ALE Winter 2002/2003 No. 308

Quantity or quality?

Two recent happenings might have been expected to render me dejected about the future for real ale.

First was the announcement that last year real ale only accounted for 8.1% of beer sales. Second was a wander round the pubs of Romsey Town in Cambridge where I found that half of the six pubs had no real cask beer. In actual fact, I believe the real ale drinker, both locally and nationally, has never had it so good, provided he or she knows where to go and what to choose.

Those national figures might seem gloomy, given that ten years ago the percentage was nearly double what it is today. However, back then, 80% of real ale was brewed by the Big Six brewers, and much of it was pretty miserable stuff.

The Big Six have now become the Big Four (Coors, Scottish Courage, Interbrew, and Carlsberg-Tetley) and account for only 40% of today's cask beer. The big boys have largely lost interest in properly-crafted traditional ales, preferring to put their marketing muscle behind more easily hyped products like lager and nitrokeg.

Meanwhile the regional and craft breweries have mostly seen their real ale sales increase within the overall declining market. The likes of Greene King, Fullers, Youngs and Adnams are brewing more ale than ever before, while the number of microbreweries continues to grow at a rapid rate. What's happening is that we real ale drinkers have become more sophisticated in our demands. We're no longer prepared to be fobbed off with bland nonentities like Worthington Best, John Smiths and Flowers IPA.

The shift has been to the tastier, more distinctive beers which are mainly the province of the medium-sized to smaller brewer.

Looking through the new local pub guide, there are refreshingly few pubs where all that's on offer are "national blands", whereas ten years ago pubs offering such selections were legion.

At this point I should stress that not all the beers produced by the Big Four are wishy-washy mediocrities. Ironically, some of the best of these ales are ones which have shifted brewery in the wake of constant rationalisation by the Nationals. Courage Directors, for instance, has improved hugely since moving from Bristol to Tadcaster, while Draught Burton Ale hasn't suffered (in my view) from its translation to Leeds. The new Tetley Imperial is a solid performer, and Theakstons Old Peculiar has always been a belter of a beer. Coors are investing in Worthington. But I digress.

Back to the second potential cause of dismay, my Romsey ramble. The three pubs with not a drop of cask beer between them were the Duke of Argyle, the Jubilee and the Royal Standard, all Pubmaster-owned. The last had two handpumps with pumpclips facing the customer but with little home-made labels in the centre of each one saying "not sold"! (In the days of the redoubtable Arthur Cooper, this was one of the city's prime ale pubs and was, incidentally, where I attended my first CAMRA meeting.)

The good news, of course, is that the other three pubs did offer real ale. The Earl of Beaconsfield had Adnams and Pedigree; I'm told that since my visit it has improved even further. The Brook had four Greene King beers served in pleasant surroundings.

Best of all, the Empress in Thoday Street had Landlord, Pedigree, Castle Eden and a couple of guest beers - and was also by far the busiest of the pubs. The main point I'm making is that anyone living in Romsey doesn't have far to go to find a decent pint, so the fact that three of the pubs are all-keg is of little real consequence.

We in CAMRA have been guilty in the past of handpump-counting - i.e. assuming that the more pubs there are selling real ale, the better. Personally, I'd much rather have 50% of the pubs in a town offering the real thing, but in consistently good order, than 100% with a handpump but with standards varying widely.

Recent years have seen quite a few Cambridge pubs (mostly Pubmaster ones) ditch real ale, but none of them had previously shown any genuine interest in the product, so (given that the worst advert for real ale is poor real ale) I'm pleased they've done so.

Only when a licensee is committed to and serious about cask beer are you likely to get something worth drinking. By my calculations, at any one time you can find around 100 different real ales on sale in Cambridge, mostly quality beers in quality condition. Plenty of choice, too, in the surrounding countryside.

Accordingly, I'll continue to look on the bright side.

Paul Ainsworth

[Previous review for this area: No Frills Drill Still in Mill Road in ALE 284.]

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