CAMRA, AC/DC and Topsy the Dead Elephant

Thomas Edison once electrocuted an elephant. Her name was Topsy. To make sure she died he also gave her carrots laced with cyanide. He needn’t have bothered – the electricity killed her outright. The video is on YouTube – look it up. The Wizard of Menlo Park was an elephant killer.

Edison wasn’t just doing this for show (although there was quite a crowd when he did). He had a point to prove: that AC electricity is dangerous enough to kill an elephant. Edison was heavily invested in DC electricity, and was set to get considerably richer if DC was adopted as the de-facto standard in the USA. Controlling the electricity market was his key motivation.

However, the problem with DC is that it doesn’t travel well – you need to build an awful lot of power stations to cope with this. This is great if, like Edison, you own the patents for the equipment needed, and have a company ready to build them. On the other hand, AC can travel miles through wires with very little drop in power. It’s ideal for distribution – especially in a country with such large distances between cities, or to outlying towns.

So what has this got to do with beer?

The past couple of years have seen a huge resurgence in the beer market. Microbreweries are flourishing while the over-saturated, homologised, top-end of the beer market is struggling (sales and production are down). Smaller breweries making great beers are struggling for another reason entirely: to cope with demand for their beers

And yet an argument is brewing (excuse the pun). What is “real ale” and what is not? Some people think they own the right to own and define this term and, worse still, to extend it to include the general term “beer” (“The Good Beer Guide”?)

Craft beer – a term adopted from the burgeoning American microbrewery scene – is causing quite a stir in the UK. But is it “real” or not? Is cask always okay and keg always bad? Is it really that cut-and-dried? Does any one body really have the right to decide for all of us?

The bottom line is this: it doesn’t really matter. Consumers are simply turning toward better beer. They’re prepared to pay more for it, too. They don’t necessarily care whether it fits into one particular definition of beer or another. They just know that they don’t want to drink over-carbonated, watery beer any more.

CAMRA have always had a very strict definition of what constitutes “real ale” and they’re sticking to it. But how can it be that beers which are carefully brewed using the best ingredients, and are real beer in the purest sense of the word aren’t impressing CAMRA because of simple differences like being served out of a keg instead of a cask?

The reality is there’s room for all types of beer. There’s obviously a market for interesting beer that falls outside CAMRA’s self-imposed guidelines. There are breweries in the UK making exciting beers, and there’s never been a better time for breweries to experiment with their range. People are interested in beer.

There’s never been a better opportunity to educate people, to enlighten them to the infinite possibilities of beer and food pairings. To show them that beer is more versatile than wine by any metric you care to measure it against.

So why the Mexican stand-off, “not under my roof” going on between some breweries and CAMRA? There’s really no need for it.

CAMRA are metaphorically electrocuting the elephant.

So back to Edison. He was right, but only partly so. AC and DC are everywhere you look. Almost every household device, including DVD players, laptops, printers, TVs, set-top boxes, mobile phones, iPads, iPods, all run off DC power. Batteries supply DC electricity. AC is transformed into DC to charge or run devices. That’s what the little box is on your laptop charger – a transformer. AC becomes DC.

And AC is used to ship the electricity around the country – it also drives your power-hungry devices like your kettle, electric oven, iron and electric hob. The average home and business is a unified orchestration of AC and DC electricity combining to make our lives better. The average person neither knows, nor cares which is which – to them, it’s just electricity.

What some people will seek to divide is sometimes indivisible. Things that compliment each other will, by simple market forces, be combined for the greater good. And – even for a man of Edison’s stature, power and influence – killing an elephant cannot alter the inevitable.

So, campaign for “real ale” or campaign for really good beer? The choice is yours.

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