Wednesday, August 23, 2006

FACE STUFFIN': Standard Real Ale Rant

I don't know. The last time I looked in the mirror, I didn't have a gut visible from space, I didn't wear sandals and I'd shaved within the last 30 years. I'd had a girlfriend recently. In other words, not a real ale drinker as recognised by most people. Yet I was going out, as I do most nights, to drink real ale. So was I a real ale drinker?

Readers with long memories might recall the White's lemonade TV ads of the mid-80s, with John 'Really Free' Otway as the 'Secret Lemonade Drinker'. Despite 35 years of CAMRA's best efforts, real ale - properly and traditionally brewed - still has an image problem, despite the fact that more and more people are drinking it. So why are we still so ashamed to admit it? Why do people still have it in for us as fat smelly gits who wear socks with sandals and/or are basically the kind of people the Arctic Monkeys had in mind when they wrote Mardy Bum?
CAMRA's Great British Beer Festival is now so big it's moved to Earl's Court. Whatever one's preference, it's a cruisable place. Willowy Sloanes, bit-of-rough provincials, civil service spinsters on a spree, six-packed City rugger buggers, you name it, they're all there, and all getting good stuff down their necks. And enjoying it. The second-most beautiful girl I ever chatted up, I met at the GBBF at Olympia.

The problem is that in London, as in all other cities, outlets for real ale are thin on the ground and so outside the festival, people usually have to drink the same old rubbish. Pack 'em in, rip 'em off, Stella-and-Fosters - that's the mantra. Taxed as they are, you can hardly blame landlords. And so the good intentions of Olympia are slowly dissipated. But punters have power unrecognised. In three fantastic real ale Newport pubs I drink in most locals come in and order pints of John Smiths or Strongbow at slightly more than the price of a pint of real ale or cider.

One wants to weep; in a country where a culinary and dietetic revolution is meant to be underway, and the fat-tongued fraud Jamie Oliver is lording it over our cuisine, men (usually always) still order the crappiest, most expensive, least-healthy, rip-off drinks in any given pub. Almost no intoxicated Englishman in Germany this summer will ever have got patriotically pissed on the best of his own country's produce. What's worse, if one really wants to get bladdered, one can do it in Britain for less on a decent cask bitter than on pints of Fosters. Look, lads, if you want to give your money away, give it to me. If not, real ale offers an alternative leglessness, and a more economical one to boot. In some places, the message is getting through. In Herefordshire, just across the border, sales of real ale in rural pubs are now up to 94% of all ale sold.

Fifty years ago, our parents and grandparents drank cask ales and ciders largely uncontaminated by bubbles and sugar, i.e. not rubbish like Carling and Scrumpy Jack. Then the Watneys Red Barrel syndrome of keg beer decimated British pubs and turned adult palates towards childhood habits of sweetness and fizz. We are becoming Americanised, too used to the sugary, tasteless garbage of Coors and Budweiser (and why has it ALWAYS got to be ice-cold? Why?). It's voiced abroad that young people can't take their alcohol, to which I would reply thst they can't take depth or complexity in their drinks and cannot enjoy them over anything more than five minutes. Visit a bar in Belgium, where a couple of young Goths will canoodle quietly for an hour over a very bitter De Koninck before a Cradle of Filth gig. Or just make out in the corner after midnight accompanied by a bottle of 11% trappist ale.
For about 1.56 a pint, by the way.

Closer to home, check out Earl's Court under the August sun, and watch how people - not just fat mardy-bums - learn to love pale ale, old ale, premium bitters - and no bits floating anywhere. Good, authentic beer made in your area from your area's produce. Or from wherever, whatever tastes best.

So what's to do? Go and wassail away with local breweries, that's what, you lazy sods. If there's going to be drunken violence in a town centre near you, let it be fuelled by quality beer, say I. If you are proud of your county, drink it!

Never mind the fat blokes or the saddos - it may have been CAMRA's slogan of 2003 but it will - should - be their eternal legacy. 'Ask if it's cask' is the surefire way to know that your half or your pint is the good stuff. A lifetime of high-class, inexpensive beery sophistication - the universes in a bottle that are yummy German Weissbiers and sharp K├Âlsches, refreshing Belgian fruit beers, oddball American steam beers and wonderfully bitter Czech lagers opens up to those who even dare be adventurous with beer; and it's cheaper than wine, too! Be a connoisseur or get slaughtered; or both; but start local, cos the adventure, like all the best adventures, begins on your doorstep.

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