In defence of old men with beards

OMWBAWYIt 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.

Old man with smelly pipe, wooly jumper and too much facial hair
Old man with smelly pipe, woolly jumper and too much facial hair

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.

Tom Maclagan, magnificantly bewhiskered music-hall performer of the song 'Bitter Beer', 1864
Tom Maclagan, magnificantly bewhiskered music-hall performer of the song ‘Bitter Beer’, 1864

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.

28 thoughts on “In defence of old men with beards

  1. We have an excellent collection of portraits of Mayors from the 1800s at my workplace, City Hall. I think the real problem is that we older men, unlike your mutton chopped fellow up there, take no pride in growing really natty long crazy man beards. No one thinks a man who has the equivalent of a frontal pony tail is dull.

  2. 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.

    I’ve been saying this for years – the craft hipsters are the worst offenders, but they aren’t alone. The best you can hope to do is build a customer base for Your Stuff consisting of people who genuinely think all the Other Stuff is crap – OK as long as you can keep marketing to young people, but best of luck getting anyone crossing over from Other Stuff.

    Something very similar goes on – for similar generational reasons – in the folk scene (see ‘Weirdlore’ review). It’s folk, but it’s not old-fashioned and boring and laughable! So, you’re saying folk is all of those things? Stupid.

    The weird thing is, the young (male) hipsters are at least as likely to be sporting beards as the old-timers – and that goes for the folkies as well as the crafterati. But they’re young men with beards, so that’s like totally different obv.

  3. We are in the throes of a youth-infatuated culture, one ironically launched by many of those current grey beards who favour real ale and whole grains. It is partly reinforced by the phenomena of wildly successful computer and IT companies founded by very young people, by the spreading of the Hollywood and the workout cult around the world, and by fashion, which years ago turned its attention from couture – preserve of wealthy claret drinkers who were of a certain age – to the new rich who often come without any 40+ qualification.

    Hey that’s okay, it’s not important in the end, and at least the new generations bruiting real ale aren’t pushing light lager as the new frontier. In time these marketing whizes will acquire further years and a different perspective, too.

    All that matters is what is good – not what is traditional, class-bound, or otherwise “recue”, but what is good and worthwhile. It can be Old Hooky, London Pride, the 5% Mackeson’s I just bought brewed in Trinidad, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Imperial Stout flavoured with absinthe or Jack Daniels.

    People who cottoned to the real beer cause in the early 70’s in truth came from all backgrounds, the jumper and neo-hippie set seemed to get its fair amount of attention but real beer wouldn’t have survived just due to them.

    Anyway, as I once read in an early defence of real ale and its devotees, it is a free country and there is no law against an an ample belly (nothing new really, the aldermen of today) and open-toed footwear. In an era where people live longer than ever, we won’t hold it against them to acquire a few more facial lines or grey hairs either. Let’s focus on the drink, that is the goal of gastronomy and the rest is all flash and froth to use a term from the early porter era.


  4. Speaking as a bearded old man of 57 . . .

    I’ve had a beard for nearly 40 years and I’ve been drinking beer for only a couple of years longer. The problem seems to me, Martyn, that no one is going to make real ale look sexy and vibrant and chic. However, having said that, I don’t know how the attempt to lure American women into drinking Newcastle Brown went – honestly, the last time I was in NY the bars had posters advertising it in sleek glasses as a ladies drink!

    Anyway, meanwhile – I just checked British beer advertising on youTube and if the puerile Bombadier adverts with Rik Mayall are anything to go by, I still don’t think even the FHM generation will be rushing down to the “Old Bush and Fiddle” (sic) soon. The Greene King one with some pathetically weak voiced wimp called Someone Bugg looked like a piss-take from “Not the Nine O’Clock News”. Lager adverts tend towards attractive people on beaches in the sun. Paul Hogan’s adverts a few years ago (last Century) for Fosters took the stereotypes of British beer drinking to a new level (“A Ramsbottom, please”, “Strewth, don’t think much to the food, either.”)

    Recent articles in the Guardian (well, over the past year or so) seem to suggest that there is a rise in small breweries. All well and good. The amount of shelf space given to beer (NOT lager) in Waitrose, Sainsbury and Morrisons suggests that there is still plenty being quaffed at home. There’s never really been a better time for choice in Blighty. Interestingly, most offers on beer in said supermarkets tend to favour flavourless “wife-beater” lagers. It cost me 10p under eight quid last week for two pints of London Pride (guest beer and a change from Adnams) in our local which seems to me to be daylight robbery (The 10p would have got me a pint of mild back when I started. Mind you, £7.90 is the equivalent of 77p then). Beer prices in pubs are pretty high, home drinking is generally still more expensive than lager and the advertisers still struggle to make it appeal to da yoof. They want to drink fairly tasteless blue coloured rocket fuel designed to get you n to orbit and crash and burn as quickly as possible.

    Let’s face it, the future’s bright, the future’s a lurid orange . . . you don’t need to be an apologist. Traditions cling on for a long time. Bob Copper collected this in the early part of last Century:

    You have caused me debts and I’ve often swore
    That I never would drink strong ale no more,
    But you for all that I forgive
    And I’ll drink strong ale for as long as I live
    O, good ale, thou art my darling,
    Thou art my joy both night and morning.

    Ultimately, all things must pass such as the way of life Copper lived and celebrated and I guess that with the amount of pubs closing each week – two a day isn’t it? – and in our youth-centred, celebrity obsessed, digital World, beer drinking will become the domain of old men with beards sitting in the corner of . . . . oops, that’s where we came in.

  5. Just a NB that real ale is hip in some parts of the world, e.g. New York and Toronto. It just goes to how how relative these things are and that one’s eye should be fixed on quality as the lodestone and nothing else.


  6. The media have been determined to prove the stereotype of “old men with beards” for a long, long time. In fact I think they invented it.
    In 1986 I was managing the Bottled Beer Collectors stall at the Great British Beer Festival in Brighton. As the youngest (and the only female manager who’d appear on TV) manager there, arrangements were made for me to talk to the local media. However, I only did one interview, with a local rag: the other print and visual media made a beeline for my assistant, who was late 40s, grey haired, bearded. I never did work out why they avoided a 27 year old well-endowed blonde (me).

  7. I once read a really interesting book called “Beer – the Story of the Pint”. It’s chapter after chapter about how beer evolves when the younger generations don’t want to drink what the older generations enjoyed. Apparently it has been happening for 200 years, and the book appears to be based on decent research 😉

    37 and bearded, happily enjoying a cask golden ale followed by a kegged Mikkeller IPA when possible…

    1. You’re quite right. But don’t forget that between 1970 and 2000 the biggest sales were going to lager. If there’s a reaction in the UK at all, it’s a “my dad drank lager so I don’t want to” reaction. And, interestingly, much of the pick-up is in (modern) golden ales, not (old-style) amber or brown ones.

    1. I’m of a similar age and beardless but have been drinking cask beer since I legally could so I can’t remember my first time. I’m quite jealous of your cask ale epiphany, and Bath is as nice a place as any for it to take place. Good luck spreading cask across North America.

  8. Though they rarely mentioned it outright, wasn’t one of CAMRA’s challenges in the early days precisely that ‘traditional draught’ was an old man’s drink? I’m thinking of the that well-worn story of someone saying to John Young on seeing a hearse pass by: “Look, there goes another one of your customers.” CAMRA were pretty successful in reinventing real ale as a drink for young hipsters; the beard thing is a whole distinct issue.

  9. Thought-provoking – although I’m of a similar vintage and provenance, I’d forgotten that back in the 70s CAMRA and its growing band of acolytes were YOUNG! And yet by making real ale popular we also managed to create the pot-bellied, bearded, somewhat swivel-eyed stereotype. Perhaps we were actually all nascent old fogeys, and the image simply followed our trajectory into actual fogeydom…

    1. One doesn’t BECOME a fogey – fogeys, gits and geezers where all once young fogeys, young gits and young geezers, nd the addition of years made them OLD fogeys, old gits and old geezers.

  10. There’s nothing intrinsically old, bearded and unsexy about cask ale. It is CAMRA that is old, bearded and unsexy. As long as CAMRA is arrogant, reactionary and old-fashioned, then cask ale will be seen as a drink for arrogant, reactionary and old-fashioned people.

      1. Taking this comment perhaps more seriously than it was meant… In its heyday CAMRA was at once small-c conservative and idealistically radical, a combination it shared with the early Green party and parts of the hippie milieu. We* hated what big business was doing to our beer and pubs, and we wanted to get back to the way beer and pubs used to be – and to preserve those few pubs & breweries that had managed to hang on. A whole way of thinking about beer follows from those two starting-points, at once conservative and radical. Is craft keg as good as cask? No, of course it isn’t – kegging is a modern invention! Should beer be priced as high as the market will allow? No, of course it shouldn’t – beer is the working man’s drink! To many people these days, both parts of that mindset seem reactionary – or just rather quaint. It still works for me, I have to say; I think very often the old ways are the good ways – the industrialisation of food production in Britain isn’t a very edifying story – and I have a decided preference for not being ripped off.

        *I only joined a couple of years ago, but I was a sympathiser from quite early on.

      2. don’t think it was always thus, but times changed but CAMRA hasn’t. Prehistoric decision making timescales mean that whereas most CAMRA members are open-minded sensible chaps, the NE seems to be stuck fighting the battles of the 70s. Policy decisions are made on a mandate of a self-selected subset of less than 1% of members. Ironically, its drifted so far away from the principles of positive campaigning and open minded consumer choice that made it popular in the first place, that nowadays its more of a hindrance than a help to the cause of both beer in general and cask ale specifically. .

  11. We’re just obsessed with sterotypes; however, perhaps if CAMRA welcomed younger people from the start instead of sectioning them off into ‘young members clubs’ then the pool would be a little more mixed, so to speak. Appearances count for a lot, sterotypes aside….
    Leigh, 33, bearded since 25.

  12. I am a 40 something lady with a perchance for Good food, Good wine, great dark ales and fast cars. I do not have a beard and have been known to have Porsches whilst having neither too much money or a penis ( small or otherwise) Living proof that Ale is not only consumed by old men with beards…. Although I have made the acquaintance of many since returning to the UK and drinking in a CAMRA award winning hostelry.

  13. And then there is this over in the US:
    “The Book of Craft Beerds features over 250 pages of beautiful beer labels from over 100 craft breweries…all featuring beards, sideburns and moustaches.”

    (I’m in no way associated with them, it just happened to pass through Beerpulse)

  14. At least in Newport, Rhode Island, USA, I’ve seen more cask conditioned beers becoming regularly available and in Sommerville, MA they have the NERAX cask festival. It is a start – and as an old man of 35 years, with a goatee for the past 14 of them, I recall that like John Barleycorn, you were a man with a beard:
    Fare you well, boy; you know my mind. I will leave you now to
    your gossiplike humour. You break jests as braggards do their
    blades, which God be thanked hurt not. My lord, for your many
    courtesies I thank you. I must discontinue your company. Your
    brother the bastard is fled from Messina. You have among you
    kill’d a sweet and innocent lady. For my Lord Lackbeard there, he
    and I shall meet; and till then peace be with him.

    So tomorrow being April Fool’s Day – I’m going to get rid of it and spark some work conversation!
    DC Lavery

  15. It’s not as bad as it seems, the demographics of those who watch my YouTube channel in the UK is mostly men between the ages of 25 and 40, followed closely by a slightly older set in the USA. I take the point though, there is still a beardy gateway to navigate before you get to access the real world. I think comparables are things like liking olives, ground coffee and having a bit of a doze on the sofa. The finer things in life which you mostly appreciate with age and experience. Great blogpost, I have subscribed. Cheers.

  16. Martyn,

    This comment really belongs with the Guinness Myths entry, but I am not certain that it would still get picked up.

    This story – – seems to be spreading around the interweb but with few verifiable sources to confirm it.

    I have done some limited research and I am sceptical for a number of reasons:
    – The Army contracted for the supply, so presumably Guinness was paid for the supply;
    – The bottling was carried out in Liverpool;
    – It applied to soldiers in France (ie the Expeditionary Force), probably around 200,000. This would be less than 700 barrels. Hardly a stretch for the World’s biggest brewery.
    – I doubt that shortage of manpower would have been an issue in 1939, especially in neutral Ireland.

    Can you shed any light on this? It does look like people wanting something to be true because it’s a nice story…

  17. Old men with beards are not “boring”. In fact they are immeasurably more interesting than some upstart who has experienced nothing of substance as yet in his or her short lives.

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