On a recent Saturday shopping trip, I encountered what seems to be a growing phenomenon in the UK: a newly refurbished pub advertising craft beer and cask ale respectively. As someone who recently questioned if it was time to stop using the term “real ale”, this trend fascinates me greatly.
In my article, I brought the Transatlantic Brews perspective to the whole “Cask vs Keg”, or “Real Ale vs Craft Beer” debate that continues to plague the British beer scene. Judging by the comments and reaction received, I remain convinced of the growing gap between drinkers on the traditional “real ale” (cask conditioned beer) side, and those in the modern craft beer camp. There are, of course, plenty of people who enjoy both, myself and most other beer writers included. The point is, many folks are treating real ale as distinct from craft beer – the divide is real.
As the sign suggests to the consumer, craft beers are supposedly different from cask beer; this advocates that if it’s in a cask, it’s not “craft” – which is, of course, ridiculous. You might also notice Tuesday’s “craft down” special, when all craft pints are reduced to £3.50. Having been inside the pub, I can confirm the keg offerings are usually priced at £4.50, while the cask beer is a more pocket-friendly £2.95, which confirms the categorisation of keg = craft.
This whole idea of a craft beer defined by dispense method only serves to confuse the average punter, who at the end of the day couldn’t care less about the technicality of how beer is brewed or dispensed – they only care about what tastes good. A tweet response to my latter article shares a similar sentiment.
— broadfordbrewer (@broadfordbrewer) January 12, 2016
Unlike America (or most other new beer cultures for that matter), where there is only one term to describe good quality beer, we in the UK have two.
If we cannot somehow unite the two camps, I can foresee a situation where three kinds of pub develop:
- Traditional, historic British pubs serving real ale (cask beer) – whatever you want to call it.
- Craft beer bars selling a mixture of keg and cask (some would only sell keg, but in the vast majority of cases you’ll see them embrace both.)
- Chain pubs jumping on the craft band-waggon confused by the whole thing, but with a general sense that “craft is cool, right?.”
There are always exceptions, of course, but I can’t help but think most traditional pubs will never fully embrace craft beer. Given how much they’ve struggled in recent times, I believe this is a real mistake.
Pubs in the UK are closing at an alarming rate (29 a week according to recent figures), and craft beer presents an opportunity to reverse this trend.
In the vast majority of cases, though, this simply isn’t happening. Real ale is synonymous with traditional British pubs, and it’s here that CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) and their members focus most of their efforts.
Beer writer, Pete Brown, described some years ago about how CAMRA continue to shoot themselves in the foot by failing to evolve – thus alienating themselves from everyday consumers. Among other things, he highlights how CAMRA seem to understand the barriers to entry for real ale, but instead focus their time in other, more pernickety areas.
“Keg versus cask, cask breathers etc are of deep, passionate interest to the most committed, active, vocal CAMRA members. They’re of no interest whatsoever to the average beer drinker – the potential real ale drinker.” – Pete Brown
Arguably, if traditional pubs want to attract clientele beyond the confines of your passionate – but in the minority – real ale drinker, a more diverse range of products (including good quality keg beers) would only serve to increase their appeal. Instead, we have confused chain pubs (like the one pictured earlier) that further exacerbate the divide.
I can further demonstrate how this divide between real ale and craft beer is spilling out into our pubs by raising a term that really grates for some (including myself): “Old Man Pubs.”
It’s a term you often hear from younger clientele, and it’s one that I encountered a lot when I was first getting into beer.
Like it or not, it would appear that even some traditional British pubs also have an image problem – similar to that of real ale (funny that, given how synonymous real ale is with the great British pub).
You see, when a young person refers to an “old man pub”, they are basically just describing a proper pub; a historic and genuine pub without the plastic facade of a modern chain or bar. Here’s the term in action on Twitter:
kinda wanna dress up fancy tonight and do it all properly, kinda wanna sit in an old man pub and not speak
— rosalyn (@RozzyJames) December 31, 2015
@ViciousValkyrie I’ve done it once, but we ended up going to an old man’s pub half way through.
— Juliet (@eversojuliet) December 30, 2015
I really want to hang out in a traditional old man pub and try and woo them all with that “you’re so good at darts” song from the BBC advert
— Cath Hurley (@CATHFACTORY) December 29, 2015
I’m pretty much just nursing my way through Birmingham. Last night included the crusty old man’s pub.
— Rav Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) December 29, 2015
My family have dragged me in to a rundown, Shameless-esque old man’s pub in Renfrew. Everyone is above fifty and probably called John.
— Rhys Harper (@RhysRHarper) December 26, 2015
I somehow find myself in a comically ridiculous old man’s pub in Crail, Fife. It has a certain macabre/affectionate surrealness.
— CynInSussex (@Cynderness) December 22, 2015
At The Rock in Hyndland and feeling about 90. Old man’s pub. Bathroom makes me feel like I’m infectious. That said. Let’s get wasted.
— Grant Byrne (@GGByrne) December 19, 2015
I love this image, this is totally how I spend Christmas in Norfolk, dolled up in an old man pub! https://t.co/2kG0KYdfpn
— Cass Gowing (@CassGowing) December 15, 2015
Since when was a traditional, historic pub only for old men? The concept really annoys me, and it only serves to demonstrate how dismissive of our own history and culture we’ve become in the UK.
I do, however, completely understand where this phrase comes from. I’ve written before about the fine line between charming and shabby in many of our pubs, and how far too many traditional British boozers are in a terrible state from years of under-investment.
A good traditional pub should always appeal to a broad range of clientele, from young to old – women and men. If ever there was an opportunity for traditional pubs to shake off the old man stereotype, it’s now. The term craft beer is cool; the term real ale, is not. By encouraging great beer in our traditional pubs, regardless of dispense method, we have the opportunity to use the trend for craft beer popularised by America and breed new life into our many ailing pubs. If instead, we fail to capitalize on this trend, crappy chain pubs like the one in my picture will happily take their money instead.
Finally, it’s important to mention that some venues do combine both very well, but in my experience, they are more bar-like in style than traditional pub. Take the Craft Beer Co. in London, for instance, who stock a broad range of cask and keg beers – happily celebrating all good beer, regardless of dispense.
I’m sure there must be examples of more clued-up pubs replicating the Craft Beer Co.’s model in a great traditional setting. But in this writer’s experience, it would appear the vast majority are quarantining themselves, and hoping this craft beer plague will pass soon enough – and you know what, I really don’t think it will. At stake is historical pub culture; it’s great to have tradition, but you must adapt to survive.