Letter From Londonrnby Michael McMahonrnTalking of Alern”And a few men talked of freedom,rnwhile England talked of ale.”rn— “The Secret People”rnO.K. ChestertonrnIn 11 %, Bishop I lenri de Blois, grandsonrnof William the Conqneror, founded thernhospice of St. Cross, in Hampshire, tornprovide for “thirteen poor men, feeblernand so reduced in strength that they canrnhardly or with difficulty support themselvesrnwithout another’s aid.” It is thernoldest almshouse in Kngland. Its charterrnrequires it not just to provide shelter andrnsustenance to its residents, but to offerrnfood and drink, at least, to such poor wanderersrnas might call and ask for it. Thisrn”wa’f;irer’s dole,” as it is known, is madernup of two traditional elements: a portionrnof bread and a horn of ale. For “goodrnale,” wrote George Borrow, who spentrnmuch of his own life wandering the roadsrnof England many centuries later, is “therntrue and proper drink of Englishmen.rnHe is not deserving of the name of Englishmanrnwho spcaketh against ale, diat isrngood ale.”rnAles and beers continue to be a sourcernof refreshment and a focus of sociabilit)’rnfor the English, of course. But the 12thccntur}’rnbrethren of St. Cross woidd notrnrecognize many of the brews of today asrnbeers at all, and the 19th-centur)’ taste ofrnGeorge Borrow vvoidd have found all toornfew of them “good.” For the traditionalrnbeers of England, symbols of the individualit)’rnof a small uaHon and the diversit}’rnof the regions it contains, are rapidly beingrnlost. Ten ancient regional brewersrnhave closed in the last year. Namesrnand tastes, familiar in our mouths asrnhousehold words —Marstons and Wards,rnMorland of Oxfordshire, Morrells andrnMitchell’s, and Vaux—will no longer inrntheir flowing cups be freshly remembered.rnMost of diem were businessesrnthat have been handed from generationrnto generation of the same family:rnMitchell’s, of Lancaster, was founded byrnCORRESPONDENCErnthe great-great-grandfather of one of therncompany’s last directors. The brewery inrnwhich they operated, and which has nowclosed,rnhad been founded much earlierrn—by monks, in the eady 16th century.rnMorrells had been founded in 1782. Arnliving tradition which connects us to ourrnearliest civilized ancestors is runningrndown the drains of cities and countyrntowns across the country.rnThere are tvvo reasons for this. Neitherrnoffers any consolation to anyone who valuesrnwhat is good from the past. First,rnthere is the matter of changing taste.rn”Taste,” perhaps, is a misleading word inrnthis context, as many people seem to bernchoosing dieir tipple not according to itsrneffect on die palate or its abilit)’ to restorernand refresh, but according to how goodrnthey feel when people see them drinkingrnit. I lence the graceless, unhygienic, andrnimpractical fad of serving and consmningrnbottled beers widiout a glass: The drinkerrncan wa’e the label at his admirers. To sayrnthat diere has been a change in “preference”rnmight be a better description ofrnwhat has happened, but even that wouldrnbe inaccurate, because it suggests thatrnconsumers are exercising free will inrntheir choice of what to drink. The truthrnis that the only choice that many arernmaking is to conform to what they can bernpersuaded is fashionable. In an age ofrncultural drift, such lovalh’ to brands andrnsh’les offers some sense of belonging, perhaps.rnBut such brands and st}’les don’trnbecome fashionable bv chance. As withrnso much diat is marketed in our consumornergo sum societv, desire is orchestratedrnb’ remote rich and powcrfid interestsrndirough adverhsing campaigns in whichrna media-molded generation places suchrnuncritical confidence.rnHence tiic displacement of tiie “nutbrownrnales,” whose praises were sung b’rnChaucer, Chesterton, Shakespeare, andrneven die puritan Milton, by the characterless,rnblond, bland, bubble-boundrnbrews that trickle lifelesslv down thernthroats of todav’s glassy-eyed gas-guzzlersrnwho woiddn’t recognize real ale if theyrnwere upended in a vat of it. In each of thernlast five years, consumption of traditionallvrnbrewed beer has fallen by five percent.rnAnd what is drmik in its place?rnLifeless decoctions whose qualitiesrnchange little as thcv pass tiirough the humanrndigestive ssteni. Pasteurized beersrntliat are cliea]Dl- and easih’ produced, andrndispensed under artificial gas pressurernfrom the aluminum kegs that have longrnsince replaced the handmade staved andrnhooped wooden barrels of tradition. It isrnalmost impossible to describe the qualitiesrnof many of these, the most widelyrnconsiuned beers in Britain today: I’lieyrnhaven’t got any. Whether keggcd,rncanned, or botded, they are directed tornbe served “well chilled,” a practice whichrnwoidd obliterate any flavors if they hadrnany, and which makes irrelevant the factrntiiat tiiey haven’t. These chemically colored,rnheavily carbonated concoctions arernuniformly wet, whilst containing varyingrnproportions of alcohol. Beyond that,rnthere is little that can be said of them. Except,rnof course, tiiat from the manufacturer’srnpoint of view, they have one enormousrnadvantage: They cost very little tornmake.rnWhich brings us to the second reasonrnfor this decline. Most brewing in Britainrnis in the hands of four companies whichrnhave greedily bought up eouudess smaller,rnlocal operators over the years, so thatrnbetween them they now control most ofrnthe market. Increasingly remote fromrntheir employees and their customers,rntheir sole motive is profit. Real ales arcrnnot only more costiy to make than theirrnsterile modern counterparts, but morerncostly to keep, too. As living, organicrnproducts, diey must be transported withrncare, and allowed to settle in their barrels,rnwhich must then be skillfully tapped,rnracked, and tilted before sering the firstrnpint, and carefully tended until servingrnthe last. New-style beers require no suchrnattention. They are manufactured, packaged,rndelivered, plugged in, turned on,rnand poured out. There is little room forrnhuman error; indeed, tiiere is little that isrnhuman about any part of the procedurernat all. Tlie big four sfill make a few realrnales but have long since stopped promotingrnthem, and have tiius efifeetively engineeredrndieir decline at a national level.rnAnd y e t . . . All is not lost. Young’s, tiiernold family firm whose traditional brewer}’rnis at die Sign of the Ram in Wandswordi,rnLondon, has never eompromised onrnqualit)-, and has just announced that itsrnprofits have increased by 31 percent. Indeed,rnso traditional is tliis company’srnorientation tiiat it still makes its local deliveriesrnin “drays,” wagons drawn by magnificentrnshire horses whose stables it hasrnnever closed. This is not a “heritage”rn34/CHRONICLESrnrnrn