Just because students are eschewing cheap binge boozing doesn’t mean they’ve turned their back on beer completely, finds Katie Mather
Tuesday 11 February 2020
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Every generation of young people is underestimated. No matter how many times we tell ourselves we’ll never become those grumbling, patronising people who looked down on us when we were exploring what life was all about, preconceptions are easy to propagate. The world acts with contempt towards young people because they aren’t yet old enough to be hardened cynics. They still dare to have big ideas about society, the world and how to change what’s unfair. As someone on the older end of the Millennial generation scale, it worries me how easy it is to slip into the same slurs I’ve heard my contemporaries use. Generation Z are nerds. They don’t drink — they’re too busy making memes about depression. They don’t socialise because they’re all introverts. We have nothing in common. Don’t fall for any of these statements. They simply are not true.
One surprising thing you’ll learn about young people, should you take the time to get to know some of them, is that despite the weird tabloid headlines obsessed with their social habits, quite a lot of them do actually enjoy drinking. And they’ve got more in common with our Millennial crafty habits than you think. In 2017 I wrote about why young people are choosing not to drink. While the stats added up then, two years later Generation Z has had time to send even more of its ranks into university and out into the working world. It turns out they are drinking. The difference is, actually, they favour moderation rather than abstinence.
The only way you can get to know someone is to listen to them, and around the country, flourishing university union beer and cider appreciation societies are speaking up. You’ll find beer and cider societies in most large universities, and some even focus on brewery tours, pub crawls and homebrewing as well as drinking and rating the stuff. At Leeds University Union Real Ale Society, Harry Oates says there are plenty of reasons why students are joining groups like his.
“There seems to be a steady influx of people coming into uni who already have an interest in beer, but maybe have only ever tried the same three of four brands,” he explains.
“Several of the committee are into homebrewing, so we're always trying to find a way to make homebrewing events happen.”
They’re even making connections with local breweries too, as Harry explains: Bad Seed brewery are the best and have been really good to us. Chris holds one of our best yearly events at his brewery in Malton, where he gives us far too much of his delicious beer! A couple of years ago we designed and brewed a new beer with him, which now has a permanent line in the uni pub.”
For Harry and his LUURAS peers, the reason for drinking better beer goes beyond taste, although that’s an important factor, of course. For them, ownership comes into question (they’re iffy about Magic Rock these days after their acquisition by Lion) as well as caring about the quality and eco-friendliness of what they drink.
“For a lot of people, [the fact that] local beer hasn't travelled as far and uses local grain is important, as it has less of a carbon footprint” he says, “And there's more certainty about what's gone into the beer.”
As you’d expect, however, university beer societies are heavily invested in the social aspect of their remit. Harry finishes our conversation by reassuring me that beer for him and his group is the centre of a social group.
“The best part about the Real Ale Soc is the community and social circle you build from it. It's great the way it brings people together and that's why I think it's important for the university to have. Not everyone wants to join a sports or academic society and it’s good to have a casual place to make friends and try new beer.”
Drinking with LURACS
Harry’s words are pretty comforting to a person who’s been told for years that the end of the pub as we know it is nigh, but I wanted to find out for myself how these sorts of societies work. To do that I needed to infiltrate their ranks, so I hung around with the friendly, passionate young folks of the Lancaster University Real Ale and Cider Society at one of their meet-ups in the city centre. It turns out things are quite different from even just 5 years ago.
What was striking first of all is that Accidental, a local microbrewery and bar, opened especially for the group’s meeting, which is always held on a Tuesday night. Owners Mike and Michelle Dent were already manning the bar at 7pm as the healthy turnout poured through the door… and then kept pouring. All in all I counted at least 30 members of LURACS packed into the tiny wee bar, some in brewery shirts (spotted: Cloudwater, Mikkeller, Five Points), some with water, nearly all with stemmed halves and thirds.
“They’re not coming to get drunk anymore,” says Michelle after we say our hellos, and I can see that. There are plenty of people looking thoughtfully at the beer list, checking out the fridges, and tasting each other’s drinks. Mini-groups have formed at tables and around the bar. Someone’s chosen some decent but chilled dance music. Nobody has ordered any shots.
Lancaster University Real Ale and Cider Society is run by a seven-person exec team that includes Charlotte Tuer, Kathy Dent and Blanca Ruiz; three women who are very keen to show their peers just how positive pubs can be. In fact, using pubs became the club’s main focus very early on.
“We didn’t actually drink beer when we started,” says Charlotte, holding two-thirds of Accidental’s latest American-style pale ale. “We like the social aspect and then started trying and enjoying new things. A couple of years ago we thought, “we could run this! Easy!” and when the club needed a new chair and treasurer, we took over. And it’s worked — nobody’s died so far.”
Charlotte and her co-organisers have found that the main draw for their club isn’t the beer and cider aspect at all. It’s the opportunity to socialise in a low-pressure situation.
“First of all, we don’t press the real ale and cider thing. People can come with us to drink wine if they want. At university societies, you usually have to partake in something to get to attend a social, like join and take part in a sports team. In our society, every event is a social.”
The former president of the club, Alice Beswick, was the person who we can credit with moving the club into a more social gathering-type scenario and who welcomed Blanca, Charlotte and Kathy to beer in the first place. Charlotte explains that they’re doing everything they can to continue her good work.
“We want our group to be inclusive and to share beer with everyone. We’re no longer CAMRA affiliated, and despite our name we don’t mind what you drink. Nobody should feel stupid. We’re all trying new things.”
“The aim is to bring people to beer and challenge the idea that it’s stuffy or for older people. Sometimes it’s nice to sit and drink with a group of people you know, and this is less about drinking as much as you can. Some societies let loose on their socials but there’s never a feeling that this is your chance to get hammered. 50% is about drinking, and 50% is about being with friends.”
The society tries hard to include as many local pubs as it can, as well as taking its members on trips to breweries far and wide. At the time of my visit, trips were planned to Manchester for a bar crawl and to Hawkshead Brewery and Ulverston Brewery, getting members interested in how beer’s made as well as how it tastes.
“We base our pub choices on the quality and reputation of the pubs,” says Charlotte. “We plan everything about 10 weeks in advance so we know exactly where we’re going, and some of our members like to be able to look up which beers will be on before we get there.” (Hint to publicans: If you want to attract young customers, update your beer lists on Untappd.)
Despite all the good news, I wanted to know about how many students still aren’t interested in drinking at all, and the group’s former treasurer Blanca Ruiz helped me get some perspective.
“Myself and Charlotte were fresher reps. Half of the freshers we spoke to didn’t want to drink or even go out off-campus. The attitude to drinking has definitely changed. People who do drink are more happy to have one or two and don’t want to get drunk.”
Kathy Dent, co-organiser adds: “We focus on very nice beers and it doesn’t make sense to just knock it back. At £3 a third we want to enjoy what we’re drinking!”
Charlotte also points out that education is half the battle. “The intake of the university has gone up, so by volume, it’s probably fair to say the same number of students drink as before. Craft beer has grown but even for us it wasn’t something we knew about a couple of years ago. And lots of students still don’t really know about it. But things are changing!”
We base our pub choices on the quality and reputation of the pubs
And so they are. As we spoke in the corner of the bar, a well-groomed man in a bomber jacket approached with leaflets advertising an indie horror film festival to be held in Morecambe, just a few miles down the road. “There’ll be craft beer,” he said, before leaving mysteriously. Craft beer in Morecambe. Whatever next.
Before I leave, I chat with Michelle Dent, co-owner of the bar we’re in, to ask her what serving local university students is like and why they open especially for them on occasion. In Lancaster, the local community has a reputation for hating on the university student population for various reasons often out of the students’ control (housing, campus sprawl, being absent during the holidays), and I want to know what her experience of getting to know them has been.
“The students are our community. If it wasn’t for them, Lancaster wouldn’t be anything,” she says.
“It’s not the same as it’s always been. They get to know us, and they like that sense of community. They bring their families when they come to visit, and at graduation we got some in with their parents telling us their grades. It feels like we’re their local pub away from home.”
As I left I was thinking about how beer is still the social lubrication it always has been, it’s just being drunk in a different context. It’s still being enjoyed in local pubs, but those pubs might not always be heritage buildings or serving the finest cask. Younger drinkers aren’t necessarily avoiding beer: they’re more discerning than ever. They won’t be swayed by gimmicks. Not one of them I spoke to mentioned a “mainstream” brand positively. My main takeaway was this: they like pubs once they are shown how to use them, and experienced enough of them to know what’s good and what’s bad. They want value, quality and friendliness. In all those ways, they’re not so different from us, are they?
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