You must remember this

You might be surprised but that stripped down metallic ko aesthetic and bald brickwork of your favourite craft beer bar or tap is actually an exercise in nostalgia as Pete Brown explains


Nostalgia – literally – ain’t what it used to be. 

A word we now associate with a wistful longing for times past was originally coined in 1688 to describe homesickness among Swiss mercenaries fighting in France and Italy. It’s derived from Greek nostos, meaning ‘returning home’, and algos, meaning ‘pain’ or ‘ache’. It was seen as a debilitating condition at the time, a real illness that could even lead to death.  

In its modern usage, the past we yearn to return to often turns out never to have been there at all. We misremember it at best: at worst, we invent it. 

Christmas is a time of nostalgia. White Christmas is the best-selling Christmas song ever, with its yearning for Christmases ‘like the ones we used to know’. But did we? The snow is fake in the original movie – even back in the 1940s, it’s doubtful whether the Christmases were white, but we’ve been dreaming of them ever since. 

Charles Dickens pretty much invented the idea of a traditional Christmas, one we yearn to get back to. While researching a book about the George Inn in Southwark, I discovered a story in The Times from 1936, when members of the Dickens Fellowship feasted on boar’s head, venison and game pie, accompanied by carol singers and mulled ale. The account depicts a desperate pain of separation from a past no one there is old enough to remember, in a pub that has been a node of Dickensian nostalgia ever since.

I’m currently researching a book about the concept of ‘craft’ in its broadest sense, exploring what – if anything – we can learn that might inform the ongoing debate around craft beer. 

Nostalgia is central to craft, which is a direct product of the Industrial Revolution. It began as a reaction against the production line, deskilled labour and the standardised products it created. The Arts and Crafts Movement aimed to give workers back their dignity, returning them to a pre-industrial era of skilled craftsmanship for the many. 

In reality, the Industrial Revolution never deskilled a population of happy artisans. Less than 10% of the UK population were engaged in trades that could be described as craftsmanship – the vast majority were peasants performing menial tasks. Richard Blauner, in his book, Work Satisfaction and Industrial Trends, claims the typical medieval worker was ‘practically nothing more than a working beast’. As Christopher Frayling, author of On Craftsmanship observes, ‘The history which underpins much of the “craft revival” is, in fact, nostalgia masquerading as history’.

Frayling wrote this in response to the craft revival of the 1970s and 1980s, when stripped pine floorboards, floral prints and the Diary of an Edwardian Country Lady coalesced as part of a widespread reaction to consumer capitalism and automation. Suddenly, anything rustic or rough around the edges was considered superior to machine-built perfection. 

It’s no coincidence that the Campaign for Real Ale began around the same time. The yearning for ‘proper beer’ rather than ‘industrial fizz’ was part of a much broader yearning for the artisanship of a pre-industrial age, just as the modern craft beer boom is just one small part of yet another reaction against the dominance and homogeneity of global brands and corporations. 

Looked at in this context, it’s surprising CAMRA wasn’t CAMCA – the Campaign for Craft Ale. I guess it doesn’t scan as well. The choice of ‘real’ shows that our eternal quest for authenticity in what we buy is nothing new, the choice of the then-antiquated word ‘ale’ rather than ‘beer’ demonstrating a similar nostalgia for a misremembered past (especially given they were trying to preserve – if you want to be pedantic about it – hopped beers rather than unhopped traditional ales.)     

Frayling tells us that craft comes adorned in rural and pre-industrial imagery, and in most cases, it does. But modern craft beer forms an interesting exception to this rule. The imagery of the industrial estate and railway arch, of exposed heating ducts and stripped-back bare brickwork, is central to the aesthetic of craft beer. It suggests something post- rather than pre-industrial, taking the detritus of the industrial age and repurposing it, reshaping old components into something new.

Craft beer combines that eternal longing for pre-industrial artisanship with a nostalgia for the industrial age itself, and a relentless urge to create something new. To paraphrase Will Rogers, the American movie actor, cowboy and vaudeville artist, who originated the famous phrase, ‘Craft beer ain’t what it used to be and probably never was’.