Wednesday, 9 November 2016

False equivalence

An argument that I’ve made more than once in the past is that CAMRA made a major strategic error by deciding that the relationship between bottle- and brewery-conditioned packaged beers was an exact mirror image of that between cask- and brewery-conditioned draught beers. But, you may say, in each case one conditions in the container and the other doesn’t, so the principle is just the same. However, it’s not quite as simple as that.

An important point to remember is that CAMRA didn’t come into being to stand up for something already recognised as “real ale”. It identified that something was going badly wrong with British beer, and then came up with the definition of real ale as a means of sorting out the sheep from the goats. However, it involved more than just undergoing a secondary fermentation in the cask – real ale should also be unfiltered, unpasteurised, not artificially carbonated, and pumped or gravity dispensed rather than being forced to the bar by CO2 pressure. And, as Martyn Cornell points out in his book Amber, Gold and Black, Mild, which as late as 1960 accounted for most draught beer sold in Britain, had traditionally been regarded as a “running beer” to be sold as quickly as possible and experiencing minimal secondary fermentation. Cask-conditioning was basically something that happened to Bitter.

At the time, the definition of real ale was a pretty effective way of defining what was good, at least in terms of British draught beer. Yes, there were some awkward cases that didn’t quite fit, such as the Scottish air pressure system, which was accepted, and the Hull Brewery ceramic cellar jars, which weren’t, but broadly speaking it worked. In the early 1970s, bottled and canned beer accounted for less than 10% of the overall market, and it didn’t really matter that filtration and pasteurisation had been adopted as the norm for decades. There were a tiny handful of beers that still fermented in the bottle, and so CAMRA was able to say that these were “good”, whereas all the others were “bad”, but it was just a token gesture that made little difference in the overall scheme of things. Brewery-conditioned bottles could simply be dismissed as “keg in a bottle”.

However, over the years, the off-trade beer sector steadily grew at the expense of the on-trade, and therefore assumed more significance in drinkers’ buying habits. Much of this was canned beer, but the brewers started producing “Premium Bottled Ales” which, although brewery-conditioned, were presented and perceived as the equivalent of the cask beers such as Pedigree and London Pride drunk in the pub. Indeed, although strictly speaking it is wrong, many drinkers routinely refer to them as “real ales”.

CAMRA launched the “CAMRA Says This is Real Ale” accreditation for bottle-conditioned beers, and encouraged many of the new wave of microbreweries to produce them. However, they have never taken off in the same way as draught real ale, and only account for a tiny proportion of bottled beer sales in major retailers. This is not because they have failed to stock them, but that too often they have tried and failed. The general consumer simply does not want them, perceiving little or no benefit in terms of flavour and character, but a major downside in terms of inconsistency and the risk of cloudiness. Meanwhile, CAMRA continues, at least officially, to refuse to recognise any merit in high-quality brewery-conditioned bottles such as Thornbridge Jaipur, Hawkshead Lakeland Gold and Robinsons Old Tom. It’s noticeable how all the new-wave breweries who have broken through in the bottled beer market have done so with filtered beers.

Essentially, though, the read-across from draught to bottled is far more tenuous than CAMRA likes to believe. For a start, drinking real ale involves no more effort from the customer in the pub than drinking keg, whereas bottle-conditioned beers require considerable care in storage and pouring, and are obviously unsuited to immediate consumption. And, if done properly, a bottle-conditioned beer will come out “fizzy”, albeit in a slightly different way from an artificially carbonated one. The difference, as perceived by the drinker, is much less.

It’s possible to argue that, apart from reasons of turnover, all ale served in pubs could be cask-conditioned, whereas realistically you can’t argue that all packaged ale, for all situations, should condition in the container. A further factor is that lager, by definition, can never be cask- or bottle-conditioned because the nature of the process means the beer is stabilised before being put into the container. But that shouldn’t mean dismissing all bottled lagers out of hand.

I’ve argued before that a key part of CAMRA’s mission was defending a unique British tradition that, in the early 70s, while under threat, was still very much alive and kicking. It was “a people-powered cultural heritage movement”. But it wasn’t bringing something back from the dead. Bottle-conditioned beers, on the other hand, had largely vanished from the scene decades before, and, to be honest, had never been greatly celebrated and weren’t much mourned when they were replaced by bright beers which were clear, consistent and didn’t have bits in. It’s also very questionable how much bottle-conditioning actually took place in bottled Guinness which for long was held up by CAMRA as a totem.

Yes, at the end of the day, bottle-conditioning, if done well, does add something to a beer. Bottle-conditioned beers can be regarded as the crème de la crème. But, because of the practical difficulties involved, and the fact that the process adds very little to lower-strength quaffing beers, it is best reserved for higher-strength specialities. Now that the off-trade accounts for over half of all beer sold in Britian, it is high time that CAMRA abandoned the narrow dogmatism of insisting that it is the only proper way of presenting any packaged beers.

17 comments:

  1. Why does it matter what CAMRA says? Let CAMRA say what it likes and drink what it likes.

    The consumer is king and they like what they like. Slabs of lout.

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  2. The consumer is most often a sheep that likes whatever it is fed.

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    1. Love it when beardies fail to convince people to neck their horrible pongy rot and instead of maybe drinking and recommending nicer colder fizzier pop, assume people are stupid for ignoring their advice.

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    2. You miss my point. Choosing either is influenced by marketing. No matter what we like to pretend about our preferences. Miller lite is proof of point.

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  3. Perhaps CAMRA's Revitalisation Project will see sense and drop the campaign's dogmatic insistence that BCA's are the only bottled beers worthy of consideraton. On the other hand?

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  4. "It’s also very questionable how much bottle-conditioning actually took place in bottled Guinness "

    Quite a bit, to be fair. Cold winters, in the pre-central heating age, meant flat bottled Guinness because it was too cold in the bar for the beer to condition properly. Then central heating arrived, and it was now too WARM for the beer to condition properly, which is why Guinness withdrew the bottle-conditioned version.

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    1. I suspect the real reason that they stopped producing it in bottle conditioned form was mainly to save costs and streamline distribution by removing numerous contract bottlers and wholesalers from the equation, while ensuring the customer received a consistent product, albeit not exactly the same thing. The idea of a nationally-available BC product would have their marketing people in hysterics now.

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  5. Well bottle conditioning is pretty crucial to quite a few Belgian classics. Which I guess is as much a comment about the differences between the beer culture vs the UK.

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    1. As I said, "it is best reserved for higher-strength specialities". Although is a bottle-conditioned strong Belgian beer really *that* different from a filtered one such as Grimbergen?

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    2. I haven't blind tasted them but I'd say they were. And I'm not sure Duvel, whilst yes it is strong, is really a speciality, given you can find it in most supermarkets for 2 quid a pop.

      Bottle conditioning seems pretty inbuilt to Belgian brewing, in a way that it isn't here. They don't seem to get it wrong like you can get with British ones.

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    3. Belgian BCAs are world-beating. Those over 8% are great for long term cellaring. My Rochefort, Westvleteren and St Bernardus quads just get better and better. I have examples going back to 2009. Other beers fare less well, such as "dubbels" which keep for 3 years or so before deteriorating (and so can be snaffled without regret). Well worth popping into West Flanders if on a Channel crossing in a car!

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    4. Grimbergen, with the emphasis on the first syllable...

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  6. BC beers may not always be done very well, but then the larger retailers don't have the facilities for handling them even when they are. They're not really (unlike the filtered beers) an "ambient" product, but neither do they fit into the chilled supply chain. Having said that, a lot of smaller specialist retailers seem to manage, so there's demonstrably some (if "niche") demand.

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    1. But the specialist retailers store them in ambient conditions too.

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    2. No, but some of those little shops are fricking freezing.

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    3. ... but seriously, I suspect folks who buy from the small specialist retailer are likely to appreciate that the beer's going to need a bit of TLC before they enjoy it. Course. big difference between cask and bottle is that bottles are typically consumed privately. There's not the same element of "signalling" in enjoying a BCA that there is in quaffing the real ale in the pub. Take that out of the equation and the lower demand for BCA implies that lots of people aren't really that interested in the beer, however much they like to be seen as real ale types in public.

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  7. No argument from me at all. If I ever throw the towel in, BCA will be one of the top reasons.

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