When they had their famous discussion in that pub in the west of Ireland, the four founder members had a general sense that something was going wrong with British beer, but they didn’t know exactly what. Initially, of course, the organisation was called the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. It was only later, once they had looked into the subject more thoroughly, that the current definition of “real ale” was arrived at.
In the context of the British draught beer market at the time, it was actually a pretty good approximation of the distinction between “good” and “bad”, and it is something that has stood the test of time. Of course recently it has been challenged to some extent by the rise of “craft keg”, but that remains very much a niche phenomenon and this certainly isn’t meant as yet another blogpost on that much overdone topic.
The problem starts to arise when the principle is extended to areas of the beer market for which it was never intended. By the time CAMRA was founded, cask-conditioning had pretty much died out beyond the shores of Great Britain, but that isn’t to say there was no good draught beer in any other countries. Yet you would find some people who had taken the definition a bit too seriously saying things like “there’s no good beer in Germany, it’s all keg”, which was both silly and ignorant. To some extent, you still do.
Matters got worse, though, and were brought closer to home, when the principle was extended from draught to packaged beers in the UK. In 1971, bottled and canned beers accounted for less than 10% of the British beer market, and so had not assumed the significance they have now, and effectively all bottled beers had been “bright” for decades as drinkers wanted to avoid the risk of cloudy beer. There were only a tiny handful of bottle-conditioned beers still on the market, and so CAMRA could easily put these on a pedestal without ruffling too many feathers. The discerning drinker drank real ale in the pub.
However, over time the market changed. There was a steady move from pub to at-home drinking, and brewers began introducing bottled (but brewery-conditioned) versions of the popular real ales people enjoyed in the pub, rather than the generic pale and brown ales that had once dominated the market. Clearly a bottle of Taylor’s Landlord is a very different product from a can of Younger’s Tartan, and yet it was still glibly dismissed as “keg in a bottle”.
In response to this, CAMRA began putting more effort into championing bottle-conditioned beers, and developed the marketing concept of “real ale in a bottle”. White Shield has been repackaged and promoted, and some of the established brewers have introduced new beers like Fuller’s 1845 and Young’s Special London Ale. However, it can’t be said that the sector has exactly set the market alight, and most of the widely available BCAs are strong specials that you would only drink on occasion rather than everyday quaffing brews.
And the downside is that many micro-breweries have been encouraged to produce ranges of bottle-conditioned beers that, to be blunt, are wildly inconsistent dreck, and which many buyers will actively avoid. Those smaller breweries wanting to make a mark in the bottled market have – to the chagrin of some CAMRA diehards – gone for brewery-conditioning, as they know it is more customer-friendly. Take, for example, Purity, Slater’s, Moorhouse’s, Hawkshead, Harviestoun and Williams Bros, all of which have been spotted on the shelves of my local supermarkets.
It has to be recognised that bottle-conditioning simply does not give the drinker the clear distinction from brewery-conditioning that cask beer does over keg. Indeed, the main difference was always the care needed in pouring to keep the sediment in the bottle, and the likelihood of getting a cloudy glassful, although that has been eroded by the widespread adoption of “sticky” yeast by the bigger brewers. But, given that, it cannot be said that a bottle of bottle-conditioned Fuller’s Bengal Lancer presents the drinker with a significantly different experience in terms of general character and mouthfeel from one of brewery-conditioned ESB.
As py0, who sometimes comments on here, said on the CAMRA forum, you can take some CAMRA diehard into Tesco, show him the hundred or more widely varied British ales on the shelves, mostly from independent and micro breweries, and ask him which he thinks are worth drinking. He’ll cough, hum and hah a bit and point out the one or two that are bottle-conditioned such as 1845 or White Shield. Surely that can’t be an acceptable position for an organisation supposedly committed to promoting quality and variety in British beer and brewing.
Of course the vast majority of drinkers, even the most knowledgeable and discerning, cheerfully ignore this distinction, and its effect is not so much to restrict the prospects of individual breweries as to make CAMRA appear pedantic and out-of-touch. It does it no favours to erect bottle-conditioning as a shibboleth for packaged beers. Whether or not a beer is good should be judged by how it actually tastes, not on whether some particular hard-and-fast rule has been rigidly applied.