Norwich has been dubbed the City of Ale and if you dig just a little into the city’s history, there has been a long love affair between the fine city and the fine drink.
We all know the story that Norwich used to have a pub for every day of the year, but even this massive figure is suggested to be too low by local historians. Whilst testing times still exist for pubs and publicans, the Real Ale industry is blossoming. At the forefront of this is the pressure group CAMRA, or the Campaign for Real Ale, with the local flagship event, the Norwich Beer Festival, attracting over 20,000 beer lovers in November.
The stereotype still exists however, that this pastime is stuck in the past, with the image of the old man at the bar drinking warm brown beer often prevailing. This couldn’t be further from the truth in Norwich. I sat down with Young Members Coordinator for CAMRA and landlord of the excellent Plasterers Arms, Ben Thomson, to talk about all things ale.
As a UEA graduate, Thomson is well aware of the student lifestyle, community and financial pressures that come with studying in Norwich. Since starting the voluntary post in February, the first young member’s coordinator is keen to involve the younger generation in the pub community.
Despite the success of the Norwich Beer Festival, a favourite pub of many, the York Tavern closed this month. Whilst the situation behind the closure is unique, the trend of closing pubs is undeniable. A closure rate of 13 per week was recently announced by the Valuation Office Agency. Thomson explained that the Beer Festival’s success can be put down to its event status, with people pre-planning to attend and doing so just once a year. Unfortunately, pubs need custom all year round in order to stay open. “Stay at home culture has hurt pubs”, and even whilst a pub is regularly frequented, the businesses are often not hugely profitable, with owners continuing to work for the love of the job he explained.
Thomson urged students to venture out and use their local pubs, especially when living off campus. Pubs are hugely important to the local community and they are not exclusive clubs for older, local residents he told me. Also, ale tends to be cheaper than lager, a massive plus for students and an added bonus when you consider the quality of the product. Whilst the stereotype of ale drinkers remains, there are some hugely exciting developments in the brewing industry, with 170 breweries opening in the last 12 months and a greater diversity of beers being produced. Norfolk alone has 37 breweries included in this year’s Good Beer Guide.
Thomson continued, the CAMRA organisation may well have won the battle on getting Real Ale into pubs and promoting the product, but this does not mean the organisation is no longer needed to protect the product against the might of the major beer producers who churn out beers like Carlsberg on an industrial scale. Ale is a true British export, with literally thousands of different types of beer to try all produced uniquely. Along with this, as it is only usually served in local pubs, strong community links can be created at the same time. With the UEA Real Ale Society enjoying a rebirth this semester, you could do a lot worse than scrapping your plans to go to Prince of Wales road and heading to one of Norwich’s fine ale pubs and meeting your neighbours!