Friday, 30 November 2018

Dancing on a pin

One of the motivations behind CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project was a widespread feeling that the organisation too often insisted on a nitpicking, pedantic definition of “real ale” that bore little relation to whether or not a beer was actually any good. Surely reform would usher in a new era of much greater acceptance and tolerance of other forms of beer. Everything would be considered without prejudice on its own merits. But things don’t seem to have worked out quite that way.

I’ve long argued that CAMRA made something of a shibboleth of bottle-conditioned beer, by drawing an exact parallel with the relationship between cask and keg. But bottle-conditioning was no longer really a live tradition when CAMRA was formed, and delivers little perceptible benefit to the drinker. Despite years of plugging away, it has never really gained much traction with the drinking public. Most people with much knowledge of beer accepted that there were many excellent bottled beers that weren’t bottle-conditioned and, for any given beer, all it often brought to the party was introducing wild inconsistency. Yet we still see regret being expressed that bottled beers aren’t bottle-conditioned, even though in the real world that is going to limit their sales prospects, and microbrewers being encouraged to make their beers available in bottle-conditioned form even though that turns drinking them into a lottery. Any praise for a beer that doesn’t qualify has to be tempered with a dismissive “but it’s a pity it isn’t bottle-conditioned”.

When it comes to draught beer, the same black-and-white attitude still seems to prevail. There are beers that, in cask form, will get a pub into the Good Beer Guide. Yet, with the same beer in keg form, they are consigned to outer darkness, omitted from the branch pub crawl and failing to appear on the default search on CAMRA’s online WhatPub guide. Yes, if you are still applying the traditional binary cask vs keg dichotomy, this is fair enough. But if we want the organisation to be less “hung up about dispense”, it shouldn’t be happening. Many “modern” keg beers are praised to the rafters, so why not these? If a beer is good enough for the GBG in cask form, then putting it into kegs doesn’t immediately turn it into a bad beer.

Or maybe it’s just the wrong kind of keg. We’re often told that modern “craft” keg beers are nothing like the Watney’s Red Barrel of old. Well, neither were most of the non-real beers of that era either. It’s also pointed out that many are unpasteurised and only rough-filtered. So was much of the “bright” beer of the 1970s. And now we have keg beer that is claimed to actually qualify as real ale. But, as I argued a couple of years ago, this very much comes across as a solution looking for a problem. It’s almost as if someone has played a practical joke on CAMRA by coming up with a beer that, to all intents and purposes, presents as keg, but in fact is, technically speaking, real ale.

However, the concept of “real ale”, as developed in the 1970s, depended on a combination of several different characteristics. It just happened that undergoing a secondary fermentation in the container from which it was dispensed became the touchstone by which it was defined. The only practical benefit I can see of this is allowing keg beers to be served at CAMRA beer festivals, and even that limitation was removed by a motion at this year’s National Conference.

It’s virtually never identified as “real ale in a keg” at the point of sale, and in practice is impossible to distinguish from rough-filtered but non keg-conditioning beers of similar type. How many consumers of craft keg beers are remotely bothered, apart from a small subset of people who are keen keg drinkers but at the same time still hold to the CAMRA definition of real ale? I have to say I rarely drink craft kegs, not because I’m ideologically opposed to them, but because most of them are one or more of very strong, very expensive and having unusual and offputting flavours. I did have a pint of Punk IPA on a Spoons meal deal the other day, though. And, when I do, like that Punk IPA, I expect it to be consistent and clear, which “real ale in a keg” makes less likely on both counts.

And then we have the utter nonsense that is “real ale in a can”. This really is “real ale in a keg” with knobs on. At least with a bottle-conditioned beer, you can see that the sediment has settled to the bottom and, if you want to, pour carefully to ensure that it all remains in the bottle, giving you a clear glass of bear. Obviously you can’t do that with an opaque container, and there’s a question mark as to what extent it actually does experience any meaningful secondary fermentation. What you’re getting is more likely to be just a can of murky beer with some yeast in suspension. Again you have to ask what is the point, apart from to circumvent the CAMRA definition. As with keg beers, if I do choose to drink cans, I expect them to deliver the benefits of clarity and consistency, which this fails to do.

We were told that Revitalisation, or the sentiment behind it, would usher in a more relaxed, inclusive and tolerant environment in the world of beer. But, in fact, all it seems to have done is to expand the nitpicking pedantry for which “Old CAMRA” was criticised into new areas, and introduce an added note of snobbery.

Medieval scholars were often ridiculed for debating how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. Their modern-day equivalents seem to have transferred the focus of their attention to the 4½-gallon cask of that name.

30 comments:

  1. Many modern keg beers are not rough filtered but rather not filtered at all. Moving on - it's all well and good sitting at a keyboard and banging this stuff out. What, in practical terms, would you propose doing about it? I'd be more than happy if the places you allude to were not omitted from local pub crawls and included in the write-up (and indeed I do cover new keg-only openings in the pages of Opening Times). Seems to me the solution, locally at any rate, may be in your hands.

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    1. The idea that anyone's going to get particularly worked up about the degree of filtration in keg beers, let alone use it as a yardstick as to which beers to drink, rather underlines my point.

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    2. You have, I think, missed my point (as well as ignoring all the others, but that's up to you). My reference to the filtration or otherwise of modern keg beers was a counterpoint to your suggestion that "It’s also pointed out that many are unpasteurised and only rough-filtered. So was much of the “bright” beer of the 1970s".

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  2. This is probably heretical, but until reading your blogpost just now I'd forgotten all about the Revitalisation Project. As I predicted at the time, it seems that whether its proposals are being implemented depends very much on local branches, with some sticking to the old ways, and others running ahead with them, probably even further than the documents passed themselves intended or envisioned, and fully embracing keg beers, which, whatever side of the argument you're on, is not a good thing for what's supposed to be a single national campaign.

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    1. It's hard to see what difference it has actually made, apart from removing the prohibitions on cask breathers (which was widely ignored anyway) and on serving non-real beers at beer festivals, which were both voted in at the AGM and not directly related to Revitalisation.

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  3. We sell keg pale ale in work.. It is very good indeed.. I would prefer a consistent keg to a poorly kept cask any day.. As alluded to in a recent (signed) copy of opening times.

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  4. The Stafford Mudgie30 November 2018 at 10:29

    Maybe "CAMRA" and "Real Ale" were so much of another age that even if the Revitalisation Project had been accepted it could never have reversed CAMRA's decline.
    Just before I started using pubs the SPBW insisted on good beer only being from wooden casks which bore little relation to whether or not a beer was actually any good and, as we all know, the SPBW, was effectively replaced by that new upstart the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale.
    Having achieved its aim CAMRA might have faded away in the 1980s but it has survived much longer than I could have expected when I joined in 1973. Isn't it unrealistic to expect CAMRA to continue indefinitely ?
    Some youngsters understandably praise modern keg beers "to the rafters" and I might have expected four of them away on holiday to establish an organisation in support of "quality" beers that are too cold, hoppy and expensive for us old fogies.

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  5. I was in a brewery tap a few weeks ago and had a pint of their very pleasant cask porter. Then I had a pint of the same beer from a keg, and you know, the keg tasted better to me. The flavours seemed to be more distinct with the albeit fairly low carbonisation. Seems to work with hoppy beers like Oakham Citra too.

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    1. Surely different beers suit different serving styles? I've never understood why people seem to think that you can serve the same beer in both.

      I have on a couple of occasions had the same beer in a bar in both cask and keg. In my (admittedly limited) experience, serving the same beer from a cask and from a keg at a much lower temperature and with more carbonation results in two very different tasting drinks.

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  6. " and there’s a question mark as to what extent it actually does experience any meaningful secondary fermentation."

    No there is not, unless you have some unusual quirk of physics that allows fermentation in one closed container and not in another.

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    1. Many so-called bottle-conditioned beers don't actually experience any meaningful secondary fermentation. You can tell because they come out flat. Why should cans be any different? And there are hazy canned beers such as Sixpoint Bengali that don't claim to be can-conditioned.

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  7. Professor Pie-Tin30 November 2018 at 16:11

    I live in Ireland where cask is pretty much non-existent.
    I get pissed quite a lot and very rarely,if ever,have a bad pint.
    My go-to pint is Murphys and in my local pub it's cool,creamy and delicious.
    For a change I sometimes go for Beamish and hardly ever Guinness.
    In summer or just for a change I drink Indian Summer,a deliciously creamy grapefruit IPA ( and I hate craft IPA ) from a small brewery in Cork called the Cotton Ball.
    When I lived and worked in the UK for decades I drank nowt but brown bitter.
    Now,when I go back to London I rarely touch the stuff as it is so poorly kept - the exception being London Pride in a 'Spoons.
    Just an observation - and I used to go to GBBF most years - but CAMRA needs to get with the times.The obsession with quantity rather than quality is killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

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  8. Some branches have started to change. Last weeks branch tour of Chorlton took in new bar The Library which (currently) does not have any cask ale although did have at least one technical real ale from Runaway along with beers from Amundsen, Shindigger and Top Rope.
    A couple of weeks earlier a social not only called in The Assembly in Urmston, it positively stopped there with members staying on until well after last orders.

    However, on the other point, I agree with you - very few people care whether a keg beer is keg-conditioned or not. However brewers don't do it because they want some kind of CAMRA acceptance, they do it because they don't have the equipment or time to tank condition or because they genuinely believe it makes for better flavour.

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  9. Strange how there are so few Sam Smiths pubs in the 2019 Good Beer Guide ! Only 1 in Yorkshire. Good quality beer and very reasonable prices. Camra have an anti Sam Smith agenda same as their anti smoker agenda.

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    1. For the same reason there aren't many (any?) Brewdog bars in there.

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    2. No, there are loads of Sam Smith's pubs in Yorkshire serving real OBB, including most of those in York itself, but only a single one in the GBG. The reason is believed to be that the Yorkshire branches do not feel they can be confident the pubs are not using cask breathers, but that is academic now that CAMRA has dropped its opposition to the devices.

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    3. Rightly or wrongly, pubs that only offer a single unchanging cask beer are somewhat unlikely to get into the GBG these days.

      It's not discrimination against Sam's per se, it would be the case for any pub that only offered one cask beer. The rare exceptions to this trend in 2018 really have to be, well, exceptional.

      I know it was different 30-40 years ago. I know it's not as you would have it. It is, however, the way of the world.

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    4. There are probably a lot fewer single-beer pubs than there once were, but some do manage to sneak through into the GBG, including one that Martin Taylor visited recently in Hertfordshire where the sole cask beer was Doom Bar.

      Much depends on the attitude of local branches - some are much more obsessed with handpump-counting than others. I can't see any of the Sam Smith's pubs in Cheshire standing much chance, although the current guide includes ones both in my own branch (Levenshulem) and High Peak (Glossop).

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    5. That was nice to see. What happened to the Boars Head in Stockport ?

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    6. Unfortunately it didn't quite make the cut - likewise the Armoury, which is another excellent traditional pub.

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  10. Ah, you've brought back memories of bottles of Worthington White Shield, at the Old White Lion in East Finchley. They were good value for us students in the 1970s too.

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  11. 'Real ale in a keg' is the canard that stubbornly refuses to give up the ghost...

    Several years ago when key/eco/membrane kegs first became popular, a very few breweries (most notably Batemans) experimented with using them in lieu of casks, as a proof of concept. This was real ale in a keg, typically served via a handpull.

    And there was only ever a tiny amount of it available. Most people have never had real ale from a keg. It never caught on. It was never a thing. Never.

    But not everyone understands logic. Because real ale *could* be served from a keykeg, some people took away the entirely fallcious message that beer from a keykeg *must be* real ale. A wrongheaded conclusion that swiftly became the established line.

    Most disposable keg beer is not technically real ale because it's artificially force-carbonated just as bottled and canned beers are. The discussion about whether or not co2 comes into contact with the beer at the point of dispense is completely irrelevant when a far greater volume has already been deliberately added.

    So, why does the lie persist? Because it's extremely convenient for just about everybody - CAMRA, breweries, publicans, people who like drinking nice beers... the collective delusion is a happier place. It's like an entire congregation that secretly lost its faith but with every member maintaining the charade for the benefit of one another.

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    1. Indeed - I have always thought the whole concept was highly questionable. Surely another problem is that keykegs are not vented, so if there *is* any secondary fermentation, the additional CO2 produced will be absorbed back into the beer rather than released to the atmosphere.

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  12. I’ve mixed thoughts here, on both the topic in questions and the general loss of direction afflicting CAMRA atm. It seems that despite the softening of CAMRA’s approach to beers which don’t meet their definition of real ale, there are still far too many “dyed in the wool” old-school, diehards who refuse to accept any beer which has so much as looked at a cylinder of CO2.

    Unfortunately after 40 years of dogmatically using conditioning and dispense methods as the sole yardstick of quality, CAMRA has backed itself into the very same corner that Mudge alludes to, when he talks about bottle-conditioned ales.

    The world has moved on since the early 1970’s, and whilst beer lovers and the world of brewing at large have much to thank CAMRA for, it’s maybe time for the Campaign to call it a day, especially as the “Revitalisation” campaign has largely been ineffectual.

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  13. In terms of key keg beer, how come a group of beer enthusiasts who would lament single use plastic in other forms, embrace it when it comes to beer because they think it in some way progressive?

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    1. While no doubt at the same time bewailing the use of plastic straws...

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  14. U do realise that key kegs are 100% recyclable? I suppose that doesn't fit into your usual craft bashing narrative...

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    1. Not reusable, though, in the same way that casks and conventional kegs are. And, in practice, how many actually are recycled rather than ending up in landfill?

      Is "craft bashing" another term for "highlighting inconvenient truths"?

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    2. My lager can is recyclable any number of times. Plastics can only be recycled to a lower grade. So any plastic is only 4 steps from landfill even if recycled.

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  15. Message for Professor Pie-Tin and others: Sorry, folks, but I've had to turn the Captcha on again, as the volume of spam comments was becoming excessive.

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