Alternate Histories, or What if…?

History is the result of a complex interaction of people and events, rarely predictable. The Campaign for Real Ale, the consumer lobby started in the early 1970s in Britain, is dedicated to the promotion of traditional cask-conditioned beer. At the time and still to most, it seemed an heroic attempt to save a high-value part of British brewing heritage.

Of course, to a degree this was so: the beer was unpasteurized, unfiltered except for a rough fining, and consumed very fresh – about as real as then existed. In contrast, breweries ca. 1970 were vaunting chilled, bright-filtered, and heat-pasteurized keg ales and blonde lagers. These seemed to lack the soul of the cask ales, although many drinkers liked them and to this day, such beers enjoy a large sale in Britain.

But cask beer itself seems arguably of late-19th century origin, the outcome of a long process of brewing evolution. By about 1900 use of sugar or another malt substitute was generalized in British brewing. More refrigeration was being used, and less hops. The beer was sent out and consumed “running”, for the most part, versus standing and “maturing” for months or years as porter, pale ale, and much strong ale had been for generations.

Clarity of such running beers was assured, in those days, by finings – kind of a shortcut, from an unlikely source, fish innards – the gelatine attracted minute particles of yeast and other solids to the bottom of the cask. Yet, in 1970 that was typical of cask beer, so its use was felt traditional. Same thing for the general use by then of metal casks, which did not exist when running ales emerged in the late 1800s.

When running beers came into fashion, the long-stored, wild yeast-inflected porter and India Pale Ales largely receded into history. One might have argued that the newer beers were not a patch on Britain’s earlier staple of stock porter, India Pale, and strong old ale. A few voices did, here and there, usually in brewing technical journals read by a tiny, mostly unsympathetic number.

Was there a layman in Britain who, 100 years before CAMRA got rolling, campaigned for a restoration of Britain’s old and true vatted beers? Beers with a soupçon of tartness and other wine-like qualities? Not that I am aware.

People then just accepted change as brought on by actors of the economic system. If anything, change and innovation were openly welcomed vs. today’s more tacit acceptance. In 2019, outside technical circles, who really swoons over the latest, cost-effective, computerised brewing system? But they are snapped up as soon as available. Progress has a logic of its own.

But say there had been an influential person, an independent thinker in Victorian Britain, who adored the old beers, porter in particular, that great old London specialty. (Well, venerable since the early 1700s but set that aside for a moment).

Might he, or she, not have campaigned for a return of the wondrous but disappearing hooped vats built of solid Baltic or English oak? For a return of the staple porter aged at least 18 months? For a return and new appreciation of stock beers akin to a fine old burgundy?

Might such person, perhaps a titled or other monied type, not have founded a Society for the Restoration of Porter, a “SOROP”? If 1870 was too soon for that, maybe the 1930s was not too late, when porter was still sent to pubs in the capital, and even some strong old Russian stout was available.

It didn’t happen – but could have. Say Britain had not been in Depression in the 1930s, or that a special advocate emerged in late Victorian times, or…

I am glad for what CAMRA did. CAMRA helped restore palate to beer, and that meant something and still does. We are fans of cask ale and have supported it from first becoming aware of it. And in part cask ale was responsible for a much greater revolution, craft beer, through CAMRA’s considerable influence on American craft brewing.

But it is interesting to speculate on an alternate history. Had it occurred, perhaps cask ale today would be viewed as many cask beer fans view lager and keg beer (in its original sense), as part of the beer scene but not emblematic of British brewing. (I’ll leave craft out of the matrix, the perms and combs are too innumerable).

The limited return, via the craft beer movement, of wood-aged stouts and other barrel-aged beers, and also beers with a tart edge and/or a Brett influence, shows that these older forms of beer are again being appreciated. We have the best of all possible worlds today, and that is a good thing, but history can often incline to reflect on how things might have been different.

In a next instalment, I will consider what our modern beer world might look like had an influential beer writer, Michael Jackson, not existed.


5 thoughts on “SOROP”

  1. Let’s go back a few more centuries and wonder why there wasn’t an effective campaign against the new dangled use of those bitter continental adjuncts called hops that were replacing our traditional gruit ingredients involving herbs, bog myrtle, heather, ivy, berries, mugwort etc…..

    • Yes, something similar had occurred to me as well, there are different points at which a stance could be taken to preserve an existing tradition. CAMRA is notable for being a consumer movement, and while consumerism in its modern sense gathered pace from the mid-1900s the idea existed earlier.

  2. Just to add, of course there was always beer around, at least at some times in the year, not meant for prolonged keeping, and hence not as hopped (in general) as beer meant for long keeping. We are aware of that, but based on our reading, the many technical advances by end of the 19th century resulted, arguably, in a perfection of such beer and hence its widespread adoption by producers. That it still endures 100 years later, the basic form of dispense but also in the U.K. the general shape of bitter and mild as understood since about 1900, is a testament to the appeal of these beers. Still, a different set of historical factors could have made the history different, the main point we wish to emphasize.

  3. I think even bitter was similar in the sense of no prolonged secondary fermentation occurring, but just enough to impart a light bubble.

    About a 1971 snapshot as it were, I think it’s true but I think too CAMRA made a pragmatic decision that recognized the key attributes of cask beer but avoided the dogmatic in a way that enabled a practical movement of size and importance to arise. An example IMO was recognising the inevitability of modern use of metal casks. To have insisted on retention of wood casks would have limited unduly the scope of the organisation. After all there was and still is the Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood so CAMRA could have followed its example in terms of the cask type, but I think likely it was thought this was too limiting.

  4. Also there’s a question mark as how much cask-conditioning actually occurred with mild, which was intended to sell within a couple of days and often contained little or no yeast.

    To some extent, CAMRA looked at what was happening in pub cellars in 1971 and turned it into a tradition.

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