The Sacred and the Profane

Boak and Bailey direct us to a report by Britain's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which is trying to figure out what its mission is in the age of craft beer. This presents the organization with an entirely new set of challenges than the ones it was created to address. Confronted with an influx of mass market lagers and cheapo non-cask knockoffs, a group of drinkers in the 1970s set about trying to protect full-flavored ales served on natural carbonation at the pub.

They made a fateful decision to define the object of their protection thus: "Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide." That definition became a rallying cry, and eventually, a theology. For thirty-five years, this was a perfectly serviceable definition--until British brewers started making full-flavored ales in the American fashion--kegged and artificially carbonated. Bit by bit, CAMRA got crosswise with craft.

To address that, the organization went on a "revitalisation" project. A couple relevant comments from their findings

There is no doubt that, on the market today, there exist some keg and other non-cask beers that are high-quality products -– brewed with first-class ingredients, often matured over long periods, unfiltered and unpasteurised. In some cases, keg beer contains live yeast and is subject to secondary fermentation in the container. It is, to all intents and purposes, real ale up to the point that carbon dioxide pressure is applied in the cellar. Some of these products, by most measures, are far superior to some of the lower-quality, mass-produced cask beer common in pubs -– some of which, it is alleged, may be subject to very minimal, if any, secondary fermentation despite being marketed as real ale. Yet today, in accordance with its policies, CAMRA champions the latter over the former. This naturally leads to the argument that, in order for CAMRA to return to its founding, fundamental purpose -– to promote the availability of good beer over the bad or mediocre -– it must revisit the technical definitions that govern the types of beer it will support.

For a decade, they've been prickly-to-antagonistic toward craft, but now have moved tentatively into agnosticism.

CAMRA should seek to promote awareness and understanding of the different factors that contribute to beer quality, to help consumers make an informed judgement about the relative merits of different types of beer. It should do this while advocating and promoting well - produced, well - kept cask - conditioned ale as the pinnacle of the brewer’s craft and campaigning for traditional British beer styles to be safeguarded and celebrated. In practice, this means that CAMRA should ... permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.

Well, good for CAMRA--this is an obvious move. But why did it take so long?

Beer is a funny beverage. Although alcoholic, it's not much like Twisted Tea or gin. Beer is both a beverage knitted into society, and also an expression of society. Civilized humans have literally always made beer. They've drunk it together, sometimes in circles, from straws, sometimes in pubs or beer halls. It helps bind them together. They have used it as ritual and sacrament. Beer acts, as the whiskery old men of CAMRA demonstrate, as an affirmation: this is who we are.

Beer has become something like a sacred beverage to people all over the globe. And of course, any time you have something sacred, it means there's a vast world out there of the profane. Beer must be made and consumed in a particular way. To do anything else violates this sense of the sacred. This dichotomy doesn't emerge arbitrarily, though. Sacred things are those which protect and nurture the group; profane ones endanger it. In the case of cask ale, CAMRA issued an edict about the nature of British beer. They did this to create a very clear inner circle of protection: this is the thing we're talking about, and these are the things that endanger it.

In the US--as is our wont--we invented our own religion called "craft" beer and wrote up a theology for it, too. It was less about the specific type of beer made than who owned the means of production. Violators were excommunicated. The stain of ownership by the wrong group was so polluting members could not stay in the group. For the Brewers Association, this is an existential issue (and, I'd argue, pretty accurately so). Drawing these lines means protecting a strain of brewing from extinction.

One of my favorite beer stories involves the arrival of pale lager in Munich. Munich was, for centuries, a dark lager town. It was the sacred local beer, the one that both defined who Munichers were and bound them together in sacrament over mugs at the beer halls. There was an interloping type of lager from neighboring Bohemia, pale and coruscating, that had created an international sensation--one Munich ignored for five decades. So whenSpaten finally brewed the first batch of what they called a "helles," the local brewers guild went crazy. It nearly created a schism. (The great irony of this story is that the Bohemians had imported not only Bavarian lager-brewing when they invented pilsner, but imported a Bavarian to brew it.) It's hard to read that history and not smell the aroma of religious fervor.

There's no real point here except the observation that these passions are deep and real in beer. They may seem silly in the moment--CAMRA has suffered many guffaws as it's flailed about--but it's actually one of the wonders of this simple drink. It is so important to us that we sacralize beer--and profane anyone who dare challenge it. To those beyond the faith, this kind of devotion always seems silly. But the devotion has its uses; after all, cask ale is still with us. 

Jeff Alworth5 Comments