Sunday, 16 February 2014

Is it just me?

I’ve written in the past about the highly inconsistent and generally disappointing character of British bottle-conditioned beers, especially those from small breweries that have been bottled at source using the original yeast. Indeed, in my experience the likelihood of getting one that is even half-decent is so low that I would actively warn people against buying them.

To my mind, the whole point of a bottle-conditioned beer is that it will actually undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle, in a similar way to Champagne. Thus, when you pour it, there will be a dense, rocky read and vigorous spires of natural carbonation rising through the beer. However, despite extensive experimentation, that state is rarely achieved. I’ve had it in about one in five White Shields but, apart from that, hardly ever in British beers.

For example, I recently bought a bottle of Wye Valley Butty Bach from Tesco as part of a multibuy offer. I hadn’t realised that it was bottle-conditioned, but it turned out that it was. I succeeded in pouring it clear, but it produced a very lacklustre, flat glass of beer. I’m not singling Wye Valley out for criticism (and indeed they brew some excellent cask beers) but it just happens it’s their beer I had.

They don’t, to be honest, make many inroads into the major supermarkets, but the shelves of specialist off-licences are now groaning with bottle-conditioned beers from British micro-breweries, so plenty of people must be buying them.

If that’s you, what do you expect? Is it enough for you that you get a rather flat, yeasty-tasting, possibly slightly hazy, glass of beer, with some gunge in the bottom of the bottle, that you know hasn’t been filtered or pasteurised, and that has a little logo on the label saying “CAMRA says this is real ale”? Or do you actually experience that elusive vigorous secondary fermentation? And, if you do, why does it virtually never happen to me?


  1. It's a total lottery, though I can't quite understand your failure to find 'condition' in most bottled beers. My experience is that they are either totally flat (with accompanying slight oxidisation/vinegary faults), or conditioned to the point of gushing when opened, maybe 20% in good condition. I avoid bottle conditioned ales from small British brewers now, the bottled beers from Oakham Ales are easily as good, and frequently better than any bottle conditioned ales I've tried. A well-known pedant on the CAMRA forum has repeatedly stated that he has 'never' had a bad bottle conditioned British ale! But then he's never been in a bad Wetherspoon either...

  2. You do seem to ne jinxed. Over the past few months I have sampled a fair few British BCAs for the column I write for the Stockport Express and with a few exceptions they have invariably poured bright and well conditioned. Perhaps I'm just lucky. For the record (just in case you were tempted to try one) Buxton beers usually don't pour bright but they recognise this as a problem and are working on it.

  3. Having just returned with a haul of bottled beers from Booths, I noted how, even there, the number of BC beers have declined significantly. Following plenty of bad experiences, I've am very selective on which breweries I buy but, interestingly, I tend to find the most consistent are "hunt the yeast" ones i.e. Yeast counts and secondary fermentation must be low or non-existent. The key to good bottled beer is (a) beer has to be good in the first place (b) don't pasteurise. It would be nice to mandate the latter on labels. Good bottle conditioning is the icing on the cake. Guess the same rules apply to the cask/craft debate ��

  4. A thread kicked off on our local CAMRA Yahoo group when I pointed out the slight snobbery around non-BCA beers specifically around the Salt Bar (on TV last week) who stocked local beers but they are non-BCA. The debate seems to have dissolved into a "my beer is better than yours" which a) wasn't my original point and b) kind of proves the point!

    My original point is that CAMRA has to either concede it's lost the battle to get BCA as the dominant format for what was once real ale (and therefore stops been so scared of talking about alternatives) or mounts a major campaign to reverse the trend.

    The problem with the later is that IMO the quality aspect will *always* be there and therefore we're ultimately pushing for something which has quality problems. Alarm bells should be ringing. Even if the brewers can get their quality act together (and I'm *not* going to tell them!), you still have the problem of Joe Public who doesn't read the label, actually shakes it up (hey it's got bits in it, maybe it's like Orangina) and then wonders why it explodes and is full of bits.

    There are analogies with the craft keg debate, i.e. the inference that the only good beer is cask ale. It's too black & white. We've all had poor/bland cask ale - the "cask ale" tag doesn't necessarily mean "good quality". Same with BCA.

    It could be that BCA is the preserve of the beer connoisseur but that doesn't mean that non-BCA is bad. I know this blog wasn't about non-BCA as such but you can't talk about poor BCA quality without wondering why the alternative is increasingly popular in certain sectors.

    BTW - I do think more can be done to help the consumer here. Nobody reads instructions. I work in IT - I know that's true. However, the BCA with the little neck tag are a very good way to attract attention. The words RAIB on the bottle just get lost.

    Mark's point about the beer having to be good in the first place is well made. Many non-BCA beers are bland because the beer was bland in the first place.

  5. Totally agreed there, Rob.

    At its best, a bottle-conditioned beer will be better than a brewery-conditioned one, but how often is that actually achieved?

    And are people actually arguing that, say, brewery-conditioned Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, is a beer unworthy of praise?

    The vast majority of the brewery-conditioned beers on the Premium Bottle Ales fixture are the direct equivalents of cask beers and, while maybe not setting the world alight, are not in any sense bad beers.

  6. are people actually arguing that, say, brewery-conditioned Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, is a beer unworthy of praise?

    If you looked hard enough and in the right places (e.g. the letters pages of local CAMRA magazines) you could probably find more than one person who's so religiously committed to the idea of RAIB that they'd say that. Otherwise I don't think anyone is.

  7. I take it you are not active in your local CAMRA branch then, Phil?

    Also I would suggest you look at the mailing list of the Macclesfield & East Cheshire Branch where the RAIB dinosaurs are rampant.

  8. The poor quality of BCAs does the cause of CAMRA no good. BCAs should be the Trojan Horse whereby decent beer is promoted in clubs, restaurants, cinema bars etc. etc. CAMRA isn't really interested though other than to provide photo opportunities in their BEER magazine. Co-incidentally, I drank a Fuller's 1845 BCA last night. That is a quality beer by any standards.

  9. I tend to avoid BCA's for the same reasons as you, Curmudgeon. ie they are too much of a lottery.

    I was given a number of bottles from Cotleigh Brewery for Christmas, two of which were bottle-conditioned. I have only drunk one of these BCA's so far, and needless to say, despite chilling for an hour or so before opening, it was way too lively, and I ended up with a glass full of foam. This was in spite of slow and careful pouring on my part. Because I had to pour the beer in several stages, I inevitably ended up with a cloudy glass, and was not best amused.

    The process adds nothing to the beer, and if anything takes something away, so I cannot understand why CAMRA persists with promoting this sort of beer. It even publishes a regularly updated book about them!

  10. I think we've sussed out why the first pasteurised and filtered beers happened to be of the bottled variety. It's only in the last couple of years that I've even considered drinking bottled beer more than once a year, or less. Bottled beers like Oakham Citra (OK, I like grapefruit) or Tyneside Blonde lend themselves to the brutality and flavour-killing processes used to package them, although in fairness the processes used these days are more sympathetic. Brew your beer specifically to bottle and/or keg, and you're on a winner.

  11. I think this offers an explanation for your misfortune.

    You, Clarkey & Dickie are what's known as 3 sigma events. You being at the opposite end of the standard deviation curve to Clarkey & Dickie.

    This results in almost consistent bad BCA expertience whilst Dickie & Clarkey experience almost consistent good BCA's.

    To experience the opposite end of the curve you need to invite yourself round Clarkey or Dickies gaff and get pissed up on their grog all night. Either that or just drink cans of Bombadier.

    Most of the rest of us are 1 or 2 sigma events.

  12. To be honest as long as it still tastes alright I'm really not that bothered by slightly variable conditioning. Just pour it more carefully, it only takes a minute.

  13. Amazingly I've recent had some excellent bottle conditioned beers, including some from the antipodes this year, but I would also say that it equates for around 70% of the beer that I like least. This is either through almost exploding when removing the cap, to producing a cloudy, flat unappealing colour. Rarely are they "off", but still the beer has to be appetising to your eyes, nose mouth and gentle on the arse.

    As already pointed out, it's often difficult to poor and totally unpredictable as to what you will end up with, regardless of whether you know how to maintain, pour or which train to obtain it.

    Interestingly enough I have had very few problems with mini casks (5 litres) which are, as far as I can tell (correct me if I'm wrong), cask conditioned. Often the quality that these produce is superior to that from some of the larger pub chains in my area. The only problem is that you have to drink a large amount of one particular beer which is against my ethos. Yes I'm a beer whore, but I do like trying something different in every glass.

    No being Bottle Conditioned does not actively puts me off buying it, but I am more wary. Out of curiosity, does anyone actually collect the scoring of bottles of RAIB to actually research the quality of the CAMRA promoted product?

  14. This is not particularly relevant, but I feel the urge to share; this evening me and the mrs had an evening in and I took the chance to try some beers from the local shop. I can't tell you if they were bottle conditioned or not but I have to say that Wild Beer Co Sourdough, Kernel Montueka, Fullers Vintage 2012 and Thornbridge St Boudica Smoked Porter were really an outstanding advert for english beer.

    Don't tell TM, but none of them would have passed the CAMRA clarity perogative either.

  15. Umm, the fact that they were cloudy would suggest they were bottle-conditioned. You are supposed to let the yeast settle before pouring them, you know. Personally, from your description, every one would have gone straight down the sink - and I do appreciate a good beer that actually has undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle.

  16. My father and uncles drank Bass Red Triangle at home in the Forties. Another relative had a grocery business where it was bottled.. There was quite a ritual about calling there to sample the new batch before placing the order. I was sometimes taken along and given a glass of Spartona - an iron brew drink from a local soft drinks firm. I can still remember the combined smell of beer and groceries in the cellar.

    The owner of the shop had some bottles of " Prince's Ale", brewed by the Prince of Wales ( briefly Edward VIII).
    They had lead seals which, if carefully opened , could be replaced. They were regularly refilled with Bass Red Triangle and offered to favoured friends now and then. He winked and said they were very appreciative-
    Even more so than when the original bottles were first opened!

  17. You mean I'm not meant to shake them before opening?

  18. BTW - Mudgie, have you seen the handful of posts on said Yahoo group re: American beers that might not be classed as real ale but are jolly nice. I despair ;-)

  19. > "Personally, from your description, every one would have gone straight down the sink"

    From someone who usually writes with so much common sense on the subject of beer, I find this puzzling.

    Am I missing some sort of irony here, or would you genuinely pour away a Kernel IPA because you think it looks "cloudy"?

  20. I probably wouldn't choose something that I knew to be cloudy anyway. But yes, if I poured out a bottle of a British-brewed pale ale and it looked like soup (as opposed to having a slight haze), then I wouldn't drink it.

  21. I'm sure I read somewhere that a UK brewer (Redchurch maybe) at a CAMRA beer festival was told they were not allowed to sell their non BC beers when the organisers realised they were not sedimented. As all their beers are 'brewery conditioned' they then had to withdraw from the festival.

    Meanwhile the same type of beer was being sold in the 'foreign beers' area.

    So its ok to sell it if its made by a foreigner, and its ok to organise CAMRA trips abroad to buy it from foreigners for a week but if you brew it in the UK you are a non-person.

    Sounds unhinged to me.


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