Real ale - business, markets, lifestyle lessons
real ale - for life-balance, healthy mind and body, and lessons about business development, markets, culture and quality
What has real ale to do with quality of life, business, organizations, and market theory? Lots actually. The story of real ale, its survival and growing popularity, despite decades of unrelenting pressure from some of the most powerful multi-national corporations and brands in the world, provides a few simple, fascinating lessons and examples in the workings of lifestyle trends, products and markets, and a pointer to the huge value of a fundamentally good concept. This item contains a special article written by journalist and writer Charles Foster, the contribution of which is gratefully acknowledged.
What also needs acknowledging is that real ale is an alcoholic drink, and drinking too much alcohol is not good for you. A little of what you fancy is however generally quite good for you, indeed most modern medical research tends to bear out the theory that a couple of drinks a day are, for most folk, healthier than no alcohol at all. This is partly due to the vitamins, minerals, and alcohol itself contained in the drink, and also due to the beneficial effect on one's well-being from doing something that makes you happy. Doing something you enjoy makes you happy. Being happy is good for your health.
The story of real ale provides some great lessons in how markets work, particularly from the perspective of fundamental product design, development, distribution, culture, and customer influence. In any market there are usually powerful factors affecting the overall system - the 'macro-environment' - which can be overlooked by business-people. The real ale story demonstrates the significance of these irresistible underlying market forces.
Like the makers of typewriters who failed to recognise the development of the computer age, and who continued to focus efforts on developing typewriters, when the technology was on an inevitable road to obsolescence. Or the modern-day makers of motor cars, and the dependent oil companies, who completely fail to see that in the not too distant future we will be using radically different methods of transportation and different fuel sources.
Real ale, according to conventional business theory, should no longer exist. The fact that it does, and that it continues to thrive and grow as an industry, is proof of the power of fundamental lifestyle and market influences, and the value of intrinsic quality.
And on an additional practical point of note - the real ale revolution has given rise to a huge number of new interesting venues for conferences and meetings - at the breweries themselves. A list of some of these lovely breweries and their location appears later.
'Real ale', also called 'cask-conditioned' ale or beer, is brewed from traditional natural ingredients, essentially hops, yeast, water and 'malted' barley (barley that has been soaked in water and allowed to germinate, releasing its sugars, and then heated both to stop the germination, and also depending on extent of heating, to affect flavour, colour and 'body' of the beer). Other additional ingredients can be used for different beer types and flavours, and to aid the brewing process. Yeast, hops and the type of water also significantly affect the flavour and nature of the beer, as does brewing time, temperature, and vessels and equipment used.
The infinite connotations of these wide-ranging variables give rise to an infinite variety of ales, which is a central aspect of real ale's appeal.
Market lesson number one: choice and variety are market strengths. Small businesses can all too easily overlook their greatest strengths because they try to compete with the majors, when it is easier to take the battle to an area where the majors cannot compete. These areas tend to feature choice and variety - no major corporation can compete well with a small local provider in these areas.
Real ale is a natural product. The primary fermentation which occurs in the brewery, is followed by a secondary fermentation when the beer is transferred to the cask or barrel. Served too soon it's not ready or right; served too late it's past its best.
The gas in real ale is naturally occurring carbon-dioxide (CO2), which is a bi-product from the fermentation process, specifically the action of the live yeast on the sugar during the fermentation. Yeast is a type of fungus found in many forms. The other bi-product from the reaction between the yeast and the sugar is of course alcohol.
The process is similar to the production of cider using apples, and wine using grapes. In all cases, yeast reacts with an effectively 'eats' the sugars, producing alcohol and CO2, which creates the fizz.
(This helps to explain the stories of cows eating rotten apples and becoming drunk. It's not a myth. Yeast occurs naturally on apple skins. The apples fall from the trees and begin to rot, enabling the yeast to react with the sugars, creating alcohol. The cows eat the rotten apples and get drunk.)
The real ale leaves the brewery in barrels (anything between about nine gallons and 36 gallons). When the barrels arrive at the pub they are mounted sideways onto a stillion (normally in a cellar) or behind the bar counter to settle (clear). The cellarman bashes in a brass tap to the plugged hole at the lower front edge of the sideways tilted barrel, and a wooden 'spile' (like a stubby peg) into the plugged vent hole at the top centre-side of the barrel, to allow the beer to breathe (ie., for the naturally still-occurring CO2 to escape). The beer is left to complete its secondary fermentation, and to 'clear', which normally takes three or four days. Strangely, thunderstorms and humid weather can delay the clearing process, and some cellarmen will occasionally resort to traditional methods to remedy this situation (for example egg-whites, which act as 'finings', or even a touch of lemonade..).
When the beer is clear and to the right quality (typically the cellarman or landlord decides) the real ale is ready to be served. Real ale is served from a cellar by a hand-pump (or beer-engine) at the bar counter, which at some stage prior to serving is connected via a pipe to the barrel tap. Alternatively and better still, the real ale is served by gravity alone, direct from the barrel behind the bar counter, straight into the glass.
I say better direct from the barrel because it removes the risk of a poorly trained staff member being too aggressive with the hand-pump, which can cause too much froth in the glass, which changes the proper balance of the beer. Gently does it.
Even at the point of drinking from the glass, real ale is still a 'live' product. Wonderful. And good for the soul.
Market lesson number two: intrinsic honest quality is a market strength - 'concept integrity' in other words. Real ale as a product concept has high integrity. Integrity of course is not easy to measure, but right-minded people recognise it when they see it. Trust your instincts and beliefs: recognise and champion high integrity people, ideas and activities.
Contrast the wonderfully dynamic, variable and natural process of making and serving real ale with the production and provision of keg beer, or 'brewery conditioned' beer, in which category all modern mass-produced lager falls, as well as most mass-produced bitters (called 'bright' bitters), stouts, and 'smooths', (also called 'nitrokeg' beers, because the smoothness is achieved by using nitrogen in the brewing and dispensing process).
Brewery conditioned beers of all sorts, whether supplied from a keg (metal cask) via a counter-top pump in a pub or bar, bottles, or metal cans, are designed and produced to be fit to drink when they leave the brewery; to be of a consistently precise quality; and to have a long shelf-life - often many months. Brewery conditioned beers were arguably developed mainly for mass-market profitability and convenience, for the big brewery corporations, the catering and pub-trades, and the supermarkets. The development of brewery conditioned beers has been driven since the 1960's by mass-production techniques, massive economies of scale, and big-budget brand advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Brewery conditioned beers are also much easier to keep and serve at the pub or bar or restaurant, enabling huge savings in training and staff costs, and far less wastage. Real ale needs looking after by someone who knows how to do it. Brewery conditioned beers do not.
Typically the brewery conditioned beer after fermentation is chilled and filtered to remove all the yeast, and then pasteurised to make it sterile, before putting it into sterile, sealed kegs, bottles or cans. This type of beer is sterile so that it will last for ages and save storage and distribution costs, not to make it taste good.
Ingredients of mass-produced lagers and other brewery conditioned beers are arguably chosen for reasons of profit rather than flavour. For example, rice or maize can be mixed with the malted barley to reduce costs. Mass production, the addition of preservatives and other chemicals, and the reduction of the quality of the ingredients, all reduce the flavour of the product, not surprisingly. Rather like cheap supermarket tomatoes - they just don't taste like the ones your granddad grows in his greenhouse. Real ale is like your granddad's tomatoes. Mass-produced beer is by comparison like the cheap tomatoes from the supermarket, only not so healthy for you.
Brewery conditioned beers: lagers, 'bright' bitters, stouts, etc., are ready to be served upon arrival at the pub. The kegs stand upright in the cellar, and the beer is pumped to a font-head at the bar counter, normally by gas pressure from CO2 cannisters, (known as 'top pressure', because the beer is under constant pressure, which forces the beer up through the pipes and out of the font-head tap when the lever is pulled). The effect of the top pressure often taints the taste of the beer (some would say this is a good thing), and to produce a very 'gassy' beer, which for some is not pleasant to drink nor to deal with its after-effects.
Interestingly, mass-produced 'brewery conditioned' beers - pretty well all the well-known lagers and bitters - are commonly marketed by emphasising their strength or the brand imagery - very rarely the actual taste.
Another interesting development in the brewery conditioned beers market is the licensing of beer production to UK breweries of many foreign beers, notably European lagers and some US light beers. Lager, as a matter of interest, is the German word for 'store'. It refers to the lengthy conditioning undergone by traditional European (not British) lager, which actually produces a high quality product. European lagers are traditionally stronger than the British versions (which partly explains the drunken behaviour among English soccer fans abroad during the last three decades - they simply aren't used to the strength of the beer). British lager brewing has been typically based on different (and arguably inferior) ingredients, less alcohol, and quicker conditioning. The result is a British version of the foreign lager beer, which explains why lager tastes so much better abroad than in the UK. This is because the beer is actually quite different, even though the bottle and the label, or the font-head, might be the same. The increasing trend now is for British lagers to contain more alcohol, although taste seems to be still a peripheral consideration.
I should add that some British keg and lager beers are quite drinkable. And certainly many millions continue to drink all varieties of brewery conditioned beer quite happily. It's a matter of personal choice. Choice is all the better when it's informed and free, which, aside from the lifestyle/culture/market/economy references, is really the central purpose of this article, as it was the central ethos of CAMRA.
I'm not saying that all brewery conditioned beers are crap - instead, I'm saying: there are hundreds of lovely real ales out there that compared to the big brewery-conditioned brands, are more interesting, healthier, tastier, and generally linked to a richer social scene - and which are made by small local businesses rather than bloody great faceless global corporates - so why not try some?..
Culturally it is suggested that beer and drinking tradition in the UK differs from continental Europe in some important ways:
- Restrictive licensing hours (a legacy from the First World War actually, when pub opening hours were reduced so as to limit absenteeism at wartime factories) have created a culture in the UK of drinking bigger measures of relatively weaker beer, in greater volumes and in shorter sessions. UK licensing hours are now being relaxed, but ingrained lifestyle habits can take many years to change.
- For some reason (detached island race perhaps) the Brits, and especially the English, have a more conservative approach to drinking and licensing laws that the rest of Europe. Pubs are these mysterious places that only grown-ups are allowed to visit. Taboo for kids. Is it any wonder that young people don't know how to behave in them when they first start using them. Young people in England seem to receive no education in taste and quality; this applies to food as well as drink and social etiquette generally. Look in the lunch-box of any schoolkid and the chances are it will contain at least one packet of bloody crisps and a can of drink full of artificial colour and preservatives. Again is it any wonder that the UK market offers such a receptive market for blandness?
- UK industrial history has also strongly influenced the drinking culture. Since the industrial revolution up until the decline of the UK heavy industrial and manufacturing sector in the 1960's, beer drinking was characterised by workers in heavy manual trades - mining, steel-working, ship-building, etc., for whom ten to twenty pints of relatively weak beer per night formed a significant and necessary part of their diet.
The UK predilection for quantity rather than quality doubtless created a receptive market for 'brewery conditioned' beer. The market was amenable to a shift in beer quality chiefly 1960-80's, towards mass-production and 'commoditisation', and away from the less profitable, more specialised, and lower economies of scale of real ale.
Starting in the 1960's the big brewers began their onslaught and virtually killed off the real ale sector. This was achieved via aggressive distribution practices, in which breweries forced 'tied' pubs to convert to the new brewery conditioned beers. Also by acquisition and closure of the traditional real ale breweries and pub estates. Also by big-budget advertising, promotion and brand building of the new brewery conditioned beers by their multi-national corporate owners. And finally by associating beer brands with relevant celebrities and sports, notably soccer.
Were it not for CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), real ale could well have disappeared.
CAMRA began as a voice of the ordinary people, who refused to have their product choice removed by big corporations. CAMRA, through determined and well-organised lobbying, plus local and national communications and publicity, largely succeeded in its aims of rescuing and reviving the real ale sector, and now boasts over 70,000 UK members. Interestingly CAMRA is now growing faster than ever. The popularity and fascination of real ale bordering now on 'mainstream'.
Market lesson number three: nature abhors a vacuum. Some things have a life of their own - real ale is one example. Cut off supply, or suppress demand, and nature will find a way to produce and supply product for the customers who want it.
This happened with real ale. Smaller micro-breweries sprang up as early as the 1970's to fill the demand left by the big corporates. Micro-breweries producing local real ales, just like the very first breweries began at the start of the pub and beer industry a couple of hundred years ago. (Compare this market shift with the movement of supermarkets back into high streets and the convenience and corner-shop sectors. The reason they are doing so is that they previously pursued a strategy which created a vacuum which drove convenience stores out of business. Now they are scrambling to fill the vacuum - which, hey ho, they are chiefly doing by acquisition.)
The big brewery corporations and pub chains now realise they cannot afford to ignore the real ale products. They know that customers want real ale and so the big corporations have been forced to reintroduce (and increase) supply of real ales through their outlets.
Even the UK supermarkets are seeing the light, made possible by the development of very many excellent 'real ale in a bottle' products (the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, or a finished real ale product is suitably prepared for the bottle).
Try as they might, big corporations tend eventually to bow to consumer demand. They also, eventually, embrace products which are inherently of good and right quality. A great product will often withstand the most determined efforts to kill it off because at a deep level the design and quality is right.
There is another lesson in all this: that big corporations are no good at controlling product and service niches which benefit from specialisation and variety.
The story of real ale in the UK suggests some very transferable principles for all sorts of businesses. If you are in a big corporation it's helpful to realise your limitations. If you are in a small business it's essential to realise the strengths of the corporates and don't compete there, and where you will naturally be stronger than the corporates, in which case develop into these areas or activities.
Big corporations are good at:
- commodity products and services, with uniform quality, requiring few types or variations
- competitive costs and pricing of commodities because they have economies of scale and power
- supplying to meet lowest common denominator needs
Smaller units and local suppliers are good at:
- variety and specialisation
- flexibility and adaptability
- identifying and serving local particular needs
- filling and exploiting the vacuums that the big corporations create or overlook
Next, and with apologies to lager drinkers everywhere.....
Britain is rediscovering, just in time, that some good things are not mass-produced, pre-packaged, hysterically advertised and celebrity-promoted. One of those things is real ale. The stereotype of the real ale drinker is laughably out of date. If you think of matted beards, mucky cardigans and huge bellies, you need to get out more.
Real ale is live beer which continues to develop in the cask. This further fermentation makes the beer naturally lively. It is either pulled from the cask by hand-pump or, even better, simply runs out by gravity. Its blasphemous caricature, keg beer, is dead, pasteurised and filtered. It undergoes no secondary fermentation, and often nestles under a protective blanket of inert gas. It fizzes with injected carbon dioxide.
Lager is a different style of beer, in which the fermentation happens at the top rather than the bottom of the vat. There is an honourable continental tradition of lager-making, and there are some magnificent cask-conditioned lagers to which all the real ale plaudits apply. But they are rarely seen here. The fair name of lager has been demeaned. The obscenely overpriced lad-fuel of Eng-er-land has as much in common with real lagers as keg beer does with real ale.
Here are ten reasons to reject what passes for beer in the licensed ale-houses of England, and to ask for the real thing for once.
In a recent Hobgoblin advert for real ale, a grotesque figure in a pub, cradling a pint of beer, sneers over his shoulder at a group of callow drinkers: "What's the matter, Lager-Boy? Afraid you might taste something?" The gibe is just. Have you ever wondered why the lager mass-producers market their stuff as best drunk ice-cold? It is because cold anaesthetises your taste buds. To chill beer to near freezing point is like injecting lignocaine into your tongue. It stops the punter finding out the depressing truth - that there is nothing there to taste. Drink lager at a temperature at which nerves work, and the manufacturers would be rumbled.
Real ale, though, is more confident. Although the old obsession with warm beer is, thankfully, long gone, at physiological temperatures you can get an explosion of complex tastes. Of course you might not want that: you might want something which tastes of nothing, is more expensive than real ale, and eventually makes you fall over. If so, a simple intravenous injection of phenobarbitone would be more sensible.
Not always, of course. Since real ale, unlike dead, pasteurised keg beer, is a live substance, still developing in the cask, it needs to be kept properly so that it develops properly. This demands skill on the part of the cellarman. You can load keg beer straight off the lorry, connect it up, and drink it. Since it is dead, it keeps for ever. But real ale is temperamental. If it is badly treated it will not taste good.
Many a drinker has been put off real ale drinking after a visit to a pub which doesn't understand real ale. But to go back to keg beer is like opting for a lifetime of necrophilia because of one nasty experience with a living human being.
But when it is good, it can be very, very good. The most pretentious vocabulary of the most poetic wine-tasters fails when confronted with good real beer. There is some memorable stuff lying in England's beer engines.
One of the enduring caricatures of real ale drinkers is of the Reminiscer - the man who sits in the corner of the pub and tells you, sip by sip, of the pint of Old Scrotrot which he had in the Anencephalic's Head one June in 1972. The picture embodies and generates all the English prejudice against obsessive train-spotting types, but there's a reason for it. The reason is that there's something to remember.
No one has ever said: "You get a marvellous 500 ml of EuroPiss in the Happy Slapper. Amazing, it is. Can't think quite how to describe it."
The keg or lager drinker's Friday night diary reads: "Had 10 pints of the usual. Threw up. That left room for a Cat Vindaloo."
You need 10 pints of that to create some sort of sensation, even if that sensation is simply nausea and eventual oblivion. You only need one cc of well-kept real ale.
Strange but true. Since it is a live substance, each mouthful is a fecund soup of medically helpful micro organisms. I spend a lot of my life in fetid squats in hot, faraway places. The best possible training your gut can get for that is a regular diet of the real stuff. It will mean that you spend a lot less time squatting fetidly. Real ale is also heaving with B vitamins, iron and anti-oxidants. You will want to live longer in order to drink more beer, and are likely to be able to. Drink lager, and your quality of life will be miserable. Mercifully, since it is biochemically obnoxious and more often the drink of choice of violent people, you are likely to put out of your misery sooner.
By which I don't just mean chocolate-boxy thatched pubs with real fires, and clay pipes, and steak and kidney pud, and parrots, and resident ghosts, and fiddlers, and farting wolfhounds, and skittles, and freezers full of wildlife, and huge-breasted bar maids with PhDs in Anglo-Saxon. But all these things are splendid, and you don't get any of them if the pub doesn't take its real ale seriously. What you can be sure of is that if a landlord can be bothered to nurture his real beer as he needs to do in order to keep it right, he can be bothered to nurture the other things in his pub, and is likely to nurture you too.
Sadly, of course, if the landlord couldn't give a toss about his beer, he is unlikely to give a toss about the pub, except as a mechanism for extracting money from the pockets of the gullible and ignorant.
Real ale is like many rare and sensitive animals. It is driven out by noise and smoke and bright lights. It thinks that pubs are places in which to drink, talk, laugh, sing and play darts, rather than places for standing sullenly, fighting, and catching herpes from teenagers.
Real ale is political. The multinationals hate it, and can't produce it properly. They have persistently bought up real ale breweries and then shut down the real ale brewing. They buy real ale pubs, and smash them up, banishing the real ale and making them conduits for their own beer. The pub chains hate real ale too. It requires skill and time to keep it well, and it therefore demands managers who are take an individual pride in their product. That sort of anarchic, workmanlike character doesn't fit well into the culture of grey, corporate blandness which organisational bureaucrats love so much.
The profit margins on pasteurised beer and lager are always going to be bigger than on real ale. You never have to pour keg beer away: it emerged, tasting of nothing, from the vast chemical plant where it was manufactured, and, unless the pub is at the epicentre of a major nuclear catastrophe, will continue to taste of nothing whatever you do to it. Real ale goes against the trends. When the tendency is towards centralized mass production, generally abroad, real ale tends to be produced in small plants by eccentric individuals who talk anachronistically about "craft brewing". It is resolutely and distinctively local. The barley often comes from the farm next door, and the yeast was often swapped in a dark wood for a coracle. When the tendency is towards the production of absolutely uniform products, the real ale world glories in thousands of different brews, some of them only produced in volumes of a barrel or so. Drinking a pint of real ale from a micro-brewery is as effective a blow against globalisation as heaving a breeze-block through the window of the World Bank.
I think this follows from everything above. It is certainly my experience. With one caveat. Quite a lot of people haven't heard the real ale gospel. Those who have not heard cannot be damned. Of those who have heard and drunk, there are no decent people who go back to the ways of keg and lager.
Nobody, but nobody, really drinks keg beer or lager because, having investigated the matter fully and tried out real ale, they genuinely think that keg or lager tastes better. It objectively doesn't. But lots of things come into the decision about what to drink. If you are a philistine, you will like the things which go along with keg. You will like smoke and footballers' haircuts and fruit machines and big-screen TV and smelly toilets. If you are so lacking in conversational confidence that you need music thumping out in the pub to cover your embarrassing silences or stuttering ventures into speech, you are unlikely to want to, or to be able to, grapple with the complexity of real ale. If you are a sheep, you will, despite your basically decent urges, want to follow the people who opt for keg. Which brings me to my next point.
There is strong cultural pressure to pretend that keg and lager are good things and that real ale is the province of folksy, smock-wearing mediaevalists. Millions of dollars of advertising money scream that lager is cool and gets you laid. Real ale, which is made by people rather than balance sheets, can't compete. In a face to face battle based on taste, quality, interest and basic bloody integrity, keg and lager don't dare to mince out of the corner towards real ale. There's no contest. But there are few voices at the moment which point out that the Lager Emperor has no clothes. Let it be shouted from the rooftops: he hasn't. Until the crowd acknowledges it, though, listening to the evidence of their senses rather than the cynical voices of the advertising boys, real ale will be the secret drink of a resistance army.
The name says it all. It is real stuff for real people, drunk in real places for real reasons.
©Charles Foster 2004-12
Charles Foster is a London-based writer, barrister and professional expeditioner. He specialises in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Charles can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is the CAMRA link, plus a selection of interesting real ale brewery websites, including some of the older and bigger real ale brewers, and some really lovely small real ale businesses and 'microbreweries' - the children of the new real ale revolution. Take a look at some of these and be inspired by the richness and variety of these wonderful businesses and products (if you have one to add please contact us, we're only missing about four hundred.....) Many of these brewers offer tours and talks, and some of the wonderful locations can be used as innovative and stimulating venues for meetings, conferences and training and development activities.
Abbey Ales - Bath, Somerset
Abbeydale Brewey - Sheffield, Yorkshire
Adnams - Southwold, Suffolk
Arkell's - Swindon, Wiltshire
Badger Brewery - Blandford Forum, Dorset (also brews the famous Sussex King & Barnes ales since acquiring them in 2000 - quite a commercial website)
Bank Top Brewery - Bolton, Greater Manchester
Bartrams - Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Bateman's Brewery - Wainfleet, Lincolnshire
Batham's - Dudley, West Midlands
Belhaven Brewery - Dunbar, Scotland (another annoying flash site, sorry - be warned)
The Belvoir Brewery - Old Dalby, Leicestershire (pronounced 'beaver', don't ask, Leicestershire is s strange place.....)
Black Sheep Brewery - Rippon, North Yorkshire
Box Steam Brewery - Colerne, Wiltshire
Brains - Cardiff, Wales (major Welsh real ale brewer, now also brews Buckley's ales)
Caledonian Brewery - Edinburgh, Scotland (brewers of the excellent Deuchars IPA)
Charles Wells - Bedford, Bedfordshire (major independent)
Crouch Vale Brewery - Chelmsford, Essex
Dark Star - Brighton, Sussex
The Durham Brewery - Bowburn, County Durham
Elgood's - Wisbech, Cambridgeshire
Elland Brewery - Elland, W Yorkshire
Foxfield Brewery (Prince of Wales) - Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria
Felinfoel - Llanelli, Carmathenshire, Wales
Fullers - Chiswick, West London (one of two major London-based brewers, along with Youngs)
Goose Eye Brewery - Keighly, West Yorkshire
Greene King - Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk (major independent now owning and brewing Morlands and Ruddles ales - commercial website - linked here to the most interesting bit about their superb real ales)
Hambleton - Thirsk, North Yorkshire
Hogsback - Tongham, Surrey
Hop Back Brewery - Salisbury, Wiltshire - brewers of the magnificent Summer Lightning and Crop Circle golden 'summer' ales. Hop Back was founded initially as a single pub micro-brewery in 1986. National recognition and distribution enabled expansion into a larger dedicated brewery in 1992. Hop Back Summer Lightning is a multi award-winning ale, rightly so, and is also available as an excellent real ale in a bottle from all sensible beer sellers.
Hook Norton - Banbury, Oxfordshire
Humpty Dumpty Brewery - Reedham, Norfolk
Isle of Arran Brewery - Arran, Scotland (chiefly an online sales website - useful if you want to order real ale in a bottle online)
Isle Of Skye Brewery Co - Uig, Isle of Skye
Jennings - Cockermouth, Cumbria
Kelburn Brewing Company - Barrhead, E Renfrewshire
Little Valley Brewery - Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
Milton Brewery - Cambridge
Moorhouses - Burnley, Lancashire
O'Hanlon's Brewery Co - Whimple, Devon
Oakham Ales - Peterborough, Cambridgeshire
Oldershaw Brewery - Grantham, Lincolnshire
Palmers Brewery - Bridport, Dorset (regional brewer established over 200 years ago, Palmers use water from their privately owned local spring, and is possibly the only thatched brewery in England)
Purple Moose - Porthmadog, Gwynedd, Wales (in Welsh Purple Moose Brewery Ltd is Bragdy Mws Piws Cyf)
Robinson's - Stockport, Cheshire
Rooster's Brewery - Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Rudgate Brewery - Tockwith, York
Shepherd Neame - Faversham, Kent (SN claim to be Britain's oldest brewer - brewing for over three centuries)
St Austell Brewery - St Austell, Cornwall
Stonehenge Ales (was Bunce's Brewery) - Netheravon, Wiltshire
Stroud Brewery - Stroud, Gloucestershire
Timothy Taylor - Keighly, West Yorkshire (Their Landlord brew was said to be Madonna's favourite..)
Thwaites - Blackburn, Lancashire
Wadworth and Co - Devizes, Wiltshire
Valhalla Brewery - Unst, Shetland (Britain's Northernmost brewery)
Wickwar Brewing Co - Wickwar, Gloucestershire
The Wolf Brewery - Attleborough, Norfolk
Woodforde's - Woodbastwick, Norfolk
Worthington’s White Shield - Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, within the Brewery Museum grounds on the old Bass Worthington Brewery site - now part of the Coors empire, the corporately owned Worthington's Whiteshield claims to be Britain's oldest microbrewery
Wye Valley Brewery - Stoke Lacy, Herefordshire
Wylam Brewery - Heddon on the Wall, Northumberland
York Brewery - York
Youngs - Wandsworth, South-West London (for many years the other major London-based brewer along with Fullers - Young's claimed to be the oldest continuous brewery, commencing 1581 until the sale and redevelopment in 2006 of the famous Wandsworth brewery site, which continued to maintain stables and 'brewers dray' horse-drawn cart deliveries among the London traffic well into the 1990s)
Aside from the 300-400 other small brewers and micro-breweries in the UK not listed here, I am aware that there are pockets of real ale brewing excellence in the USA and Europe, and elsewhere too. Feel free to send me links for these foreign real ale brewers too, especially if the brewery offers tours and conference/meeting venues.
Visiting real ale or beer festivals, especially those organised by local CAMRA branches, is an ideal way to sample real ale at its best, in a friendly and extremely sociable environment. Festivals are held throughout the year, all over the UK. Festivals typically last for two or three days, and are held in village halls or other larger community centres. Smaller festivals will have 20 or 30 different beers, plus ciders and perries (like cider but made with pears). The larger festivals have over a hundred different beers. The biggest of all - the Great British Beer Festival in London traditionally held at Olympia lasts five days each year in August. The London Great British Beer Festival features over 400 real ales and attracts around 50,000 visitors, who between them drink well over 200,000 pints of beer.
Beer festivals offer great food, and many provide live music entertainment. At local and regional festivals the beers - and ciders and perries - are normally from local brewers, and served by CAMRA member volunteers. All profits go to CAMRA. The beer is all well kept, sensibly priced, and served straight from the barrel at its best.
If you've never been to a real ale festival go visit one when one comes around nearby. Give yourself a treat - the variety of tastes, the people, and the atmosphere, are really special.
Tips for first-time beer festival-goers:
- Start with weaker beers and work up to the stronger ones, not the other way around. Strength is always shown along with a description of the beer and its brewery. A weak bitter or mild is normally 3-4% alcohol, and these are often some of the tastiest. Medium strength ales are 4-5%. Stronger ales are 6% and over, and occasionally a silly special ale or barley wine might approach 10%, which exceeds the strength of a weak table wine, so be careful...
- Generally, in addition to a modest entry fee, you will buy a glass at the festival - a pint or a half-pint - which you can return and have your money refunded when you leave if you wish. You can ask for a half pint to be served into a pint glass and many visitors favour this method of sampling as many different ales as possible.
- Eat something before, during and after.
- It's perfectly okay to ask for a taste first - you'll always be given one.
- When you taste a new beer after one you've particularly liked, expect to take a few mouthfuls of the new one to properly appreciate it.
- Ask for other people's recommendations - chat with strangers - many are very knowledgeable and all the people will be very friendly.
- Take some friends.
- Use public transport - do not drive.
- Join CAMRA - membership gives you free entry into many local festivals, as well as two monthly CAMRA newspapers and lots more benefits - joint membership for couples (£21 for two) is even better value.
- And consider this - Real ale (consumed in moderation of course) is a just a most enjoyable product; it goes deeper than that: the real ale movement continues to thrive because people ultimately seek integrity and quality in products and services, and in the organisations that supply them. Modern corporations who unhesitatingly put profit before customers, and economies before true quality, should take note.
Here are many of the the main UK CAMRA real ale festivals, which generally repeat on an annual basis, although for precise timings check the current year's schedules. The list of venues seems to be growing, in line with the growing popularity of real ale, including some outside the UK. This is just a rough guide and is by no means exhaustive. See the CAMRA website for details of dates, beers featured, festivals entry prices, etc.
October - Solihull, Whitehaven, Bedford, Wallington, Cardiff, Eastbourne, Gravesend, Worthing, Huddersfield, Quorn, Swindon, Wakefield, Bath, Richmond, Stoke, Birkenhead, Oxford, Twickenham, Nottingham, Alloa, Barnsley, Eastleigh, Falmouth, Norwich, Kendal, Basingstoke, Poole
November - Aberdeen, Watford, Milton Keynes, Bury, Woking, Rochford, Belfast, Nottigham, Dudley, Luton
December - Dovercourt, East London (more will be added)
January - Chelmsford, Atherton, Burton on Trent, Cambridge, Salisbury, Kirkby-in-Ashfield
February - Derby, Bodmin, Chesterfield, Dorchester, Dover,Tewkesbury, Battersea, Fleetwood, Hove, Ipswich, Liverpool, Rotherham, York, Gosport, Hucknall, Bradford
March - Loughborough, Plymouth, Wigan, Bristol, Leeds, Ely, Newton Abbot, London WC1, Darlington, Dumbarton, Hitchin, Oldham, Leicester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
April - Doncaster, Walsall, Mansfield, Maldon, Dunstable, Banbury, Coventry, Bury St Edmunds, Paisley, Farnham, Chippenham, Glenrothes, Stourbridge, Reading
May - Macclesfield, Chester, Ealing, Rugby, Telford, Yapton, Alloa, Halifax, Chesterfield, Cambridge, Newark, Grays
June - Colchester, Southampton, Stockport, Wolverhampton, Woodchurch, St Ives, Catford, Edinburgh, Sticklepath, Kingston upon Thames, Lewes
July - Salisbury, Plymouth, Devizes, Derby, Boston, Woodcote, Ardingly, Chelmsford, Bromsgrove, Hemel Hempstead, Much Wenlock, Canterbury, Winchcombe, Louth
August - London Olympia (GB Beer Festival), Worcester, Peterborough, Clacton on Sea, Swansea, Watnall
September - Ipswich, Newton Abbot, St Ives, Scunthorpe, Nantwich, St Albans, Carmarthen, Keighly, Kingston upon Hull, Letchworth Garden City, Sheffield
Real ale pubs offer great options for meeting places, planning trips, walking and travelling holidays, and overnight business stays. Recommended real ale books include:
- Good Beer Guide - edited by Roger Protz, updated and published every year in September - the definitive CAMRA guide to the best 4,500 real ale pubs, real ale brewers and micro-breweries in Britain.
- Room At The Inn - guide to overnight accommodation food and atmosphere in over 300 British real ale pubs.
- Fifty Great Pub Crawls - Barrie Pepper - great pub crawls from around the UK.
- Pubs For Families - 250 real ale pubs that welcome and have excellent facilities for children and youngsters.
The article 'ten reasons to drink real ale' is © Charles Foster 2004-13, and must not be sold or published without permission.