‘Beer’s for drinking, not for sipping...’
Last updated at 12:28, Saturday, 30 April 2011
Alan Welsh lifts a pint glass to his mouth and takes a sip. No surprise there. After all, Alan is chairman of the Solway branch of Camra – the Campaign for Real Ale.
He has held this position – a classic combination of business and pleasure – for 30 years and is possibly the longest-serving chair in Camra.
So what are you supping, Alan? It looks a bit... clear.
“It’s water,” he says, apologetically. “I don’t tend to drink during the day.”
There are plenty of reasons for Alan to raise a glass of something stronger, should he feel the urge.
As well as his three decades at the helm, there is the Solway branch’s 35th birthday and also the big one – Camra has just turned 40.
Those who like good beer and good pubs have much to thank the organisation for.
Camra is one of the UK’s most successful pressure groups. It has played a major role in such campaigns as extending pub opening hours, supporting rural pubs and – most of all – improving the quality of the nation’s ale.
The Solway branch covers north Cumbria and is thriving with 350 members. There are also West Cumbria, Westmorland and Furness branches.
Alan remembers the good old days, which weren’t that good for drinkers.
He was at the first Solway branch meeting, in the Woolpack on Milbourne Street, Carlisle, in February 1976.
He was 20, and had been introduced to the joys of proper beer by a colleague at Carlisle City Council who had been talking about “this real ale stuff”.
“I’d never heard of it. At my age you never encountered real ale. He took us out to the Rose and Crown at Low Hesket.
“We tried the beer there. I thought ‘This is quite good.’
“The first branch meeting was absolutely packed. At that time there was hardly any good beer in Carlisle, and in a lot of the country. Keg beer was being made by the six big brewing companies that dominated the market.
“When the branch was formed there were only four pubs in Carlisle that sold real ale. You could only get Younger’s Scotch Bitter, Jennings mild and Jennings bitter.”
Camra folk can spend many an hour discussing the differences between keg beer – bad – and cask beer – good.
Keg beer is filtered to remove the yeast and pasteurised to make it sterile and give a long shelf life. The beer is put in a metal container – a keg – and dispatched to pubs.
Real ale lovers feel these processes remove flavour. They certainly remove the natural carbon dioxide in the beer, which is made fizzy with an injection of Co2.
“Real ale is much, much smoother to drink,” says Alan, a retired accountant from Stanwix, Carlisle. “There’s a lot more variety of tastes. Keg beer tends to taste very much the same. Which appeals to some people – we’re not saying everybody should drink real ale.
“I can always tell the difference. Keg beer is much colder. You can taste and smell carbon dioxide. It has a gassy feel. It just doesn’t taste the same. It doesn’t have as much taste. It’s like eating processed cheese as opposed to cheese you would buy from a proper cheese farm.”
Camra was founded by four friends disillusioned with the dominance of the market by the biggest national brewing companies which pushed keg beer, displacing smaller, local breweries from pubs.
“It was probably easier to sell keg beer because it doesn’t take any looking after. Real ale’s not difficult to look after but it has a short shelf life. You need to sell it within three or four days of putting the cask on sale. Maybe the accountants were looking at less wastage.”
In the 1970s life was hard for the discerning drinker. Alan and his friends would research pubs that served cask beer, otherwise known as real ale. They would catch trains to Preston or Lancaster; drive to the Rose and Crown at Low Hesket or a hotel in Ecclefechan that sold Theakston’s.
The turning point came in the 1980s when the power of the ‘Big Six’ brewers was diluted, partly thanks to a Camra campaign.
“We’ve got rid of some nasty keg beers,” says Alan. “Watney’s Red...”
The number of breweries in the UK has more than quadrupled since Camra’s formation. There are now more than 770 real ale breweries making more than 3,000 ales.
Alan reckons there are now 26 breweries in Cumbria. His favourite pint is “The one I’ve got in front of me at the time.”
He expresses particular affection for Geltsdale Brewery at Brampton and Hesket Newmarket Brewery, especially their Great Cockup.
His favourite pubs include The King’s Head in Carlisle, The Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket and The Cumberland at Alston.
Alan also likes Wetherspoons pubs for their range of real ales, and their vouchers for new Camra members.
The organisation has more than 100,000 members and real ale is very much in the mainstream, which has driven up standards.
“Things have changed a lot. From having a handful of pubs that sold real ale, now it’s difficult to find a pub that doesn’t do it.
“We’ve campaigned quite vociferously about quality as well. If you went back 30 years the quality of real ale in some pubs sometimes left a lot to be desired.
“Now the quality ranges from good to excellent. I can’t remember the last time I had a beer that was poor.”
Of course there’s more to a pub than the beer.
Alan rattles off “friendly service, the decor has to be appropriate to the pub, the clientele – things like the language that people come out with. I don’t particularly want to hear people swearing.
“Probably the beer is the most important thing.”
Camra has done its bit to help pubs by campaigning to reduce the duty they pay, so helping their struggle with supermarkets’ buying power.
But Camra’s heartland, the traditional British boozer, is fighting against social as well as economic trends.
“We’ve become more insular,” says Alan. “People don’t mix as much as they used to.
“I think people will pay a bit extra to go somewhere they can relax and enjoy themselves in company. It’s about creating the right atmosphere.
“The Wheatsheaf at Wetheral was struggling. Now it’s got a new young couple in and it’s the centre of the community. Maybe it’s the way the publican runs the pub. Having a beer. Having a conversation with friends. It’s quite a pleasant way to spend time.”
To the outsider, a Camra member is a bearded, beer-bellied creature who carefully sips each drink before issuing a declaration of its quality. Alan does not recognise most of this description.
“You might get somebody that picks up a glass, sniffs it, and says ‘That smells hoppy.’ But that’s always followed by a slurp. I think beer’s for drinking, not for sipping.”
Most members of the Solway branch are men, but by no means all. Alan’s wife Mairi is a member, with a preference for cider over beer.
The youngest Solway member is 18 with most in their 40s and 50s. Many members gather at monthly socials and at Carlisle Beer Festival in the Hallmark Hotel in October.
The festival is open to all. Real ale drinkers might slurp rather than sip but they tend not to slurp to excess.
“Generally people are sociable. You see them walking around with a half-pint glass and a programme, ticking it off. We’re enjoying the beer, not going out to get drunk. There is a difference.”
For more information about Camra visit www.camra.org.uk
First published at 08:57, Saturday, 30 April 2011
Published by http://www.newsandstar.co.uk
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