Monday, 29 January 2018

The best is the enemy of the good

The cask breather has for long been a bone of contention within CAMRA. It’s described here:
A cask breather, sometimes called an “aspirator,” is a demand valve used in conjunction with a beer engine and a carbon dioxide tank for the dispense of cask-conditioned beers. It allows beer drawn from the cask to be replaced with the equivalent amount of sterile gas at atmospheric pressure.
The objective is to extend the shelf-life of the beer by preventing outside air from coming into contact with it. If set up correctly, no CO2 should become dissolved in the beer, which thus should not become in any sense gassy. Tastings set up by CAMRA’s Technical Committee have repeatedly demonstrated that people are unable to tell the difference between beer stored under a cask breather, and that without.

However, on more than one occasion, CAMRA’s National AGM has rejected giving any approval to the device. Some of the objections seem spurious, such as arguing that the flavour actually benefits from exposure to the atmosphere after the cask has been tapped. It all seems to boil down to a generalised dislike of CO2 in any form, and a suspicion that sanctioning the use of breathers will represent the thin end of the wedge.

A cask breather should only really be necessary for pubs without sufficient trade to empty a cask within three days. Clearly, beer stored under a breather will be much preferable to either no beer at all, keg beer, or rancid cask beer. In ideal conditions, there should be no need for it if the pub can shift its beer quickly enough, but in the real world that is often not the case. The objection is a case of the best being the enemy of the good.

One concern, though, is that if CAMRA gave the green light to cask breathers, some pubs might take it as an encouragement to use them to further increase an already over-extended beer range. If a cask will last seven days rather than three, then you can have twice as many different beers on. However, while a seven-day-old cask under a breather will be far better than one exposed to the atmosphere, it’s still going to have a touch of staleness about it, and not be a patch on one that’s just been tapped. There used to be one local pub that I suspected of routinely using cask breathers, and all its beers, while drinkable enough, tasted as though a damp cloth had been thrown over them to dial down their flavour.

Some breweries have found their pubs effectively excluded from the Good Beer Guide because it has become known that they recommend licensees use a cask breather as a matter of policy. However, realistically very few GBG pubs receive a cellar inspection, and so plenty, especially independent free houses, must end up being listed even though they use the devices. So it makes sense for CAMRA’s revitalisation proposals to include the recommendation that “CAMRA should adopt a neutral position on the use of cask breathers,” neither condemning nor explicitly approving them. If the beer’s good enough, a pub will be listed; if it isn’t, it won’t be.

19 comments:

  1. A good summary ... Specially about over use and stale beer. In the end CAMRA has to separate out discussions re quality beer production and quality dispense to avoid now that vertical integration of the trade has all but disappeared. The GBG sort of takes care of the latter but indifferently produced beer on cask does us no favours.

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  2. Yes, can't argue with any of what you say. I've never really understood the objection to the cask breather. As long as the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask, and is served without the use of carbon dioxide under pressure forcing the beer through the tap, it is real ale. (Perhaps "if the beer’s good enough, a pub should be listed; if it isn’t, it shouldn’t be" would be a truer reflection of real life.)

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    1. For those of you on Discourse, this post by Nick Boley sums up the situation pretty well.

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  3. CAMRA's opposition to cask breathers has always been based on emotion rather than scientific fact. Actually, that sentence should read “the opposition of the more rabid, die-hard members”, as the sensible majority are quite capable of grasping the principles behind these devices.

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    1. Paul Bailey's comment is spot on.

      It would be interesting for a festival to sell the same beer with and without a cask breather so that people could find out whether they can tell any difference or not. Better still if it was done blind.

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  4. Excellent stuff.

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  5. I have to say that our local policy on the cask breather (i.e. we don't have a policy) has served us well over the years.

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    1. Yes, Stockport & SM CAMRA always seemed to me a model of a branch that puts beer quality first (e.g.in Beer Guide selection) rather than reputations/range/adherence to doctrine. Mudgie's last line sums that up.

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  6. I don't understand the problem here, but if there is one, couldn't a different gas be used, nitrogen say. Anything that keeps oxygen and bacteria away and doesn't dissolve too much. Or how about a collapsible bag, as in a wine box?

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    1. You could use any inert gas. The role of the gas is just to prevent oxygen and any bacteria that are in the atmosphere from contacting the beer. My guess would be that CO2 is used because every pub already has cylinders of CO2 in their cellar for dispensing lager, coke etc.

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    2. I think if you use any other gas it will lead to any CO2 produced by secondary fermentation being retained in the beer, thus potentially making it fizzy. With CO2 it is just absorbed into the rest of the gas, and any excess pressure vented off through the valve.

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    3. I think there is a system where the beer is kept in a plastic bag within the keg and the keg is pressurised to squeeze the bag and deliver the beer. Or did I dream that?

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    4. Suspect that the volume of carbon dioxide soluble in water (beer) is a function of temperature and pressure rather than the presence of another "inert" gas. If this is the case then the use of a cask breather has no effect on the level of carbon dioxide in beer in a cask given a constant temperature. On the other hand, I recall the CAMRA technical guys rejected the cask breather but not sure exactly why except for the reason that "external" carbon dioxide is used. Having said all of that I could be completely wrong.

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    5. AIUI CAMRA's Technical Committee under Pat O'Neill gave it the green light, but it was rejected by the popular vote at the AGM.

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    6. In common with many voluntary organisations, AGMs will be attended by those with the strongest opinions about such issues who therefore have the loudest voice. Mr (or Mrs) average member probably won't be represented. On line voting for AGM motions may change that, ease of participation may generate greater membership participation?

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    7. "Curmudgeon30 January 2018 at 11:51

      I think if you use any other gas it will lead to any CO2 produced by secondary fermentation being retained in the beer, thus potentially making it fizzy. With CO2 it is just absorbed into the rest of the gas, and any excess pressure vented off through the valve."

      Nope. It is a simple application of Daltons law. The gas in the beer will be given off as it reaches it solubility point thereby increasing the pressure thereby lifting the valve. The gases can be considered almost ideal so there will be nothing hindering.

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  7. CAMRA should specify a date at which the technology of beer had reached what it considers "enough" and not accept any innovation after that date.

    I suggest 1856, because it all started to go wrong in 1857.

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    1. Correct Cookie. It was actually August 15th, 1856 at 3:47 in the afternoon when beer achieved perfection.

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  8. I'm all for them. I've had far too many pints over the years, which had clearly absorbed the rank odour of mouldy cellar walls, or even of leaking sewage pipes.

    Cheers, Ethelred The Unsteady

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