boozers, she said in an interview, are Britain’s “only remaining hope of engendering good old-fashioned community spirit that spans cultures, age, gender, persuasion, and class.”
Last year, the then-minister of public health condemned alcohol consumption as one of the country’s “most challenging public health issues,” and the British Medical Association called for an official ban on all alcohol advertising. Drinkaware, an organization funded by alcohol producers and retailers like Tesco and Waitrose, also launched a $160-million drive to highlight the dangers of alcohol misuse. But the government crackdown—largely in the form of stiff tax levies—may have inadvertently contributed to the nation’s drinking problem. By sharply increasing the duty on beer—now roughly 80 cents per pint—the government has ensured the downfall of many small pubs. Local watering holes like the Old Spot can no longer compete with nightclubs or grocery chains, many of whom carry cheap beer and wine as a loss leader.
The result? Fewer kids having a quiet pint of ale with gran at the local on a Saturday night, and more Jägerbomb-related stabbings on the high street.
That’s why Steve Herbert believes that the resurgence of traditional craft ale, which can only be sold from casks behind the bar, may be the answer for pubs—and Britain. “A fresh, local product promotes thoughtful drinking,” he says. “We’re trying to send the message that pubs are about having drink and a chat, not a place to get completely slaughtered.”