This is a brief OPINION piece I wrote in reaction to my visit to the CAMRA Scottish Real Ale Festival yesterday.
Picture the scene, a huge gathering of the best drinkers, drinking the best beers, brewed by the best breweries, in a country endowed with an incredible brewing scene. All of these passionate people under one roof, tittering at Tennent’s drinkers, hating Heineken fanboys, and frowning upon Foster’s fanatics. These are people of taste and today they gather here at the Scottish Real Ale Festival hosted by the Corn Exchange to celebrate the finest in Scottish beer.
Except its not actually here.
Let there be no doubt, there’s a lot of decent quaffable Scottish beer here, but that’s the inherent problem. The average CAMRA chap is looking for a simple session beer, maybe a bit of hops on it, or even a bit of malt pending on personal preference. Of course there’s plenty variation, there’s light ales that taste like Deuchars, there’s dark beers that taste like an 80 shilling should, and there’s porters and stouts that are malty, all of which are expected to feature at a beer festival. But there is a significant lack of exceptional beer.
For example, gold medal winner for the festival Highland Brewing’s Orkney IPA. The tagline for this beer is “ale as real as it gets” what it really means is “as close to the stereotypical definition of what an ale should taste like as it gets”. That would be more accurate. Don’t misunderstand me here, it’s a perfectly fine beer, but it doesn’t do anything special. It’s decent, I’d have a couple of pints of it if it was on guest at my local but that’s where it ends. For the champion beer at a festival featuring 51 breweries and over 150 beers we should be demanding something mind-blowing. A champion beer should leave you desperate for more, pressing your local landlord to get in another couple of casks in super quick time.
I was disappointed to find that the only two breweries really doing something weird were severely frowned upon by staff. When I ordered a half of the Tin Pot 5 Spice Stout the gentleman serving insisted that this was a bad idea. Pardon? Firstly, how dare you insult me as a consumer? Secondly, how dare you insult the brewer who is sending this as one of the finest example of his work? Did I tell you that your silly beard was a bad idea?
A similar reaction was given to my request for a Stewart’s Hopinator. This beer is truly interesting, pulled through a filter of hops on display in the font. Unfortunately though the closed minded dafty pulling it warned me off it. There’s not a single thing wrong with it, this is simply beer but not as we know it. A truly unique beer served with a bit of showmanship. The hop filter adds an entirely new dimension to hoppy beer and is something seriously cool. A terrible shame it comes with a warning from a CAMRA member when you order it.
Anybody looking to know my pick of the festival, it was Cromarty’s Happy Chappy, floral, pleasant and refreshing, seriously excellent like their other beers. My pick of the day however was the beer I had immediately after exiting.
Mistaking today for Brewdog’s alternative festival I headed there with my compadre and we partook in a Teikoku IPA from the Japanese Baird Brewing company. Within this ale were complex characters, true hoppiness and a real tribute to the IPA tradition. This beer is a Real Ale.
It is this terminology that highlights why the beers I sampled at today’s festival are so drab. By creating an exclusive club for what is judged to be ‘real ale’ CAMRA exclude some of the more incredible craft products. I am no Brewdog fanboy, however it is arguably breweries like them that are producing Real Ale according to CAMRA’s 1970s definition which set out to ‘make it easy for people to differentiate between the bland processed beers being pushed by the big brewers and the traditional beers whose very existence was under threat.’
Now we are experiencing a time where instead of big brewers creating bland beers it is small traditional breweries that are creating bland beers to satisfy the CAMRA palate. It could be argued that these people will buy more beer; this is true in the short term, but demographically speaking the people with 50 years of drinking ahead of them are non-CAMRA members.
The message is simple, expand and welcome these experimental beers, welcome their fans, maybe even talk to them, otherwise face extinction.