It happened, I’m guessing, about the time that the first wave of Camra members were hitting their late 50s and early 60s, that is, at the beginning of this century. If “real ale” had been pejorated almost from the beginning as the drink of men with beards, generally accompanied by sandals, soon after the millennium the cliché became old men with beards, sitting in a corner of the pub clutching a half-filled glass of something tepid, lifeless and tan-coloured in their wrinkled, liver-spotted hands.
Rooney Anand, viridian monarch at Greene King, seems to have been one of the first to favour the expression, complaining in 2002: “It’s time to explode the myth that real ale is for old men with beards. It’s not, it’s for everyone.”
Since then, the meme has trundled on, gathering speed: “Cockermouth brewer Jennings hopes to use Cask Beer Week to shatter the stereotype that bearded old men are the only ones who drink real ale” (Times and Star, Cumbria, September 2004); “real ale … seen as only for old men with beards and beer bellies” (BBC website, December 2005); “pubs full of old men with beards who drink real ale” (Farmers’ Weekly, April 2008); ” real ale drinkers … smelly old men with beards” (Metro, October 2008); “Normally when people think real ale, they picture old men with far too much facial hair, reeking of pipe smoke” (Metro again, August 2011); “real ale drinkers … crusty old men with beards” Hull Daily Mail, October 2011; “Real ale … for old men with beards and woolly jumpers” (Scotland on Sunday, October 2011); “real ale … a flat, warm brown liquid that old men with beards drink” (Bristol Evening Post, April 2012); you’re getting the idea.
Now, I’ve been entitled to a Boris buspass since the middle of last year, so objectively it’s hard for me to deny that by almost any measure I currently fit in the category “old”; and I also have a beard, albeit a scrubby goatee worn in a vain (in two senses) attempt to hide my lack of a chin. So I’m an “old man with a beard”. And I drink cask ale. But I’ve been drinking cask ale since the 1970s, when I was a young man, without a beard (and with much more hair on my head). And at that time, vast numbers – half or more – of Camra members were under 30, like me, and like the organisation’s founders, who had been in their mid-20s in 1971 when the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale kicked off. So there was no suggestion then that you had to be at or near bus pass age to sign up for a pint of cask beer when handpumps suddenly started popping up again in the thousands of pubs from which they had been untimely ripped just a few years before. Indeed, it was precisely because the Camra demographic was seen as young (and more than averagely affluent) that big brewers such as Allied, Bass and Grand Met decided cask ale was worth all the trouble, and stuck it back on the bartop.
Today, however, as Camra closes in on 150,000 members, fewer than 10 per cent of those members are under 30, and fewer than one in 20 is under 26, which is what I was when I joined. That’s one reason why real ale became associated with old men: because the young men who drank it in the 1970s are still drinking it after 30 or more years, but they are now 30 or more years older themselves, and thus in their 50s and 60s. And it’s hard for anyone young now to look at an old man, with or without beard, and imagine him decades younger, with a young man’s enthusiasm for the same causes he still embraces today. Surely old people’s pleasures are not the same as young people’s? And doesn’t something being an old person’s pleasure invalidate it as a pleasure for someone much younger? Isn’t this why we keep having to be told that real ale is not just for old feckers with too much chin-fuzz, but everybody?
Of course, people’s pleasures actually barely change from their youth as they pile up the years and wrinkle like a shar pei, which ought to be obvious, but seems not to be. You might add on a few more likes, such as malt whisky and Frank Sinatra, neither of which I really understood until I was well past 25, and lose a few of the stranger ones, such as wearing brown corduroy and too-tight tanktops, but pretty much all of the things I enjoyed when I was just out of university I still enjoy now: playing music far too loudly (except that today it’s my daughter who complains, rather than my parents); bacon and brown sauce sandwiches; and sitting in pubs drinking cask ale with friends.
I don’t, to be honest, understand where this cringe about having to apologise because old men drink real ale comes from. You don’t see “Football – it’s not just for old men with scarves and inflatable seat cushions,” or “Photography – it’s not just for old men with a string of failed relationships with former models and actresses.” And I don’t like the feeling that perhaps I ought to be defensive about being both born back in the early months of our current monarch’s reign, and a real ale drinker; that the unpopularity of Britain’s great contribution to the world of fermentation is my fault; that it’s the image of my grey-goateed face poised over a pint of cask beer which is putting people half my age and less off the idea of rushing to embrace the joys of craft XXX themselves; that if I really cared about real ale, as an old man with a beard I ought to be seen in public only sipping glasses of Wincarnis.
Frankly, feck yez – if you’re going to be put off something because old people do it, let me tell you a truth terrible and dark: old people also have sex. There – urgh. Doesn’t that thought put you right off your muesli?
And actually, it’s a crap marketing campaign that brings up the perceived negatives about the product and sticks them front and centre. “The Porsche 911: not just for insecure middle-aged men with too much money and small penises”? Hardly. So if you’re trying to promote real ale, cask ale, craft ale, or any other sort of decent beer, lay off the “not just for old men with beards” line and promote the positives: “Real ale – vastly better than the other muck you might have been conned into drinking until now.” And I say that not as a bearded older man weary at the stereotype, but as an enthusiast for decent beer
Still, I’m not sure whether to applaud or condemn Fownes, the Black Country microbrewers, for their campaign to “take the stereotype of real ale drinkers being boring old men with beards and turn it on it’s [sic] head” with a “Beard of the Year” competition. Though I’m certainly pleased to see that at least a couple of the entrants appear to be not just not old, but not men, either.
However, if you REALLY want beer and beards, I’m afraid the USians seem to be doing it better. The annual Best Beards of Craft Beer contest has just been held: here are the entries and here are the winners. Love the guy with the two-tone beard: I voted for him. And after all, beards and beer have gone together for centuries:
‘There came three men out of the West, their victory to try
And they have taken a solemn oath, poor Barleycorn should die.
They took a plough and ploughed him in, and harrowed clods on his head;
And then they took a solemn oath, poor Barleycorn was dead.
There he lay sleeping in the ground, till rain from the sky did fall:
Then Barleycorn sprang up his head, and so amazed them all.
There he remained till Midsummer, and looked both pale and wan.
Then Barleycorn he got a beard, and so became a man.”
Sir John Barleycorn, traditional.