Young People & Real Ale – A Cautionary Tale

I’ll be blunt – I am an old man. I take joy in disrupting traffic at zebra crossings; I complain about popular culture; I complain about politics; I complain about buses; I complain about traffic; I complain about people who complain about things; I complain about people who complain about people complaining; my hearing isn’t very good and I’ve got the memory of a BBC Micro. The mere fact I’m actually 21 has no bearing on the fact that my 65+ free bus pass is already in the post. That’s not to say that I’m out of touch with the people of my generation but rather that I’m atypical of most 21-year-olds from the North East. Many of my interests do tend to be quite niche, like ale and genuinely enjoying working with databases.

I noticed on my Facebook feed today that Cullercoats Brewery (Great little brewery in Wallsend, not Cullercoats) had linked to this article on Big Mike’s Real Ale blog. It’s a good read with some well formed opinions, I recommend you give it a read before continuing with this post as to give it context.

Real Ale is a true British success story. Given the market dominance of cheap fizzy lagers all those years ago and poor cask ale, the cask market’s recent overtaking keg as the preferred dispensing method combined with the fact that there are now over 1000 active licensed breweries in the UK, show that the beer market is stronger than ever – and certainly not the secondary choice. Although cask ale has proven itself a champion in the market in general, it still struggles to make itself popular for the under 25s. (Or even the under 30s)

One of the reasons that’s often touted as the explanation for why young people stay away from ale is because it’s “an old man’s drink”. As Big Mike states in his post, we see our parents and grand parents drinking it and want to be different. I don’t think that quite encapsulates the point. It’s not that young people see their elders drinking real ale, it’s the image of real ale – old men with flat caps in a pub with a less than appealing smell. And in some places, this is the case but most pubs have shed this stereotype of ale drinkers. I don’t even own a flat cap but then again I’m not from Yorkshire.

I think what’s more key to the reason for young peoples aversion to ale is peer pressure. When I started drinking with my friends, I drank lager – not because I thought ale was for smelly old men but because that’s what my friends drank. Lager was easy enough to get drunk on (which, lets be honest, is why young people drink) and it was easy to get. It’s also a lot simpler, nowadays when I walk into a pub it can take me a while to decide which beer I want to drink (Much to the distress of the bartender) whereas lager is lager is lager. A pint of lager – done. Also helps that, unlike ale, you can easily buy lager in bulk. Then again you can buy multi-packs of beers such as Speckled Hen or Old Peculiar but I’m not personally going anywhere near that hangover juice. To some, the fringe of the younger generation, individuality is paramount but ultimately we, as humans, are social creatures so it’s very much a case of trying to fit in with ones peers – even for the fringe.

I still believe image plays a big part of the problem. Lager is seen as cool, it’s the “in thing” at the moment, the adverts are catchy and the logos are flash. Have a wander over to the Pumpclip Parade blog, it’s ok I’ll wait for you to finish. You’ll notice that these pump clips are absolutely abominable. These are real pump clips seen in pubs used to advertise beer. I have to say, the outright worst offender is Northumberland Brewery – it doesn’t help that their beer is usually rubbish too. Marketing *spits on floor* isn’t just about making people aware of a brand, it needs to entice and make the product seem desirable and most marketing of ale fails to do this. Now take heed here, this does not mean that the correct solution to getting young people into beer is to “be down wiv da yoof” because if I see anybody doing that I will destroy them. What we, the beer drinking community, need to do is make young people excited about beer. Show young people that ale is amazing.

The two years I’ve spent at university so far have easily been the best years of my life. I’ve met loads of new people, lots of new friends, and I’ve become part of a group I hold dear. I was a member of, and then secretary of, the Real Ale & Cider Society at Northumbria Students’ Union. I cite this because each year we’ve grown in size as a society; only a few of the new members we get join us because they like ale whereas most just want to avoid the typical nightclubs and vodka trebles rubbish that pollutes most student culture. But just by being with our society, we show them that ale isn’t about smelly old farts, that it’s really a fascinating area of British culture which is so diverse! A couple of members of our society actually home brew which is pretty awesome. Our society has gotten people excited about beer!

That doesn’t mean we’re always welcome. I know I’ve been to a few places with friends where the clientèle give you funny looks, or even death stares, for the heinous crime of daring to step into their territory. There’s the prejudgement that all young people are loud, noisy and disruptive and obviously all young people shouldn’t be tarred by the same brush. Though, to be honest, I’ve rarely seen this outside of rural “local pubs for local people”. One exception being a small pub in Hartlepool – it’s nice and so is the beer but the owner seems averse to the under 25s as though they carried bubonic plague. Most places I’ve been to in Newcastle have usually been welcoming to us, as a result we go back there regularly and drink more beer. Everyone’s happy!

The scene itself is becoming more modern and, much as they may be tutted at, a lot of newer breweries trying experimental things like super-duper hoppy beers are attracting more attention from the younger crowd. Some of the excellent offerings I’ve seen from new breweries such as Tiny Rebel, Tyne Bank and Summer Wine Brewery (to name a few of a large group) are the exciting frontier of beer that’s going to entice and prevent stagnation of a crucial aspect of British culture. That’s right, what will save British culture is not banishing brown people but making good beer! Yeah, I went there!

I think the end points that Mike makes are sound. If you want a diverse customer base for beer, that is you want a wide variety of ales, then you need to be ensuring that you have a wide variety of people to enjoy these beers. And it’s not about simply educating the young as though there’s another class we’re missing, just after PE we’ve got beer tasting, but doing more to make cask ale seem a viable option at the bar. Offer tasters to customers, be active in trying to make the beer exciting and young people will be interested! Get psyched!

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2 thoughts on “Young People & Real Ale – A Cautionary Tale

  1. I think it’s more a case of that the most bland form of something is the most mainstream version. If you are busy getting drunk and nothing else you will never develop a good taste.

    • I think that’s a good point. But if we’re discussing ale; there’s plenty of (what I would consider) bland blondes and bitters, beers that are just ok, mediocre, boiler plate – absolutely average. They haven’t caught on, but I suppose we’re discussing beer in a broader sense of the word than just ale, and there is more to beer than simply ale and lager.

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