5 Reasons Real Ale is Political

Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 10:55 UTC 20 comments

I’m getting annoyed at people who try to depoliticise life. Not that life should be about boring politics, just that trying to make out that there is nothing political about mundane stuff is really dangerous, because it leads us to forget the impacts we’re having. Well, it slightly randomly occurred to me that, if beer is the cause and solution to all life’s problems, perhaps I should think about the politics of it. This is either 5 reasons to drink Real Ale, or 5 things that, if you don’t agree with them, you probably shouldn’t be drinking it.

  1. Typically, it reduces food miles. Most micro-breweries sell most of their output within, say, a 50 mile radius of their brewery (maybe that’s a little small). Often its possible to buy a beer that has travelled only a few miles, and has not had added route miles visiting depots and the like.
  2. Such businesses are smaller and therefore, in theory, more sustainable and therefore they can hopefully listen to their employees better. A few are even cooperatives and I suspect there’s probably a community interest co. out there.
  3. Product diversity and cultural variation/respect. Lets compare with a Starbucks. Your Starbucks coffee is part of a business model which relies on working towards total market domination through mass-production and global mono-cultural uniformity. Your beer is brewed differently from all the others, and you can excite yourself by discovering something different when you holiday in a different area, with names that often reflect local culture/history. Your airport Starbucks is the same whichever place you touch down
  4. There’s a growing trend towards organic. Admittedly this one isn’t a reason to consume all Real Ales, but it shows scope for improvement.
  5. You stand a chance of meeting the people responsible for your beer, allowing you to say thank you. Unlike other products, where producers are replaced by characters in adverts, with whom we can only ever have truly shallow relationships.

So, there you go, a few suggestions on why something as ordinary and enjoyable as the pint is actually a quite intensely political choice. Choose local, organic, small, sustainable, diverse and personal.

Tomorrow, 5 reasons your choice of toilet roll is political… OK, maybe not!


Entry filed under: Community, Culture, Economics, Environment, Politics, Sustainability, Workers.

Latin: Inclusion or Exclusion? You don’t say

20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter  |  Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 18:30 UTC

    Interesting ideas.

    Not sure about point 1 though. Most pubs which serve real ale serve a selection of them from all over the country. So while I might enjoy Black Sheep one evening, I will just as readily enjoy Caledonian Deuchars the next.
    Most standard beer sold in the UK is brewed here (even the ‘Australian’ Fosters). And I would be inclined to presume that bigger breweries would have more efficient distribution networks than small ones with half-filled lorries driving around.

    Also, there’s the danger that once you discover the wide variety of real ale flavours, you move on to fancy Belgian and continental beers – which definitely aren’t brewed in the UK! (this is certainly what has happened to me).

  • 2. Peter  |  Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 18:52 UTC

    A couple of thoughts on Starbucks:

    Of course Starbucks is trying to dominate the market, but so are all the other coffee chains. One positive side effect of this is that in most decent sized towns, you are never too far away from great coffee in comfortable surroundings.

    By showing that there is a demand for good coffee, it has encouraged lots of smaller cafes to invest in those nice Italian coffee machines as well. I remember the dark days before Starbucks, when coffee in most cafes meant a spoonful of instant nescafe (toxic sludge). If you get served toxic nescafe these days then people shudder and adopt a stiff upper lip, as if they have been thrown back in time to a more ugly age.

    I reckon there are more cosy niche cafes around nowadays than a few years ago.

  • 3. theprogressiveprophet  |  Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 20:23 UTC

    The problem with real ale (for me, at least) is that so few makes seem to be vegetarian/vegan, and many simply do not say altogether whether they are suitable for such diets or not. I think that gives it another political edge, because vegetarianism is also a form of resistance against capitalism, violence, and environmental negligence.

    It’s nothing that a bit of time on the internet for research wouldn’t fix, I suppose, but provided one can make a good list of those real ales which *are* veggie friendly, then make that a sixth reason!!

  • 4. Neil T.  |  Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 22:56 UTC

    Other things:

    1. With the possible exception of Wetherspoons, most pubs which serve real ale tend to be small businesses run by local people. So you’re helping the local economy in two ways – drinking local beer in a place owned by local people.

    2. Bottled beer, when bought from shops, may have travelled somewhat further than the cask beer served in pubs. While there are hundreds of micro-breweries, the majority do not have the capability to to bottle their own beers and so the beer may get casked up and then carted some distance to be bottled. Even medium-sized breweries like the Black Sheep Brewery do this.

    3. There are some ‘Fairtrade’ beers which manage to call themselves fairtrade by adding imported fairtrade honey (as an example). I can’t say I wholeheartedly support the idea as it does mean that the honey has to be shipped over from a third world country, and it gives the brand a bit of an unfair advantage over other British beers which, as they’re brewed in Britain, don’t really need to be Fairtrade. Organic beer is another issue and one that I broadly support.

  • 5. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 23:24 UTC

    Brilliant thoughts, “do keep those messages coming in” as they say! Anyhow, some responses:
    Adam: Given Guiness isn’t Veggie either, this afflicts both mass and real ale together.
    Peter: While its true that several hand-pulled ales are served nationwide, I really consider myself to be ‘Real Ale Drinking’ when I’m drinking micro-brewery stuff. But you’re right that not everyone in York is ecologically minded enough (nor have they good enough taste) to drink only York Brewery Ale (I should get paid for the advertising!). But mostly the distances are lower, unless you actually live in Burton on Trent I suppose.
    Neil: The Honey Ale stuff does puzzle me, and I take your point; the overall moral balance is probably with the local brewery down the road. That said, just because something is produced in the UK, doesn’t mean its without injustices. UK Farmers aren’t always paid a decent wage, and Tesco’s are now doing an ‘FairTrade’ milk!

  • 6. Greg  |  Tuesday, 4th September 2007 at 8:19 UTC

    TPP, how exactly is vegetarianism a form of resistance against capitalism?

  • 7. duck  |  Tuesday, 4th September 2007 at 12:15 UTC

    teetotal vegan writes:
    being veg*n can perhaps be an effort to ameliorate some of the nastier excesses of capitalism. factory farming is an amazing demonstration of the ability of profit to overrule basic human decency. Also, veg*n food is often (though not necessarily) cheaper, & more environmentally sound – better stewardship of resources.
    Veg*ns have made a concious choice to consider what they eat – for many people then this will have been an environmentally & socially conscious decision. I don’t think that being vegan is necessarily ‘better’ than other outcomes of a decision made with such things in mind – for example if I was in a position to care for rescued battery chickens, feed them on scraps, & eat their eggs, that would be a better use of resources than packaged processed soya milk from Tescos. But I do think that considering what you eat, along with everything else, can be a ‘form of resistance’.

  • 8. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 4th September 2007 at 17:12 UTC

    Oh dear, here we go… 😛

  • 9. Peter  |  Tuesday, 4th September 2007 at 19:12 UTC

    Guzzler is great but (and I realise this might be heresy) the other York Brewery ones are good but no better than many other ales.

    The best local beer for York is Rooster.

  • 10. Greg  |  Tuesday, 4th September 2007 at 21:35 UTC

    Hmm, it smells to me like people are applying the label ‘capitalism’ to all the stuff they don’t like, when it’s actually broader than that.

    As it happens, I agree with Peter. Terrier’s good but othing particularly special, Guzzler’s amazing and Centurion’s very nice too.

  • 11. Jonathan  |  Wednesday, 5th September 2007 at 9:44 UTC

    alcoholic vegetarian writes:

    I think Greg’s right on the money (so to speak…) with regard to “capitalism”. green and blacks is no less capitalist than Nestle; similarly your local microbrewery is no less capitalist than Fosters, and organic soya sausages no less than McDonalds. capitalism is a social relationship existing on every level of society, not a convenient label to put on those businesses we’ve singled out as “evil.” it’s easy to boil anti-capitalism down to a vague opposition to a handful of corporations or practices, but I don’t see that as particularly useful.

    the whole “local produce only” thing is a bit of a mistake as well, in my view. capitalism requires growth – Sainsburys began life as a single shop in Holborn, similarly Morrisons used to be a butter and egg shop. the big, nasty, exploitative businesses we’re against today used to be the corner shop we’ll stand in front of a bulldozer to defend. while community struggles may involve tactical alliances with small business (e.g. Tony’s Cafe in Hackney), I don’t see any reason to put faith in “buy local” – all it does is empower small time capitalists and potentially create the next generation of big time ones.

    in general I just feel that the lifestylist approach – let’s focus on what consumer choices we make as a means of changing the world – is misdirected. at best it means either a smaller capitalist enterprise getting my money instead of a larger one, or potentially none of them getting any of it. I’m sure Bill Gates will be crying himself to sleep at the £80 he isn’t getting cos I’m not buying office 2007. but somehow, I think he’ll survive.

    a bit ago I was talking to an African-American (this is relevant) who was in the UK for a bit, who had been involved in various anti-racist groups. one thing he found intensely frustrating was dealing with middle class white kids from liberal backgrounds who had internalised the whole “white guilt” concept. result being they’d run seminars and sensitivity trainings (under another name and with some “radical” gloss, but essentially the same shite businesses make employees sit through) and encourage everybody to confront their own prejudices and all the usual fluffy stuff. in the meantime, the KKK, Aryan Nations, the Minutemen and suchlike were growing in influence. sure, we should be able to critique and modify our own behaviour in line with our politics – no question. but ultimately, my consumer decisions mean dick all in the real world, and I don’t see any point in spending my time on navel-gazing moralism and consumer politics when ultimately it isn’t consumers making the decisions that run the world.

    on your specific points:
    1. I’m curious – do the microbreweries obtain all their ingredients locally, or is it only that they have a limited supply chain and so only deliver locally? also, what Greg said – does each one do its own deliveries or do they band together?

    2. I’m curious – what “theory” says small businesses are more sustainable and treat employees better?

    3. Fair enough, more diverse products always good – tho politicising what’s essentially a demand for a greater variety of consumer goods seems a bit odd.

    4. Fair enough.

    5. True, tho personally I don’t feel I’m missing out on much by not meeting and knowing everybody responsible for everything I consume.

    apologies if I seem grouchy, dissertation does that to me.

    – Jonathan

  • 12. theprogressiveprophet  |  Wednesday, 5th September 2007 at 10:01 UTC

    It’s true that all major corporations initially had to make a start as small businesses; but all we can really do is address the situation as it stands. Capitalism may be an inescapable way of life, but we can at least minimise our dependence upon the larger-scale structures which found themselves on its excesses. We shouldn’t try and compare the thrust of the issue with the purity by which we succeed in attaining it.

  • 13. Helen  |  Wednesday, 5th September 2007 at 15:12 UTC

    Tea drinking omnivore writes:
    Firstly, interesting BBC article on a man who did without brands for a year:
    Secondly, gah, so many twists and turns to shopping ethically. There was a not-very-nice report on Channel 4 news about a Fairtrade tea plantation where the workers said they didn’t really think things were any better, which is rather disheartening.
    As for the small businesses thing, I think it’s not that they try to be more ethical, it’s just that they can’t afford not to be, to some extent anyway – they have to look after the employees they have rather than having a high turnover, and it’s cheaper to buy more locally.

  • 14. Duck  |  Wednesday, 5th September 2007 at 16:06 UTC

    I was trying to explain the previous poster’s comments (perhaps not such a good idea), rather than specifically agreeing with them.
    For me then being vegan isn’t so much of an ‘anticapitalist’ thing as it is to do with non-violence, and with respect for Creation and right use of resources.

    Jonny – I agree with you that small businesses aren’t necessarily less inherently ‘capitalist’ than large. But I think that’s missing the point. I’m sure you think I’m a wet liberal, but I do think that there’s a difference between choosing to buy Traidcraft chocolate to Nestle (apart from Traidcraft being proper chocolate & nicer). If I get a veg-box from a local farm, I can go off to the farm & have a look at it & see that they are trying to do things like leave hedges in & benefit wildlife & the like, whereas legally Tescos is *only* allowed to consider maximising shareholder profits, not hedgehogs or carbon emissions or creating stable employment (except so far as these things produce good PR or otherwise help the bottom line). There’s a direct benefit there.

    I also think you are being OTT if you think that every small business necessarily wants to expand & take over the world. IME lots of them just want to provide the owner & maybe other people with a job. Most corner shops don’t turn into Tesco, most local bike shops don’t turn into Halfords *spits*, most DIY shops don’t aspire to be B&Q. Local small businesses have responsibilities other than maximising shareholder value, & IME some regard being responsible to staff and customers as important in a way that a national chain *can’t*, even if it wanted to. It’s not quite ‘putting the means of production into the hands of the workers’ but if your boss lives on your street in the same sort of house as you then it’s a lot closer. I agree that small businesses aren’t *necessarily* better, but IME they’ve been better to work for, and your employer is more accountable if you make each other cups of tea than if you are on opposite sides of the world. Not perfect, but maybe an improvement.

    Part of what my Dad does is pitching new tech-based start-ups to venture capitalists (think like the TV programme Dragon’s Den). One thing that comes up a lot is what the owners of the new business want out of it. It’s a common ‘problem’ for the venture capitalists that once people have made enough to live comfortably off from their invention, they stop trying to grow the business – most people do actually stop at a lifestyle that is perhaps well above the UK average, but isn’t necessarily aiming to be a billionaire. Unfortunately it’s the minority who do want to make money for its own sake without end who own most things.

    I agree that ‘ethical consumerism’ on its own isn’t the only solution – but it’s not worthless either. It’s not the only thing to do, but it does seem a bit daft to try to change things but then to give most of your money to organisations which you disagree with.

    As for real ale – well, I don’t believe in supporting the alcohol industry, though I do accept that real ale is probably around the least harmful end of it.

  • 15. Danny  |  Thursday, 13th September 2007 at 10:41 UTC

    Hey folks,

    Aha, a discussion to make me feel good about drinking real ale whilst simultaneously pulling my guilt-strings about the fact that I don’t ALWAYS check for its veggieness before I order…

    More seriously, I’m encouraged by how the debate over ethical consumerism is finally becoming a bit more sophisticated: yes, we should do our best to minimise our own negative impacts and try to support organisations that are doing positive things, but we can’t pretend that this will ever be enough to solve the huge social and environmental problems that we face.

    To be fair, I’m pretty sure that Graham wasn’t trying to say “buy real ale and all the problems with alcohol production will be solved – hooray!”, he was simply making the point that practically everything we do in our lives has political connotations, which isn’t quite the same thing; Jonathan’s response was therefore a little harsh (although he made some very good points). On the other hand, this is a really important debate and I’m always pleased to see it getting a thoughtful airing.

    For example, there’s been some interesting stuff on grist.org lately:


    …although to my mind this recent-ish edition of the New Internationalist said it all, really (“Ethical Shopping: A Magic Bullet To Save The Planet?”) – anyone who’s interested in these issues should definitely check it out:


    Anyway. I’d better get back to working / dreaming about a nice pint of Old Badger…

  • 16. Graham Martin  |  Saturday, 15th September 2007 at 21:27 UTC

    Danny: “buy real ale and all the problems with alcohol production will be solved – hooray!”
    That be as in “Beer – the… Solution to all life’s problems” wouldn’t it? Is Old Badger local to you? Can you introduce me when I’m next ‘in town’?

    Ceri: RE: your point about local/small businesses having different interests, that’s exactly what I was getting at with small breweries. And you’re right, I do often wonder why so few leftists have managed to criticise alcohol producers. Starbucks, grrrr. Fosters, cheers. Doesn’t hang together (they both appropriate ancient concepts).
    And you’re right when you say about it being a minority that want a business model which will conquer the world: people had been opening coffee houses for a century or two before someone came along and created Starbucks. What’s particularly interesting is that Howard Schulz set Starbucks up with friends, quit when they ‘didn’t get it’, set up a new coffee house on his fundamentalist predatory growth strategy, and eventually bought out Starbucks, assuming the brand for all his own shops and firing his mates. The guy is a meglomaniac.
    Just because my local indy coffee house isn’t a community interest cooperative hippy-heaven co and employs people for not much above minimum wage, doesn’t mean visiting them is as bad as going to Starbucks.

  • 17. The Mystery of Popularity « Graham’s Grumbles  |  Tuesday, 18th September 2007 at 17:19 UTC

    […] 5 Reasons Real Ale is Political. This was only a few weeks ago, and yet its drawn 71 viewings and several comments. […]

  • 18. Evil capitalist!  |  Sunday, 23rd September 2007 at 1:31 UTC

    Real Ale drinking, capitalist conservative omnivore;

    Real Ale tastes great, and thank you Graham for giving me an ethical reason to drink it as well as ‘because I like it.’

    As for you preachy vegetarians and vegans out there, we have four canine teeth for a reason, and in case you haven’t noticed, a strict vegan diet is not healthy or balanced as you lack certain essential vitamins. I’m all for vegetarianism and I have a lot of respect for you guys as I love eating dead animal and wouldn’t give it up for the world. However, please don’t bring capitalism into it. I’m sick to the back teeth of twisted reasoning and people lecturing me about what I should and shouldn’t do.

    A good example is the National Blood Service. Whilst I fundamentally disagree with the reasoning behind not accepting the blood of practising gay men, that doesn’t stop me giving blood. Because by giving blood you are not showing your support for a bigotted homophobic regime, you are saving people’s lives. I’ve given 13 pints so far in my lifetime so it’s a good bet that I’ve saved several lives and probably contributed to medical research. So that the next time a vegan needs a blood transfusion because they have severe anaemia or cut themselves on a can of fairtrade-something-or-other they can have some of my bigotted, conservative, capitalist, meat-and-coca-cola-infected blood. Or maybe said vegan can take iron supplements? Except they can’t because they are made by some big, evil, capitalist pharmaceutical company.

    Then there is all this rubbish about vaccinations. Because they are made by the big, evil companies too, and they ‘aren’t natural.’ Well, maybe we could all do it the natural way and catch measles instead? Which kills people, BTW.

    Please cut the crap, all of you. It’s easy to sit here in our free, privilaged country where we are healthy and have as much food to eat as we could ever want, and bang on about capitalism and how you’re so much holier than me with your lefty nonsense. Because big companies provide lots and lots of jobs, so that people can pay their taxes. Which means that when all of the ‘holier-than-thou-vegan-lefty-look-at-me-I-work-for-minimum-wage-and-my-job-is-so-much-more-worthy-than-yours’ people fall ill or find themselves out of a job, there is a health service and a benefit system to support them. Oh yeah, and it’ll be us evil capitalist omnivores covering the cost. And paying for your children to go to university to do their degrees. And paying your family allowance.

    Oooooh, I could bang on about this all night.

  • 19. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 23rd September 2007 at 3:33 UTC

    Yes, I know you could! Mostly fair points though, and I suspect you’d be surprised by how much I agree with you on, though I could (post-sleep) pick at a few of your points and I’m sure the resident Vegan(s) would have their own contributions.

  • 20. 5 Reasons Sharing Food is Political « Graham’s Grumbles  |  Wednesday, 27th May 2009 at 8:10 UTC

    […] to long time readers of this blog. On the 3rd September 2007 I wrote a blog post entitled “5 Reasons Real Ale is Political” and it remains in my top 15 posts of all […]


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