COLIN Valentine swears he’s never met a hipster. But coming from a real ale drinker that’s as hard to swallow as a can of Tennent’s lager.
“Honestly I’ve never set eyes on one, except in a newspaper photo,” he laughs. “Apparently they drink real ale too, but I’ve yet to meet a hipster. It’s a stereotype, much the same as we’re all supposed to have unkempt beards, big bellies, woolly jumpers and sandals. It’s just not the case.”
Valentine is describing the image problem CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, has had over the years. “Look at me,” he laughs again. “I’m fit, I climb Munros, I’ve recently lost two stones and I no longer have a beard. We’re all different – we just all like real ale.”
He’s been involved with the organisation since moving to Edinburgh from Motherwell in 1988, going along with a colleague in an attempt to widen his social circle.
But that’s not as long as Roger Preece, who was one of the founding members of the Edinburgh branch when the real ale drinkers got together one evening in January 1975 to start plotting their takeover of the city’s cellars.
“It was in the Black Swan in Leith,” recalls Roger, now 72. “It’s now the Roseleaf and we’re meeting there again tonight to celebrate.
“It was such a foggy night and I’d never been there before and it was when the port was still working. It was what used to be called ‘a real man’s pub’.
“It sold cask ales and had a meeting room so it was perfect. I nearly couldn’t find the place though because of the weather – I had to ask a policeman and I was standing outside it.”
And that was before the half-hour beer break during the inaugural event.
“Most of the people seemed to know each other, they were mostly lawyers, which shows how wrong the stereotype of real ale drinkers is.”
For 40 years, the Edinburgh branch has been meeting, discussing new ales, new breweries, the state of the pub industry, organising beer festivals, publishing its own magazine Pints of View and contributing to the national CAMRA real ale guide, all the while supping on beers with the kind of names which would make the uninitiated determined to ask for a bottle of Beck’s.
A pint of Whitstable Cockle Warmer, Theakston’s Old Peculier or Dorothy Goodbody’s Pedal Pusher anyone?
Colin and Roger have no truck with such naming. They’d rather sup a pint of Dark Island from Orkney or Pentland IPA or Edinburgh No3, brewed in Loanhead. Beers which never existed when they both joined CAMRA.
“The changes in the industry have been phenomenal,” says Colin, 53, from Hunter’s Tryst. “And we like to think that we have played our part in that as our raison d’etre is getting people into pubs to drink real ale.
“I think through our campaigns, by creating the demand for real ale, pubs – especially small, independents – have risen to that demand, and in turn that has meant that smaller breweries have a market for their product.
“Of course pubs are closing, it’s a problem more prevalent down south, but a lot of that has to do with supermarkets and how cheaply they sell alcohol. It used to the case that pubs were around three times more expensive, now it’s about six times – not because they’ve put prices up but because supermarkets are selling products cheaper and cheaper.
“But,” he adds. “You can’t get the kind of real ale we drink in a supermarket, so pubs are able to tap into a more artisan, niche market. And they’ve become more female-friendly places and CAMRA has seen an increase in female members too, and almost all will sell food.”
He points to Leith Walk as a place where pubs have changed beyond recognition.
“They were mostly all half and half shops for a pint and a nip with a TV above the bar. Now a lot of them have become craft beer bars and they have really upped their offering.”
Roger adds: “The biggest change I’ve seen over the years is the surge of new breweries. There were only a small number back in the day, now there’s so many. My local brewery is Stewart’s, in Loanhead, and it produces some wonderful real ales such as Pentland IPA.
“I think the people who run the breweries would give CAMRA credit for helping to create the demand, to change attitudes.”
So what are CAMRA’s feelings towards giant pub chains like Wetherspoon? The firm is hoping take over Edinburgh’s Picture House as a super-pub and the Jimmy Chung’s buffet on Waverley Bridge and already owns ten pubs in the city. Their pubs have come in for criticism in some quarters as being too formulaic and lacking atmosphere, but Colin is happy that they always sell real cask ales.
“It’s not one of their USPs but they always stock it,” he says. “We haven’t demanded it but they realise there’s a market and their job is to make money and get as wide a range of drinkers through the door as possible. They usually have ten hand pumps and four or five will be real ale.
“The Picture House issue is interesting. How will it affect the pubs nearby is our concern, the Red Squirrel, Shakespeare’s and even the Filmhouse bar. Will they be aiming for the same demographic? That’s where any problems might lie. But when Wetherspoon’s moved into Motherwell that’s the first time we had real ale there.”
For both Colin and Roger, who go to the pub at least twice a week (Colin favours the Cask & Barrel Southside, the Halfway House in Fleshmarket Close, the Oxford Bar and Stockbridge Tap, Roger the Jolly Judge), the attraction to real ale lies in the taste – and the lack of gas.
“A lot of lagers and beers are full of CO2 which makes them appear lively, but I always say they are dead beers,” says Colin. “Real ales in casks still have the yeast which is still working away while it’s in the cellar. It’s a natural, living product which is what makes it so much better. If a real ale is served flat there’s something wrong.”
Roger adds: “Real ale is obviously good for you. I’m 72 and just retired as a Mercat tour guide,” he laughs. “I do think it’s better to drink than beers full of gas. I think they bung you up, make you feel full.
“The Roseleaf, where it all started after an ad was placed in the paper by the national CAMRA, was a wonderful tenement pub, one of about seven pubs in Edinburgh which sold real ale back then.
“Now it’s a cafe bar and completely surrounded by new buildings but I have no nostalgia for the way it was because it was pretty rough and ready and certainly not great if you were a woman.”
Around ten to 15 per cent of Edinburgh CAMRA members are women says Roger, and in other branches around the UK that figure is much higher. His wife Kate is also a member.
“It’s not all beers and bellies, that’s not an entry requirement,” says Roger. “It’s noticeable there are a lot more female members now. Kate’s been a member as long as I have. We met through CAMRA.”
Kate says: “I joined CAMRA when I lived in north Hertfordshire and then I moved to Edinburgh in 1979 and joined the branch here. That’s how we met. I like the flavour of real ale, I’d rather have it than a glass of wine.”
Roger was the Edinburgh branch’s original secretary after the first meeting, but for the last four years he’s been chairman.
He adds: “Of course being involved with CAMRA is great fun as well. You’re in a pub with your friends and I sometimes wonder how we’ve achieved what we have when we’ve always met in pubs.”
Colin agrees. “It is fun. We’re always finding new breweries and pubs. There are over 70 breweries in Scotland now, from Unst to Castle Douglas and everywhere between. People want to know where their beer comes from just as they do their food. That was different 20 years ago and the change has been for the better.”
Mecca of Mcewan’s 80 shilling
FOR decades there was one pub in Edinburgh to which aficionados of cask ale would flock.
The Athletic Arms, or the Diggers as it’s always been known given its proximity to two cemeteries, was – and to many still is – the Mecca of McEwan’s 80 Shilling.
Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s its manager Bill Farmer was regarded as Britain’s most famous cellarman and legend had it he would don gloves – kid ones – when he handled his beer. His service ethos was that the “person coming into the pub needs a pint more than the person in the bar that’s already had one”.
The Diggers on Angle Park Terrace began its life owned by Thomas Wilkie Innes, a wine and spirit merchant, in 1897.
According to CAMRA the place was “internationally famous” not only for its 80 Shilling and Heavy, but that it was served at “lightning speed from 11 tall founts by up to 15 red-jacketed barmen.”
It was taken over in the 1990s by brewery Scottish & Newcastle but now serves up six real ales from micro-breweries as well as its own 80 Shilling.