Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 1998
* Broad or Narrow Minded? *
Following what seems to be a growing trend, a pub near me has recently stopped selling real ale. It's a fairly ordinary pub, and the beer was only a national brand, so it's easy to understand why some people should think it isn't much of a loss. The idea that a lot of pubs are naturally "keg" is a tempting one, but it's a negative and defeatist view.
There will always be some outlets where real ale isn't viable, either because they appeal exclusively to very young drinkers, or because they don't have the required cellar facilities. But there's no reason why the majority of pubs can't keep and sell real ale if they go about it the right way. It's quite simple, really - keep it in good condition, always offer it if the customer doesn't express a preference, and don't crowd the bar with a forest of competing keg beers. The decline in the number of pubs selling real ale has little to do with falling demand. It's a question of interest and commitment - some licensees and pub operators have it, a growing number, regrettably, don't.
One of the most patronising and offensive expressions of this idea is that keg beer is quite good enough for people in working-class areas, who wouldn't appreciate real ale anyway. This is a view clearly held by pub operators in Wythenshawe, where a recent survey showed the vast majority of the pubs to be keg-only. Yet the success of Holt's pubs in particular clearly gives the lie to this, and there are plenty of examples across Greater Manchester of pubs - generally belonging to the independent brewers - where real ale sells in large volumes to an appreciative clientele, in locations where the national chains would have written it off long ago.
The view has been expressed in these pages that pubs selling only national real ale brands such as Tetley's or Theakston's, or even the standard products of the regional brewers, aren't really worth bothering with. CAMRA should concentrate its efforts on promoting the beers produced by micro-breweries and the multi-beer free houses that sell them. This is understandable as an approach to be followed by individuals, but as a general policy it becomes elitist and ultimately self-defeating. Most people who develop a taste for real ale start drinking it because it happens to be available in a pub they go in. Once they have grown to like it, they may well start making the effort to seek out different varieties, and go to pubs where it is a specialism. But if you've never tried it in the first place, you're not going to go out of your way to find it.
If decent beer ends up being confined to a small network of specialist outlets, in a few years' time it won't be in most of those either, as they will be denied the lifeblood of new recruits. If real ale is to survive in the long term, it must retain a strong presence in the general run of pubs. CAMRA should be campaigning for real ale to be available everywhere it can be sold in sufficient volumes to ensure quality. That isn't every single pub, but it's far more than just a handful of niche outlets, it's three quarters or more of all the pubs in the country.
The USA now has more breweries than any other country on earth. Yet if you go into a bar at random, you're very unlikely to find anything worth drinking, and half the entire beer market is accounted for by Budweiser, the blandest beer known to man. If we're happy just to contemplate our navels, that is how the UK will be thirty years from now. If we're lucky...