Today I drove through Southcourt in Aylesbury: a large, 1930s-60s housing estate which was originally almost all council housing. Such estates used to be bastions of working-class ale drinking but the smoking ban and the credit crunch have finished off two of the three pubs and the closest pub in the direction of the two centre is also shut. A pub that tried valiantly to keep going in the face of cheap supermarket beer and home-based entertainment like videos and Sky TV was the Steeplechase, which did some decent real ale at times. It has been boarded up for a year now and is a sad sight.
However, on the bright side, a report partly supported by CAMRA and publicised on the BBC website reported that cask ale was the only type of beer now with growing sales and partly because twice as many women enjoyed drinking it in the past couple of years. There was also a very interesting report on the Radio Four Food Programme about hops and their use in real ale — which gave an opportunity for Roger Protz to yet again claim that beer is far more interesting than wine. The brewer at Brewdog commented on his Punk IPA, which the female presenter found very tasty. (I love this beer and its weaker sister — Trashy Blonde — Brewdog are so non-pc they even make an 18% beer.) The programme noted that the trend towards using more (and more assertive) hops started by US craft breweries and is now being adopted by ale brewers here. Such beers have to either have a high alcohol content to balance the bitterness or need to be drunk in much smaller quantities (such as thirds of pints) to be palatable.
The two themes above suggest that there’s a trend for both beer and pubs to lose their long-time association with the working man and instead to become the preserve of the middle-classes. A valid criticism of CAMRA is that while it has spectacularly succeeded in preserving real ale and increased the variety available, it has done so mainly for the benefit of a minority of beer snobs and tickers. Real ale is not the drink of the working man any more — that accolade was lost to lager a long time ago — the fact that real ale quality is dire in a large number of workaday, non-CAMRA-Good-Beer-Guide pubs might have a lot to do with this. However, it seems that these sort of workaday, average, unremarkable pubs are the ones that are suffering most at the moment and, as the cask report says, it’s the affluent real ale drinkers who are able to afford £3 a pint in the pub and don’t go for the £10 24 can Stella pack at Tesco as an alternative.
So perhaps the saviours of the English pub as we know it are the middle-classes, much as that might be an anathema to some of the more revolutionary founders of the real ale movement. The middle-class seem to have saved real ale and pubcos should perhaps target these high-spending, but demanding customers more. Another factor in the pub’s favour is brought to mind by having forty-something politicians paraded at the party conferences over the past couple of weeks: it seems the annoying, social-skills free nerds that inhabited student politics in the 80s are now making their bids to be the annoying, power-crazed nerds that run the country. But if that’s reflected in other walks of life there may be a silver lining in that the middle-class, especially Generation X who are entering middle-age, have very fond memories of the pub from their student days (mostly rose-tinted in terms of the amount they drank and time the spent there). Yet this almost sentimental attachment to the pub as a hub of student life might yet save the great British institution. The middle-classes might not be propping the bars up swilling ten pints of mild a night but they might be pretty solid campaigners to ensure that pubs are still there for people that do.
To illustrate the point there are a number of examples of local pubs being saved from closure by being bought by (presumably relatively wealthy) members of the local community and re-opened and run on a community basis. The Unicorn at Cublington and Crown at Sydenham, Oxon are good examples. I went tonight to a pub, the King William IV at Speen, that’s not owned by the community but run in a way that is designed to be community minded — to the extent of having a small room of a perfect sized for committee meetings. It also has an ice-cream parlour selling locally sourced ice-cream. A group of local charity volunteers were also enjoying the evening in the pub. These pubs aren’t, of course, exclusively full of middle-class people but they’ve benefited from the sort of activism that the middle-classes (and, dare I say it, CAMRA) have shown to be very successful.