My conversion came after moving down to Cambridge. It happened in the front bar of the "old" Cambridge Arms. My companion was drinking Abbot Ale or, should I say, gurgling his way ecstatically through his pint. It was very clear that he was deriving infinitely more pleasure from his beer than I was from my inoffensive but tasteless Harp. So, I decided to give beer a second chance and, lo, it was indeed wonderful. Now, Abbot certainly was a cracking beer in those days (the early 1980s); it dipped in form subsequently though it has more recently come back to something near its old best. However, it was never an "easy" beer; it has masses of flavour and a good hoppy smack, so a huge contrast to a bland low-gravity lager.
What has prompted me to reflect on my personal Road to Damascus is a recent discussion with some CAMRA colleagues, including a member of the National Executive, Robin Lacey (a splendid chap who invariably lends a hand at our own Beer Festival despite hailing all the way from York). We were talking about big brewery beers and the fact that most of their real ales are, shall we say, unchallenging to the tastebuds.
Robin argued cogently that there is a place for such non-assertive ales as they often form the first rung on a person's real ale ladder. His contention is that people accustomed to drinking lager or keg beer will find the kind of highly-flavoured, often very hoppy, beers that CAMRA members prefer too much of a shock to their systems. They need to be led gently towards the holy grail and something like John Smiths or Flowers is an easy first step. Having got onto the ladder, they can then work their way up through the flavour spectrum until they're finally ready to cope with the likes of Oakham JHB or Holts Bitter. Robin says he has used this system with former keg drinkers and it works.
If Robin is right then CAMRA should in fact be campaigning to draw attention to precisely those "bland" real ales on which it has traditionally poured scorn as they have a valuable role to play in moving people onto the path of drinking righteousness. But - is the argument sound? My own experience would suggest otherwise, as it was the very difference that attracted me, not the similarity. Also, I've blind-tasted cask John Smiths and the "smooth" keg version side by side and honestly couldn't tell them apart - they were equally boring.
So, my appeal to you, dear ALE reader, is to tell me of your own journey of enlightenment, especially if you've a fellow convert. Were you weaned onto real ale gradually, starting with the less demanding variants? Or was there a particular moment when illumination occurred? Or was it something different or in between that did the trick? Please let me know - contact details.