Brown's beer: Real ale is cool

It’s official: ale is in, along with beards and woolly jumpers. Our resident beer expert unravels the trend.

Back when I worked in advertising full-time, we spent a lot of time doing future trends forecasting. 

It was kinda sexy, and people who got a little too enthusiastic about it would start trying to make up words to describe all these amazing new things we would be doing, seeing, eating and wearing. 

You know the kind of thing: ‘Prosumers’, ‘Maturialism’, and ‘Statusphere’.[1] It was good fun, and entirely harmless because by the time the future came round, your presentation had been completely forgotten and you were never rumbled on how completely wrong you were in your confident prediction that we would all be listening to Ukrainian rock while making digital avatars try on suits on Selfridge’s TV via the information superhighway.[2]

Five years is often a good time frame to indulge such forecasting.  Most things will be the same, but there’s just enough of a timeline horizon for something exciting to be just behind it, about to come into view.

So, five years ago was 2006.  Tony Blair was still refusing to leave Downing Street, Sven Goran Erikson was going to lead England to World Cup glory, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise still felt fresh.

Now I’ve so successfully taken you back to those heady, innocent days, imagine you’re in a pub with someone who works in marketing.  (This may take a herculean feat of imagination, but please try.  It’ll be worth it, I promise.)  Now, imagine that person turns to you and says, “Tell you what, five years from now, the hippest people in this pub will all be wearing beards, listening to folk music and drinking real ale.”

Assuming this marketer doesn’t work for you – in which case you’d now be busy firing them – when they followed up with, “And they’ll be drinking their real ale out of those dimpled, handled pint mugs,” you would be laughing so hard that some wee would come out.

No one I ever met in the business would ever dare to forecast something like this.  But look what happened.

Last week, I was invited out for a few beers by some people in an ad agency. They were pitching for a beer account and wanted to pick my brains.  The advertising creatives – always the weathervanes of urban cool in any ad agency – all wore beards. 

There may even have been a chunky woollen sweater or two.  They all ordered real ale, and it was served in dimpled pint mugs.  And for the next hour, to a soundtrack of Mumford and Sons, Fleet Foxes and Laura Marling, they quizzed me as to why real ale has become so cool.

Is it cool? I asked.  I knew it was growing and becoming more acceptable – it’s my job to know – but wasn’t “cool” pushing things a bit?

Not at all, they replied.  The account up for pitch was a leading real ale brand, and everyone in the agency wanted to work on it. 

Then, the account executive – a young woman in her early to mid-20s – looked down into her half pint of hoppy pale ale from a microbrewer in Manchester and confessed that she didn’t like the taste of beer at all – couldn’t stand the bitterness – but she ordered it whenever she went out with people from work, because she felt socially obliged.  Because people would mock her if she didn’t.

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Real ale is as cool as folk music and wearing beards. Put that way, it always has been, I suppose - but each now reflects a presence (rather than a total absence) of fashionability.

Coolhunters can easily tell you why this is. When stylishness becomes something that can be bought as easily as a can of Coke, when Gordon Brown professes his love of the Arctic Monkeys, when ‘ultra-premium’ spirits launches happen every other day and once-cool premium lager brands are bought from supermarkets fixtures where people spend less ‘dwell time’ than they do when buying dog food, those in search of cool actively embrace what was once unfashionable, daring the herd to follow.

Also, beards, folk and real ale each represent notions of authenticity. In a recession, in any time of uncertainty, people cling to notions of continuity and stability, and right now evocations of Olde England are a source of comfort.  We might talk in higher terms of deeper meaning, connectedness, being rooted and centred in our culture, but really we’re talking about comfort blankets.

On top of that, Britain’s foodie revolution isn’t going away. Once you start enjoying flavour, you can’t really just grow out of it. 

Real ale is a traditional product, shunned by multinational corporations, dominated (in perception terms) by microbrewers whose lack of scale is part of their appeal.  And like the junior account executive said, it tastes of something – something not everyone is going to like. 

There’s a massive diversity of flavour and style, a refreshing lack of standardised, blandised frames of reference, making real ale one of the few products with any cultural significance where we can still enjoy a personal journey of discovery. 

In this context, the biggest surprise about real ale’s fashionability is that it has taken so long to catch up with cider, cheese, bread, and everything else you happily pay through the nose for down at Borough Market.

Of course, with hipness comes the possibility of a backlash. The Ernest Shackleton-style beards are starting to look like they have a sell-by date on them, and the Mumfords are already turning into the next Coldplay. 

But real ale seems set to stay the course a little better. It’s still far from over-exposed, and probably never will be. 

Its biggest threat is landlords who can’t keep it well or don’t sell enough of it stocking too many lines, letting the beer go stale in the pipes and creating a perception of vinegary ditch-water.  But there’s young blood in the industry, an increasing amount of money, and keen eyes on quality control.

There have been false starts before, but I confidently predict that real ale is set to remain and consolidate its position as a stylish, premium drink.

I also predict that by 2016, Morris Dancing will have enjoyed a cultural rebirth and will be a popular national pastime.  You heard it here first.


[1] All of which are real examples currently sitting proudly on Trendwatching.com.

[2] The digital trying on of clothes was going to be really big a few years after 1994.  The Ukrainian rock is something I personally predicted confidently in 2002.

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books, and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

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