Thursday, 1 February 2018

Feel the quality

One of the key planks of CAMRA’s Revitalisation proposals is that, while continuing to recognise real ale as “the pinnacle of the brewer’s art”, the organisation should encourage greater acceptance of “quality” beers that do not fall within the definition of “real ale”. However, as I argued here, this opens up a potential can of worms. “Real ale”, for better or worse, is something that has an objective definition. “Quality beer” doesn’t, and can mean whatever you choose it to mean. Either you tie yourself up in knots by trying to come up with a hard-and-fast definition, or you don’t, in which case it’s no more than “beers we happen to like”.

You also run into the “Taylor’s Landlord problem”. As I wrote:

How about if Taylors produced a keg version of their highly-acclaimed Landlord? If that is approved, then surely that is accepting precisely what CAMRA was originally set up to fight. And if it isn’t, on what objective basis does it differ from the beers from the obvious crafties? And does that mean that cask Landlord should no longer be accepted as a quality beer either?
Which leads us on to another issue, that “there remains a lingering suspicion of a hidden agenda to cut adrift many well-known cask beers on the grounds that they commit such cardinal sins as being “popular” and “easy-drinking”.” I’m sure there are those in CAMRA who think that keg Cloudwater Badger Jizz DIPA is far more deserving of the accolade of “quality” than cask Marston’s Pedigree. And, when the list was published of the ten most popular cask beers, you could sense the wave of sneering descending from the lofty heights of beer snobbery.

Samuel Smith’s only brew a single cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, and do not offer any guest ales in their pubs. But there are six of their pubs in the 2018 Good Beer Guide, including one in my local branch area. Indeed, we have just voted another, the Blue Bell in Levenshulme, as our Pub of the Year. However, according to this Twitter poll, 40% of respondents don’t think that should be considered a “quality beer”, so presumably they have a problem with those pubs appearing in the GBG. And, if we’re accepting keg beers, then what’s wrong with keg OBB?

The argument is often made that the world has moved on, and today’s “craft keg” beers are nothing like the Red Barrel of old. But, in fact, neither were most of the pressurised beers around in the early 70s either. Red Barrel belonged to a specific market segment of premium keg beers whose recipes had been deliberately dumbed down and blandified to appeal to a mass market. Most non-real beers of the time were identical to their real counterparts in terms of recipe, and only differed in final processing and dispense. Indeed, those using the now-defunct top pressure system were to all intents and purposes real ale until someone connected up a CO2 cylinder. In what way did they differ from the modern-day keg beers described thus in the Revitalisation report?
In some cases, keg beer contains live yeast and is subject to secondary fermentation in the container. It is, to all intents and purposes, real ale up to the point that carbon dioxide pressure is applied in the cellar.
Fullers are now one of the most respected of the remaining independent family brewers. Back in the 1970s, their beers were still highly regarded. But, according to the 1977 Good Beer Guide, only “16 of the 111 tied houses sell unpressurised beer.” The rest sold the same beer under top pressure – it wasn’t keg as such. But, because of this, they couldn’t be recognised by CAMRA. It has always been the central plank of CAMRA’s raison d’etre that British-style ales are, by a considerable margin, best served by cask-conditioning.

Yes, many of the present-day craft keg beers are good beers in their own right and well worth drinking. To draw a Manichean distinction between real=good and non-real=bad is silly and ignorant. And, for many of them, especially the stronger ones, the “East Sheen Tennis Club” argument applies, that they allow beers to be sold on draught that would not be viable in cask because of their niche appeal. But, broadly speaking, they would still be improved if they could be sold in well-kept cask form. And to suggest otherwise is to question what has been the point of CAMRA’s efforts over the past 45 years. Maybe we should go back to 1977 and happily drink that top-pressure London Pride.

35 comments:

  1. I totally agree with what you are saying on this post.
    But i fear the beer snobs will win,a quote from a well known pub site forum "CAMRA needs to bite the bullet and in some way call out low quality real ale".
    Who decides what is low quality and better quality,i am happy drinking Doom Bar in my local and all of those beers in the top 10 most popular cask beers,i also like to try different real ales.
    If Camra do get into bed with the craft lot,they will end up kicking Camra out of the other side of the bed.

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    1. If CAMRA starts analysing some cask beers and declaring they're not real ale as they don't contain enough yeast for a secondary fermentation, as some seem to want, it's going to make itself a laughing stock and antagonise a lot of people in the industry. And the average punter in the pub won't care.

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    2. I agree with Alan, and his last line is spot on. Doom Bar is perhaps the one beer I don't like from that Top 10, but I wouldn't tell the folk who drink it that it's rubbish.

      I do like the keg beers, and pubs can sell and promote those as much as they like, of course.

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    3. totally agree, this "quality" thing is definitely looking to be of the "beer wot I like" measure, and who gets to decide it, the NE, branches, AGM, twitter ?. Ive seen a number of the craft fans say things like well its just the mass produced stuff thats not quality that you can buy in supermarkets, till you point out things like well that probably includes Brewdog then. And Doom bar is the perfect beer example Sharps were a micro brewery, producing award winning ales, so youd say yep tick the quality box revitalised CAMRA will support them, but hold on they were taken over by a mass producer of beer so does that mean some revitalised CAMRA members would choose not to support them anymore as its no longer "quality", even though the beer is the same and the brewers would certainly strongly argue it was and met any quality measure anyone tried to chuck at it, even if it feels that its wider availability has diluted it somewhat, but alot of that as is Greene Kings curse is down to its handling in those wider available pubs.

      and I really cant see any of those issues being debated or changed through this vote the members will get on revitalisation,in fact they cant that was the Liverpool AGMs discovery a special resolution can only be voted on, the wording cant be altered even if the adoption of it turns out to not be what anyone wants at all, and almost certainly as at Liverpool the decision will be carried by the votes not in the hall, who wont have heard any of the debates, discussion and often very valid criticisms about what it is they voted on.

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    4. The trouble is that there's two ways to interpret "low quality real ale", and it looks like huge energy will be absorbed by people fighting between the two interpretations.

      On the one hand, you've got very valid concerns about what happens in the pub cellar, causing objective changes in the beer for the worse - measureable stuff like levels of acetic acid etc. Traditionally this has been Cask Marque's area, but it seems like CAMRA are finally paying attention to it, and it's what I understand their concern about "beer quality" is mostly about.

      However you also have people wanting to refight the US craft wars, like Roger Protz who says "the threats to good beer come...from factory beers brewed by global giants" - which is a lot more subjective. And ignores the fact that eg InBev have beers like Bourbon County that rated higher than anything by eg Mikeller, Cloudwater or Alchemist.

      The trouble is people need to be clear what they're talking about when they say "good beer", otherwise you just get people fighting about subjectivity when people are really talking about vinegar, and vice versa.

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  2. CAMRA has always been a middle class beer club. What is middle class beer has changes so CAMRA are changing. You don't have to pay any attention to what CAMRA think is or isn't "good" beer. Make your own mind up. Think for yourself. You do not need the approval of a load of beardie odd balls to enjoy a swally.

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  3. I'm with you troopers all the way. I'm quite content with a pint of Tetley's, OBB, or Brains etc., so long as it's well-kept.

    Indeed, it's often a relief to find such beers, rather than a baffling array of pump clips, for beers of which you've never heard, and which, more-often-than-not are so hoppy as to make you feel as if the lining of the mouth has turned to cork.

    They're OK for a change, but if you're like me, then you'll generally find that you stick at just the one.

    Cheers, Ethelred The Unsteady

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  4. Can't comment as such as I do not have access to cask beers. But, I'll just throw this out there:

    "Red Barrel belonged to a specific market segment of premium keg beers whose recipes had been deliberately dumbed down and blandified to appeal to a mass market."

    That to me sounds a lot like the Bud of the States compared to the original Bud(var). One man's quality beer is another man's horse hooey. :)

    Cheers

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    1. The other Mudgie !2 February 2018 at 23:06

      I don’t agree that "Red Barrel belonged to a specific market segment of premium keg beers whose recipes had been deliberately dumbed down and blandified to appeal to a mass market."
      I was born too late for Watneys Red Barrel but I don’t recall Watneys Red as having ingredients inferior, such as maize or rice, to other Watneys Mortlake beers or a lower hop rating and it was in fact, other than brews for export, their strongest ‘draught’ beer.
      I would suggest that there were only three things wrong with Watneys Red. It was filtered, it was pasteurised and it was pressurised.

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  5. I agree almost 100% with both the analysis and the conclusions.

    Almost because the ' objective definition' of Real Ale is far, far less clear-cut than it was in the 70s, as indeed is the definition of 'keg'.

    In the past keg beer was force-carbonated, pasteurised and filtered. Real ale was typically not. Nowadays anywhere between 0 and 3 of these things can apply. Beers in the 1/3 or 2/3 zone can be either cask or keg.

    What was once usually black and white is now an imperceptibly gradiented scale of greys, even before one considers the subjective issue of what is 'good' beer.

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    1. No, in the early days of CAMRA there were far more different forms of non-real beer - blanket pressure, top pressure, tank beer, bright beer, Hull Brewery ceramic cellar jars etc. Certainly not just "keg". If anything, things are simpler now.

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  6. If people are going to say that "quality" is the most important thing, they might start by paying more attention to the point of dispense, and making that a more consistent experience. I find it hard to think of OBB as a great pint these days, purely because I seem to have had nothing but at-best indifferent examples lately (all drunk far from Yorkshire, not that this is an excuse). If the universe decreed that everyone was allowed to drink one beer, and one beer only, for the rest of their life, and mine was *well-kept* Pride I'd feel I'd been dealt a very decent hand.

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  7. Michael Henchard1 February 2018 at 22:05

    Well said - the voice of reason in a sea of madness..

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  8. >How about if Taylors produced a keg version of their highly-acclaimed Landlord?

    If it was a quality beer and I liked it, I wouldn't care (cost aside). Suggesting that Taylors would turn Landlord into a crap product like Red Barrel is laughable but even if they did, it clearly wouldn't be a quality product so we'd reject it.

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    1. But the fundamental premise of CAMRA is that cask is better than non-cask. I don't think there actually is keg Landlord, but there certainly is keg Wadworth's 6X and keg Pedigree.

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    2. Bottled Landlord is surely as close to keg as it gets? More carbonation than draught but otherwise brewery conditioned.

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    3. I don't actually agree that that is the fundamental premise of CAMRA - their fundamental premise is that cask is important, good, potentially at-risk and hence worth campaigning for. That's not necessarily the same as saying that it's always objectively better. People who campaign to protect hen harriers don't do it because they think that hen harriers are actually better than buzzards or kestrels or whatever, it's just that they don't want to see them wiped out...

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    4. bottled landlord is notoriously hit and miss, to the point I deliberately avoid it, though I have a rule that says if its on when I walk into a pub,thats the 1st beer because its usually a sign the landlord knows what they are doing because its a tricky beer to handle.

      In fact you could argue they did try and "de-cask/keg" it, remember when it suddenly became popular after Madonna had said it was her favourite drink, so many pubs were taking it on because it was "fashionable", but struggled to cope with it as the yeast they use really aggressively ferments, so they toned down the recipe, and it became more widely available but generally tasted nothing like as good as it did, and when the next fashion drink fad came along, they watched their sales nosedive off a cliff. So they went back to the old recipe and its back to how it was, and generally only the places that take it on know it needs care.

      and worth pointing out not all keg dispense is automatically "quality",because you can vary the pressure, and despite craft bars being given the advice and told how to set it up, its quite common to find the pressure gets set too high or too low, which does greatly alter the resultant beer taste.

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    5. Disagree - when CAMRA was formed, its basic point was that, all other things being equal, for British-style ales, cask-conditioning was the best way of presenting them. It wasn't just different from top pressure and keg.

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    6. @Stono
      I'd disagree - in recent months I've had a fair bit of poor-to-middling Landlord in London pubs that think it's an easy one to put on the bar, but they just can't look after it. Mind you, even some Timmy pubs are guilty of not conditioning it properly....

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  9. Another great thought provoking post... pedigree is a great pint and I had a very decent Ruddles best in a spoons today....society now in Britain is black and white you're not allowed to be middle of the road or just plod along... everybody wants a definitive I'm in this camp or that camp stance camra just reflects that as it's oh so trendy to sneer at anyone who doesn't follow the crowd

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    1. "you're not allowed to be middle of the road or just plod along..."

      From what I understand on this side of the pond not even the Plod plod along the streets any more. ;)

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  10. I call them the Question Time crowd... stopped watching that programme 12 months ago

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    1. Professsor Pie-Tin2 February 2018 at 10:55

      Harry and Paul nailed it comprehensively with this.
      www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3tUqRBiMVo
      I try occasionally to watch it but always with a heavy heart and last night was no different - it ended with the dreaded words " on next week's panel Emily Thornberry. "
      That'll be her 6th appearance on the programme since the EU referendum.The BBC doesn't even try to hide its bias these days.

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    2. Well, prof, as I say, maybe CAMRA should write utter tosh on the side of a bus? You know, "Real Ale Can Improve The Laws Of Physics", that sort of thing?

      Seems to be quite effective on some people.

      Cheers, Ethelred The Unsteady

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    3. Professor Pie-Tin4 February 2018 at 08:11

      Well I know when I get pissed I reckon I can just about do anything so maybe that's not such a bad idea.
      What I can't do though is understand why someone would post something as Anonymous then sign off as Ethelred The Unsteady.
      Perhaps Ethelred The Unsure might be more appropriate ?

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    4. Prof me ol' flower.

      I'm really quite sure, that I can't be bothered to set up a named blogging account.

      Need any help with anything else?

      Cheers, ETU.

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    5. If you use the "Name/URL" option, you can attach a name to a comment without setting up an account, which is exactly what the Prof has done. It does help in following the drift of the discussion.

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    6. Ethelred The Unsteady4 February 2018 at 11:02

      Thanks Mudge.

      (The good lady rolls her eyes.)

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    7. It's an easy mistake.
      But all's well that ends well.
      Professor Pie-Tin

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  11. 'Cloudwater Badger Jizz DIPA'

    This made me laugh out loud. Agree in general with what your saying.

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  12. This seems like a lot of slightly OTT reactions to me - the RP proposals are pretty clear that they should remain the Campaign for Real Ale and not the Campaign for Quality Beer. Unless I'm missing something, all that they do suggest is that they'd be more effective as a campaign for Real Ale if they acknowledged that some British non-real ale is worth drinking rather than either denying or ignoring the fact.

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  13. I have heard that younger members of CAMRA are put off from getting involved or attending Branch meetings because we are old and staid and in some way off-putting. Which may be true?
    So we are to revitalise the Campaign and whilst recognising real ale as “the pinnacle of the brewer’s art”, and that we should encourage greater acceptance of “quality” beers that do not fall within the definition of “real ale”. So what will we now be campaigning for?
    What will actually excite all these disenfranchised members to get out and do something? Argue with landlords in their pubs about the quality of their beers? Harangue brewers about ditto? Or ... I dunno, you tell me?

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    1. I can imagine the reaction in some (all?) branches if an when when younger members start suggesting that some keg beer is actually very good and shouldn't CAMRA start reflecting the views of younger, more progressive members.

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    2. The other Mudgie !6 February 2018 at 13:31

      A bit like a meeting of the Dog's Trust being attended by a member of Cat's Protection who says that cats can also be nice animals. There isn't really any argument but it wasn't a relevant comment.

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