Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Is it REAL?

There is a continuing debate surrounding CAMRA and keg beer. Some say that CAMRA should embrace craft keg beer and others say that they most certainly should not. I'm not, in this instance, expressing a view on this debate, or perhaps I am by proxy, but either way it does seem that the vast majority of people calling for CAMRA to embrace craft keg are not members of CAMRA and those who have no truck with such a concept are members.

Whatever, the debate has highlighted an interesting question for me, one that I have oft mulled; do we really think that "real ale" is as definable as we believe?

One of the arguments against "craft keg" is the problem of defining "craft". This is indeed a problem. Mudgie, in the comments on this post, has stated not for the first time that;

" end up with the problem of defining exactly what "craft" beer is. "Real ale" has a clear, black-and-white definition, whereas "craft beer" can mean anything you want it to mean, and can all too easily boil down to "breweries we like".

I can't disagree with that observation with respect to "craft beer" - many of us are happy with our own idea of what is craft, but with a wide variety of different breweries on something of a continuum from very small and artisan to really quite large and everything in-between. Personally I like some very big breweries much more than some small mediocre ones and would assign the term craft accordingly. Exactly the point Mudgie makes.

That is all well and good, but lets turn to "real ale". It is defined by CAMRA thus;

"Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide."1

Now, there is quite a lot of cask beer that is produced that conforms to this, but there is also quite a lot that certainly does not. Much cask beer is in fact conditioned in tanks under extraneous CO2, racked with nearly no yeast in it but with a reasonable amount of carbonation, sealed in the cask, rolled out of the brewery door and delivered to a pub. Within hours this beer can be served without any conditioning and very little settling time.

True cask conditioned beer is racked direct from fermenting vessel into cask and will have a very healthy yeast count. The down side of this is that it will not drop bright so quickly and takes considerably more care from the cellarman. Also, the beer should really be kept at the brewery for a week or so to allow the secondary fermentation to occur. Many breweries much prefer to fill the cask the day before delivery or even on the very same day. Many breweries have neither got the spare casks or space to store them at the correct conditioning temperature.

I would postulate that a large proportion of cask beer really is not "real ale" as defined by CAMRA and I certainly think that the whole issue is far more muddy than some would like to assert.

As for CAMRA and keg I'm not at all sure it makes much difference. Cask beer will be around for some time as will CAMRA. "Craft keg" or whatever you want to call it seems to have a growing acceptance amongst a younger group of beer drinkers. If perhaps the "no" camp, as represented by Pete Alexander's piece in Beer2, is happy to continue to "foster good relations" then why should CAMRA do anything more?

Having said that, I'm also a fan of keg as an option, this does mean I'm sensitive to the inevitable anti-keg factions that really do exist. I'm still considering the very good article in Beer and am likely to have more to say. Whatever side of this particular thought process you might be, it's a grand debate that is unlikely to go away either.


2The picture in this post is stolen from CAMRA's very good Beer magazine. I suspect I'm breaking a copyright law somewhere, sorry guys.


Owen said...

Here in Scotland, where the traditional tall founts are near indistinguishable to the layman from the taps used to dispense keg beer, one of the biggest problems we have with "craft" keg is that often it cannot be distinguished from "real" versions of the same product at point of sale.

The consumer should know what they're getting, and having two different products sold under the same name is misleading.

Obviously this doesn't apply to many "craft" brewers who only produce keg.

StringersBeer said...

I'm sure you're right Dave. Much of what some people are happy to call "Real Ale" or "Cask Conditioned" just plain isn't. It's near bright beer, carbonated in tank and pumped into cask via counter-pressure filler. (Why else would they need such things?).

In the cellar, the reliable, invariable carbonation and tightly controlled (low) yeast counts make it a cinch to handle, but mean that the life of the beer is rather short.

Look out for producers using terms like "Cask Ale" rather than "Real Ale" or even "Cask Conditioned". I suspect that's the sign of someone dodging a trading standards issue.

Ed said...

We have conditioning tanks, which I'm sure means we have a much lower yeast count than those that rack straight from the fermenter, but there's definitely still a meaningful amount of fermentation that takes place in the cask.

HardKnott Dave said...

Stringers, I note that you don't use conditioning tanks for your cask beer and the nice little label on your casks informs people that it IS Real Ale. There are not that many brewers who don't use tanks.

However, there is an argument for saying that just because conditioning tanks are involved does not mean that there is no conditioning occurring in cask. Ed also makes this point. But, I still maintain that knowing the behaviour of breweries and cellarmen, much cask beer never gets enough time in cask.

Ed, I also use conditioning tanks and I worry that the yeast count is sometimes too low. I really need to get my 'scope out more often.

As Stringers says, low yeast count can also reduce the life of the beer, although my liberal use of hops seems to counter this.

Curmudgeon said...

At the risk of appearing pedantic, your little diagram is wrong as it shows the "real ale" and "keg" segments overlapping. It would be better showing two separate circles, with a third circle for "craft" overlapping a small part (maybe 10%) of "real ale" and a tiny part (maybe 0.1%) of "keg".

HardKnott Dave said...

Mudgie, I spotted that too. It's not my diagram but that of the Beer graphic designers.

I like the fact that the diagram is technically wrong; it highlights what I am saying.

HardKnott Dave said...

Stringers have posted a nice little technical explanation that I think nicely backs up the point I'm making.

Gas and Hot Air

Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...

I disagree that the diagram is wrong, it's showing exactly what you just described Mudgie?

In a pub beer has got to be served in two ways: cask or keg (not including gravity kegs/casks)

Some keg beer is 'craft beer' and some real ale is 'craft beer' so having two circles overlapping is the perfect way to show it.

If you had three circles as you suggest, one keg, one cask and one 'craft', with the centre 'craft' circle overlapping a bit of the other two it would imply that 80% of 'craft' is neither keg nor cask. So what is it?

StringersBeer said...


Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...

Stringers, I really, really enjoyed your post on how real real ale really is. But now you are just being pedantic!

You know full well we are talking about beer in pubs, i.e. from the taps, and not the bottled beer market. This is bloody CAMRA after all!

StringersBeer said...

Neil, Dave needs to do another post on bottled beer. :-)

I think what CAMRA's gifted design team needed was something like this

Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...

That's exactly the same as what they drew! But instead of allowing the two circles to overlap and create the 'craft' area, youve simply added the craft area as it's own circle. It's effectivwely achieving the same thing, but much less simply.

I by no means agree with CAMRA's policies on craft beer(I don't!), I'm simply pointing out that their diagram was correct, not incorrect as outlined above!

Curmudgeon said...

Stringers has the diagram right - by definition, cask and keg cannot overlap, although craft to some extent overlaps both.

Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...

Mudgie, I see what you guys meant now!

That wasn't how i interpreted the diagram... but now you put it that way I can see how a diagram with a third circle is in fact clearer.

HardKnott Dave said...

Stringers, I think you need to redo your venn diagram to show bottle and KeyKeg as well. I know you might have to ask the professor for help.

Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...

Plus interlinking circles for bottle conditioned beer and craft bottled beer!

Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...

what about this?

Craft is a grey area...

HardKnott Dave said...


Close I would say.

I believe it is possible to produce and serve KeyKeg in such a way as to render it Real Ale. Which is why I think the original diagram, whilst not completely correct , is closer to the truth than some might like to think.

However, does it really matter? It's beer.

StringersBeer said...

Does it matter? Dave! Shouldn't we be "reject[ing] mainstream", "stand[ing] up for something better" and "spark[ing] a revolution"? Or something?

HardKnott Dave said...

Oh, sorry Stringers, I forgot.....

RedNev said...

How many beer drinkers can dance on the point of a needle?

Deathway said...


Is it awful of me to say I don't really mind what a beer is called as long as it tastes good?

Now where can I buy a Hardknott Brewery tshirt? :D

HardKnott Dave said...

Nev, good point, well made.

Deathway, we really need to get some made.

Stuart Moss said...

Real Ale is Live Beer, ie there's yeast still in it which is still fermenting the beer but more importantly still prdoucing corbondioxide carbonating it naturally or really if you like.
Where as..
Keg has no yeast it, therefore it need to be force carbonated by a Co2 bottle.

Stuart Moss said...

at my work we produce our keg beer the same way as we do our real ale just the last process decides if it goes to cask or to keg.