Thu Jun 20th, 2013 at 01:44:50 AM EST
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is one of the most successful consumer organisations in the world.
Beginning in the 1970s, it challenged the prevailing beer industry in Britain which was trying to push low-quality, taste-free, cold and fizzy keg beer & lager onto drinkers. It succeeded to the extent that Real Ale, the traditional beer style of the UK, is now available in nearly every pub in the country.
It was able to do so because it created a black and white distinction between real ale as demanded by CAMRA and the keg beer sold by the mega-keggeries. As wiki puts it, “Cask ale or cask-conditioned beer is the term for unfiltered and unpasteurized beer which is conditioned (including secondary fermentation) and served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure”. A line in the sand was drawn; one side good, the other bad.
Now while this has worked very well with British beers, it is a line that is difficult to hold when dealing with beers from different traditions. It is one thing to refuse to accept “fake” pilsners brewed in large chemical plants in Wales, another thing entirely when dealing with the authentic filtered and pasteurized pilsners from Pilzen or Budowicse. Or Belgian and German beers. And how to react to American beers which are mostly British in style, but are served as keg beers ?
The Great British Beer Festival solves the conundrum by saying that beers brewed outside of Britain will be available on specialist “Foreign” beer bars. On said bars CAMRA will turn a blind eye on such issues as filtering and dispense, simply saying that these are authentic styles in their originating countries.
This is a line that has been held successfully for 30 years but which is now beginning to come under fire. And the problem is the popularity of American Craft beers. Just as 25 years ago when British real ale inspired the Craft beer revolution in the USA, now they are returning the favour and are inspiring modern British brewers with their powerful sharply defined flavours. However, it's not just the flavour they want to copy, they want to do it as keg beer
From a purely commercial viewpoint, keg beers are easier to handle, more stable and more reliable; the very reason the big breweries wanted them 40 years ago. However, as the new British craft brewers would argue, if you can have the stability and have great flavours as well, what’s not to like?
Well, from a personal standpoint I’ve never had a craft version of a cask ale I thought was as good or as interesting as the original. The flavour is thinner and less complex; for those who know I’d compare it to the difference between Kristal and Heffe Weissen beers. Drink the two different versions of the same beer side by side and there is almost no comparison. It is the same with craft versions of real ales. They are usually served too cold and too fizzy by UK standards, the very same problems that CAMRA railed against 40 years ago
Nevertheless, Craft is coming. BrewDog led the way and, having ignored CAMRA and remained both credible and commercially successful, they are now being followed by more breweries. A pub near me even held a festival of them.
So, how should CAMRA respond? They have, after all, been here before; with the Cask Breather. This was a system which allowed a beer to mature, but once matured, prevented the beer going off by flooding the cask with an inert gas at atmospheric pressure. Or at least that was the theory. CAMRA resisted this for several reasons, not least of which was that it was an obvious wedge issue, in that once the cask breather was allowed it would have been difficult to argue about other gases and different pressures. Before you know it, we would have had low quality keg beers back again, only this time CAMRA wouldn’t have a hard and fast line to hold against them.
And here we are again and it’s still true. Nobody doubts the integrity of the people at BrewDog and elsewhere, I don’t think they want to abuse the keg beers they brew. But others would. By way of example, the craft beer festival I attended had some lovely beers, but they were served so cold they were tasteless. This was in a pub with several real ales on tap served in immaculate condition. When I complained that the beers were too cold, the landlord simply pointed out that;-
a)it would warm up
b) his other customers didn’t mind.
Ah back to the dark old days of poorly presented beer drunk by people who don’t care so long as it’s wet. But don’t worry; it’ll be warm enough if you wait for it to go flat.
That’s what’s wrong with keg. If real ale is abused, it’s undrinkable and you have a good case to get a different beer or a refund. If keg is abused, it’s your hard luck. And that’s why, despite the fact that it will push a few of our more interesting brewers outside the tent, CAMRA will continue to say no.