Saturday 6 December 2008

Quality beer?

A CAMRA official, a beer writer and myself were assembled savouring some nice beer. A question arose that is being increasingly asked by many; Does quality beer have to be cask conditioned as specified by CAMRA?

I am going to say outright that I think the answer is no. My beer writing colleague also agreed. The Belgians for instance get along very well having no cask conditioned ales whatsoever. They have bottle conditioned and it's highly likely that some of their draft beers are still live. None of their beer, to my knowledge, would pass the definition of real ale - it is still quality beer and there are even CAMRA books on the subject of Belgian beer.

The west coast of the USA has a large number of craft brewers. The Czech republic is regarded as a quality beer producing nation and Germany can also kick out some interesting stuff. Even in Australia there is a growing interest in craft ale.

Nowhere else in the beer producing world am I aware of such a thing as cask ale - it's unique to the UK beer world.

Ah, but that's the point. Cask conditioned ale is special and should be preserved as a style of beer production, the CAMRA guy proclaims. I can't disagree with that either. But is that a reason to determine keg beers, or filtered bottled beers unworthy of consideration? If a pub does not have the throughput to be able to sell cask conditioned beer then why not recognise that compromise will permit a better range of beers to be available?

But that's the thin end of a very big wedge. I don't agree. Cask ale is cask ale and that is an end to it. If artificial gas is introduced then it ceases to be cask ale. But that does not mean it is not quality beer.

Furthermore, handpulls put some people off drinking the stuff. They don't trust it and will plump for the Guinness or Carling instead. The ability to promote microbrewed ales via more reliable dispense systems might just also be the wedge that gets people to be more adventurous with their beer drinking. Jeff Bells blog sneers at the idea a little when Adnams tried to release such a beer.

The beer drinking market seems clearly split into two. Those that will drink cask ale and those that will not. The not camp are generally filled with lager drinkers. It is possible to get lager drinkers to try real ale and I have been successful. The jump though is far too much for most. A "crossover" light coloured fizzy beer might just bridge the void.

A final point on our British attitude to quality beer is price. In reality most cask ales in this country are actually cheaper in the pubs than keg lagers. In Belgium the quality beers are much more expensive than the mass produced stuff. 330ml is typically €4.00. With the exchange rate being nearly on equality to the pound this is somewhere around £6 a pint.

I would say, that despite everything that has been done since CAMRA started, we are very much behind the Belgians in my view. The main reasons for this is that we are too hung up on price, full pints and cask conditioning.

The beer bottle pictured above is a Belgian lambic beer. Hurrah, I've finally found a non-fruit beer that Ann will drink. I can not get her to drink cask beers. She's tried but the best I can get is "that's OK" as opposed to the normal face of a bulldog licking wee wee off a thistle. This time I lost my glass and had to find a new beer to drink.


Alistair Reece said...

Well written piece Dave. Cask ale is not the be all and end all of good beer, and for all their sterling work in reviving real ale in the UK, CAMRA should broaden its vision to campaign for quality beers in general, and not just ales. Lager can be a wonderful beer when made properly - yes I am spoilt for choice in the Czech Republic, and hence will only drink muck like Staropramen if I have absolutely no choice (even then I look at the wine list first!).

Sat In A Pub said...

Interesting. First I’d say that some of the Belgium beers would be accepted as real by (most) of the Camra types. If it’s live, but filtered, then in my book, that’s good enough. It’s only pasteurisation that really poses a problem. Secondly, I don’t think anyone can criticise Camra for not embracing foreign beer. They do guides on it and all their festivals promote it-it’s just obviously never going to be their main priority. Likewise most Camra members enjoy foreign beer of all hues and I’ve enjoyed many a continental jaunt with them.

Personally I think a good cask is hard to beat. Secondary fermentation is a joy to behold. Note the use of good, though. There are a lot of average cask beers about. But then there a lot of average Czech beers. And Belgium, for all of its riches, also has its share of fillers. And don’t get Tandleman started on the state of the German brewing industry! The grass isn’t always greener. I can’t agree with your view that we are far behind Belgium-full pint nonsense aside. In fact on issues such as smoking I think we have the high ground. I also don’t think we are too hung up about cask conditioning-promoting our differences is selling to our strengths in my book. Also on price I can see what you’re driving at, but can’t agree. Like the sparkler () this tends to divide people. I know Jeff P has been on about this for years, but I’m afraid I belong to the camp that doesn’t believe in putting beer in some sort of quality price band. Obviously I appreciate your position as a publican and a brewer.

The issue of handpulls is very interesting to me. I think that ship has sailed. There use to be lots of pubs in the North West that used electric dispense. I thought these were great-easy to use for staff and no problems with short measure. However, they were confusing to some people and, as the push to associate cask with handpumps succeeded, they slowly (mainly), disappeared. The method of dispense shouldn’t matter and there use to be a pub in Ashton that sold cask out of a Fosters spout. Apparently this did increase sales, but I think the lines are too clearly drawn now and anything along those lines will just be a gimmick.

Getting lager drinkers to try the real stuff was the mantra of the 80-90s. There was a belief that, given the chance, we could somehow “convert” them. As an ex lager drinker, I find myself agreeing with the revisionist thinking of the last couple of years. That Holy Grail is a distraction. Traditionally they’ve come on board later in life when they begin to appreciate taste more. To get them to drink real ale earlier is much more complex than offering them some sort of fizzy hybrid. You have to accept you’ll never win over the vast majority of Fosters drinkers and aim your resources at that hard core of drinkers who will see real ale as an interesting alternative. Even if it’s poured without a sparkle

Unknown said...

Thanks Tyson. Good points. I might not fully agree, but I think we understand our individual perspectives.