Sunday 22 February 2009

Toeing the line

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.


Tandleman said...

"If the beer is already conditioned then the CO2 is simply stopping the air getting to the beer".

Just one question before I comment Dave, At what point in your scenario, do you introduce your cask breather?

Unknown said...

An interesting question. Is there a correct answer?

I personally would ensure correct level of condition first. i.e. after venting and being soft pegged for the appropriate time period, but before any dispense occurs.

I'm curious as to the reason for your question.

Curmudgeon said...

This is one of those issues where CAMRA takes a black-and-white view of something that in reality is more shades of grey.

And I know for a fact that some branches have knowingly turned a blind eye to cask breathers and put pubs using them into the Good Beer Guide.

Tim said...

It is a shame that CAMRA thinks this way. It turns things into a game of pub cellermanship vs good beer (or good cask beer as it actually is).
What strikes me as more concerning is that CAMRA are concerned with offering more choice, but atually limit the consumer's choice over this trivial issue. Some ales such as TT Landlord and Old Perculiar improve with a bit of oxidation, but most don't. How much of your business depends on your inclusion in the Good Beer Guide?

Stonch said...

Are you really that bothered about being in the Good Beer Guide?

I don't see why cask breathers are necessary. If a pub can't sell their cask beers quick enough, they should sell fewer of them. If a pub can't serve even a single cask over the course of two or three days, it's probably going to go under anyway...

Unknown said...

We do get a bit of business by being in the Good Beer Guide. Our profit is made from our rooms and some people choose to stay here because we are in the guide. So yes I am bothered about being in the GBG. If we ever don't get in our business will change rapidly.

People who choose GBG entries as their choice also look for a good beer selection, reducing that selection is not an option. Managing that selection is the only option, but it goes wrong sometimes.

I agree, less than 72 pints in three days does represent a potential non-viable property, unless it is only a small part of the business. I very much enjoy good food for instance. Several nice places, food wise, I've been to would be improved by the addition of cask. They could probably do it with the use of cask breathers.

Sat In A Pub said...


Interesting, as usual. Firstly, let me just clarify something for you. The use of a cask breather does NOT bar you from entry to the GBG. It just means that the beer served with it is not mentioned in the guide. So, if you had 3 beers on, one served with a CB, your guide entry would just list two. Not really a problem for those pubs selling a couple of beers and, in you position, I would consider using one.

Cask breathers are not an issue with 99% of CAMRA members and yes, braches have been known to turn a blind eye to them. That of course raises the issue of why CAMRA continues with its offical opposition of them-I doubt you will get a sensible answer on that.

It's a shame to see Jeff spout the usual nonsense about them not being necessary. They can often tip the balance for a pub-even more importnat these days. Sam Smiths are particularly discriminated by this rule, as they only produce one cask beer. To deny them the cask breather is to deny (some of) them cask beer and subsequently entry to the GBG.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

A Dumb Yank here, but you do recall, Dave, my use of the Filt-A-Cask filters from A-Cask while you were here in December. They are essentially a microfilter with a non-return valve that parks in the shive during service that have been shown to extend the life of a cask several days beyond the typical 3 or 4. I've been using them for six months now, and I'm getting 7 to 10 days out of a cask. Most of them, anyway, as you drank up all my Tanninbomb in two days and I didn't have a chance to test it with the old ale.

Alistair Reece said...

There seem to have a swathe of CAMRA themed posts in the blogosphere lately.

I wonder though if the title of the "Good Beer Guide" is in fact contrary to the Trade Descriptions Act (Jeff will pull me to bits on this I am sure).

Let's say there is a pub in the UK which specialises in Czech lagers, for example the Svijany range. Czech lagers are served from the keg, use CO2 and are served nicely chilled, should such a pub be ineligible for inclusion simply because it sells good beer but not in the form which is acceptable to CAMRA?

The title of the book is thus disingenuous if, as I am assuming here, it only includes places that sell cask ale. It should be the Guide to Good Cask Ale - there is more to beer than cask ale people.

Sat In A Pub said...

Velky Al

Without going over the same ground here as elsewhere, theree's a simple answer to that. There's already such a guide (in theory) out there. It's called the Good Pub Guide.

Alistair Reece said...

I still don't like this idea that "good" beer necessitates "cask".

Sat In A Pub said...

Velky Al

Fair point. However, it is CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. And they define that as real ale. It's been that way for nearly 40 years, so it's a well established criteria. And it sells. Why change? There is nothing to prevent someone bringing out a beer guide full of non-real ale pubs. You have to ask yourself why not?

Unknown said...

Dumb Yank, of course I recall. A possible further topic later.

Tyson your comments are very helpful and the sort of compromise I was looking for.

Velky Al, I of course agree that there is good beer that is not cask. Possibly the GBG should have been called the Good Real Ale Guide. I have my reservations about the guide but generally there is a good correlation between good cask beer and everything else in a pub.

Alistair Reece said...

But then isn't it complete hypocrisy for CAMRA to produce a "Good Beer Guide" for the Czech Republic and Germany and other such countries where the beer is not "real ale" and is invariably served from a keg using the dreaded CO2?

Perhaps a broadening of horizons is in order, or would that dilute their brand in the UK?

Tandleman said...

Dave the reason I ask is that you may have detected that I am very interested how beer is served and kept as well as conditioning and dispense methods.

I guess if you use a cask breather, like any other device, you'd be advised to know how to use it to best advantage. As it happens I think your way is right, but does everyone that uses a cask breather do this or know this?

My own view is that where you don't need a breather don't use one, try smaller casks, try a Race type spile of the ilk mentioned by BU180, re-visit your conditioning regime and if that doesn't work for you, then consider using a breather only for your very low turnover beers and only when you have to.

Jeffrey has a point. In fact he is pretty much on the money. His pub opens only 5 days a week, so that must pose some kind of problems to which he doesn't find a breather an answer. And there is the thin end of a wedge argument that condoning cask breathers only encourages their use where they aren't strictly necessary as well as when they could be. It is all too easy to start blurring the lines between dispense methods and for cask ale people, that matters. It is the very method of conditioning and dispense that makes cask beer unique.

Scrupulous cellar practice will also extend the life of a cask too, as will proper conditioning in the first place. If you over vent and under condition your beer, it is doomed anyway.

This is a wide and interesting subject and not one anyone should run away from. But it isn't a simple one.

Oh and to Tim and Velky Al. It is the Good Beer Guide because CAMRA got in there first I'd say. So tough - it will be staying that way I'd imagine.

Unknown said...

Tandleman, thanks for the comments.

"This is a wide and interesting subject and not one anyone should run away from. But it isn't a simple one." spot on there.

As I've promised BUL180, there will be more from me on this.

Jeff Rosenmeier said...


I thought I told you not to talk about this ;-)

Cask breathers are a pretty simple device and there is no wrong way to use them.

They vent, just like a soft spile allowing the beer to come to temperature/CO2 equilibrium and they only replace the beer pulled through with a CO2 - litre of beer out, litre of CO2 in. In otherwords there is not top pressure involved, hence it does not change the condition of the beer.

I like choice and wish I lived in a world where every pub had five handpumps on...this device would help us get there. Oh, but first you would have to remove the beer tie, but that is a whole other blog...

I think using a hepa type filter, like the one mentioned above is a very pragmatic approach. Won't stop the oxidation, but should keep the bugs at bay - which are the biggest reason for rancid pints.

Tandleman is also correct about using sanitary procedures...taps should be cleaned and sanitised (these are two distinct steps) as should any other devices that enter the cask (whatever you are using to vent the cask).

Most cellar air is minging, I say keep it out of my beer at all costs!

Tandleman said...

"Cask breathers are a pretty simple device and there is no wrong way to use them."

Can't agree. For example it is not unknown to introduce the breather at a point where it is felt the beer is not going to sell as quickly as they'd like. In that case air will already be starting the spoiling process. There are other possibilities too.

Unknown said...

"I like choice and wish I lived in a world where every pub had five handpumps on"

Hear, hear!! - There, and a rare use of exclamation marks from me.

Sorry I didn't listen to your advice Jeff. It's a trait I have. I agree with nearly everything you say, but then I agree with nearly everything Tandleman says as well. It puts me in a dilemma really.

Tandleman said...

No need for the dilemma Dave. Just treat each case on its merits.

I wouldn't mind the chance to try Jeff's beer and if I get a chance, I will. Is it all keg?

Jeff Pickthall said...

I'd like to run a double-blind trial - a big group of CAMRA members is presented with a range of beers at random, half of which are cask-breathered and half are non-cask-breathered. The subjects must respond yes or no for every beer.

I suspect the result would be resoundingly statistically significant that they can't tell the difference – and that's what really matters.

(just for fun you could give them a big electric shock every time they made a wrong answer - that'd bloody teach them to STFU about trifling technical issues when there are bigger things to moan about like the tie system)

Anonymous said...

Jeff - tests have been done. I can't remember the details but I recall that for the first day or so there was no consistent preference for cask breather beers or non cask breather beers. After that cask breather beers were preferred as they had gone off so much. The results were ignored as they gave the answer that wasn't wanted. A bit like our government.

Anonymous said...

Well, well well, you learn something everyday. A great discussion about cask breathers. A big thank you to you all.

Personally, I am of the opinion that there would be no significant difference in taste between non-cask breather and cask breather ales, particularly to the vast majority of us who have average tastes senses.

I also wasn't aware about the conditions relating to the use of cask breathers and the Good Beer Guide. I always thought that their use excluded the pub not the beer.

I go to bed a happy and more knowledgeable person.

Benj said...

I think all of Dave's points are valid. I am an overseas CAMRA member, and wish that they would change their position on breathers. As Jeff R. says, there is no wrong way to use a breather, since the way it works is to allow co2 ingress to the cask at atmospheric pressure. Tandleman argues that choosing when to use the breather opens the door to misuse, but that isn't true. If the breather isn't used right away, he says the beer will start to spoil. But "spoil" is exactly what happens with all CAMRA-approved casks! I defy anyone to pick out casks with and without breathers.

Some oxidation can be good for real ale, but a fresh cask with and without a breather will taste identical. On day 3 or 4 there will be a difference, in some cases in favour of the non-breathered cask, and then after that the breather cask will be drinkable whereas the open cask will not.

The use of breathers should be up to the discretion of the publican. To have a policy against them on the basis that we can't trust the publicans to use them when and how appropriate is to discount the entire art of cellarmanship. If a publican can't properly use a breather when it should be used, he is incapable of serving cask ale at all.

Gavin said...

Have you thought about using a Race Cask Ventilator on your dark beer. Camra allow these as they create a blanket of pressure from the Co2 in the beer.

Gavin said...

sorry! correction I meant a blanket of Co2 not a blanket of pressure

Unknown said...

Gavin, yes, I have considered this seriously. It would seem to be the sensible thing to do. I really have got no excuse other than I haven't ordered any, yet.