Friday, 15 June 2018

Free the keg

One change that was made at the recent CAMRA AGM was to remove the previous prohibition on CAMRA beer festivals selling British beers that didn’t meet the definition of real ale. This was always, in Highway Code terms, a “should not” rather than a “MUST NOT”, and some branches did disregard it, surely to some extent out of a desire to cock a snook at what they saw as stuffy traditionalism. However, removing it entirely will surely encourage others.

As I’m someone who doesn’t tend to attend beer festivals as a customer, it will make no difference to me personally. But I do have to wonder what exactly is the point. If you’re supposed to be a Campaign for Real Ale, having keg beers at a festival comes across as rather like having cats at a dog show. It has been suggested that keg and cask beers might be presented alongside each other to underline the superiority of the latter, but that comes across as a touch disingenuous. Who would want to serve X at a festival merely to show that Y was better? Plus, in any case, beer festivals by their nature rarely show cask at its absolute best.

If festivals are to serve keg beers, they should give some thought to what they’re aiming to achieve, rather than just doing it because they can. Maybe consider beers that simply aren’t available in cask form, or where it is felt that the keg format shows them at their best. A good example of the latter would be to showcase British craft lagers, which are often spoken of as a massive potential growth market, but which by definition aren’t going to be real ales. Or perhaps nitro stouts from craft breweries.

Or even why not offer a selection of the established beers such as M&B Mild and Tetley Imperial, which live on in keg form but, because of that, never receive any attention from enthusiasts? Who even knows what beers are out there in the marketplace? OK, that may be a bit of a mischievous suggestion, and is unlikely to happen in practice, but to someone interested in our brewing heritage it could be far more interesting that a random selection of the local railway arch brewers’ latest pastry stouts.

Presumably this also removes the prohibition on selling British bottled beers that aren’t bottle-conditioned. I’ve referred in the past to the insistence on bottle-conditioning as being an unhistorical shibboleth, so this is a move to be welcomed. It will give festivals the opportunity in future to sell, for example, bottled Robinson’s Old Tom. And it could be a good thing if small brewers were given the opportunity to showcase their beers in more reliable brewery-conditioned form rather than expose them to the lottery of small-batch bottle-conditioning.

13 comments:

  1. This may be utter heresy, especially as I haven't lived int he UK now for coming on 20 years, but I have got to a point where I am more interested in the flavours in the glass than I am the method of dispense that got the liquid into said glass. I love cask conditioned ales, and will always state my belief that when properly handled nothing quite comes close. There, though, is the rub, finding pubs where the cellarmanship is top notch seems to be becoming more and more of a challenge, at least from the experience of my all too infrequent trips home. Keg beer has the inherent advantage that some ham fisted clod can handle it without it turning to muck, keep the lines in your pub clean and you'll have a consistent product to put in front of your customers. Sure there are plenty of people who care about the art and craft of cask, but there are far more who just want a pint of something tasty when they are out with their friends.

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    1. but this is the thing, it is actually a little, maybe even alot, trickier than that, and really handling cask should be the easier thing for ham fisted clods to deal with its just basic cleaning and turnover after all.With keg you have to know how to handle the gas, genuinely once went to a place in London serving craft keg, who werent able to sell me any beer because none of them knew how to turn the gas on. Even once its on, setting the right pressure is critical, and there is a technique to pouring too. Used to have at our branch beer festival a german keg beer,and Ive served at a craft festival where they had a belgian keg, I hated it when anyone asked for it, because youd spend so long just pouring a pint of froth, we always ended up with a catch jug that you had to top beers up from as else you were just wasting half of the beer. And then for some of these keg beers they need to be served in the right type of glass too, one with nucleation points to trigger the bubbles just like lager, because if you dont they come out as flat as a pancake and taste like some horrid soda stream concotion which totally blandifies the claimed amazing taste its supposed to have.

      Id say keg is trickier to handle, its just it can put up with more abuse from bad handling,that doesnt make it tastier beer to me.

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  2. "But I do have to wonder what exactly is the point."

    Stemming the decline in attendance and volunteering by putting something decent to drink on, old chap.

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    1. Wouldn't a Prosecco and gin bar achieve the same thing?

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    2. Why would anyone want to stem the decline in attendance at beer festivals anyway ? Presumably their only purpose is to raise funds tocover central CAMRA overheads that aren't covered by subs ? Festivals certainly do nothing to promote real ale that a good pub like the Boar's Head or the Magnet can't do better.

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    3. Well yes, maybe CAMRA beer festivals have become a bit of a sacred cow that continue to be held "because we've always done it". They have no divine right to exist.

      Some (not me) might question the credentials of the Boar's Head in "promoting real ale" ;-)

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    4. As I understand it, the initial raison d'etre was to enthuse a public about a product that was in decline, rare to find and thus increase consumer demand. Educate and inform within a fun social event if that doesn't sound patronising. If that was it then they have succeeded hand beyond what would have ever been their expectation. It's now a thriving market that the word niche doesn't quite do full justice to, even if it is not the mainstream market.

      I get the impression the current reasoning is twofold. In part to raise funds for HQ but also to an extent the vanity of retired men looking for a purpose in life having retired active, with numerous commercial skills, abilities and not quite ready yet to quit. Neither are a criticism only an observation. There is a strong community within those that volunteer and if you ever do it, you'll pick up on that and figure that a lot of people enjoy being part of a club of friends sharing a common purpose.

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  3. I think I have a solution to the keg problem.

    Considering the age we live in, all each keg has to do is self identify as cask and... voilà! :)

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  4. A trend I have seen is that more pubs are asking for pins of our cask ales. It's a turn over thing and also means the live beer usually sells out before any itinerant Acetobacter realises there is oxygen about.

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  5. Maybe CAMRA have realised, just being the campaign for real ale is not enough in this modern age.

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  6. Ooh, did someone say Tetley Imperial? I *love* Tetley Imperial.

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  7. A very small nail in the coffin, essentially.

    I'm also at the point in my life where I'd prefer to sit in a comfortable pub than stand around in some unbecoming village hall at a local beer festival. One of the few good things about festivals is that breweries sometimes do special cask versions of beers normally only available in keg (or bottle/can). If this means that festivals just decide to take the keykeg version instead, it's another reason not to bother going.

    On a bigger scale, and more importantly to me, will it signal the end of the US cask bar at GBBF? Replaced by imported keg that you can already drink at several places in London?

    My objection to the 'keg shows them at their best' argument is well known - the US cask bar makes my point for me very nicely, and this would be politically inconvenient to a keg-embracing CAMRA.

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  8. Given the current shortage of carbon dioxide this argument is likely to become quite academic :-0

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