A few weeks ago, I walked into the Yew Tree Inn at Cliffords Mesne, near Newent in Gloucestershire, had a quick look at all the different beers on offer, and decided to order a pint of Hook Norton Best Bitter.
Nothing unusual in that, but what I got was one of the finest pints of cask-conditioned ale I have ever tasted. More than that, it was one of the finest pints of any sort that I have ever tasted. "This," I remember thinking, "is what it's all about - a peerless, cool pint of cask-conditioned English bitter, in a genuine, unthemed inn, in the heart of the English countryside."
By contrast, 20 years or so ago, I remember attending a Whitbread West Pennines Tenants' Association meeting, a monthly affair at which tenants met with brewery representatives to exchange ideas and air their concerns. The main item on the agenda dealt with the concern of a small minority of tenants who felt that the time was right to reintroduce cask-conditioned ale.
Being comparatively new to the trade, I was more than a little surprised at the resistance shown by the majority of tenants, who stated categorically that they didn't want to go through "all that messing around and wastage again" and felt it would be turning the clock back.
The brewery also had serious misgivings, asserting that it had only gone over to "bright" beers (keg in modern jargon) in the first place because of licensees' inability or unwillingness to keep and serve cask-conditioned beers properly. Both parties, it seemed, had serious misgivings but for quite different reasons.
Despite the odds, the minority, which included myself and one or two others, won the day and the brewery agreed to look into the matter, swayed by our insistence that the aims of real ale group Camra were fairly modest, in that it simply wanted to keep a tradition alive and provide beer-drinkers with an alternative to the keg beers which, at that time, reigned supreme.
During the weeks that followed, it was amusing to witness the brewery's genuine confusion - it just could not decide what sort of cask-conditioned ale to brew. Would it be mild or bitter? Light or dark? Strong or normal?
The boom that followed in real ales (as they are now known) is history. Score one for Camra - it did us all a favour by fighting for an alternative to Watney's Red Barrel, Brew Ten and the much-spoonerised Whitbread Tankard, all of which were about as appetising as bath water.
Nothing is permanent, however, and the passage of time has witnessed a downturn in the sales of cask-conditioned beer in favour of nitro-keg beers. In time, they too will be eclipsed.
My point is that, all those years ago as a tenant licensee, I fought tooth and nail for the right to provide my customers with a choice, an alternative to the ubiquitous keg. I did not fight to have keg beers removed or even boycotted; to have done so would have been hypocrisy.
What disturbs me now is the blinkered attitude of those who seem unable to tolerate the presence, in a bar, of any beers other than real ales. They are not, as a rule, people involved in selling the product to the customer so much as people who enjoy the financial safety of the fringes - armchair critics and the like.
Lager, they say, is too cold and too gassy. Nitro-keg beers are nothing more than gassed-up pasteurised keg, we Brits should drink beer with our meals instead of wine, and so on. These are entirely subjective opinions which would result in the final demise of an already ailing industry, were they ever to be implemented.
To those people I say, I too like proper cask-conditioned beers and, what is more, I actually sell them - but not to the exclusion of all others.
Lager has its place
The best interests of our industry are not served by such esoteric posturing. Lager has its place, and millions of people drink it out of choice. So too does smooth-flow beer. A good wine list is also part of the equation, and no one will ever convince me that a customer who fancies a bottle of Burgundy would be just as well served with a pint of real ale.
Tolerance and choice should be our watchwords.
David Best is publican of the Bushell's Arms at Preston in Lancashire