don't mind if i don't, thanks very much squire

It's warm, it's wet, it's flat, and if it's not careful it's going down the plughole of history. Oliver Bennett on why fewer and fewer punters these days fancy a good old English pint Photographs by Tony Buckingham
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Indy Lifestyle Online
the belly of beery Britain shook with righteous fury last week. Those pesky Eurocrats in Brussels had once more excelled themselves. No, they had not demanded that each pint of Owd Growler ale be served with a sprout - simply that pubs be allowed to sell foreign draught beers. They would oust traditional British beers, some Britons wailed.

But for many, the response was 'don't mind if I do, squire'. For lots of younger boozers have long chosen flashy foreign lagers over British ales. Indeed, it raises the question: is the British real ale community too homespun for its own good? Is our beer, warm, wet, flat and self-righteous, about to go down the plughole of history?

The Great British Beer Festival, which took place last week in London, did little to dispel this fear. There was a beermat-collectors stall, and another outlet selling a range of "Oliver Reed T-shirts". Frolicking Farmer ale made its first appearance and yes, there was a selection of foreign beers. But amid the staggering hordes there was little to indicate that British beer has found a new market.

The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), the festival organiser, was trying hard: "Not All Beards and Sandals" claimed one leaflet. But even though Camra insists that plenty of young people are queuing up to sink jar upon jar of Woodforde's Headcracker, there is an undeniable deficit in both younger people and particularly female drinkers.

"I think the lingering effects of Victorian prudery and the macho pub culture of 20 years ago is to blame for the lack of women," sighs Iain Loe of Camra. "Women also think bitter is fattening - more than lager - or that it's unfeminine."

Some think that real ale is stuck in a rustic furrow of its own making. "Young people want cooler, jazzed-up beer products," says Simon Warburton of Drinks International magazine, adding that the beer success story of the past couple of years has been what the trade calls the "creams": trendily marketed nitrokeg beers such as Caffreys and John Smith's Smooth. (Camra doesn't approve of these, on the basis that it is "dead" beer: a tasteless throwback to the fizzy keg beers that prompted it to set up in 1971.) Certain beers such as Guinness and Boddingtons have overcome the history trap to reach an urban crowd. But many traditional brewers treat beer as if it were a wing of the heritage industry. Consequently, few people outside of the old-fart fraternity drink it.

New brewers are struggling to avoid the old cliches by side-stepping the pub-based market. "Pubs aren't really the outlet we're looking for," sniffs Ewan Eastham of the independent Freedom microbrewery in west London. He sells his beer to glossy restaurants such as Mezzo and the Atlantic Bar and Grill. "In a restaurant, customers appreciate the quality of the beer better," he says. It also becomes accessible to a range of people who might normally avoid pubs.

All may not be lost, however. "Traditional British beer could be made quite exciting," says a spokesman for the Henley Centre for Forecasting, faintly. But how? As Freedom has noticed, one way to turn Brits on to ale appreciation is via the beer list. Belgium has been instrumental in this phenomenon, and smart restaurants offer beer as if it were wine; tasting notes and all. This approach is also prevalent in the US, where it is quite common to see power-lunchers ordering a bottle of chilled Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale from Tadcaster.

There are signs that it is growing here, in restaurants such as Alfred in London's Holborn, which has a list of some 15 beers from the British Isles. "In a way, places like us do help change the image of beer," says Jonathan Rosenthal, the bar manager. "The beer we sell is bottled, packaged nicely and it goes well with food. We get lots of young, professional- type people in their 20s and 30s drinking real ale." The pint-swiller, then, may be overtaken by the bouquet-sniffing connoisseur.

Many people are avoiding pubs as much as beer itself. "A lot of the problem with beer is that pubs are dumps," says Andrew Barr, author of Drink: An Informal Social History. For all its convivial nostalgia, the British pub is often still extremely unattractive, with net curtains, fake Victoriana, sticky carpets, lousy service and territorial customers.

Nothing new there, adds Barr. "The pub has a long history as an exclusion zone. This idea that pubs were where everyone met is nonsense: they were not, and still are not. Over the years, breweries have lost loads of potential customers who can't face going into their pubs."

The Henley Centre for Forecasting has done much confidential research for brewers, which reveals that they are scrabbling around for gimmicks. "At the moment everyone's got an Irish concept, which is basically last year's thing," says a spokesman. "It is," he adds, "a mark of sheer desperation."

One London trend has been for austere bare-floor-board pubs with Mediterranean- type food. Now Bass has created the All Bar One chain which a spokesman calls "a combination of the Continental cafe, the American bar and the British pub." Its 11 branches, mostly converted from High Street banks and shops, are aimed at the High Street mob: 25- to 45-year-old office workers. "They sell wine, champagne, bottled beer and food," says the spokesman. "Hand-pulled ales are not a major point."

But they succeed in attracting women. "You can see what you're getting from outside," adds the spokesman. "We found that places where you can't do that are a big turn-off for ladies." Similar chains are starting to emerge, such as the Pitcher and Piano, again owned by a large brewery. These are pubs reinvented for the ciabatta generation.

The breweries also face more serious long-term competition: drugs. With youth raving on E's and whizz - and often actively avoiding beer - they are losing out on that disposable income.

"Breweries are looking at the drug culture and wondering how they can tap into it," says Barr. "Look at the way alcopops are pushed, with their childish drug imagery, like smiling lemons."

The spokesman for the Henley centre confirms that the breweries have their eyes on drug use; though he is not sure that alcopops will work. "After the fashion subsides all that will be left is an aftertaste of the industry cynically trying to get young people on to alcohol," he says.

With all this competition, it seems small wonder that dear old British beer is struggling. It may be some time before last orders are called on the traditional pint in the old-fashioned pub. But it may for ever remain small beer unless it gets out of its nostalgic ghetto.

DIFFERENT SOAKS FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS

"Old Bestiality" squires: Real beer attracts hirsute chaps with drum-like guts arranged under sweaters and T-shirts. Apt to hold their flatulent brews up to the light and discuss the "original gravity" of Uncle Tom Cobley's Original Sheepdip.

Los Desperados: Mexican beer was the inexplicable cult of 1994, still upheld by office trash in bogus city-centre cantinas. The lime slice, stuffed like a contraceptive into the bottle neck, is a desperate attempt to give the filthy stuff some flavour.

Lager Sagas: The big-session lagers - Carlsberg, Heineken, Carling Black Label et al - are still the fuel of choice for Brit-yobs and represent the triumph of volume over content. Can be drunk for days on end with little effect bar a reddening of. the neck and dumbing of the brain.

Sixpack Stay-at-Homes: Given a huge recent boost by Euro 96, the carry- home crowd like their beers tasteless, tinny and tubular. The widget system, as popularised by Jack Dee in that advert, has bought a much-needed technological mystique to the sofa spud's preferred tipple.

Duty-paid Brigade: Anyone selling a French or Belgian "stubby" (small bottle) may well know someone who owns a white van with a dodgy back axle commonly to be found wobbling up the A21 from Dover. When apprehended by cops the driver claims that the 50,000 Stellas in the back are for "Gran's party".

Bouquet Bores: Upmarket beer pseuds like posh Belgian, French or German imports. Fond of holding goblet-type glass to nose and reciting Jilly Goolden-isms: "Hmm, big peat bogs with a hint of squirrel sweat in this beefy brown". Some British ales starting to creep into this category.

Label Lushes: "Badge" beers are made for sheep-like drinkers who imbibe whatever is trendy. Eschew glasses in favour of bottles, thus turning boozing into an act of product placement. Have swift turnover: last year it was "Ice" lagers, the year before it was "Dry" lagers. Both ousted this year in favour of Czech lagers and, alas, the repellent 'alcopops'.

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