Saturday, 19 October 2013

A breath of controversy

My recent post about the under-representation of family brewers in the Good Beer Guide made the point that some of them had been effectively excluded because they had a declared policy of using cask breathers in their pubs. So I thought I would ask blog readers whether this was an issue that concerned them.

As you can see, for the vast majority either it would make no difference to whether they visited a pub, or they simply couldn’t care less. And a rather larger handful said it would make them more likely to use a pub than those who said less likely.

For those not familiar with the device, a cask breather is a demand valve that is attached to the spile hole of a cask and, when beer is drawn off, replaces it with the same volume of CO2 at atmospheric pressure. The image to the right shows how it works. Properly set up, it should not result in the beer becoming over-carbonated and will prolong its shelf-life by preventing air getting to the beer. CAMRA’s guide to cellarmanship suggests it may be used as a way of serving cask beer in outlets with low or erratic turnover where otherwise the only alternative would be keg.

Despite repeated calls for a change in policy, CAMRA has always set its face against any official acceptance of cask breathers on the grounds that it could be the thin end of the wedge – once allowed for marginal outlets, it would soon become the norm across whole estates. Indeed, this seems to be what has happened with some of the “excluded” breweries. Many Sam Smith’s pubs will empty a cask of Old Brewery Bitter – their sole cask beer – in less than a day, and therefore using a cask breather would appear pointless.

However, extensive taste tests have failed to establish that even experienced and knowledgeable drinkers can tell the difference between beer kept under a cask breather and without one. Plus, in an age when we have the strange combination of declining beer sales and increasing numbers of beers on the bar, stopping beer going off has become an issue for very many pubs, not just a few low-volume ones. I’ve certainly had plenty of flat, tired pints in recent years that might well have benefited from the use of a cask breather. As the poll shows, few beer drinkers seem to be remotely bothered.

There are some interesting comments on Pete Brown’s blog here from Jeff Rosenmeier (who admittedly has an axe to grind as the boss of keg-only brewery Lovibonds) who says “The ONLY way you would KNOW if a pub was using a cask breather would be that you no longer get rancid pints.”

Is this perhaps a case of “the best being the enemy of the good” and, faced with a choice of either drinkable cask beer kept under a cask breather, cask beer that has gone off, or keg beer, isn’t the first realistically the best option? It’s another example where some flexibility might be desirable rather than adopting a strict black and white approach.

21 comments:

  1. I'm posting this anonymously as I work in a GBG listed pub, which unbeknown to the local CAMRA branch uses a cask breather on most of it's beers. I can guarantee from experience that no one can tell the difference.

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  2. Years ago I helped one of my keg customers get his casks on breathers...he then won local CAMRA pub of the year.

    Axe to grind? I just hate seeing my fellow brewers beers ruined in the pubs because of some stupid policy dreamt up by people that know absolutely nothing about making beer.

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  3. This is all down to CAMRA's Technical Committee. They have the final say on matters such as this. Sadly, this little cabal is made up of people who, frankly, see the handpull as a modern inconveneince and sparklers as the work of the devil. From my experience, the mere mention of cask breathers sends them into an apoplectic rage.

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  4. To be fair sparklers are the work of the devil.

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  5. If the objective is to keep the beer in top condition by prevent spoilage bacteria from the air getting into the beer whilst not adding anything to the beer, I can't see the problem - makes perfect sense, particularly if we also want lots of choice in pubs and we want landlords to make a living.

    If the pub has poor hygiene standards and doesn't clean beer lines etc they will still have beer which doesn't taste good. Breathers won't help help bad landlords but they do help the good landlords maintain their beer in top condition -time to move on I think!

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  6. "This is all down to CAMRA's Technical Committee"
    Erm, no it isn't... They have been roundly defeated on the point at the AGM at least three times.
    It's down to a grass roots antipathy to CO2 dispense systems - probably unjustified and certainly exaggerated, but there's no cabal involved.

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  7. There is no grass roots antipathy to the cask breather. If anything, the opposite. There are several CAMRA chairmen who are readers of this blog who will, I hope, confirm that it is not an issue for their branch. What does or doesn't go on at the AGM is hardly representitve of grass roots views and is largely irrelevant to most members.

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  8. Ok - agreed that it is not an issue for most branches. And I freely admit that I know nothing of the current Technical Comittee or their opinions.
    I used "grass roots" to refer to the floor of the AGM - the current Camra position has come from an entrenched prejudice among those members. Over the years, several motions in favour of the breather have been virtually howled down.
    For what it's worth, I've (slightly) changed my opinion of the things. When Pat O'Neill originally recommended their acceptance I took his word for it that they had no discernable effect.
    Now that they're widely in use, I've developed a suspicion that they do limit the development of the beer. I don't think I've had a really memorable pint in a pub that I knew to be using cask breathers.
    But of course most of the time I've no idea whether a pub is using them or not - and there are vastly more important things to be concerned about these days, like whether there's a pub there at all, for instance.

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  9. When cask breathers first appeared most cask-conditioned beers were actually conditioned in the cask. Most modern cask beers have most of their conditioning done at the brewery, contain very small amounts of sediment and are anything but lively when first opened, indicative of a much reduced secondary fermentation. They're still real beers, regardless of where most of the secondary fermentation takes place, but in my experience they're less robust and need to be shifted even faster than beers did even ten years ago. My point being that a cask breather can't limit the development of the majority of beers, because all the development has already happened.

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  10. Well, call me simplistic or old-fashioned, but I'm inclined to think that if it isn't conditioned in the cask then it isn't cask-conditioned!

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  11. There is some conditioning in the cask and there is some sediment, just nowhere near as much of either done as used to be. As an example, Sam Smiths OBB used to be a real exploder and had loads of sediment. Now, barely a whimper and not much sediment at all. Some beers from some of our larger breweries are racked before filling and a bottom-fermenting (helps it settle faster) seed yeast added for a token secondary fermentation.

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  12. >There are several CAMRA chairmen who are readers of this blog who will, I hope, confirm that it is not an issue for their branch.

    Couldn't care two hoots (as a local CAMRA branch chairman) about whether or not I'm served beer with or without a cask breather. I want choice and quality beer plus the pubs they're served in to thrive. I care not for outdated technicalities.

    I just shake my head in disbelief when confronted with somebody who argues for them and disregards the positives of allowing marginal pubs to stock a real ale and not have to throw large quantities away because it's gone off. It's just unrealistic to expect every pub to be a cask ale enthusiasts haven and therefore if there is a device which is proven to not effect the quality of cask ale but can improve it, CAMRA should and must support it.

    To not do so other further confines CAMRA to being a preservation society and not a self-style champion for consumer rights and defender of the public house. I would suggest CAMRA members who want to be involved in the former resign and join S.P.B.W.

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  13. >I've developed a suspicion that they do limit the development of the beer. I don't think I've had a really memorable pint in a pub that I knew to be using cask breathers

    Hmm, not exactly scientific Ian ;-) Controlled tests carried out show drinkers can't tell. Somebody tells you there's a cask breather and magically your perception changes. I smell a rat ;-)

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  14. "I smell a rat"
    Compliments already...

    I said as much, I thought. I know tests have shown that you can't tell that a cask breather is in use. My suspicion is that you can sometimes tel that it isn't

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  15. With Pubs closing at a catastrophic rate, it would seem that CAMRA would have more pressing concerns than fighting a technology that would make real ale more available.

    Why fight something that makes it easier for publicans to be successful in selling real ale. Talk about self defeating.

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  16. There is of course the easy way to make sure beer can be sold in smaller quantities and kept fresh - buy it in smaller containers. 20L cask boxes are becoming quite common in the on-trade and are perfect for marginal sales.

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  17. As a CAMRA Chairman I care only that they are used sparingly and appropriately. That is in marginal outfits that would otherwise be offering smooth only. When a beer is shifting its just not needed.

    I've always been fan of the thin end of the wedge argument incidentally. I think too that the floor of the AGM is more open to argument these days too, but that's an aside.

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  18. It would be more interesting to ask the question of people that are not engaged in the beer blogosphere. I know you cannot do that but if I asked around the office for opinions on cask breathers I suspect the answer would be 99% "what's one of them" All would be able to tell the difference between a nice pint and vinegary piss.

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  19. "All would be able to tell the difference between a nice pint and vinegary piss."

    Actually a large number of non-real ale drinkers think that's what real ale is supposed to taste like because every time they have risked trying a pint, it has (arguably partly thanks to the lack of cask breathers).

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  20. Indeed, how many "repertoire drinkers" have been put off cask, maybe for life, by one bad experience? Reminds me of this story.

    It's not that common to get total vinegar (although we found one on a recent CAMRA pub crawl) but the pint that's just a bit dull, tired, warm, flat and ever-so-slightly hazy is far more common than it should be.

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  21. Agree....CAMRA are obtuse and ignorant in their stance on the cask breather. Support the cask breather which will support cask ale being supplied to the public....isn't that what CAMRA stands for (obviously not).

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