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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Craft Beer and Class

I stumbled across a fascinating post on the nature of class and good beer in the UK. The blogger, Jeff Pickthall, locates his access point on real ale (aka cask ale), which CAMRA has tried to promote as "working class" beer. It is the UK equivalent of American "craft beer." But from his vantage point in the very working class town of Barrow-in-Furness, the working class don't want anything to do with expensive cask ale:
Casual perusal of town centre pubs on a Friday or Saturday night reveals the "working man" drinking smoothflow, megalager, megacider and alcopops. Sometimes, on special occasions, in the same glass with a shot of Blue Bols for added luminosity under the UV.
This is an issue that plagues the US, too. We want to think of beer as the everyman's drink, but the truth is, it's twice as expensive as canned beer and far, far less popular. Portland is a notable--remarkable--exception, but even here you find mainly urban types going for the good stuff. Go to the outer reaches and you find fewer good taps--people drink cheap beer by the pitcher. It's not so much an issue of wealth as class. He captures the sense perfectly:
Poor people – let’s avoid euphemisms – don't like to be choosy. In the culture of places like Barrow, being choosy is frowned upon. Being discriminating is being a snob – and being a snob is a very bad thing. To be choosy necessitates rejecting something on offer. In a culture defined by hard graft and low pay, rejecting something (particularly food, and including drinks) for the subjective reason of taste is very bad form. Children are brought up with the mealtime fillip "you make sure you finish that: your dad's been hard at work all week to pay for that.” Swirling and sniffing your beer is met with “get it down your neck, you ponce.” I know....

Messages such as those about craftsmanship, food miles, sustainability, wholesomeness, tradition and locality are largely lost on this demographic. Cajoling the “working man” into a reverence for heritage and tradition is to force him to look to the past, but the past is a bleak place.
Pickthall is both saddened by the unpopularity of cask ale and CAMRA's "Marxist" sales pitch to popularize it--presumably, if CAMRA positioned real ale in some other way, it would appeal more to the actual working class. I have no opinion on that point, but he hints at something that American craft breweries should recognize. If craft beer gets positioned as a luxury or connoiseur's product, it will hit a wall of market penetration and remain a niche.

So far, I don't think that's happened here in Oregon. Or rather, after it started to happen in the 80s and 90s, breweries retooled and brought street cred back to good beer. I think they partly did that through strength and aggressiveness--it's hard to describe an 80 IBU, 8% double IPA as "poncey." It also helps that we have so many breweries, too--most Portlanders have seen brewers toiling away and see it for what it is, hard, rugged work. And it further helps that the many of the good pubs around town are downscale. There just aren't that many pretentious places to sully the good beverage.

Fascinating post, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

9 comments:

Brendan said...

Cask has actually always been cheaper than keg beer in the UK.

Jeremy in SE PDX said...

It's pretty uncommon that anything truly good is also popular. Why should beer be any different? Does this bother anyone? Is there anything wrong with being a niche market?

I'm reminded of a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire:

***
VII: “The Dog and the Scent-bottle.”

Come here, my dear, good, beautiful doggie, and smell this excellent perfume which comes from the best perfumer of Paris.

And the dog, wagging his tail, which, I believe, is that poor creature’s way of laughing and smiling, came up and put his curious nose on the uncorked bottle. The, suddenly, he backed away in terror, barking at me reproachfully.

“Ah miserable dog, if I had offered you a package of excrement you would have sniffed at it with delight and perhaps gobbled it up. In this you resemble the public, which should never be offered delicate perfumes that infuriate them, but only carefully selected garbage.”

***

Translated here by Edward Kaplan.

dr wort said...

Woo Hoo! I like that Jeremy!

Jeff Alworth said...

I hope Jeremy isn't comparing IPA with shite!

Chad said...

I've definitely turned my nose up at many a bar/pub or market, and decided to drink water instead!

And when you talk about the truly good not being popular, music and cheese also come to mind!!

dr wort said...

I have some interesting thoughts... of course... ;-}

In general, I think our American working class is not too much different from the Brits Working Class, when it comes to drinking beer. Most working class here in America drink the Mega-Lagers. Commercial mass produced beer... They take what they can get and/or can pay for, just like the working class Brits.

At one time in England and America, Home brewing was a way of saving money and producing basic beers... Beers that the working class of both countries can identify. Home brewing in America then went to a different level... WE wanted to brew more flavorful beers like other countries and poof! The American Brewing revolution began.. basically.

Now, the question is... Are craft beers still a Working Class beverage in America? IMHO,I would say NO.

Oregon is a little different, we have the luxury of location and pride in the home grow craft. (Some would say that's an antiquated concept) The craft of beer. Kind of like the Czech working class, that are allowed beer breaks during work (maybe we should start that here in Oregon!).... They're drinking quality Czech Pils and are working class men and women. Do they know they're drinking quality craft beer? Ah, maybe, maybe not! They're drinking what they consider to be the community norm, just like a working class guy here would drink his Bud and be proud to drink his (Belgian owned) American standard.

I'm not saying we as Oregonians don't appreciate our beer... Because we all do! ;-} But, do we realize how lucky we are? Maybe.

I think it may all be about LOCATION that constitutes whether beer is working class or elite.

While more Americans are getting "Turned On" to craft beers, we still have a huge working class that embraces their Meg-lager.

In other states in our union, the same attitude probably exsists as in England. Asking for a certain beer is considered aloof and "Poncey."

Based on that thought, a "80 IBU, 8% double IPA" would be considered extremely "poncey."

Jeff states, "There just aren't that many pretentious places to sully the good beverage." I guess we're not counting the incredibly pretentious Bridgeport? ;-}

Jeff is correct! But, in other states, many breweries are far more ostentatious in decor and design, and they do cater to a more well heeled clientele. The Brouwers cafe in Seattle is quite posh looking in design and decor. While living in CA, I could name more upscale breweries and brew pubs, rather than the down home and funky. Beer has been brought to a different (higher) social level for the most part.

We should be glad we can still enjoy quality beer at a decent price in down home setting with everyday people. This is one reason I rebel against Bridgeport's Elitist looking new brewery, where well heeled people come in and order WINE with their noses in the air! Lets' keep it personal, down to earth and bourgeois... It's a nice place to be... and may not last forever. ;-}

Jeremy in SE PDX said...

Jeff said:

"I hope Jeremy isn't comparing IPA with shite!"

My heavens no. Other way around. Craft beer is the expensive perfume; mega beer is the bag of excrement.

I realize how lucky I am. I moved to Portland for the beer. So in a way it's not luck... :-)

Jeff Alworth said...

Jeremy, I was definitely kidding. And it should be noted, for posterity, that you are the first commenter ever to quote Baudelaire.

I have however composed odes to certain beers on this site.

Jeff Pickthall said...

I realise you're a long way from the UK and lack of familiarity is excusable but I'd just like to correct one point.

You say "the working class don't want anything to do with expensive cask ale."

The counter-intuitive truth is that in the pub trade cask ale is generally priced lower than mass produced alternatives. Even with a lower price many working-class Brits are not attracted to it.

Eminent brewing historian Martyn Cornell commented on my piece "It's the failure to make cask ale MORE exclusive, MORE expensive, that has probably been Camra's biggest mistake." The whole of the Brit micro sector and sympathetic pubs would confirm the slim margins they have to work with.

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