Wednesday, 28 September 2016 14:26

Class, CAMRA, craft ale and the contexts of consumption

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Keith Flett continues his series with a question: is there a link between class and what you drink?

The upper classes are supposed to drink fine wines and champagne but these days both are available at prudent prices in supermarkets. Besides, as Nye Bevan famously proclaimed, nothing is too good for the workers. Yet when it comes to beer, there are often attempts made to link class and what is to be found in the pint or half pint glass. Beer, mild, bitter, and stout have been seen as the drink of the working man (but certainly not the working woman who may prefer gin according to stereotype).

Refinements on this, what nowadays the Campaign for Real Ale persists in calling ‘speciality beers’ - one, Bingham’s vanilla stout, was voted Champion Beer of Britain in August - are held to be for the middle classes. Beer and class and the link between the two is a constant refrain. The beer writers Boak and Bailey have uncovered a 1960s comment about the time when cask beer was removed from pubs in favour of keg beer. A docker had noted that nearly all of his fellow workers in the East End had immediately preferred the keg. More recently in the Morning Star this summer, a correspondent claimed that pubs were being taken over and ruined by men who wore their hair in buns. The implication here is that they were middle class individuals, no doubt sipping ‘craft’ beer.

Before tap water became safe to drink beer with meals ‘table beer’ was a common drink for all classes. Table beer is available today usually at around 3%. In Victorian times it would mostly have been a little stronger. The rise of heavy and manufacturing industrial production was what really underwrote the link between beer and the working class.

A glance through Raphael Samuel’s classic History Workshop article, Workshop of the World, makes the point. Samuel emphasises that the introduction of machinery into British industry was a lengthy process. Machines are expensive and labour power can be cheaper for an employer. But whether involved in heavy manual labour – mining for example – or industrial processes based on machinery such as steel, the amount of liquid lost by labour had to be replaced. The replacement was often quantities of beer. The link between beer and class therefore had a strong material basis to it, and hat has now mostly disappeared in the UK. In the former industrial heartland of South Wales for example, where there is no deep coal mining left and steel is just hanging on, some of the beers that were popular are in something of a decline. Brains Dark, a relatively low strength, but classic and award winning dark mild, is rather harder to find in bars than it was even 20 years ago.

This leads us to the, in some senses, modern issue of craft. On a train returning from the (craft) Leeds beer festival recently I noticed a group of young men drinking train beers which the can described as ‘crafted’. The beer was Fosters which is produced in a mega industrial brewery. It no doubt has very high quality control to ensure consistency and hence profits, but you might struggle to find a definition of ‘craft’ that covers a mechanised industrial process.

Indeed the beer writer Pete Brown has noted that the Oxford English Dictionary does in fact already have a definition of craft beer:
craft beer (also craft brew) noun (US) a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region. - OED 2003 Edition.

Brown points out that most of those who have a problem with craft beer are not really that interested in a dictionary definition. The idea of a craft beer is often focused on a small scale production of a specialist beer style. It might be a strong double IPA or a low-alcohol Berliner Weisse but it’s not something you are likely to come across in the beer aisle of Tesco.
Except of course confusingly it is. Tesco have long sold an own brand double IPA at 9.2% which is produced by Brewdog, who are generally held to be one of the leading craft brewers.
I prefer ownership as a better benchmark of craft beer. For example Camden Brewery, a well-known North London craft beer producer, was bought by the giant ABInBev last year. The beers are still decent enough and it may be that the accountants and bottom-line watchers of ABInBev don’t focus in too much detail on Camden’s brewing activities. But across industry that does tend to be what happens after takeovers, sooner or later.

To take another example: the UK distributor for the well regarded US craft brewer Brooklyn is Carlsberg. That may well just mean more efficient distribution, but it underlines the point that independent, smaller craft beer production, where the beer comes first, is under constant pressure from those for whom profit matters above all.

How does that fit into class? Craft beer tends to be drunk in third, half or two-third measures rather than pints and would typically in a pub be more expensive than cask beer. Breweries will often suggest that the more expensive price for craft beer more accurately reflects production costs and that the market squeezes margins on cask. All this, it might be said, tends to make craft beer – at least that served in keg – the drink of the middle classes.

Yet that is far from the reality. Many of the new wave of craft breweries have taprooms where they sell their beer direct to drinkers, on and off the premises. At my local Tottenham brewery, Beavertown, the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurised and sold under light gas pressure for £2.50 for two-thirds of a pint. Unsurprisingly, those attending are young and old, the well off and less well off. In short – a beer drinking democracy.
Read 297 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 November 2016 13:26
Keith Flett

Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.