Scottish Real Ale Festival – Opinion Piece

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.

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11 thoughts on “Scottish Real Ale Festival – Opinion Piece

  1. Just how many innovative beers would their need to be for it to be acceptable in your eyes?

    The CBOS competition doesn’t include seasonals (perhaps it should, but that would make judging difficult – how can you taste a beer if it isn’t in production?) or “one-offs” like the Hopinator.

    Part of quality is consistency, and while I love the theatre of the bubbles flowing up through the Hopinator as the pint is pulled, the early pints were resinous to the point of being sticky. Even Steve Stewart admitted it was a learning experience as the beer couldn’t really stand up to it.

    The idea that there are no young CAMRA members is also nonsense. Young members are the fastest growing demographic in the organisation, as can be evidenced by many of the volunteers being sub-30 years of age, including the organiser and the volunteer coordinator.

    The reason you may be “warned” about a beer is not to discourage, but to ensure that you know what you’re buying – the warning’s should normally be in the form of “Have you had it before?…Would you like to try a taster first?” rather than “warning off”, as the intent is to save a customer from buying something that is extreme in profile. The Cairnpapple XH by Alechemy was sent back by the first half dozen customers who claimed that the hop profile was an off flavour – it was actually exactly as intended and so from then on it was proffered only with a taster first unless a customer insisted on buying some without a try first. The TinPot beers are similar in that being extreme (and exciting) they’re often not to everyone’s tastes and it makes no sense to leave someone with £3.00 worth of beer they don’t want; it’s just bad customer service to do so.

    Having briefly scanned your twitter feed after seeing this post, all I can say is that you seem like a very angry young man prone to kneejerk, extreme opinions. Your preoccupation with the word “goon” is also duller than a brown bitter.

    • My point regarding the consistency was merely a comment on how homogeneous the beers on display felt to me.

      As regards the hopinator, I was excited by it as it was a bold statement, somebody doing something different.

      I did not state that there were no young CAMRA members, that would be stupid. Demographically speaking, there are far fewer young members than old.

      I believe I was actively discouraged from purchasing a half of both the hopinator and the tinpot raspberry beer. I know how to sell a beer you don’t really believe in, I do it very often, usually a good move is to not screw up your face and shake your head when it gets ordered.

      As regards my extreme ‘kneejerk’ opinions, thank you. I am honest.

  2. I’d like to point out that I was informed by a member of staff yesterday that the Orkney IPA had taken gold, apologies.

  3. I understand completely where you’re coming from here. I too appreciate innovative beers that make you take a sip and go ‘woooaahh!’, beers that wow you and that break the curve. But I also appreciate trying something new.

    I always go the beer festival in Edinburgh and have done for the last 6 years. Not because I like CAMRA, I don’t really, but because I like going with my brother and dad to something we all share an interest in. More and more each time I go I try more beer out of my comfort range. I for one, really enjoyed the SRAF last night but wouldn’t spend another evening there. Having been once this year, I’ve got my fill. I didn’t have 2 of the same beer, I had halves of many and enjoyed most. I came away disappointed I missed out on a few that were meant to be there but didn’t appear but also happy with what I had tried. My pick of the evening surprisingly was the ‘Double Espresso’ from TSA. But I also noticed ‘Sublime Stout’ was on among many others I know are good beers. This is only surprising to me because I usually stick with a paler ale, more along the line of Tryst’s ‘Blathen’.

    I completely agree with you in saying the choice could be much more exciting, beers like ‘A face with no name’ or ‘Superior IPA’ could have appeared and I’d be all over it. But unfortunately not. Also, I was warned off various choices by members of CAMRA, which is not the best sales technique, if you don’t like it, just describe it or serve it and say nothing else.

    (This was easier to say here than on twitter otherwise I’d have just chucked you a tweet! :))

  4. I appreciate that, it is cool. I think what irks me the most is the segregation and the bizarre anti-keg agenda put forward by much of CAMRA. For example Cromarty’s Rogue Wave, stunning on keg, in cask however it slips away into the background. Why can’t we all just be friends and make loads of amazing beers and bring them altogether like a Scottish Beer Festival should?

  5. ” I was warned off various choices by members of CAMRA, which is not the best sales technique, if you don’t like it, just describe it or serve it and say nothing else.”

    That’s hardly honest, though, is it? You can’t really praise yourself for being honest (as an excuse for being obnoxious) and then decry it in others, can you?

    • What do you suggest I do? Dictate to someone how they should drink their beer? Jog on. As for this angry young man line, it doesn’t do much to shed the socks and sandals image.

    • I didn’t mean for it to come out as obnoxious. As someone who works in a real ale bar, I just was taken aback by this fairly unusual approach. Being told not to buy certain beers, I was surprised by their lack of even suggestions, offer of a taste or reasons to to back up their ‘oh don’t buy that!’ kind of comments. As for your suggestions that they may offer a try of beers before buying, no offers were given to me. I only say this because it happened, I’m not being obnoxious.

      Working tonight, I met two men who, until this year, have spent years judging at the SRAF and I spoke to them about it. They agreed with a lot of what I was saying. They appreciate the festival, as do I, but there were things they would change. It’s opinion.

  6. hah I see you’ve upset some beards here, my verdict was much the same. It was good to see so many represented there but plenty what was on offer bottomed out into mediocrity, the medal winners like HBC’s pale ale and Dark Horse were perfectly acceptable – the latter had a fairly nice spicy finish – but none were particularly complex or really ran with any of their ideas, if anything the seemed to revel in their plainness. The staff were the socks n’ sandals brigade out in force, making smarmy cracks about lager while simultaneously warning people away from anything more interesting than a pint of belhaven best. This SRAF had almost no innovation, no surprises, and was in no way representative of Scottish brewing at its best.

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