Wednesday 29 September 2010

The Bad Beer Guide

I’ve just read an article in today’s Independent about beer. It’s called ‘A young person’s guide to real ale’ but it should, perhaps, have been titled: ‘More young people seem to be drinking real ale but I don’t know why.’ It’s actually made me quite angry.

The tone is all girly and lightfooted and it’s rife with unanswered clichés and questions; it’s a soundbyte of what we don’t want people to think about real ale: Harvey’s is described as ‘warm’; JHB ‘tastes a bit like drinking a flat lager’; Thornbridge Halcyon ‘tastes nothing like what I would expect an ale to be like’ but we don’t discover why this is or what she expects; to dig the knife in: ‘I had no idea there were so many types of ale and some are really delicious. I might consider ordering one on a wintry afternoon some time but as far as drinking it on a night out, I'm pretty sure people would find me a bit, well, strange’; and to finish the job: ‘who knows, with a little bit of work on its image and the right marketing, perhaps a refreshing glass of real ale could be the drink of choice for the stylish and hip.’

The Cask Report might have shown a good growth area for 18-24 year olds but something like this certainly isn’t going to help. You might as well hand them a picture book of different pints and write next to it: This one is called porter. It’s black. It tastes like burnt toast. It’s served warm. You probably wouldn’t like it so order a red wine.

Protz’s beginners guide is also completely unhelpful (I’m guessing, however, that it’s come from the Good Beer Guide and not quoted by him specifically for this piece, but I don’t know). This is what it says about bitter: ‘Copper or bronze-coloured, it's heavily hopped – hence the name – but the bitterness is balanced by biscuity malt and citrus fruitiness from hops and yeast. Best bitter is a stronger version.’ Is that going to make anyone order a pint of bitter?!

There is serious potential for growth in the younger market and that’s where the long-term future of ale drinking is, but this patronising piece isn’t the way forward and it’s not going to convince anyone to swap their lager for a bitter. The fact it purports to be a guide for young people is just embarrassing as it’s actually a guide from someone who doesn’t drink real ale and probably never will. You can’t blame the Indy for trying but the resulting piece is just a few steps backwards and none forward – the person who wrote it isn’t even convinced to turn to drinking beer, so why would any of the readers?

Anyway, I’m ranting... That article is not a guide for young people, it’s for people who don’t drink real ale and don’t plan to and that's a shame. Has this angered anyone else? Or do you think it’s a generally positive thing that the nationals are covering real ale, even if the message is blurred?


  1. Agree with every word. If I had time I'd have done something like that, but you've covered it brilliantly.

    I'm off for some beer now, but I probably won't like it.

  2. Not only do I think it's a positive piece, I don't think the message is blurred.

    You would have to be coming from an angle of believing that cask ale is fashionable, and what young people drink, and universally understood as Britain's National Drink and Beer As It Should Be to be upset by this article. But this isn't the case: as has been pointed out by others this week, cask ale is a minority interest -- it's not what most people in Britain think of when they think of beer and it does still, factually, have an image problem. I know that lots of laudable beer writers (including you) are working hard to change that, but it's still an unfortunate fact and you can't get angry at journalists for mentioning it.

    Orr's article, I think, was a very honest reflection of how a lot of people regard cask beer. She put in good soundbytes from the right people and I think it would be enough to encourage someone who otherwise wouldn't even look at the handpumps to maybe give it a go. While she mentions the stereotypes of Real Ale and Real Ale drinkers, I don't think she perpetuates them.

    If the author had experienced some kind Road-to-Damascus conversion to ale, producing something that reads like a CAMRA press release or Roger Protz philippic, it would have looked suspicious. As the man himself says, people suss these things out.

  3. As TBN says, the point is not to "convert" people to real ale in the Richard English sense, but to get them to try it. In the future, I would expect more and more of it to be drunk as part of a wider drinking repertoire, not by people who are "dedicated cask drinkers".

  4. Not only is it an unhelpful article it is also a terrible peice of journalism and makes me want to pour a pint of warm burnt toast over her head.

  5. I think the article isn't something to get angry about, it just highlights that actually that is what many people think.

    When I said I was going to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) this year, a friend replied 'Oh yeah, that ale event my Grandad gets sozzled at'.

    Orr picks up on marketing and it's true, real ale is marketed badly.


    The article (possibly) shows great ignorance in research. One visit to the White Horse? Copied text from Roger Protz?

    And don't get me started on beer classification: real ale versus lager? It's soooo much more than that.

  6. Nice rebuttal BN, but I can't agree. To most readers it'll come across as a knocking piece and certainly it doesn't live up to its title.

  7. Gillian Orr is clearly not the sharpest tool in the box but the article isn't that bad.

  8. I see what's she's doing with the article. Trying to get people to just have a go, but it ends up being patronising. Good to see ale is getting more popular though.

  9. The article means well I think but it's wishy washy and frankly a bit dull.
    To get people really sitting up and taking notice someone needs to do a national press piece on cask ales being edgy and cool. How about a collaborative effort between a few bloggers? After all, younger people generally take the lead from their peers.

  10. Beer Nut - I get what you are saying and it uses the right quotes from the right people but it's the overall message which bothers me. In a piece titled 'A young person's guide' it's trying to essentially 'sell' real ale to a young audience. I don't think it does this successfully because the writer isn't convinced herself and the whole thing just finishes patronising and flat, which is my main problem. This piece will not convince anyone else to try real ale because she isn't convinced by it. And while the stereotypes aren’t perpetuated they also aren't corrected or told in a different way. It doesn't need to be a shining light of change piece but a little hope at the end would've made all the difference, instead the semantic choices make it come across in a bad way, IMO.

    DJ - I don't think it's bad writing or journalism, it's just not good from a real ale fan's POV and that's where I'm coming from.

    RBF – Now that’s a good idea!

  11. "who knows, with a little bit of work on its image and the right marketing, perhaps a refreshing glass of real ale could be the drink of choice for the stylish and hip. "

    What Orr doesn't realise is that this is already the case. The media and marketing bubble is very insular and doesn't connect with the avant-garde, who are not even on their radar.

  12. I don't think the piece was aimed at the "stylish and hip", though - if it had been they would have gone down the edgy and confrontational route (BrewDog and Steel City rather than Harvey's and Rudgate). I'm not sure who it was aimed at, and I don't think the "young person's guide" should be taken at face value - apart from anything else, I'm not convinced that many "young people" are reading the Independent in the first place.

    I just thought the same thing I think when the national press discovers anything I've been into for years - they always get it wrong. It's a good rule of thumb, for any value of 'it' and most values of 'they'. When they write about folk music they have to say "beards and Aran jumpers", when they write about graphic novels they have to say "crudely-drawn superhero comics", and when they write about real ale they have to say "warm and flat". You've just got to think that the fact the article is appearing at all is a good thing, and they may say something positive once they've got the ritual put-down out of the way. The only part that irritated me - and it irritated me a lot - was the line where she says "I might have a half of mild on Boxing Day, maybe, if I think of it, but drink this stuff on a night out? are you kidding?" This, after she's said that she does drink lager, struck me as a real slap in the face.

  13. Mark: the title is indeed unfortunate, I doubt the writer chose it. If I had a penny for every inappropriate heading applied by a sub-editor to something I wrote, I would have approximately 4p.

    Barm: That's true, but it's not a good thing. What she means, and what is really required, is for cask ale to reach the mainstream drinkers who aspire to be stylish and hip, or think they already are.

  14. I dunno, to me it speaks to the heart of ale's perception amongst drinkers, and the need to undo the 'old man' image, so from that point of view, not a problem. Especially since Orr would be in the demographic I assume the Cask Report addresses as a target market for growth.

    I don't expect the quality meejah to do anything but patronise ale and beer generally. They suggest aspirational lifestyle by promoting wines, thus they trot out these hackneyed stereotypes about beer and lager in case their target audience don't recognise them - go to your local 'ghetto pub' and watch who's drinking what. Lager is a generational drink these days, just like ale - the geezers who started drinking it in the 60s and 70s have stayed on it, and passed it on to their offspring. Why do you think those pubs don't/won't sell ale? Not everybody experiences a Damascene conversion in their drink of choice.

    I like Glyn's idea. But I'd like it more if all the babble of conflicting voices (CAMRA, SIBA, BBPA, BII) could sort their shit out and come up with a way to promote good beer for the benefit of the whole industry. They don't seem to be interested in leveraging synergy to create win-win scenarios... ;-)

  15. Is there some sort of law that says anyone writing about cask beer has to do so in a cheery beery manner and from the perspective of promoting it?

    Thank's for the link to the article. I enjoyed it. I thought it well written, articulate and from the authors own "normal" perspective.

    I also liked Protzy's input that suggested cask wasn't in decline because in pubs it is cheaper. Is he unaware modern marketing has abolished supply and demand economics?

    I broadly agree with BN.

  16. Cookie

    Poor old Protzy. No one told him that the laws of supply and demand went out with the Noughties. Good job really; as it could be embarrassing for some in the beer world to be reminded of the most fundamnetal rule of economics by an old Marxist.

  17. How many 18-24 year old 1)read or 2) cares what the independent prints?

  18. As a child of the sixties I was forced to drink rubbish beer such as Red Barrel, Starbright etc. Although people are entilted to their own opinions I think that it is time that real ale was marketed and promoted in a more sophisticated and positve manner. Weatherspoons seem to do this and are quite successful from their own commerical point of view.

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  20. Sorry, but for me its simply lazy journalism. It's as if her Editor threw a copy of the Cask Report on her desk and said "I want 1700 words on real ale from the young person's perspective".*

    Her shallow research has failed to lead her to the fact that there are a significant number of stylish and hip young people of either gender who have been drinking the same stuff her father used to, without any need for beards, walking or combining socks/sandals.

    At least May/Clarke went and talked to the BrewDog Two: had Gillian Orr spent a day with James Watt and Martin Dickie I would have expected her article to have turned out a hell of a lot different than the published version.

    *Yes, I am fully aware that newsrooms don't function like that anymore...

  21. Hi,

    I have a message for the webmaster/admin here at

    Can I use part of the information from your blog post right above if I provide a link back to this site?


  22. John - as long as the integrity is kept in tact and it's used in context then you may. Where is it for and can you send me the link once it's posted. Thanks.