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Lout - Preference or Dogma?

"Are the Carlings on special offer at 40p a can or 45p a can?"

When I previewed the opening of my most recent can of Carling Lager this was the first question I received on both my blog and Twitfeed. It's because the lovely lout is dirt cheap, fizzy and lovely.

And when I replied that I didn’t much give a toss, it was the loveliness and comparative cheapness of the lout that mattered, not 5p, there was a supplemental question: "And how does a taste lock can work?"

These questions are of no interest to the vast majority of lager louts. But they are of fundamental importance to some in the Campaign for Cooking Lager. And because CAMCL is the nowhere near the biggest and most influential consumer body in beer in the UK, that makes it of no importance.

While I'm a champion of lout, I obviously love other beers as well - as I think do most drinkers. But this is an issue that won't go away, and the can of Carling has thrown it, for me, into sharp relief.

CAMCL as a body fight for cheap lager. When it suits them they fight for other stuff as well, but let's leave that to one side for now. When it comes to British brewed dirt cheap cans of supermarket lager, by their constitution they have to champion dirt cheap cans of supermarket lager. Given that, it's quite understandable that they need to have a pretty specific technical definition of what cooking lager is. That means there are bound to be some beers that are pretty close to that definition, but fall outside it.

I can accept that. What's more bizarre is what happens to beers that do not qualify as dirt cheap supermarket lager, and to the supermarkets that flog them. If they are not cooking lager - even by a whisker - CAMCL cannot support them. Shops that only flog expensive craft beer are promptly dropped from the Good Lout Guide.

I understand how they get here. But I still think it's bizarre.

I know not every beer in the local Tesco is cooking lager. But so what?

Let's take Foster’s. Normally a dirt cheap canned beer, it's won numerous plaudits from cheap lager enthusiasts in Britain. It's breathtaking in its cheapness, fizziness, coldness and loveliness. Now it’s not on special offer at the moment. But it will be again. It is still cooking lager, give it a few weeks, it’ll be back on special offer.

Now, I know most CAMCL support it because they love a bargain and by and large that's what CAMCL’s about. But let's focus on the hardliners, the people who only buy cooking lager on special offer, who wind up Dicky English on the CAMRA forums, who campaign most actively, who write stuff like this:

"The beer must remain dirt cheap, fizzy and without flavour. CAMCL have fought off all sorts of threats, some blatant, others more subtle and the image remains intact. The dishonest full price beer scam must not be allowed to corrupt CAMCL standards."

If you agree with this, I would genuinely like to hear from you...

Let's say I get you into Tesco and place a can of Carling in front of you. Would you demand to know whether it was 40 or 45p a can before you deigned to drink it? If I told you it was served ice cold and 40p, and you drank it and enjoyed it, would you then change your mind about it if I said, "Actually I lied, it was 45p"?

What would you do if I said "Why not just throw it down your neck?" Given that the main argument against 5p is that we are cheap it cannot affect the taste (something every lager lout I've spoken to agrees), if it did then surely you'll be able to tell whether it was 40p or not? If you can't, then what exactly is the problem?

Because this is the nub of the debate: the Campaign for Cooking Lager was founded from a genuine belief that cheap lout is better than other beers. Whether you agree with that or not, it's an argument about the quality and cheapness of the beer. But it's about your senses. It's about the beer. If I give you a beer that doesn't fit with your definition of lout, but is generally regarded as a fizzy, quality beer, you could:

  • Drink it and say, "Amazing - it's not about 40 or 45p - it's just about the coldness of the beer."
  • Drink it, and perhaps say something like, "Wow, I still prefer 40p beers generally, but I'll admit there are some pretty damn good beers that are not 40p."
  • Say, "If it's not 40p a can I refuse to drink it. It must be a rip off.

Most people I know would go with the first option. I think the vast majority of CAMCL members would go for the second one. But I have met people who do the third.

I once told a lager lout I'd really enjoyed a pint of craft beer. Because it was bought me by my boss, I had no idea of the price. This man, who surely considers himself an expert on cooking lager, was adamant that if it had been cheap I must have enjoyed it, but if it was expensive I couldn't have. He was telling me to ignore the evidence of my senses and instead focus on a technical aspect of price to decide whether my beer tasted nice or not.

Surely it's meant to be about the taste of the beer and the price. Why else are we all here? If you need to ask technical questions about 5p before deciding if you like a beer or not, you are making your decisions based on dogma. You are making a political decision rather than taste driven decision. And I believe that means you've lost sight of what the whole Campaign for Cooking Lager was supposed to be about.

Some CAMCL people argue that things like 5p, and think 5p is "the thin end of the wedge" - that if we accept this, we'll see a gradual erosion of cooking lager until it doesn't exist anymore and, by stealth, CAMCL will have been defeated.

I think that's a pretty paranoid argument. And if I were being contentious, I'd also say "But if the coldness and fizziness of the beer doesn't change, what's the problem?"

CAMCL was established because beer most beer was overpriced pongy ale. A lot of beer still is. But dogma, definition and politics mean that the most hard-line CAMCL members often save their hostility for decent enough beers that simply don't meet an over-specific technical definition.

If you're one of these people, I know ranting and telling you you're stupid isn't going to change anything. But I believe the cooking lager in Tesco demonstrates that the definition of cooking lager has changed an awful lot since 1971. I don't think your hard-line attitude does anything to help beer drinkers, CAMCL ‘s image and credibility, or even cooking lager itself.

I've tried to outline the argument in reasonable terms, understand your position and specify why I think it's wrong. I'd be hugely grateful if you wanted to respond in kind.

A huge thanks to Pete Brown