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 Britain, it is high time that CAMRA abandoned the narrow dogmatism of insisting that it is the only proper way of presenting any packaged beers.