Friday, 15 February 2013

Cart before horse

It has often been said that the role of CAMRA is “to campaign for real ale” and that seems a clear enough mission statement. However, something that isn’t appreciated as widely as it should be is that CAMRA actually predates “real ale” as a concept. It’s not as though the organisation was formed to defend something that was widely understood but felt to be under threat.

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.

40 comments:

  1. I agree that CAMRA get it wrong on bottled beer. I'm not really sure what they should do instead, if anything though.

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  2. One thing they could do is to introduce a quality approval scheme for the "CAMRA says this is real ale" logo so brewers can't put it on any old crap.

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  3. I remember very well how poor tinned beers were in the 1970s: we drank stuff like Watney's Party Sevens and Party Fours at parties usually because there was little other option. I don't know anyone who bought a Party Four to savour while watching TV at home. As a real ale drinker and CAMRA member, I am committed to draught real ale which for me is the best form of beer. Bottles are another matter. Real ale in a bottle (RAIB) isn't as different from brewery-conditioned bottled beer as the draught real ales are from their keg or smooth counterparts. I usually find RAIBs no less fizzy their non-real equivalents. I'm consequently not a massive fan of bottled beers, as I find even RAIBs far inferior to cask real ale. If I want some bottled beers, e.g. to cater for a guest, I tend not to look closely at whether the beers are RAIBs or not. Otherwise I rarely buy them.

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  4. "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. " Right on!
    Er, what's CAMRA for again?

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  5. Dickie been winding you up again on the forum with moans about the igorami not wanting to drink cloudy muck on trains?

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  6. You are of course absolutely right here - although dodgy BCAs are by no means confined to the UK (although by contrast, the Belgians who bottle condition most of their bottled beers have an enviable track record in getting it right - presumably because the traditions of BCAs didn't die out over there).

    The "CAMRA says this is Real Ale" logo should have been introduced as some sort of gold standard but I think it's too late to row back on that one now, so I don't know what the answer is.

    Funnily enough beer geekdom seems very tolerant of, at least, murky BCAs. Take the revered Kernel - the sedimentt in their beers is notorious. But then again they are "craft" so presumably get a free pass with this sort of thing.

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  7. Of course the crafterati will like anything that Joe and Joanna Public turn their noses up at ;-)

    Their embrace of cloudy cask beer is a case in point.

    Interesting comment from "curMUDGEon" (not me) on the CAMRA forum, which underlines the point that it was an error of judgment to elevate BCAs to the packaged equivalent of cask:

    "British bottle conditioned beers NEVER had any great significance historically, bottled beers only really selling in large volumes from around a century ago once filtration and pasteurisation technology had spread to a significant number of breweries and a consistent product could confidently be offered without fear of complaints about ‘bits’ in the beer or ‘cloudiness’."

    Ironically, last night I opened a bottle of White Shield that had very little condition at all, whereas recently I've had quite a few examples with dense head and lively carbonation that really have conditioned in the bottle.

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  8. You do have to send beer to Jeff Evan's for tasting before CAMRA will send you the 'CAMRA says this is real ale' logo.

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  9. yes was thinking of the Belgian example as well (remember that Jimmy & Jamie food wars thing where the Belgian bottled beer cleaned up) so theyve managed to productionise it with a high degree of quality, on both a micro and macro scale so its possible to achieve.

    Which is why I think you risk chucking the baby out with the bath water if you just say ok lets just forget about BCA as something to strive for in the UK because were rubbish at it.

    the problem is obviously consistency and clearly some places are not taking enough care with the process, or cleaning their bottling equipment properly I suspect, which is how you end up with so many of them tasting so vile.

    what I dont get is why thats never picked up by the brewers themselves to begin with, or why they persist with it, they must surely occasionaly drink the stuff themselves or have feedback from people telling them. Is bottling such a sideline in the UK market for them as opposed to the Belgian market where its the other way around, that its something you just do as an afterthought thats sort of nice to have but not the thing you concentrate on as core business.

    I dont think its something CAMRA should give up on promoting,maybe it needs to call out more instances where its going wrong, whether its White Shield or some tiny micro, but then theyd probably be accused of being overly negative again.

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  10. Yes, I guess the Belgians "have" to get it right as bottled beer is such a large part of what could broadly be called the specialist beer market over there whereas here we concentrate more on draught products.

    I think cleanliness is one issue in some cases. More often I think it's a lack of consistency in priming so you get either gushers or stuff that's almost or totally flat.

    I wonder how CAMRA decides on accrediting beers - it is just concerend with the intrinsic quality of the beer or does it look at process and consistency of end resut. Hmm. I'm not at the AGM this year but I will be next - I feel a motion for debate coming on.

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  11. I've never seen any firm evidence of this, but I get the impression that some BCA advocates actually think they should be flattish and a bit hazy and yeasty.

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  12. I think it must be difficult, Mudge, being a libertarian is an essentially conservative beer club. The point of CAMRA is telling people what to drink. Drink cask not smooth bitter! Something I gather no one takes issue with because the former is clearly good and the latter clearly crap. I even agree with it.

    However when it extends to bottled beer, craft keg beer & ciders. Oh dear. Much of the “real” rhetoric is bollocks and counterproductive. It ends up promoting poorer quality cottage industry products over the better quality products of larger producers.

    It is interesting you think the answer is a quality assurance scheme. That CAMRA ought to have a committee deciding what is good and bad based on taste rather than any defined “real” criteria. Isn’t the problem with that the same basic problem as extending the campaign to embrace craft keg? Also isn’t that an essentially conservative rather than libertarian solution?

    A libertarian solution would be to drop any campaigning on bottled beer & cider. Let people choose for themselves without campaigning to influence them. There is no tradition to preserve. Bugger all actual members are interested in that side. Just drop it and get on with promoting pub cask beer. A decent traditional product that actually it is nice to drink more of and makes a nice change from cans of lout.

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  13. Mudge - that is probably the most on the ball piece that you have written for some time. Very much sums up the history that evolved to get us to where we are now even though where we are is not ideal.

    Where you are mistaken is that there is meant to be some kind of quality control scheme on the "CAMRA says this is real ale" logo - it does take several months to get the logo approved including sending in samples. But as John Clarke says, who actually does the evaluation and what criteria are applied is a mystery.

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  14. I was aware there was some kind of approval process, but I don't think it's a quality control scheme as usually understood.

    To do that, a brewer would need to submit a sample of reasonable size, from more than one production batch, and testers ensure that an acceptably low proportion (no more than, say, 1 in 50) exhibit any of the typical BCA faults, such as total lack of condition, fobbing and failing to clear.

    Of course a sample of 50 or 100 bottles would be very costly for a small start-up brewery, and CAMRA would then be accused of erecting barriers to entry.

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  15. An excelent post, and some well thought out responses from a variety of different contributors.

    I actualy agree with Cookie that CAMRA should drop the campaigning on bottled beers, and concentrate purely on draught (cask) beers.

    BCA's are so hit and miss (especially those from smaller producers), that they could end up doing more harm than good when it comes to persuading people to try "real ale". Like many people I've had some bad experiences with them, and when I have actually had some that were ok, there was nothing that special about them which stood out over and above standard filtered and pasteurised versions.

    The best course would be to let them slowly fade away, as I really don't see the point of them - not in this country anyway.

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  16. I wasn’t really suggesting that as a course of action Paul, only suggesting that Mudgie’s approach is one of a disgruntled conservative rather than the libertarian he believes himself to be. That he does not want the freedom to pick whatever beers he likes, he wants a beer authority to dictate to him, he just want that authority to dictate to him something better than it currently does. I much prefer the anarchistic approach of Clarkey, myself. That of having rules, giving them lip service, but ignoring any you feel like on any given whim. That makes me smile.

    As for the quality control suggestions so far. They succeed only in maintaining brand “CAMRA” and not in the promotion of BCA’s. It addresses the issue of undrinkable dreck on sale with a CAMRA approved logo at the cost of excluding smaller providers that will not meet the QA cost. On the market will remain BCA’s without the CAMRA approved logo, so the market will decide the value of the CAMRA approved logo. It fails to address that even good quality BCA’s are no better but just on a par with PBA’s and have a higher level of customer inconvenience. You have to chill them upright in the door of your fridge, not on their side if you want to drink them below ambient temperature. They require a detailed explanation to the customer in order to store and serve correctly.

    PBA’s have been one of the big successes of supermarket beer, enjoyed by many people. All of whom do not care one jot that Dickie thinks them ignorami. The challenge of CAMRA isn’t so much in how does it gain some sort of influence or grip in a market where is currently has none, but can it stop the likes of Dickie presenting its organisation like a bunch of twats. One it has figured out that, then it might want to decide what type of bottled beer it likes.

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  17. I don't want any beer authority to dictate to me, but it is a concern when an organisation that sets itself up as a beer authority makes pronouncements that mislead consumers and potentially distort the market.

    I drink what I like. In pubs, I rarely drink any beer apart from cask, as experience has shown it is usually better than any alternative, despite the occasional quality issues. At home, while I may buy the occasional BCA (and am quite a fan of White Shield and 1698) most of my drinking is brewery-conditioned PBAs and lagers.

    "PBA’s have been one of the big successes of supermarket beer, enjoyed by many people."

    Yes, arguably the biggest beer success story of the past 15 years, and a sector that is not given the recognition it deserves. Also, by and large, consumed by the same demographic who choose cask beer in the pub. And often referred to as "real ales" even if, by the CAMRA definition, they aren't.

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  18. You should sue this CurMUDGEon fellow for impersonating you.

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  19. His name is actually Pete Mudge, and he is even older than I am, so he has a right to it.

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  20. "Of course recently it has been challenged to some extent by the rise of “craft keg”, but that remains very much a niche phenomenon.
    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."

    Surely a contradiction? Draught(keg) beer okay in the rest of the world but not in UK. UKIP would be proud of that. As for the replies disparaging UK bottle-conditioned beers I say Meantime IPA or Fullers Vintage Ale. Also, just because some BCAs are crap should we disparage them all? CAMRAs biggest failure in my view has been siting good quality beer in outlets that are resitant to cask. If only cinemas, hotels, restuarants and clubs stocked Coniston Bluebird or Fullers 1845 I'd be happy.

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  21. The thing is Birkonian, they probably would stock them, but they simply wouldn't get the turnover to get through a cask in 3-4 days and they'd end up throwing half of it away.

    The answer is obvious to everyone except the CAMRA NE: cask breathers.

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  22. The whole BCA debacle is a spectacular CAMRA own goal. Our secretive masters at St Albans seem happy to carry on regardless to the fact that most members couldn't give a toss about BCA. I know plenty of members who are happy to buy Brewdog at Morrisons, despite risking being sent to CAMRA hell in the afterlife.

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  23. I can understand why 4 guys in the early 70’s unhappy with what they were being served in pubs decided to set up a consumer union to lobby for what they liked. I get why thousands joined them. Had they started off in the 80’s they would have gone down a different route. I suspect the idea of a consumer union would have been less at the top of their minds than the assumption that if others thought like them they could set up an enterprise that filled the gap in the market. Zeitgeists change. However, is the bottled beer market full of people thinking, the market isn’t giving me what I want? I want sludge at the bottom of my beer bottle, I demand it!

    However you cut it, BCA’s are a niche & will remain a niche. They will be appreciated by some, not by others and maybe allow a few bearded odd balls to sneak in there & use it as a symbol of personal difference from the mob to shore up a psychological weakness and fear of personal mediocrity. Ho hum. Whatever is done, whether CAMRA abandon, refine or leave their BCA campaign as it is, can anyone see it having any actual impact on consumer behaviour? The answer is a big fat no. The world has already moved on.

    The same goes for cider & lager. There is already a consumer revolution occurring in the market in terms of new brands, quality, & authenticity. CAMRA is not relevant to any of it, because it chooses not to be.

    And Mudge is right; the majority of drinkers of PBA’s refer to them as “real ales” because the same brands are used for cask ales. As English is a reflective rather than prescriptive language that makes CAMRA’s definition already redundant and superseded. Real ale is “posh bitter” or “pricier bitter”, the “taste the difference” version of bitter. Such is life.

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  24. Rather than setting a definitive definition of craft beer, looks like we're slowly unpicking the technical definition of real ale instead.

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  25. More a case of exposing its limitations. Extending the concept of real ale to bottled beers is a classic case of applying a principle to somewhere it is no longer appropriate.

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  26. That is from the perspective of wanting to maintain the original CAMRA defined definition, through nostalgia. If a million PBA customers refer to their grog as real ale, and 100,000 beards have a technical though longer standing meaning they themselves developed, the million ain't wrong.

    CAMRA do not get to proscribe the meaning of "real" or any other word, language useage does that. CAMRA is simply using an already out of date meaning for a term it itself invented but lost when it got used, stretched and changed by others.

    Too bad. I'm looking forward to the next supermarket "real ale festival" which is just really a discount on cans of London Pride, but nevertheless. Some may get bothered about about the term, just like old codgers think gay means happy, I just like a discount on grog and know what type of grog they mean.

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  27. CL: "CAMRA do not get to proscribe the meaning of "real" or any other word".

    Prescribe, surely?

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  28. Interesting that you should use Bengal Lancer and ESB as examples: I've been going off bottled ESB in the last year or so because it always seems to taste a bit stale, whereas BL consistently impresses with me with how closely it can resemble a really well-kept pint of cask ale.

    I think there is *something* in bottle-conditioning, when it's done right, that can give a relatively restrained beer a bit more 'zing' than it would have otherwise.

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  29. "I think there is *something* in bottle-conditioning, when it's done right, that can give a relatively restrained beer a bit more 'zing' than it would have otherwise."

    I don't disagree that ultimately the best bottle-conditioned beer will beat the best brewery-conditioned one. But the sheer unreliability of even the well-known ones*, and the fact that it doesn't really deliver the distinct difference that cask does over keg, means it is always going to be something of a specialist interest.

    And so much utter crap is produced by those who unthinkingly worship at the altar of bottle-conditioning!

    * the last two White Shields I had were both almost as flat as the proverbial fluke.

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  30. Is there still a need for CAMRA. No shortage of delicious bottled beers in the supermarket (my favourite with chilli is Badger Golden Glory) and an explosion in real ale micro breweries. What are CAMRA currently campaigning for. Everyone has access to something they enjoy drinking.

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  31. Arguably CAMRA has now become effectively a beer connoisseurs' club rather than any kind of campaign.

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  32. That and a campaign against poor people on benefits having a drink ;)

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  33. I'm seriously tempted to resurrect this debate and consider putting a motion forward next year to get the blank ban on What's Brewing et all from promoting non-BCA like the recent Tilting Ale from Redwillow on Virgin Trains. I find it highly ironic that that an organisation which set it self up on the pretext of loss of choice & the fight against poor quality beer is now, to all intents and purpose, actively campaigning for a reduction in choice & poor quality by only supporting BCA. I'm glad I was reminded of this blog because it's got all the ammunition one might need.

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  34. Obviously I'd be right behind you there. I also heard a whisper that CAMRA might be contemplating remote voting on AGM motions.

    Of course the trick is also to make a cask version of your beer, even if you sell far more in bottle, so CAMRA can happily promote it. (Looks at a certain "military" beer currently being brewed in central Stockport)

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  35. That should of course have read " get the blank ban REMOVED" - not put on!

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  36. "...the blank ban on What's Brewing et all from promoting non-BCA.."

    Not all CAMRA publications take such a proscriptive line.... I can think of one local magazine that is likely to highlight Tilting Ale in its August issue.

    That apart, I think the time has come to revisit this policy. Something like "This Conference agrees that with immediate effect the Campaign will support all bottled beers of quality and distinction regardless of whether or not they are bottled conditioned".

    That'll throw a rock in the pool, I think.

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  37. Yes, it is entirely possible for CAMRA to praise some quality non-BCAs while still holding to the view that in principle BCAs are superior.

    Do I see a harder line being taken on this recently with Tom Stainer being made to publicly apologise for praising bottled Jaipur without mentioning it was non-BCA?

    To be honest, if CAMRA can't praise Jaipur, it might as well give up and go home.

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  38. Ahh that explains Tom's immediate response when I sent him the press released for Tilting Ale. It does sound like CAMRA is barking up completely the wrong tree here.

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  39. @John - wonder which magazine that is ;-) Got plenty of time on this one but I was experimenting with some wording on the CAMRA forums. Sure we can get the wording sorted here. It's not like we're attempting to ban BCA.

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  40. As you say I'm sure we can get the wording sorted - perhaps transfer to private email and copy Mudgie in?

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