Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

If you think the major problem facing the Campaign for Real Ale today is whether or not to embrace “craft keg”, or how to prevent more pub closures, then like the campaign itself you’re failing to acknowledge the elephant not just dominating the room but loudly trumpeting in your ear – the latest trumpeting being the news that Cloudwater, the highly regarded Manchester brewer barely two years old, is to give up making cask beer. That elephant is the one marked in big letters down both flanks “poor beer quality”, and despite Camra being founded 46 years ago to fight that exact battle, and – originally – that battle alone, it’s still a war far, far from won.

Cloudwater: no more cask

When Cloudwater started in 2015, the plurality of its output was in cask – 45 per cent, against 25 per cent in keg and the rest in bottle. Last year that was down to 23 per cent in cask, and the rest split almost evenly between bottle and keg. Now, with a new canning line starting up, co-founder Paul Jones says cask production is being halted, and the expected output for 2017 will be 60 per cent keg, 40 per cent bottle and can – with the aim to more than double annual turnover from £1.15million to £2.7 million and 13,000hl/8,000 barrels. Paul lists several reasons for dropping cask: the price the market will accept, which is less than the price it will accept for keg beer, despite all the expense of racking, handling and collection casks on insufficient margin; the fact that, tbh, Cloudwater finds the beers it can sell in keg and bottle more exciting than those it can sell in cask; and finally, and most pertinently to this debate, “another often encountered set of issues”, the quality problem. In his end-of-year blog round-up, Paul complained that slightly hazy casks of keg were being “flatly refused” without being tasted, while casks tasting of diacetyl, either through brewing faults or because they were being served too young, are “all too often good to go”.

Cask beer, Paul said, “should take pride of place in every bar and pub”, but it “requires not just the same skill and discipline as keg beer to brew but also requires excellent stewardship to be pulled in to a glass in a way that best represents the establishment, the brewer and the rich and varied heritage of cask beer in the UK.” He doesn’t say so directly, but the implication is clear: Cloudwater doesn’t believe that the “excellent stewardship” is there at the point of sale in enough bars to present any cask beer it produces in the way that would give the best possible result for the customer.

It is not alone. I interviewed a number of leading names in the UK brewing world on the subject of beer quality recently, and they all agreed there is still a huge, huge problem. Rob Lovatt, head brewer and production director at Thornbridge in Derbyshire, another of the half dozen or so most admired new breweries in the UK, said: “Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK, I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint. Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised, and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers.” Alastair Hook, founder of Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, London, the most successful new brewery start-up in the past 45 years, and now owned by the Japanese brewer Asahi, has consistently refused to involve Meantime in the “cask ale” segment, believing that whatever bonuses cask-conditioned ale might bring in terms of flavour, the downsides of lack of stability and openness to infection inevitable with cask beer mean the customer is much better off with the consistency provided by “craft keg”.

However, he said, and this is a vital point regularly ignored, “all of the afflictions that cask ale suffers from apply to brewery-conditioned beers, and this is where there is a major threat to all beer regardless of type. Poor line cleaning, interchanging beers, many of which are infected because of poor practice at the brewery, warm storage, warm chain distribution, antiquated dispense systems that cannot be cleaned, all paint a worrying picture. The first wave of craft breweries in the US fell foul of quality issues in the 1990s. Hundreds didn’t make the next decade. If brewers in the UK are complacent, the same will happen here. Meantime invests hundreds of thousands of pounds annually to counter this threat. The threat is real – and as we say in industry, you are only as good as your last beer.”

Meanwhile Camra’s “revitalisation” project (which everybody knows is solely about deciding whether the campaign is going to recognise keg craft or not, despite all the frankly tedious baggage attached about support for cider, pub closures and so on) trundles slowly forward, with any vote on whatever final proposals come out now postponed to 2018. Only the deeply cynical would suggest the delay is in the hope that a few thousand more Camra dinosaurs might have died by then, increasing the chances of getting radical proposals through. Though since Camra membership is heavily skewed towards the grey-haired end of society, between the announcement of the revitalisation project consultations in the spring of last year and the final document in the spring of next year, assuming that Camra contains at least twice as many over-60s as UK society in general (a reasonable assumption, I suggest, given that apparently 70 per cent of respondents to the most recent part of the revitalisation consultation were over 50) then given the average mortality rate for the over-60s in Britain, the grim reaper will have called time on almost 8,000 Camra members in those two years.

A former Camra branch chairman

I’m not totally convinced Camra can be saved in the long term, given the online comments I read from craft beer drinkers who clearly see Camra members as dull, boring, elderly people drinking dull, boring, elderly beer. The problems with recruiting young activists to the campaign have been apparent for years – and the  really dreadful statistic from the revitalisation project consultation is that under 3 per cent of responders were under 30. I’m in the “dull, boring and elderly” cohort myself, but I love, eg, Cloudwater DIPA as much as I love Fuller’s Chiswick. However, I fear anyone turning up to a Camra branch meeting is more likely to meet someone like Tim Spitzer, former chair of West Norfolk Camra branch, than someone like me. I am sure Mr Spitzer has done an enormous amount of good work for the cause of real ale in the Norfolk region and, having been a Camra branch chairman myself, I know what hard work the job is. But his rant in the latest edition of Norfolk Nips, the local Camra magazine, is certain to guarantee that anyone under 40 who reads it will decide instantly that the campaign holds no welcome for them.

As I read Mr Spitzer’s attack on “craft beer” – “it’s not cask-conditioned real ale and never will be and Camra should have nothing to do with it” – I thought: “You really don’t get it, do you, granddad?” (rather ironic, of course, because I’m 64 and Mr Spitzer may actually be younger than me). Like too many Camra members, he forgets what Camra was actually founded for – to improve beer quality, and nothing else. The concept of “real ale” did not even exist when the original “Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale” began in 1971. “Have we all forgotten the fight against Watney’s Red Barrel and the big national brewers?”, Mr Spitzer cries. Mate, Watney’s Red disappeared 38 years ago. You would have to be 56 today to have (legally) drunk a pint of it in a British pub. Today’s young drinkers haven’t “forgotten” Red Barrel, they never knew it in the first place: it’s totally irrelevant to them, and anyone shouting on about it in the context of modern craft beer is inviting justified ridicule. Mr Spitzer finishes his spittle-flecked attack on the 21st century by proclaiming: “If Camra accepts craft beer then I for one will no longer be a member.” To which the only correct and proper response is: don’t let the door bang your arse on your way out.

57 thoughts on “Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

  1. I don’t really understand what people who say CAMRA should focus on quality mean. I suspect CAMRA members going into a pub and tell the publican he’s doing it all wrong would not help the cause of good beer. And there’s already an industry body devoted to improving the quality of cask beer, which I would have thought is the right way to go about it, but I can’t recall seeing a consumer ever have a good word to say about Cask Marque.

    1. I’ve had plenty of grim cask in Cask Marque pubs. Like a lot of these sorts of things it’s a lowest-common-denominator award to put a badge on something that mainly makes pubco middle-management feel self-satisfied and able to pat themselves on the back.

      Similarly our highest (only) generally recognised level of qualification for someone running a cellar is the ABCQ – which I have done, and it is little more than the basic induction that any new cellar-access staff should have in a bar. It’s a one day “course” to show folk who know nothing about a cellar the ropes and set out some really basic best practice. Multi-choice-exam, and you’re done, have a certificate. (Yet I do know pubs who could do with even this basic level of training, sadly… and it’s amazing what brewers will tell new publicans about the “ease” of beer management sometimes… to grease the wheels of a sale.)

      The UK needs someone be it CAMRA, SIBA, BFBi, BBPA, or to step up to the plate. The problem is that all these industry bodies are, IMO, corporately compromised. (Seemingly more interested in the interests of large companies than anything else.) Whilst many of us have probably seen the “profit through quality” stuff waved about by them – it’s too pubco targeted to work well for the free trade where a more hands-on approach is needed. And CAMRA, as suggested by Ed above, just doesn’t seem to be the right organisation for the job – it doesn’t even have technical expertise beyond the scope of beer festivals. It’s a consumer organisation – not a pubs & breweries support organisation. I suppose see that it could help back *something* for the sake of promoting “real ale” through quality, and thus helping cement the future of their beloved cask ale. But it does not seem to fit within the remit of CAMRA itself.

      Maybe “craft beer” (small brewers) need to fund themselves a newer body more like the American Brewers Association… something that does for a quality-led sector of UK microbrewing what folk seem to believe SIBA should be doing for them but isn’t. (Amongst brewers I know both strong proponents of and strong objectors to SIBA – some of them are the same person.)

      This body would help spread/demystify quality at the brewery end. Because many brewers really need to up their game.
      And also promote quality at the bar/pub end – perhaps with a Certified Cicerone style qualification at one end, and maybe a real

      There’s one industry body I didn’t mention in my list above… maybe the IBD and their “Beer Academy” are the base upon which this could be built?

      As a final note – and it is covered in the Alistair Hook quote in the post – these issues are not all about cask ale. “The threat is real – and as we say in industry, you are only as good as your last beer.” Cask suffers the worst… but keg dispense needs love and care too. Heineken spend big on quality at dispense… to the point they even use a beer line that’s not trivial to buy for small guys (I’m working on buying it by the pallet from Ireland). With the spread of unfiltered keg beers is coming a whole host of quality issues for “craft beer” be it in cask or keg. It is definitely time for the UK to have its own version of Certified Cicerone… but in the meantime the best thing I have seen for beer quality in the UK to date is BrewDog putting its own staff through the US Certified Cicerone (I want to do it myself, given time and funds)… if I opened a bar one of my first recruitment targets would be to poach a member of BrewDog staff as cellar manager. (Yet how many UK bars and pubs even have a cellar manager… it’s a dying job role, left to some minimum wage kid “bang a tap into it”.)

      (I’m not personally a member of any of these organisations. If I had the budget for it I probably would be… I was a CAMRA member once, and a very involved one and have a lot to thank CAMRA for in a practical education in beer & introduction to the industry. I have done the ABCQ which is supported by several of the above. And I’m working through the NCCSIM via the BFBi. I have done a few Beer Academy courses too. I’m considering IBD membership because it at least looks affordable and of some practical value even though I’m not a brewer.)

      1. And also promote quality at the bar/pub end – perhaps with a Certified Cicerone style qualification at one end, and maybe a real … award scheme for pub dispense quality. (But the real award should be great beer & thus return custom…? As “profit through quality” preaches, quality is in the best interests of the bar/pub.)

        (Too much back and forth editing, apologies for structural errors.)

      2. One more note regards the Heineken installs. Whilst of a better grade than standard they’re still not fit for purpose for a “craft beer bar” and I spend a bunch of time trying to correct for this & support around it. They work fine for fixed products of about 2.2 vol CO2 – anything else and you’ll probably have a nightmare and excessive waste. You mostly cannot simply turn your Fosters line into a “craft beer tap”.

        But worse still is when some little brewery tries to tie in a venue, or grease the sales wheels, with a “free” install. Lowest of the low is generally the result. Hot kegs, unreliable kit, crap materials, bodge jobs. We can work with an Heineken install – but a cobbled together budget fobtastic mess I simply cannot support.

    2. ‘CAMRA members going into a pub and tell the publican he’s doing it all wrong’ I have been told by beer writers older than me that this is what happened a lot in the early days and that it went down like a cup of butyric-tinged best bitter.

    3. The problem with beer “quality” is that it is ultimately subjective. A slightly tired pint of Tribute is still a more enjoyable and palatable drink than a perfectly conditioned pint of Bombardier.

      How can you promote something that is subjective without simply imposing your own personal views of what is “high quality”? You can’t. All you can promote is for pubs to offer sufficient choice that people are able to find a drink to their own taste.

      1. The beer faults that, for example, Alastair Hook and Rob Lovatt are referring to are infections, such as those caused by acetobactors, lactobacillus and pediococcus, and other things such as diactyl and actetaldehyde. These are definitely not subjective, nor is oxidation.
        Hook and Lovatt are not talking about matters of personal preference, but rather of chemical infections and other chemical reactions.
        If you want to drink infected beer, that’s up to you, but you’re in a small minority.
        The elephant here is the failure of many pubs to pull some beer through all their taps and pumps first thing to get rid of the “night watchman” beer that has spent, sometimes up to 18 hours, in the line. This affects keg and cask alike.

        1. How many pints do you come across with genuine infection that any beer drinker would immediately gag at? 1 in 1000? Not really an issue then, is it.

          On the other hand, if you’re only talking about relative minor imperfections, like a bit of a buttery or green apple profile, then I hate to break it to you, but those things ARE subjective, otherwise no-one would ever drink Pilsner Urquell.

          You can classify them as faults all you like, but if the punters actively like the taste, then who are you to judge?

          1. With regard to infected beer, I was actually just clarifying what Hook and Lovatt were talking about and stressing that they are chemical facts, not subjective.
            As I said, if you’re OK with infected beer, that’s fine by me.

            In London, I get an undrinkable “night watchman” pint far more often than I consider acceptable. On Wednesday evening, around 7:30, I had a pint of Harvey’s in the King’s Arms, Borough High St, that was undrinkable due to acetic infection. (The staff were, of course, happy to exchange it)
            It’s certainly not 1 in a 1000.

            A pint of Pilsner Urquell or Fullers with a little bit of butterscotch is one thing, but the overnighter that smells and tastes of vinegar is another thing all together – my stupid fault for living in London, doubtless.

          2. Its something you get in pubs that only half-heartedly do cask as a sop to the occasional middle class middle aged drinker who wonders in by mistake.

            If a pub has 3 pumps of cask ale on the bar or less – stick with keg.

          3. Why say this? “If a pub has 3 pumps of cask ale on the bar or less – stick with keg” Surely if three lines is a judgement by the publican on what they can sell and as such they serve the right quantity of beer to keep them all in the best condition and quality that is something that should be applauded?

          4. “Its something you get in pubs that only half-heartedly do cask as a sop to the occasional middle class middle aged drinker who wonders in by mistake.”

            No it’s not – the “night watchman” problem is just as likely to affect keg beers.

          5. If a pub doesn’t attract enough cask ale drinkers to be able to maintain more than 3 lines, then that should tell you something about their reputation for high quality ale, no?

            Use a little bit of common sense. If no-one else is drinking the cask ale (which is what a desultory number of pumps tells you), then I wouldn’t recommend you try it either, unless you’re a fan of malt vinegar.

          6. Small round spherical objects. What it says is that the publican knows how much cask beer they can sell while maintaining optimum quality. The number of cask lines should be set at a level that ensures the volume sold is sufficient to offer good quality at all times. Do you want 6 sticks where it is all vinegar or 3 sticks where it is all good quality? I know what I would go for. Many country pubs, for instance, can’t maintain 6 lines and keep the quality as it should be.

          7. “Do you want 6 sticks where it is all vinegar or 3 sticks where it is all good quality?”

            What a silly false dichotomy, because of course, the exact opposite is likely to occur. The more beers- the more beer enthusiasts – the quicker the beer goes.

            Tell me: where are you more likely to get a bad pint:

            1) in an award winning beer emporium famed for its wide-ranging selection of ales, that attracts beer enthusiasts from miles around, and where no beer lasts on the bar longer than 48 hours.

            2) a run-down estate pub with 2 desultory ales on the bar, although the only other clientele appear to be drinking Fosters. One is a Christmas ale. Its currently February.

            If you say 1), then I’m right and you’re wrong. If you say 2), then good luck to you.

          8. Or 3) a well run pub that offers 3 cask beers in excellent condition because it knows how much it can sell to get the balance right between variety and quality?

          9. “Or 3) a well run pub that offers 3 cask beers in excellent condition because it knows how much it can sell to get the balance right between variety and quality?”
            Well said. Pretty obvious really, isn’t it?

  2. CAMRA became successful by having a simple definition of what it stood for. Sadly there is no such definition of ‘Craft Keg’. Many bloggers have tried, and failed, to define what Craft Keg is. When I’ve asked the most common answer is ‘I know when a keg is craft’. Fine for a person but not for an organisation. At the moment Craft Keg is the latest thing, but only in a small number of city areas.

    1. “CAMRA became successful by having a simple definition”

      Unfortunately, that “simple” definition is unworkable nonsense and has done more harm than good. It’s idiotic dogma and completely unfit for purpose.

      “At the moment Craft Keg is the latest thing, but only in a small number of city areas.”

      Complete drivel. A significant proportion of pubs in the UK now offer some form of craft keg.

  3. “In his end-of-year blog round-up, Paul [Jones of Cloudwater] complained that slightly hazy casks of keg were being ‘flatly refused’ without being tasted, while casks tasting of diacetyl, either through brewing faults or because they were being served too young, are ‘all too often good to go’ ”.

    In the U.S., it is often the case that a cask will be rejected as inauthentic if it is NOT cloudy, murky, or chunky. Likewise, a ‘craft’ beer will often be rejected as “simple,” if it is NOT rife with diacetyl and other brewing faults. Innovation trumps (only a few more weeks to use THAT word) quality because the latter is “dull, boring and elderly” while the former is creative and ‘craft.’

  4. A really interesting, well reasoned piece Martyn.

    I work at a successful, established brewery in the south which produces only cask beer. Landlords are applying the thumbscrews over pricing and we, like many other, are seriously considering a small foray into keg.

    That said, while I absolutely agree with much of what you say re CAMRA, I’d add that there are millions of people in this country who can’t bear ‘craft’ beer. Loathe it. They tell us and anyone who will listen that these beers are over-hopped, over priced and as subtle as a sledgehammer to the nuts. Many of these are from the older generation, but many are in their 20s and 30s.

    I love craft beer. But there is, and will be, a huge market for those who don’t like it.

  5. For precisely the reasons you outline, cask ale is not great for mass-production. If a brewery doesn’t own its own pubs, this poses serious risks for the cask ale brand. If CAMRA wants to survive, it needs to abandon the fundamentalism, which was a critical posture to adopt in that Red Barrel era, and figure out how to preserve authentic craft in THIS era. I really hope they figure it out. Cask ale deserves to thrive as a shining standard of the craft of brewing. But fundamentalism isn’t going to save it this time.

  6. A thought provoking post as usual – thanks Zythophile. I guess I must be in the dull, boring, elderly group too, having joined CAMRA in the 70s and well remembering Red Barrel.

    I started home brewing in the hope that I could improve on the quality generally available, and after years of practice, I’m pleased to say I can. And latterly I’m encouraged that the plethora of microbreweries can brew beer as good as my own, and often better – and with greater variety.

    The problem for me is that while I enjoy drinking my own beer at home, I prefer the conviviality of the pub, and this is where the quality issues referred to let the brewers down.

    I realised years ago that the best way to achieve consistency of quality in home brewing was through bottling, and here’s my point. I think that if brewers and pubs moved more towards producing, serving and pouring from bottles the consumer would better understand the premium quality of real, live ale – and be prepared to pay for it.

  7. Not traveling in the UK enough to have had enough examples of cask to be able to decide which were off or not, I can say I had some wonderful cask ales in May when I visited Manchester, Liverpool, and Burton upon Trent. Timothy Taylor, Thorbridge, and Nicholsons (St. Austell) stand out in my memory. But I also had some outstanding keg craft beer at BrewDog.

    After several cask ales, I often pine for the carbonation that a craft keg ale offers (or even a lager, God forbid). Growing up on crappy American lagers, I still developed a liking for the bubble. Same reason I drink sparkling water all the time and get strange stares from my friends here in the US.

    Cask ales are few in the US craft world. Usually a brewery may have one cask ale on long pull, along with their 21 other samples on craft keg. I had a wonderful cask porter at Civil Life Brewing in St. Louis, so they can be found.

    But craft keg isn’t going away. Why can’t we all just get along? 🙂

    Thanks for the article Martyn.

  8. Good article. Just to pick on “to improve beer quality, and nothing else” – wasn’t loss of choice as big a worry as quality? Weren’t the founders sat in a pub in Ireland drinking nothing but Guinness and said something like “if we don’t do something we’ll end up just the same old crap everywhere in the UK”?

  9. This whole thing is pretty mystifying for a lot of Americans as it sounds to us like a big argument over the way of serving a beer. In any case pretty much all the beer I drink is “real ale” since it’s homebrew that’s bottle conditioned which meets every definition of “real ale” that I’ve ever seen but I’m damned if I can see how that makes any difference in flavor.

    Well except for aging beer. If you age it you really want it to be on the yeast in whatever container that’s in.

    1. There is a strong contingent of folk in the UK who conflate “real ale” with “cask ale” – i.e. it’s about dispense method. They would probably prefer it if CAMRA focused only and entirely on cask ale, CAMCA…?

      The core CAMRA definition for “real ale” is really about conditioning with yeast.* Sort of tied to that happening in “the final container” (cask, keg, bottle). The horse has bolted on them on the final container bit though as many cask brewers tank condition now and rack close to bright beer into cask. There’s no great way to test for this… perhaps measure how much trub is in cask… Campaign for Lots of Trub… Campaign for Lower Yields?

      The reality is closer to “unfiltered & unpasteurised beer”… (contains sufficient live yeast cells).

      Anyway – the key problem is that we have very real market differences between dispense/packaging for the same beer. To the tune of over £1 a pint final price difference (and on average possibly closer to £1.50 or even £2.)

      * They also don’t like “extraneous CO2″… so a KeyKeg can be “real ale” but a standard top-pressure keg cannot be. It’s a religion basically.

      1. Very educational reply, thanks!

        Am pretty confused about why the price difference would be there. What accounts for that?

        As for there being sufficient yeast in the container you’re dispensing from that absolutely makes a difference and a pretty massive one IF you’re aging the beer. But if the yeast is on or off yeast for the last few days before it’s drunk I don’t see how that can make much of a difference.

        Now where I’d really like to see more yeast is in wine. Wine is generally in bottles for much much longer before it’s drank than cask beer is in a cask so having some live yeast in wine would probably make a much bigger difference for its flavor.

        Anyway, I’ll just go on drinking my bottle conditioned homebrew. Has all the purported benefits of cask with any of the hassle. When I bottle it in liter bottles it isn’t too annoying to bottle it.

        1. The price difference is permitted by the market because microbreweries doing keg is a very recent thing really and there is less supply of keg beers. Keg and cask are seen as entirely different types of product, even if the initial beer/recipe is the same. I’d predict a a reduction in the average price gap over the coming year or two.

          Yeast: sufficient yeast in solution to have healthily carbonated the beer. I can’t remember the PPM but it isn’t a lot. One of the main points of the definition of “real ale” is that is is conditioned (carbonated) using “secondary fermentation” in the container it is sold in/from. So the cask, bottle, keg, or can has to be filled with beer that either hasn’t quite fermented out, or has been primed with sugar or wort.

          There’s no real reason for this other than the “real ale” religion saying it must be so, along with brewing and dispense supposedly not being allowed to use bottled “extraneous” CO2. But these aren’t laws… nobody can enforce them. And the fact is microbrewery technology has moved on… it’s isn’t as much industrial scale bathtub homebrew any more. Breweries have BBTs and CTs and and fill pre-conditioned beer (sometimes with the aid of “extraneous co2”) into the format of your choice. Reality and the CAMRA-ideal have drifted apart.

        2. Other than prices being linked to what the market will support, the main reason for price differential is pubs using a percentage markup to price beers.
          Buy at £1 a pint and sell at £3.50 gives a markup of 350% or £2.50.
          Buy at £3 a pint and a £2.50 markup gives a price of £5.50, whereas a 350% markup gives a price of £10.50. The publican’s costs (rent rates insurance wages heat light etc) are the same. So the percentage markup model gives an extra profit of £5 for no extra cost or effort.

          I am 66 and drink beers in all dispense formats.

  10. CAMRA was never meant to be, and shouldn’t be, a campaign for All Good Beer. It is a Campaign for Real Ale. The clue is in the name.

    1. As the post says, when it was founded it was called Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, and the term “real ale” didn’t exist until CAMRA invested it some years later. It was founded to campaign for quality and variety, and at the time quality meant good cask ale.

    2. It was originally the campaign for revitalisation of ale (aka beer), and only became the campaign for real ale because, through historical coincidence, real ale and good beer were aligned. That hasn’t been the case for about 20 years now, and this technical distinction is no longer either appropriate nor accurate.

      I’m glad to be able to educate you on the founding ethos of camra, and dearly hope you won’t repeat the same basic error again.

      1. Yup it’s kind of like small breweries tend to make better beer than big breweries because they can’t compete on price since they have much less economies of scale so they have to compete on quality or die.

        But being brewed in a small brewery doesn’t in an of itself make beer taste any better.

        From what I’ve been able to gather (as an American). Cask ale is a lot like that. Back when CAMRA started up the beer that was sold in casks was often better quality since the breweries producing it were often the ones that cared more about tradition and hadn’t let their quality go to shit.

        But unless you’re aging it, I just don’t see how putting beer in cask makes it taste any better. Maybe less carbonation and a higher temperature helps but there’s no reason you can pump less CO2 into a keg and serve it at a higher temperature.

        Also a bit weird to me that people seem to differentiate between cask ale and bottle conditioned ale as bottle conditioned ale is “real” in the same way that cask ale is.

    3. Mudgie, did you actually read the piece, which I rather hoped completely demolished that argument? In truth, the name came first, and then the definition was bolted on afterwards. And if it was never meant to be a campaign for all good beer, why was a lot of time spent in the early years promoting, eg, Czech Budweiser?

      1. Of course I read the piece, and am well aware that the founder members felt something was going wrong with British beer and in effect retrofitted the definition of real ale to their analysis of the problem. But I would contend that the original intention was always to defend a specific British tradition, not to become a worldwide campaign for *all good beer*. Indeed, I’ve written on my blog that many members struggled (and still do) with the idea that there’s loads of good beer in Germany, but virtually none of it qualifies as real ale.

        The support for Budweiser Budvar was mainly a gesture of solidarity in the face of the attack on its trademark by Anheuser-Busch. Similar support wasn’t extended to other well-regarded lager brewers in general.

  11. Thanks for this Martyn. There is a thread on Boak & Bailey on the Cloudwater announcement. I think I said something very similar to this, “Like too many Camra members, he forgets what Camra was actually founded for – to improve beer quality, ” although I did not go so far as to say “and nothing else.” The Cask Report (pages 24-25 of the 2017 Report and indeed previous versions) make the priority of quality and the training that underpins this as paramount. The Report’s Cask Action Plan at No. 1 has “review staff training in all pubs” and at No. 2 “beer quality audit for every pub”. And I do concur with Mr Hook, you can muck up keg in the same way as cask. It is just that mucking up the latter perhaps gets more airtime.

  12. Brilliant work Martyn. Like you I am the grey haired minority who appreciates a good beer regardless of whether there is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas is in it or not. It is sad that not one serious body can step up to the mark and support good beer. I can only see cask beer production moving to large breweries because of the ridiculously low prices demanded by pubs – many of which are willing to buy keg at something much more fair.

      1. The level of carbonation does, but not the source. Keg beer and bright cask beer, if carbonated to the same level and served at the same temperature, are completely indistinguishable.

        Craft keg doesn’t have particularly high levels of carbonation in this country. The main difference is simply that its served a few degrees cooler, and its more likely to be a consistently high quality pint.

        1. Ah, but you forget the unique properties of added flatness and oxidation that the cask format brings to your pint 😉

          But yeah, same liquid bunged into cask, keg, and even bottle will present pretty much indistinguishably if served fresh into a glass.

          But I’ve met folk who will try a non-oxidised pint of cask and think it “green”… and think it wonderful 3 days later.

          (There is such a thing as “green” beer… and there is something to be said for the “venting” process carrying away some flavour compounds – and the process results in better flavour. Cask is unique in that, and excellent for it. Then again modern breweries pretty much sort all this out in the brewery and ensure the beer is packaged with the job done.)

          “Craft keg doesn’t have particularly high levels of carbonation in this country.”

          In my experience this is false.

          A typical UK lager is about 2.2 vol CO2. Presents little difficulty to dispense generally. Some UK brewers do target this lower carbonation to avoid difficulties.

          A more typical US-style target is 2.5-2.6 vol CO2 and my experience is that this is about the median of what I find. This is where your core of pale ales and IPAs are at, but often stouts too – which IMO would benefit from being closer to 2.2.

          Brewers doing hefeweizen, witbier, saison, etc do often target correct carbonation levels for these – around, and over 3 vol CO2. Most UK dispense installations simply cannot handle it… fobbity fob.

        2. Brewers believe that CO2 in the beer formed through fermentation has smaller bubbles and a tighter foam than force carbonated beer (both taste relevant properties).

  13. One of the worst beers I ever had in this country (and in the company of the Treasurer of the American Guild of Beer Writers) was an imported German keg beer. It must have been hanging around for weeks and served through filthy pipes. Completely undrinkable. It took a certain kind of skill to serve beer that unpalatable.

    It’s an obvious point and preaching to the converted on here but it’s the pubs and bars that are serving substandard beer who are letting the whole industry down. Some CAMRA diehards (no pun intended) may go down pedantic blind alleys and obsess more about definitions and process than the finished product but they’re not the ones ruining the reputation of beer and breweries. The fact that thousands of pubs can serve excellent cask conditioned ale shows it can be done economically.

    One issue about the CAMRA dinosaur tendency is that in the 1970s, CAMRA was fighting against the supposed modernisation and industrialisation of beer and many members will have responded to visions of a (mythical?) golden age of local brewers with wooden barrels delivered by dray horses. It’s not surprising that there’s some resistance among these people to the way trendy, innovative craft beers are marketed. Nevertheless, CAMRA has near 185,000 members who have affiliated themselves with the organisation (hopefully out of an interest in beer rather than just the Wetherspoon vouchers). .

    1. “Nevertheless, CAMRA has near 185,000 members who have affiliated themselves with the organisation (hopefully out of an interest in beer rather than just the Wetherspoon vouchers).”

      I know lots of people with an interest in beer, and lots of CAMRA members. The two tend to be mutually exclusive. People sign up for CAMRA because it is the most cost effective way of getting into the beer festival (which are fun, even though most people think that the only decent beer is at the foreign beer stand). Once they understand what CAMRA actually stands for, those that care about beer, leave. Those that don’t care, don’t bother.

      Hence the reason that of the 185k members, less than 1% are willing to actively campaign for the organisation. Its not rocket science.

  14. Generally a decent piece.

    However, it does fall into the “easy stone throwing” of picking out a Tim Spitzer from the countless CAMRA members and activists who do “get it”. Now I haven’t read his piece but from the quotes, it sounds not dis-similar to a piece which was a leader in East Lancs’ Ale Cry last summer which was a humdinger of misunderstanding, misinformation and rigid dogma.

    But while it is easy to put these couple down as representative of CAMRA, is it true? I raised the Revitalisation report with our committee this week to see if anybody had any objections to its content? There was not a jot.
    Our committee ranges from ages 22 to 66 and does include a couple who would never be caught drinking keg but even they had no objection to the recommended changes.

    Is my branch unusual? Well over the holiday, I partook of a schooner of keg Tiny Rebel with the chairman of one of my neighbouring branches who is quite a well known “keg head”. And we shared it in the microbar owned by the treasurer of another neighbouring branch.

    I can even recall one occassion last summer where following a festival meeting or something, we stood around in a local hostelry noting with a smirk that we had five branch chairs all drinking keg when there was no shortage of cask available.

    While generally finding the revitalisaion report relatively safe, I was pleased to see it specifically make reference to the reputational damage that can be caused by a few vocal dinosaurs talking rubbish in the name of CAMRA. It also talked at some length about the importance of educating the membership in the changes to beer in recent years.

    That is certainly one area where CAMRA has got itself in a mess. Even now after all the debate, the national website still includes 20 year old text about keg beer being filtered and pasteurised. Everybody I’ve ever spoken to “at the top” knows this hasn’t been true for years and needs updating. But while it sits there, when it suits his purpose, Tim Spitzer and his like will reference it as gospel, further cementing their own ingrained lack of education and intolerance.

  15. I’m reminded of evening in the excellent Lower Red Lion in St Albans. Camra members had written / graffitied on the label of a Dark Star pale ale pump. It said “Herts Camra members want you to know this is not real ale!”

    Who gives a monkeys!? What are they scared of? If the beer is good why should anyone care if it meets the pure definition of ‘real ale’. As a keen consumer of quality and diverse beers and ales, and with a professional interest in membership bodies, I find Camra members’ position bizarre. They have conserved ale for future generations. But their dedicated conservationism has become entrenched devout conservatism, many with blind reactionary resistance to progress. They should be celebrating craft beer – surely, afterall, it is a by product of the success of their preservation campaign. If they don’t, then surely their job is done and Camra will die rather than seize the opportunity of widening their membership to embrace a new generation of drinkers/connoisseurs who ultimately value the same thing – a quality beer.

  16. “I can even recall one occassion last summer where following a festival meeting or something, we stood around in a local hostelry noting with a smirk that we had five branch chairs all drinking keg when there was no shortage of cask available.”

    Guess I wasn’t there then!

  17. I know I’ve come late to this article but I feel I need to say how good it is in giving me a great deal of food for thought. Some of the comments are also excellent, although a few very much not so. I’ve recently re-joined CAMRA with a view to supporting any dinosaurs I can find within it (I suspect there aren’t many running my local branch). However, your piece has made me look again at what current trends are worth questioning and which do still cause me concern. Maybe high quality keg beers should be supported by CAMRA (of course keg is going to become more commonplace anyway!). The slide back towards keg has always been one of the lesser issues I have with the way the UK beer world is moving, and your article helps me see that for many reasons I need to let it go. Supporting quality has to be the most important thing. Anyway, there are bigger fish to fry, such trying to ensure exotic (massively) hop flavoured beers don’t entirely wipe out ‘traditionally’ balanced beers. Maybe another lost cause, but someone’s got to speak up.

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