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 badgered 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.