Maybe they should have kept to ‘revitalisation’. And dropped the ‘ale’

The biggest mistake that Camra made, I fear, was to change its name in 1973 from the original “Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale” to “Campaign for Real Ale”. The second-biggest mistake was to have ever used the word “ale”, rather than “beer”, in its title.

Am I serious? Surely coining the phrase “real ale” was a superb marketing tactic, enabling the campaign to put across its message simply and effectively: that it supported traditionally brewed and served British beer against the tide of over-carbonated keg ales and lagers that threatened to destroy this country’s drinking heritage. Would an organisation with similar aims, to stop cask beer disappearing, but called, I dunno, “Anti-Big Brewers Alliance” or “Confederation Of British Beer Lovers and Experts” have risen to become what the National Consumer Council declared as early as 1976 to be “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”?

Maybe. But as the campaign approaches its 40th anniversary next year, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that its name, and the mind-set that name creates, makes Camra today part of the problems facing beer in Britain, as much as it may still be part of the solution.

That name, and it its baggage, means that Camra seems to feel obliged to concentrate narrowly on defending “real ale”, defined as cask-conditioned beer served without extraneous carbon-dioxide, when there is a very strong argument that, as the self-appointed consumer group for beer drinkers, it should be supporting ALL types of artisanally produced craft beer, regardless of methods of storage or dispense. In addition the word “ale” positions Camra as effectively anti-lager when its more enlightened members and fellow travellers have no problem drinking cold-fermented beer, when it’s well-made – even if the best lagers are often artificially carbonated.

By concentrating on the nature of the dispense, in fact, the Campaign has become as product-oriented as those big brewers it was set up to campaign against. It also means that, as with the debate over cask breathers, Camra sometimes gets into arguments that make medieval theologians look like broad-brush generalists, arguments that are as much interest to the ordinary pub-goer as the obscure philosophical debates over the precise nature of the Father and the Son between Homoianists and Homoiousianists in the early Christian Church were to the ordinary worshipper. Camra seems too often to have forgotten that there is only one question the concerned consumer has about the beer she or he is poised to consume.

Does it taste any good.

Outside the island of Great Britain, this is the criterion by which beer is judged, rather than the Camra-led shibboleth of whether or not it has been subjected to “artificial carbonation”. That’s one important reason why the North American beer scene is so much more innovative than the British one, and why defenders of the British scene find it hard to put up many contenders in any “cutting edge brewer” championship compared to, say, even the American West Coast. Instead of encouraging the wider availability of good-tasting beer, Camra is in fact holding back progress, by insisting that nothing that has happened since the 1950s should be allowed to interfere with the delivery of beer from cellar to glass.

But the mistake Camra makes is to forget why artificially carbonated, “keg” beer was introduced: not, as Mike Benner, Camra’s chief executive has claimed, because it’s easier and more profitable for the big brewers (come on, Mike, think a bit, don’t just autopilot the anti-capitalist line) but because too much draught beer served in Britain’s pubs in the 1950s and early 1960s was undrinkable: poorly kept, sour, stale, vinegary. When keg beer arrived in pub cellars, around 50 per cent of beer sales by value was in bottled beers, because, although more expensive, it was better tasting than the draught stuff. And the Fremlin’s logo in the taproom today is that in the 2010s, too much cask beer served in Britain’s pubs is still undrinkable, poorly kept, sour, stale and vinegary. THIS is the problem Camra should be addressing and, frankly, as far as I can see (and taste), it isn’t.

What will happen to Camra if it doesn’t reinvent itself as the beer drinker’s friend instead of the narrowly defined cask ale drinker’s friend is that, despite rising membership (caused by what The Spectator calls “direct debit inertia” – you sign up at a beer festival, and then, because the membership fee leaves your bank account by direct debit every year it takes an active effort to quit, so you don’t), it is going to become increasingly irrelevant to the real concerns and desires of keen younger drinkers unfettered by a too-rigid application of the tenets of the Founding Fathers. Instead it will become a beery equivalent of the Royal British Legion, the only active members those at or approaching bus pass age. (The ‘”ageing active membership” problem has already caused my local Camra branch to scrap its extremely popular beer festival, because there weren’t enough people feeling up to organising it any more.)

Let’s look again at what those four friends who sat in Kruger’s Bar on the Dingle peninsula (not actually a very nice pub, to be honest; the only reason to visit is that it’s the westernmost bar in Europe) in 1971 and debated the state of beer in Britain decided: it wasn’t just that keg beer was over-fizzy, but that it was over-sweet and bland. The big brewers had cut out the risk from ordering a pint, at the expense of the product.

For the past 35 years or so, Camra has failed to avoid giving the impression that it doesn’t mind how bland, or disgusting, a beer is, provided artificial carbonation in no way assists that beer into the glass, while nectar that the fussiest God of Beer would grade 11 out of 10 will be rejected if it contains even one molecule of CO2 that wasn’t produced naturally.

However, with an increasing number of beer drinkers born long after Camra was founded, there’s a smaller and smaller proportion of people in the UK who care about beer that also care about exactly how it gets into the glass: they just want it to taste as great as possible. And that’s true of an increasing number of brewers as well, people such as Lovibonds in Henley. Camra’s great threat is not the return of “keg” beer – it’s that in ten years’ time it might have 200,000 members, but be completely irrelevant to what is happening to 2020’s UK craft beer scene.

Oh, and I joined Camra in 1977, I’ve been a branch chairman, organised Camra beer festivals and written for What’s Brewing and the Good Beer Guide.

0 thoughts on “Maybe they should have kept to ‘revitalisation’. And dropped the ‘ale’

  1. “When you get into rows about cask breathers, you’re a Skolastic.”

    My father-in-law used to drink in Kruger’s (pronounced with a soft g) in the ’70s. He was speculating recently about whether, on that fateful day in 1971, it was operating with a licence to serve intoxicating liquor. Probably not.

  2. (1) Cask/real ale isn’t a form of dispense. A handpump is a form of dispense. So CAMRA aren’t “hung up” about a mere form of dispense, but are focused on a particular type of beer. (2) There is no debate, apart from in Pete Brown’s mind, over cask breathers. Sparklers, yes, cask breathers, no. (3) There is, of course, the counter argument that what you see as CAMRA’s weakness is actually its greatest strength. A narrow focus is not necessarily a bad one. A broad focus often leads to dissipation and as far as I can see CAMRA have been successful because it has retained a narrow remit.

    That’s not to say of course that CAMRA is perfect, Far from it. Like any organisation it needs to occasionally take a close look at itself. Hence the fit for purpose review. However, I’m afraid I don’t share your view of its direction or likely future.

      1. Is a cask breather a form of dispense? I have no knowledge of cask breathers assisting the dispense of beer as they only apply C02 at atmospheric pressure. Top pressure is a form of dispense, as is air pressure, electric dispense, gravity etc.

      1. Mr. C – you say that high bottle sales suggest that much draught was rubbish (in the 50’s) and that the introduction of keg at that time must then have been a response to quality issues. Whereas all it really proves is that people were drinking a lot stuff other than draught – as they do now – for whatever reasons.

        Even allowing that there was a genuine draught quality crisis at that time, one doesn’t need to be some kind of commie maniac to consider the possibility that the introduction of keg was indeed “easier and more profitable” for the brewers than addressing the issue in some other way.

        It’s a shame that identifying a market failure should be so lightly dismissed as the “anti-capitalist line”. Like that’s a bad thing. Arf.

        1. It’s always fascinating to watch someone try to deny facts because they don’t fit in with their prejudices. Introducing keg beer was massively expensive: it demanded considerable investment in new plant in breweries, and new equipment for tens of thousands of bars to serve it. The brewers, to cover their costs, charged considerably more for their keg beers than they did for their cask ones: in 1966 Watney’s Red Barrel, of now infamous memory, cost 28 per cent more than Benskin’s Best Bitter in the same pub. But drinkers were willing to pay that premium, not because they were sheep conned by advertising, but because the Red Barrel offered a better bet on not getting a pint of vinegar than the Benskin’s did. Was it “easier” to introduce keg beer than to solve the problem of cask beer quality, by, say, better cellarstaff training, ensuring faster turnover in the pub and so on? Well, since the first experiments with kegged ale were going on in the 1930s and it was nearly 30 years before the roll-out of keg beers started in earnest, I’d say introducing keg was certainly not “easy”. Was it more profitable than cask beer? That would need an in-depth study of brewers’ accounts, but considering the capital investment required in launching a keg beer, I’d say, not necessarily. Was it a solution welcomed by the public? Yes, initially, and the “knee-jerk anti-capitalism” comes from seeing keg as a plot foisted upon an unwilling consumer. What happened eventually, of course, was that enough people decided that too many sacrifices were being made in terms of taste and quality for the sake of consistency, and sufficient numbers of consumers revolted for at least a partial turn-around in big brewers’ practices. For which all readers of this blog are glad. But unless the supporters of cask beer understand properly why keg beer arrived – as a genuinely consumer-supported development – they won’t be able to support cask beer effectively.

          1. Sorry, which “facts” was I denying? It strikes me that you’re protesting rather too much after being caught out presenting opinion as fact. The *fact* that brewers were able to charge a premium for their keg offering, rather supports the idea that these products had the potential to be more profitable than those they were replacing. Was it in fact more profitable? As you say, that would require a detailed study of brewers’ accounts, which neither I, nor you, I gather, have done. On the other hand we can be fairly sure that investors *will* have done their paperwork and that “considerable investment” wouldn’t have been permitted *unless* it promised an increase in (or a securing of) profit.

            See, I’m not anti-capitalist. That would be like being anti-gravity. But the nature of capitalism tells us somewhat about how things will fall.

          2. Sorry, which “facts” was I denying?
            That there was a quality crisis over cask ale in the 1950s

            It strikes me that you’re protesting rather too much after being caught out presenting opinion as fact.
            No, I’m presenting fact as fact, and I’m beating you about the head with more facts when you cast doubts upon my original statement. I’ve not been “caught out” doing anything. The fact is, there was a problem over draught beer quality, and the results were (1) the boom in bottled beer sales and (2) the development of keg beer, frequently described at the time as “bottled beer in a cask”, as an answer to that problem. Not, ultimately, a very satisfactory answer from the drinker’s pov, but it clearly seemed a good idea at the time.

            The *fact* that brewers were able to charge a premium for their keg offering, rather supports the idea that these products had the potential to be more profitable than those they were replacing.
            But that’s only true if extra production costs per pint were less than the price premium brewers were able to charge. The price premium was only able to be applied because many consumers perceived that keg beer offered an advantage over cask that they were prepared to pay for. If this was truly an excess profit (in the economists’ sense of the phrase) then we could expect competition to eventually reduce that profit back to the “normal” return for the industry.

          3. Competition would bring the price down? Surely this is a bit naive? How much competition was there in a 1970s tied pub? Especially one where the brewery had already ripped the handpumps out?

          4. If you have the evidence to rebut what I’m saying, I’m more than happy to give it space. Otherwise, see my response to Tyson for evidence that my “reality” is THE reality.

  3. CAMRA has been successful in expanding its membership numbers. But in what other way has it been successful – certainly not in expanding the absolute amount of real ale consumed in Britain or even in increasing real ale’s share of the total draught beer market?

  4. An excellent well thought out post! I think what CAMRA has managed to achieve is amazing but I think that now that we have cask beer back in pubs with landlords mostly knowing what they are doing to best keep it, is it now time to focus on quality?

    How many of the bottled (& canned!) beers coming of the states are bottled conditioned?

    1. i have to disagree about most pubs knowing what they’re doing, there are still a lot of pub’s who serve a good pint when the barrel is fresh (or never because they don’t clean the lines right) and a terrible pint when the barrel is nearly empty and they don’t know any better then to keep serving it till it has run out.

    2. *When* we have “cask beer back in pubs with landlords mostly knowing what they are doing to best keep it”, then CAMRA can wind itself up (or relaunch as the Guild of Craft Beer Lovers, or whatever). I think there’s a long way to go yet.

  5. A fascinating post. I would make the further point that most drinkers do not view beer as keg or cask, but bitter or lager. Poor quality cask ale does more to put me off drinking ale than a drinkable keg version. I think better cask ale rather than more of it, and better keg ale (knock smooth on the head) would give me a greater propensity to trust ale. You can trust the lout, the ale is often a gamble.

  6. Excellent article and the points (as always) well-made, but I think CAMRA should keep to its knitting (no pun intended!).

    Real ale is special, simple as that. More special than lager, keg 40 years ago or now, any lager (even unfiltered), any other kind of beer. It is an important, traditional English drink and deserves special protection and advocacy in my view. I think a general beer promotion group would lose focus, perhaps become too beholden to producers. I admire CAMRA’s single-minded purpose. Other groups will perhaps emerge to promote other kinds of beer, and good on them if this happens.

    Nonetheless I agree with Cooking Lager that we need better service of cask beer and better keg beer. All beer is good and we should encourage the best in each form.


  7. A great blog and hits home to me the same reasons why I was contemplating on quitting CAMRA next year. I’m striving to see where my membership is going. I don’t see CAMRA allocating Champion Best Beer of Britain to the best beer in the country.

    Marble and Thornbridge; both prominent breweries are deemed medals in their categories but not overall gold? Why? They choose a particular Nottingham brewery whom are currently oh look expanding, also whom emphasise purely on Cask Real Ale.

    It is dissapointing that quality of the beer is not always chosen as the true Champion. I didn’t see any Brewdog; any Crouch Vale, any Harwich Town, any Pictish or Pitstop or a number of prominent microbreweries whom really need the support of CAMRA.

    I don’t know where CAMRA are going at the moment. They seem stuck in a time warp; paranoid about keg, unable to realise that keg is good. American beers at the GBBF were not kept correctly because Americans use keg and not cask and therefore it was ruined.

    CAMRA failed to see the benefit of that system. I’ve become pro-keg recently as the keg beers I’ve had this year have been largely good and well kept. The cask conditioned beer has been erratic and it doesn’t explain their agenda at all.

    How can they say that only cask is true and proper when not all casks are kept in proper condition? It’s quite sad. It appears CAMRA isn’t learning and is one dimensional. The foreign beer stall was the highlight of GBBF 2010. Cask ranges were good but there was a lot of middle of the road stuff and not enough micros for my liking. Aren’t CAMRA supposed to support the micro breweries?

    People also think Green King’s IPA is a true IPA when it isn’t at all. Also their Abbott is no real abbott. Go to Belgium and you will see this. It’s so sad that CAMRA is more concerned about advertising the big national ale brands then the small micros. Great blog.

    1. Crouch Vale won Gold at CBOB in 2005 and 2006. Oakham have had two Silvers and one Gold since 1999. Triple fff two bronze and one gold. It’s rubbish to say that small micros don’t win.

  8. Spot on, Martyn. I’ve discussed this issue countless times with many UK beer writers, brewers, and pub landlords. Most agree wholeheartedly, but are hesitant to openly challenge CAMRA because they fear retribution.

    Here in the USA, cask beer has never been more popular, but continues to be a crap shoot as trade and consumer knowledge is quite low. At least there’s no resistance to cask breathers!

    But wherever we live, the goal should always be beer quality. Even the most savvy consumer won’t care how “traditionally” it’s been made or served if it doesn’t taste good. Cheers!

  9. if CAMRA doesnt care about beer quality why does it produce things like the “GOOD beer guide”,and not just a cask ale pub guide instead, a list of all pubs that sold cask ale would be alot easier to produce, but they dont do that and there are plenty of cask ale pubs that dont get in the guide because they dont do the quality side. The cask marque that CAMRA supports, is about maintaining cask quality and pubs that dont meet the criteria dont get the marque. CAMRA also hands out awards at the GBBF, for GOOD beer, no one least of all the brewers, would deny that winning Champion beer at CAMRAS most significant beer festival of the year is not an endorsement of the quality of their product and the effect of CAMRAs champion beer status increases sales, so alot of other people think CAMRAs endorsement is significant enough to be promoting it as a quality beer too.

    I think the reality is alot of people find the idea of joining an organisation who promotes beer as a product, and not in a 15pints get in a fight and have kebab way, very appealing, and theyd very much like to be associated with that type of organisation, but the reality is CAMRA is not that organisation, infact it might actually be very anti the type of beer some of these people like the most, and thats where these “why cant CAMRA just” debates stem from, which are basically just i want to be part of CAMRA but it must change to accomodate me, but thats not CAMRAs problem, CAMRA arent the self appointed promoter of beer of this story, the self appointed promoters of beer are usualy the ones complaining the most about CAMRA in the first place.

  10. I’m highly dubious of claims that CAMRA is the reason that British brewers are less innovative. It seems to ignore the fact that the two countries have completely different brewing and drinking cultures.
    There are still big traditional breweries in Britain doing decent beer and I don’t think there’s any equivalent in the states. A lot of micros in Britain started up with the aim of replacing a lamented local brewery, which again I don’t think has an American equivalent.
    The American craft brewing scene came out of an active home brewing scene, and not having any commercial pressures home brewers have always been much more experimental.
    In the US far more beer is drunk at home than in pubs, and I’m pretty sure duty is paid on beer volume only with ABV playing no role. Again this will lead to brewers making different beers.
    I’m also not sure how CAMRA is supposed to have stifled innovation, after all they embraced golden ales, or how it could have encouraged it, as attempts at promoting mild haven’t been a wild success.
    I’ll also add that in my experience beer festivals like nothing beer than to be supplied with new beers, with more extreme ones being particularly welcomed.

  11. It all depends, as I was saying on Pete’s blog, on the question of what the “Campaign” part is actually a campaign *for* – and the related question of who is supposed to benefit from it. Ever since CAMRA was launched (which I do remember, although I was much too young to drink at the time) I’ve always understood that it was a campaign to replace the beer that millions of people drank, week in, week out, with the “real ale” that they or their fathers used to drink – or at least to give those millions of people the opportunity to switch back to cask ale. In no way was it a campaign focused on CAMRA members themselves.

    Lately the idea seems to have developed that it should primarily be a campaign to promote new and different brewers and beers – not a bad thing in itself, but not something that’s ever likely to be of interest to the millions of people who just want a nice pint.

  12. I think that you should stick to history Martyn. Clearly in that field, mainly because nobody can be arsed to check out whether what you say is so or not, you are on safe ground.

    On this go back to sleep please.

    1. All you’re being is rude and defensive, which is normally the stance of someone who doesn’t actually have an argument to make. You’ve done nothing to demonstrate that all Camra’s current set of attitudes are soundly based, correct and helpful, rather than involving a fair amount of irrelevant pedantry that is actually holding back the cause of good beer in the UK. I look forward to reading your complete and comprehensive rebuttal of all my points.

  13. I would like to congratulate you on this excellent post, CAMRA does matter, people see what they do as gospel and the “kite mark” of the UK beer industry.

    It is a shame when CAMRA branches campaign against local breweries because we keg our beer!!

    I know of a pub that installed cask breathers and then the next year won pub of the year for that region!!!! but I shall say no more about that…

    CAMRA campaigned against the beer tie which is killing the UK pub and holding back the growth of the local brewer. Whilst SIBA a body that is meant to back us agree with it…

    So as you can see CAMRA are not all bad, neither are their members, the ones that walk into the brewery after reading an item in what’s brewing and tell us how to brew just need further education, however the ones that think beer exists because they are a member of CAMRA are often disappointed when after they are finished telling us that they loved our beer, we tell them that CAMRA do not approve of it….

    CAMRA produced a technical note about Lovibonds in which they could not confirm that our beer was real, they didn’t speak to us about it.

    The majority of our beer is kegged, however none of our beer is filtered, pasteurised or contains any additives but is an intangible entity because we store it in a keg!!!

    Jason, Lovibonds Brewery.

  14. I was recently in Glasgow, Scotland during the National Cask Ale Week and I developed a deep appreciate for WEST Brewery, who are making some great lagers, but have decided to keg everything. Nothing was overcarbonated, and the flavors were right on. However, they were excluded from the “Real Ale” fest, probably one because they were lagers (but weren’t their other lagers) but (two) because they aren’t serving “REAL” beer. The term “real” really puts me off, although I did develop a stronger liking for cask beers. Kegged beer, when done correctly, offers different flavors and characteristics that are not achieved in cask.

    I’m planning to blog on this soon, not sure exactly when.

    Also, I haven’t read all your comments yet, so we’ll see if I have anything to say in response to those…

  15. >>as the self-appointed consumer group for beer drinkers, it should be supporting ALL types of artisanally produced craft beer, regardless of methods of storage or dispense.<<

    HEAR! HEAR!! HEAR!!!
    Since the time of its start, EBCU has had a "feud" (pardon my exaggeration) with the GBBF organisers about the methods used for dispensing non-British craftbeer at the venue. CAMRA won't get off its stance that anything served in the CO²-damned way can be served – regardless of the fact that some of these beers are designed to be served in the way that CAMRA dislikes. Never mind that the serving in other ways just destroys the beer. Nobody is obliged to like those beers: take them or leave them. But the stubbornness that hardliners within the campaign defend the undefendable is the source of ongoing friction. Just as Jason says – some of our beers are unpasteurised and kegged, and that's the way they deserve to be. I have no problem preferring cask to keg when in the UK – but I will not leave a beer that tastes good, just because of a technicality.
    Excellent article, Martyn!

      1. I was thinking, as an example, of an unpalatable De Koninck “amber” I had, some Dutch beers (can’t remember correctly which ones, but at least one was taken off at some time, because it just was not only not good to drink, it was virtually impossible to serve). I’m sure that, if you sampled some, you know what I’m talking about.

  16. Are we saying that forcing C02 (top pressure) through cask ale does not have a detrimental effect on the flavour, I think it does. Frank Baillie stated in the Beer Drinker’s Companion (1974) “the impression that a gassy beer (artificially carbonated) often has a different palate from the same beer containing only it’s own C02 does have some substance and a scientific explanation.” He then goes on to give that scientific explanation which I don’t really understand but then I don’t need to understand because I can taste the difference. I have tasted some really good keg beers but they aren’t something I would want to drink most of the time, I think they tend to work better with higher gravity beers and more intense flavours perhaps. Perhaps it’s because the high level of Co2 masks subtlety.

    Real ale still needs championing. It is easy to be complacent when there is a boom in pubs, bars, and venues taking real ale. I don’t think real ale is just a method of dispense it’s about natural carbonation but more than anything it just tastes so much better to me. I don’t want it just to be a niche product that I have to hunt down; too many traditional products have become just that.

  17. I would point out too that craft keg beer, traditionally in North America, is served well-filtered, and the yeasty edge most cask beer has is absent. In an attempt at authenticity, some brewers here serve their keg beer (and therefore their cask too) fairly cloudy, even regular ales – not just weizens and similar specialties – and lagers. And yet, that goes wrong in my opinion, since the result is often that the yeast overwhelms everything else.

    Real ale’s genius is to have a hint of yeast but drop bright – it’s not just aesthetics, the balance of malt, hop and yeast flavours is made perfect in English cask ale – once again, in the opinion of many.

    To me, while unpasteurised modern craft keg is an excellent product, it is not in the same category as traditional cask ale. The taste is different, the mouth-feel is different, the experience is different. I am very glad it is available in the market, but from the standpoint of whether CAMRA should embrace it in terms of its mission, I believe it should not. Real ale is still a relatively small part of the total beer market in England.

    Just a last point, which is that some judgments inevitably must be made as to what real ale is, and e.g., if some bottle-conditioned beer passes the test despite being filtered and re-seeded with yeast, so be it. We will never get a perfect definition, and ditto whether CAMRA ever changes the official stance on cask breather (I hope it does not, but if it does I can live with it). But the heart of the CAMRA enterprise was to preserve the tradition of English draught beer and I think it should retain this focus.


  18. Hello from Idaho, U.S.A. I own and operate a small 7 bbl brew pub here.
    on facebook under, The Salmon River Brewery
    Nice article Martyn. I feel you make some great points. I have always been intrigued by the CAMRA movement in England. And I applaud their efforts if only because it shows just how passionate people can be about beer. There have been many and there are more and more “naturally” carbonated beers being pulled with hand pumps in the United States. There are also many that advertise as cask and are in every way except that they are force carbonated.
    I never try to argue my way out of the fact that we force carbonate. Though I am questioned rarely. I concur there is an inherent difference between the two methods. I simply explain why we do it this way and I let the customer be the judge on the beer and its attributes or lack there of.
    I do think the “over-carbonated” argument lacks teeth however. Even small brewers now have access to CO-2 meters that allow us to measure total CO-2. And with modern carbonation stones and regulators we can precisely hit our targeted level, less or more with great consistency. Of course how the publican handles the beer is part of the equation too. In our pub we push beer with a 70% nitrogen 30% carbon dioxide blend as to keep the beer from absorbing excessive CO-2.
    @ Ed
    In the United States we pay excise tax (every two weeks) to the Federal Government in volume not ABV. But State to State added tax and rules vary. In Idaho we are required to pay tax based on ABV.
    The sheets say, “Beer” and “Wine” YES WINE Chaps my hide every time I fill out the sheet for our beers above 5% abv.!! =)
    Also Ed I agree that the current (before prohibition there were 3000 brewery’s here) craft brew scene spawned from home-brewing. And I agree that innovation is a natural by product of this. But I challenge the notion that craft beer companies in the U.S. are not beholden to “commercial pressures” of running a profitable business. Innovative beers are what craft beer drinkers want. So we make it for them!
    Lastly I respectively challenge your notion that there are no “big breweries” putting out decent beer in the U.S. If big is more than 100,000 bbls are year and less than 2 million bbls we have MANY. And though “decent” is subjective I believe these big regionals put out much better than decent beer. Boston Beer Company, Sierra Nevada, Full Sail, Deschutes, Yuengling, Magic Hat, Stone, RedHook, Pyramid, Bells, Dogfish Head.

    1. Thanks for the reply Matt, I totally agree that craft beer companies are indeed beholden to commercial pressures, what I was trying to say was that people who have started out as home brewers are used to being innovative in what they brew and this will carry over when they go commercial.
      And I also agree that big brewers can make good beer, but I wasn’t aware of any old, established big brewers in the US that craft brewers would like to emulate, but as Yuengling is on your list I guess there is.

  19. Martytn, me old China plate. I think you’re trying to bamboozle this poor old working class lad. Anyway, I’ve managed to borrow a dictionary and looked up sophist. Very interesting, although, to be honest, I’m not any wiser as to what you’re actually accusing me of. However, I get the gist that you’re disagreeing with me. Which is not surprising, as I disagreed with you first and if I have learnt anything from life, it’s that this never leads to spiritual fulfilment. Or even consensus, come to think of it.

    Tizz: A state of nervous excitement or confusion. Where? When? Who? I’m not a bigwig or even a wig of CAMRA, but have I missed something? Pete Brown drags a 12 year old quote up and suddenly there’s a “tizz” about cask breathers? Hardly. Any slight tremor in the depth of CAMRA’s bowels over such a miniscule subject was, so I’m led to believe, happily resolved long ago with the introduction of the Race Spile.

    I’m also puzzled over your assertion about bottled beers selling well because of the poor nature of draught beer. That’s not disputing that there was a lot of poor cask beer around. Nor the high sales of bottled beer. However, when I was a lad, what I used to have beat into me was: “Correlation does not imply causation”.

    When I researched historical drinking patterns, I came across a myriad of reasons as to the popularity of bottled beers. Quality of draught beer being but one. But if you have any specific research that links the two, I would be genuinely interested in seeing it.

    1. “When I researched historical drinking patterns, I came across a myriad of reasons as to the popularity of bottled beers. Quality of draught beer being but one. But if you have any specific research that links the two, I would be genuinely interested in seeing it.”

      The Times, special supplement on beer, Tuesday April 29 1958, pii:

      ‘… much more is sold in bottles and a little more in cans. The extent of this change is by no means all due to increased consumption at home – for a great deal of the bottled beer made is drunk in place of draught, and some is mixed with draught. This follows partly from growth in taste for some particular qualities and brands, and partly from an appreciation of the special characteristics of bottled beer, which is more uniformly found to be in good condition.”

      Which is a slightly weasily way of the journalist nodding to the idea that draught was too often crap. The brewers themselves rarely admitted to the problem, but here’s a quote from an interesting source nodding again at the problems with draught beer:

      Brewing Review, Vol 69, 1955, p 311

      Speaking at the recent annual banquet of the Walsall Licensed Victuallers’ Association, Mr. EJ Thompson, assistant managing director, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries Ltd., said the trade did not do all it could for the benefit of the public. If people could buy draught beer, he said, in as good condition as bottled beer, he could see no reason why they should not be persuaded to drink draught instead of bottled beer.

      And what was the (ostensible) motive for the introduction of keg, at least the one given to the public?

      The English Digest 1964 p 18

      Keg beer — draught which is processed longer to give it more life — already takes well over 7 per cent, of the market. The brewers, for their part, have been pushing quality, which has meant that the old type of draught — with its attendant risks of flatness and problems of sediment — is on the wane.

      Unfortunately the Gale database isn’t giving access to results found in the Financial Times for the 1950s and 1960s, or I’d have some more, but I hope you’re geting the idea that I’m not making this stuff up …

      1. Interesting. I agree it was one of the reasons, but I’m not convinced it was THE main reason behind the sale of bottled beers. As you know, the social stratification of society was very different then, as was licensing and drinking patterns. The quality or lack of, draught beer wasn’t the reason my father or his friends bought bottled beers, for example, and I’d still like more evidence that it was for the majority of people.

  20. Martyn,

    Great post, as usual you have one of the most informed and intelligent posts on the subject.

    As Joris did, I too would like to extend my extreme disappointment at the way that the ‘foreign’ beers are served at the GBBF. Surely, CAMRA should respect the traditions of other great beer nations and more importantly respect the brewers that work very hard to present beer in the form that they believe best fits the style of beer.

    As a brewer, it makes my stomach turn when I see CAMRA dispensing beer using compressed air (O2) instead of CO2 at festivals (including the GBBF). This is a blatant disregard for the care, love and attention that brewers put into getting the beer into the package.

    It also isn’t right to serve an American IPA from cask at 1 volume of CO2 and 12C, sorry, but it doesn’t work and it isn’t how the brewer intended that beer to taste.

    I think the time has come for the EBCU and the US Brewers Association to refuse to ship beer to the GBBF unless it is served as the brewer intended.


    1. I’m sorry Jeff, but you’re being as dogmatic as any CAMRA hardliner. Do you really believe the likes of Stone, Allagash, Victory and Troegs don’t care about the quality of their beer and are willing to ruin it just because they’re scared of CAMRA?

      1. Barmy,

        Maybe I am, fight fire with fire, I say.

        I’m not sure that US breweries fully understand the situation here and they are just genuinely interested in giving people in the UK a taste. Unfortunately, I do think they are giving in to CAMRA, and yes, I think the quality of the end product is not how the brewer intended. Of course, some of those beers at GBBF are designed and intended for the cask, but not all.

        As for the compressed air (sorry my error earlier, not O2), unacceptable and even any brewer in this country would agree with me on that one.

  21. Can’t point to anything specific at this stage, but everything I’ve read suggested that dissatisfaction with draught beer quality had a lot to do with bottled beer sales in the period in question. Also, mixing bottled and draft was common then, e.g., the ‘light and bitter’, and this surely developed again to off-set some of the disadvantages of real ale in the pub.

    Anyway at a certain point trends develop a life of their own, so it may have been a bit of both.

    The race spile. think it’s like a valve which only operates one way, in this case to bleed off excess CO2 but not admit exterior air. It’s a neat solution, but as with cask breather, it leaves the question in my mind, how does the beer complete its conditioning if no air is admitted to the cask via normal spiling? Isn’t oxygen necessary to fermentation? I am not a brewer but have friends who tell me air needs to mix with the beer in the cask to get the proper flavour evolution.

    I know many feel these are angel-on-a-pin questions. But really they are crucial to an understanding of real ale in its essentials, and without that understanding, it is harder in my view to have a discussion on what CAMRA’s proper role might be.


    1. Oxygen is not essential it makes the beer oxidise. This is the whole argument, I think, about cask breathers. Cask breathers apply C02 to the beer at atmospheric pressure as the beer is drawn off. The reason beer doesn’t oxidise really quickly when a cask breather isn’t used is because the ale is giving off it’s own Co2 which was created in the fermentation process. Race spiles use the beers own Co2, as you know, to protect the beer. I think they allow excess Co2 to vent out but don’t let oxygen in, as you suggest. The reason cask breathers are voted against at AGM, I believe, is because although set at atmospheric pressure it still constitutes applying extraneous Co2. Many members consider that voting in favour of cask breathers would be seen as condoning the use of extraneous Co2. Using top pressure does change the flavour of a beer, and to my mind to it’s detriment. There are scientific explanations on why extraneous Co2 effects the flavour of beer compared with the Co2 produced naturally through conditioning. The science isn’t fully understood although scientists researching champagne believe that bubble size may have something to do with better flavour, smaller bubbles are better because there are more of them to pick up taste and aroma. The most noticeable thing about keg beer is the carbonic bite which can sometimes be overpowering in keg beers. Carbonic acid excites the sour taste receptors on the tongue and is often a very strong character of keg beer. You will also detect carbonic bite in cask ale, if you don’t the beer will taste flat. I have had cask beers that have been overpowered by carbonic bite and visible carbonation clinging to the side of the glass. I have put this down to poor venting but I suppose it could be down to clumsy use of extraneous Co2.
      Keykeg, as used by Thornbridge has no contact with extraneous Co2. Hand Pulled cask ale can also be assisted by gas pressure that has no contact with the beer. I think it constrict the pipes or something but I’m not sure.

      1. All makes good sense as does the recent comment about yeast working without benefit of oxygen. What got me wondering though is that yeast in bottle-conditioned beers uses the oxygen in the head space in some fashion, and this prolongs the life of the beer. Filtered but unpasteurised beer in the bottle has a limited life due to the threat of damp paper oxidation, but bottle conditioning actually can result in a more stable beer. Some call this scavenging the air or oxygen. I wonder why then this doesn’t work in a cask environment.


      2. There are scientific explanations on why extraneous Co2 effects the flavour of beer compared with the Co2 produced naturally through conditioning. Right. I have some gold-plated stereo speaker leads for sale, you sound like the kind of chap who’s be interested …

        1. Are you suggesting that real ale is just a piece of rhetoric? It’s always tasted noticeably different to me. I like the analogy though. I used to be on YTS in a Hi Fi shop. Gold-plated stereo speakers?? Give me a break lol

          1. No, I agree proper cask ale tastes very different from keg. I’m just suggesting that CO2 is CO2, and it doesn’t matter how it’s created: too much of it is bad, regardless.

          2. Of course Co2 is Co2 but it will have a chemical effect when blown through a liquid, wont it? Personally I just go on what I can taste but it is interesting to know how these things work in science.

          3. I find that beer tastes better when served through expensive beer lines, myself. Try to spend 10% of the cost of the beer on beer line. You can taste the difference.

          4. Another nice Hi FI analogy there Barm. I think putting silver strips on a sparkler help the beer flow in the right direction.

            Just to clear things up though, I have at no point said that Co2 in cask ale tastes different, or is different to extraneous Co2, Co2 is Co2. Co2 is also flavourless but it’s presence changes a flavour. It does so by modifying the physicochemical mechanisms responsible for flavour and aroma. I would wonder whether the physical state of Co2 forced through a liquid under pressure would create the exact same modifications than that given off from a liquid. I would wonder what effect Co2 has on the presence or non presence of yeast particles in relation to flavour and palette. I would wonder what effect Co2 forced through a liquid, which is giving of a large amount of it’s own C02, has on the flavour compared to one that is not giving of a large amount of it’s own Co2. The effects of Co2 on flavour also change with the temperature of a liquid. Different levels of Co2 applied to a liquid will also have different effects on the flavour. In all I am just wondering and if a drink is put before me I will judge it on it’s merits but I prefer the taste of cask ale, it does taste different and their must be a reason for that.

  22. Very good piece indeed. Much of the problem with some CAMRA members is that beer is not just something they love to drink.
    It’s. their. Hobby.
    Many of them, I have noticed, are also passionate about traditional jazz and steam trains………
    When CAMRA groups visit the brewery where I work I explain that the beer I brew is made from top quality English malt and hops, water and yeast. Only.
    That it is not fined or filtered or pasteurised, and that the only CO2 that it contains is the natural carbonation produced during fermentation.
    I show them the dispense tanks and thereby the fact that the beer is delivered up the the pumps by compressed air pressure. And I say to them that, as it has never been filtered, that the beer continues to ferment in the tanks from which it is being served.
    Yes, yes, they say and nod their heads.
    And then I take them up to the bar and give them a pint, and they taste it. And they pull a little face, and say, “Hmm – it’s not quite as smooth as cask ale, though, is it?”
    It makes me want to hang myself.

  23. I don’t see why the beer Rod mentioned is not real ale, it is served from a container in which the beer is resting on the lees, no gases are added to force the beer out. The final CO2 level is a matter of personal judgment and anyway some surely could be vented off if the brewer chose. Casks were developed to carry beer to pubs but you don’t need to do that for beer served at a brewery or brewpub, which is how brewing started of course. I’ve always understood a secondary fermentation is needed because usually the beer after the primary fermentation when racked hasn’t enough bubble, but again you don’t need to worry about that for beer that hasn’t been racked.

    If real ale as technically defined would not encompass such beer I agree the definition is too narrow (but is that the case?). Also, I am not in agreement that anyone visiting a brewery and tasting the efforts of the brewer’s hard work – any brewery anywhere in the world – should turn a face. I don’t see how interest in good beer is advanced by such actions.


  24. Gary

    “I don’t see why the beer Rod mentioned is not real ale, it is served from a container in which the beer is resting on the lees, no gases are added to force the beer out………. If real ale as technically defined would not encompass such beer I agree the definition is too narrow (but is that the case?).”

    Thankyou for your comments.
    To be fair to the CAMRA people that visit The Old Brewery at Greenwich, where I brew, it is (technically) accepted that my Kellerbier is “real ale”. I say to them, after I’ve explained all about the beer, “This is not a beer that CAMRA should have any problems with, is it?” and they all dutifully say no.
    But that’s what is so depressing – they just can’t make that mental leap. It comes out of what looks like a keg tap, and it’s just a little colder (7 celcius) than cask ale would typically be, and that’s obviously a bit of a problem. After one pint, when they think I’m not looking, they switch to Adnams……………

      1. Sorry – I don’t think you’ve read what I wrote very carefully.
        CAMRA don’t hate The Old Brewery, and we don’t hate them.
        Many CAMRA members have a blind spot when it comes to beer that doesn’t come out of a handpump is what I’m saying, and I think you would find it very difficult to prove me wrong.
        Please address the point I’m actually making, rather than putting words into my mouth.

        1. You really didn’t read what I said very carefully, did you? (It was 12:30 on a Saturday night after all).
          You are talking about CAMRA, the organisation – for it is they who publish What’s Brewing. I am talking about the attitudes of some individual members of that organisation. Two different things.

        2. CAMRA has been very successful in associating real ale with the handpump. So it’s not surprising that some members use it as a point of reference. However, it’s only relatively recently that this came about and there are a lot of us who remember when the handpump was only one form of dispense for real ale. So drinking out of fonts is not a problem.

          I’m a big fan of your Kellerbier and indeed had a late night Sunday on it only the other week. I was conducting a tasting at the Old Brewery and none of the party questioned the lack of handpump. What did make them “suspicious” of it was how cold it was. It was simply too cold for some. But hey, as you say, it is a lager

          1. Thanks for those kind words regarding the Kellerbier. Ordinarily, the Kellerbier is served at 7 Celcius, which I don’t think is excessively cold for a lager. However, with serving temperature, we’re getting into “how rare do you like your steak?” country – it’s a complete matter of personal taste, and there’s no pleasing everyone, unfortunately. Most cask beer drinkers prefer their pint a fair bit warmer than (most) other drinkers.
            My personal feeling is that it’s better to serve it a bit on the cold side because beer will always warm up in the glass, whereas beer that’s too warm won’t cool down.

    1. ” To be fair to the CAMRA people that visit The Old Brewery at Greenwich, where I brew, it is (technically) accepted that my Kellerbier is “real ale”. ”

      Except that it’s a lager, of course…….

  25. This thing about oxygen being required for conditioning… As far as my understanding goes, oxygen is beneficial in the early start of yeast growth, but fermentation is an anaerobic process, otherwise the yeasties wouldn’t be making our beloved alcohol, and burping out CO2. Once that process is under way, exposing the beer to air (oxygen anyway) will make it oxidise (stale). Ok if you turn it around relatively fast, or the yeast is still active in the cask, leaving a protective blanket of CO2 on top, but how can adding air be called conditioning?

    Coming from where I come from, the strong focus on cask is a bit of a novelty limited to a neighbouring island (although my experience of cask-conditioned ale has been mixed, to say the least), so I’m more concerned about the taste and general drinking experience .

  26. Having been on a recent crawl through West Yorkshire (the most recent of many over the last 20+ years) I can testify that cask breathers would certainly improve the quality of cask ales. Fully one in five of the over 100 halves or pints I sampled in almost as many pubs was not in good form. The really bad ones were returned, the mediocre ones were drunk but not ever ordered again by anyone in our group.

    Almost every brewer and landlord we talked to agreed that cask breathers would help keep the beers be more consistent and flavorful over the life of the cask.

    And true, some bartenders and landlords don’t care. I have returned truly bad pints with no argument, only to see that same beer cheerfully pulled and sold to the next customer.

  27. As someone who lives and has been beer educated in Lagerland, I find all this argument a bit amusing. But then, the only cask ale I’ve ever had was rubbish.

    PS: Lager, or should I say “proper lager”, when well tapped is not fizzy, even when using top pressure.

  28. On a linguistic note: one of the commenters above used the term “me old China plate” to address Martyn and this completely flummoxed me. I did some quick online checks, but nothing came up. I have a decent knowledge of English regional or informal expressions but never came across this one. Last night, I was checking on the origin of the term “on my tod”, which I knew means on my own, and it was indicated to be Cockney rhyming slang (Todd Sloane). Included in the notes was aglossary of such terms, one of which was ” China plate”, meaning “mate”. Mystery solved. There were numerous terms in this glossary which indicated rhyming slang origin for many expressions used daily in informal speech in England, e.g. half-inch to steal (from pinch), which I heard the other night in a Who song called Did You Steal My Money. Well now I have to get down the apples for my morning coffee!


  29. Great article Martyn! Some of the (vastly entertaining!) comments reveal possibly rather too much about those making them than is wise.
    Anyway, to get to the point (puts down glass of Brewdog 5AM Saint)…I have always referred to it as draught beer because that’s what it is. The words ‘real ale’ have always made me wince. The fact that some large brewers, notably Guinness, chose to display their ignorance and label keg beers as ‘draught’ is their problem! However, CAMDB doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

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