I have been advised not to broach this subject. The general feeling from within the industry is that it is too much of a controversial point to risk the wrath of CAMRA. To even mention the words in my blog will raise suspicions that I might be up to some sort of skulduggery in my cellar. I've always thought that risk can bring a bit of excitement to life, so hang it, I'm going to talk about cask breathers.
Before I go any further I need to point out that I do not use cask breathers and I am very unlikely to ever do so. The reason is simple; I believe I am an honest man. If CAMRA ask me if I use such things I would have to answer honestly. If any member of my branch wanted to see in my cellar I would be only too happy to show them. If CAMRA finds out that a pub is using cask breathers then the pub is not considered for inclusion in the Good Beer Guide. So while my pub is in the Good Beer Guide and CAMRA has it's rules I wish to be true to their policy.
I think I know enough about beer and brewing to be able to analyse this ruling. CAMRA's repulsion to cask breathers, in my view, is not an overall help to the pub and beer industry. It is an issue that I see as being akin to extreme fundamentalist in in nature. After all, the only real argument against cask breathers is that it is the thin end of the wedge. I would like to find a way to compromise.
What I cannot and do not accept is the argument that CO2 at atmospheric pressure will somehow damage the beer. If the beer is already conditioned then the CO2 is simply stopping the air getting to the beer, that air contains oxygen and bacteria which damage beer. CO2 is not going to be detrimental to the beer as it won't get into it. Beer gives up CO2 to atmospheric pressure, so the only thing that will happen to beer in casks with cask breathers is it will loose condition, slowly, until an equilibrium is found.
There has been much discussion in the wine industry surrounding the use of screwtops. Although still controversial the wise people would argue that the only thing the stopper can do to damage wine is let in air. Screw tops are safer, cork is much more likely to be faulty and so the result is oxidized wine. I see the argument over air verses CO2 as the same thing. Air damages beer, CO2 does not. CO2, might make it more gassy, but that is it. Oxygen is bad for beer, CO2 is good for beer.
It is interesting that one of the key definitions of cask beer is that it is conditioned in the cask. I wonder how many ale drinkers know that many breweries don't actually cask condition. Many breweries, indeed some surprising ones, actually use conditioning tanks. These tanks are slightly pressurised with artificial CO2. The beer is racked into the casks when nearly bright and with a reasonable level of condition making it virtually ready to serve. It is not uncommon for beer to be in the conditioning tanks one day and being served on a bar somewhere the next. The beer is not in the casks long enough for conditioning to occur. Why are conditioning tanks with added CO2 OK but casks that have the same are not?
I know of pubs that cannot sell 72 pints of real ale in 3 days. I know some pubs that would like to put more beers on at a time, mine for one. Yes I know pins might be part of the answer, but in my experience pubs that order pins from breweries are not considered worth the effort for the brewery. Most of the time there is incentive for ordering more volume, not less. Many breweries do not offer pins as an option.
It's all very well CAMRA advising pubs that they should reduce the number of beers on sale if quality cannot be maintained. I agree that this is very good advice. I also know from my time running this pub that customers like a choice. Indeed, customer choice is one of CAMRA's mantras.
I currently have 4 fizzy taps in use, three cask beers and a real cider on handpull. I have ten handpulls in total which all get pressed into action on occasion. Normally 3-5 is the number we run to maintain quality. Even then my own brewed beer outsells anything else on the bar and it is the beer from other breweries that suffers.
Even if cask breathers were acceptable I would probably not use them on Hardknott beers as they sell fast enough. The dark beer that is currently on my bar is a keg product because I know I would not sell a cask product fast enough at this time of year. Why can I not put a cask product on, with a cask breather and make sure I declare it on the pump clip? Why do I have to resort to keg for a style of beer I would much prefer to source from a local microbrewery?
Right, now I will await your comments with anticipation.