50 Shades of Dray

It had clearly become too much for my long-suffering wife. In a delicate eruption of frustration one evening last week she pointedly accused me of watching only food programmes on TV. I can accept that some, small minded individuals cannot appreciate nor accept ‘Pointless’ as the true visual art form that it is.   Yet as always I had to reluctantly admit that there was more than a grain of truth in her accusation. In fact of late, the truth was not a grain but a large soon-to-be-double-decocted mash full, triggered in this case by a monster session of ‘Great British Food Revival’ which I had put on the Sky+ and inevitably, therefore, was watching en masse, putting enormous pressure on her weekly Soap schedule as I fought to catch up in any 5 minute gap that presented itself.

The basic premise of the programme is this; like our canal network in the ‘70s, some ‘great’ ‘British’ foods, are endangered, not through over hunting but through lack of use.  From brown shrimps to asparagus, cured ham to Cheddar (of the proper, West Country variety, natch), from Aylesbury Duck to real ale, unless we change our eating and shopping ways then these fine fares, which we all ‘enjoyed round the table of childhood’ apparently, will be gone forever.

Alas, some of the motifs of the series are weakened by stereotype and bombastic language: “Go on!”, you are urged in each programme, “Just think about the crap you are putting in your basket (Idiot! Charlatan!) and buy the proper stuff”.   It’s well meant; undoubtedly true to a large degree; and I have no qualms at all about raising the profile of some of these high quality products and the producers who fight to save them and make a living.  And yes, you did read that right, real ale was on the list.

Which was funny.  Because if there’s one Great British food (and I think on both measures this counts) that is saving itself then cask ale would be there.  Credit to CAMRA 40 years ago, and credit to the countless numbers of entrepreneurs, home brewers, retired professional brewers, and beer lovers from all walks of life who have had the balls to start a brewery.  But there’s the (*cough!* *cough!*) …rub.   The premise of the episode on real ale was mostly about the balls and not the beer.  That somehow, it was the industrialisation of beer production, and the replacement of the brewing art by employed men, not home-making ale wives or brewsters, that accounted for real ale’s decline. Not shit quality in pubs, total lack of focus by brewers big and small and the global change in tastes towards pale beers then?

hartnett

Angela Hartnett. On the left. Obviously.

And It wasn’t helped by Angela Hartnett.  Clearly, she’s well rated as a chef – whilst I have not dined at one her establishments myself, all this celebrity froth must be for something. But unfortunately she came across as just a touch patronising, actually looking down her nose at people, an apparent haughtiness aimed even at those that she was endeavouring to champion. Annoying really, as it was clear that she has a fair bit of beery knowledge and can use her platform to champion the case for beer.  And. She didn’t venture out of the south east; but that’s just the regional chip butty on my shoulder, so let’s say no more about it. But it’s chips ‘n’ gravy every time, if you’re asking, and  feel free to pop a bit of stout in the gravy for that whole ‘beer and food’ extravaganza if it makes you feel better.

Yet scratch all the criticism. At the end of the day, the angle she was driving down was interesting, borne out of yet more grains of truth; and unlike the previously impoverished attempts at beer programming on the BBC, was relatively balanced¹. Specifically, the role of women in relation to ale has weakened, and extending the ‘cult of the brewer’ to include female brewers is a must if we want ladies to sit up and take notice, not just men.  Getting women to suspend disbelief and try great beers, not just cask beers, is an industry wide action.  Getting the BBPA or other august bodies to promote the fact that ‘beer = lager, ale, lambic’ and not just ‘beer = bitter’ is a pretty basic cornerstone of knowledge that we haven’t yet established. Getting over irrational connections to the pint, and stretching out our arms to welcome in other measures is a must too, heretical though it may be to say it.  But most importantly, getting over the fact that beers ‘for women’ don’t have to be flavoured light beer (or worse) will be the first major victory.  At the end of the day, beer has always been more of a blokes’ drink.  And you know what, that’s OK.  Us men should stop wearing hair shirts of guilty penitence and flagellating ourselves outside the Rose & Crown.  Change nothing about beer today and there are still huge numbers of occasions when women would happily pick up a beer when they’re not now. There are plenty of beers today that hold appeal to both genders – from fresh, cask draught beer at the one end, to Mexican beers and Tequila beers at the other; from sweeter, mild beers to deep brown and alcoholic Italian ones – it’s the context around it; the machismo; the ‘half’ culture we need to break down.  And at the end of the day, I may drink a glass of rosé wine from time to time too without needing a ‘rosé for men’ initiative from the wine producers.

Yet scratch all the criticism. At the end of the day, the angle she was driving down was interesting, borne out of yet more grains of truth; and unlike the previously impoverished attempts at beer programming on the BBC, was relatively balanced¹. Specifically, the role of women in relation to ale has weakened, and extending the ‘cult of the brewer’ to include female brewers is a must if we want ladies to sit up and take notice, not just men.  Getting women to suspend disbelief and try great beers, not just cask beers, is an industry wide action.  Getting the BBPA or other august bodies to promote the fact that ‘beer = lager, ale, lambic’ and not just ‘beer = bitter’ is a pretty basic cornerstone of knowledge that we haven’t yet established. Getting over irrational connections to the pint, and stretching out our arms to welcome in other measures is a must too, heretical though it may be to say it.  But most importantly, getting over the fact that beers ‘for women’ don’t have to be flavoured light beer (or worse) will be the first major victory.  At the end of the day, beer has always been more of a blokes’ drink.  And you know what, that’s OK.  Us men should stop wearing hair shirts of guilty penitence and flagellating ourselves outside the Rose & Crown.  Change nothing about beer today and there are still huge numbers of occasions when women would happily pick up a beer when they’re not now. There are plenty of beers today that hold appeal to both genders – from fresh, cask draught beer at the one end, to Mexican beers and Tequila beers at the other; from sweeter, mild beers to deep brown and alcoholic Italian ones – it’s the context around it; the machismo; the ‘half’ culture we need to break down.  And at the end of the day, I may drink a glass of rosé wine from time to time too without needing a ‘rosé for men’ initiative from the wine producers.

None of that’s the point though.  The real point is this:  if we really want to ‘revive’ real ale, we can’t just focus on women.  The male ‘lager generation’, growing up with exciting lager as a reaction to the drink of their forebears, are now in their 30’s and 40’s and need to be enticed back to drink cask more regularly.  Young adults prioritise their mobile subscription above food and rent, but we need to bring them on side too – men and women.  Our ever-ageing population need to be encouraged to try too, especially if the memories of the ropey stuff from a generation ago hold any truth. If real ale is going to really revive, then it needs broad appeal, women and men, young and old, big brewers and small brewers, national retailers and independents getting behind it.  The Great British Food Revival might help, but it’ll need to broaden its focus to do so.

¹ Oz Clarke and James May anybody? They should sack the Director General for that.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, November 2012

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