Sunday 22 March 2009

Real Ale IS important

Do you ever stare information in the face and not get the full picture? I know I often do. But then there is such a terrific amount of information in the world that it is impossible for any one mortal to understand everything. Just to make one's capacity for complete understanding more difficult somebody, sometime ago, invented the Information Superhighway which helps deliver tremendous amounts of knowledge all over the world via the Internet.  Beer information is only a small part, and beer blogging an even smaller part of this virtual world.

Despite the relatively tiny size of the interactive beer information system languishing on the web, I cannot manage to absorb all the fact and opinion. Just to complicate matters, CAMRA have kicked off a forum, which provides further trains of thought to consider. This forum has found critique in some quarters, but personally I think it is a good idea. CAMRA has an image problem, some are unable to accept it has, but it is there. I'm not saying the image problem is fair, and there is indications that it is improving, but it is still there. I believe the forum will show why there is an image problem and the vast majority of members who read the discussions are going to work this out and act.

There are some discussions that clearly show entrenched positions that are as futile as the WWI front line tactics over 90 years ago. However, one of the threads was a very interesting discussion on cask breathers, a subject I also discussed previously. I discovered the CAMRA forums as a result of a link from this thread to my post. That's nice, I put my pennies worth on the forum a couple of times and also noted that there was a motion put forward to challenge the CAMRA view at the AGM. All progress I thought, probably as a result of the discussions causing realisation that the CAMRA position was more than just a little bit silly and entrenched.

A little while later I was reading Tims interesting anti CAMRA views and noted that he claimed the forum to be "full of ignorance and the usual CAMRA brainwashing drivel". Now this puzzled me slightly as I had posted on the forum, although I now realise in fact, not in the particular thread Tim was referring to. I commented to Tim that the forum can't be completely full of drivel because I'd posted there, make your own mind up if that's true. In any case, Tim responded with the facts as he saw them:
"I did notice that the thread regarding cask aspirators started with a whole lot of rubbish, but has resulted in an interesting discussion and put the issue back on the agenda for review at a CAMRA weekend away. A positive outcome which is a direct result of your blog post. You should be proud."
Now I read that just before evening food service "I know all that" I thought, and disappeared into the kitchen to cook some food. But then the significance started to niggle at my brain. Did my post really have that effect? Personally I think a whole lot of other peoples views, including for instance The Beer Nut, has had a dramatic effect on this positive outcome. Indeed, a realisation by the majority that one or two individuals are probably talking out of the top of their head helps. Even if it was my post that caused this result, I can't take all the credit as there were others feeding me relevant technical information.

Still, it's quite a humbling experience to slowly realise that I might have played a part in CAMRA reconsidering their stance on cask breathers. It's one of a number of dogmas that are on my tick list to challenge. A list that is one of the reasons for starting this blog in the first place. I should surely be proud, as Tim suggests, to have had this sort of result. Alas there is something bothering me about the potential for such a major change of CAMRA rulings.

But don't worry, I'm not going back on my original quest to change this view. I really do hope that the view is softened a little. Many people realise there is more to good beer than real ale. It is possible for great beer to come from a keg. I know, I've had some. Rarely do we get good keg beer in this country. What we need right now, in the industry, is some very strong innovation. We need pubs and beer brewers to be ever more innovative and to be able to think outside the box. Most dedicated breweries and pub owners are scared to be progressive because of CAMRA. Abolishing the demonetisation of both cask breathers and keg beer is essential.

But what if the "thin end of the wedge" argument shows some sign of realizing the worst fear? I don't want to be remembered as the man who killed cask ale. In fact I don't want to see Real Ale as a style of beer diminish even slightly. I don't think it will, even if we see a growth of craft keg beer, but I want to make sure.

So, if you are a CAMRA member, just have a think about the full picture. Cask breathers will improve the reliability of quality beer. Making quality beer more available through appropriate use of good technology can help the industry. Help me work towards supporting the cask breather as a solution in the right circumstance and I promise I'll show you that it can build the future of cask beer and the pub industry.

And I'll always fight for Real Ale.


scissorkicks said...

Good post, and completely agree with you.

The CAMRA forum is problematic. The list of subjects the various boards cover is so narrow as to either suffocate good conversation or risk filling each section with off-topic banter.

For example, I popped over there the other day to see if anyone was discussing the approaching member's weekend. They weren't, as none of the boards suggest they are the kind of place were such discussion could take place. They have a forum dedicated to "General discussion about saving pubs" - yet nowhere people can discuss beer or pubs in general. Surely, without these CAMRA is fairly pointless, so don't they warrant boards of their own?

Tandleman said...

I wouldn't want to burst your bubble here Dave, but the motion to discuss the cask breather comes from a CAMRA Region. That means a number of CAMRA Branches that will have discussed it first before deciding it is a good motion to put. I don't think you need to worry about being the "killer of cask ale" You are a by-stander in this or at best shouting from the touchline.

I am not sure about CO2 breathers really. Nitrogen as the gas for the breather has some appeal but I'd need a technical overview first. What I would say is that CAMRA members are far more sensible in the main than they are given credit for. The motion comes from these CAMRA members, but in some ways the breather is old technology. I'd like to see some more modern thinking on this one and a review by CAMRA's Technical Committee with a view to a more considered motion supported by the NE for next year. In other words, remit the motion for the time being.

And you know, staling is much less than some publicans claim. It is loss of condition that ruins the beer first in a lot of cases as the beer gets older.

Unknown said...

To burst a bubble there would have to be one. I am, as I tried to indicate, unsure that it was me that made the difference.

Do they ever involve professionals in the technical committee? Every single professional I have spoken to who has experience of cask breathers swears by them.

The thing that frustrates many in the industry is all that we can do is shout from the touch line.

Tandleman said...

I think that this time they will seek outside expertise if that motion is passed or remitted, but I don't believe it is as simple as that. Experts will not all give you the same answer. Circumstances vary. One size won't fit all. A busy pub with huge cask turnover doesn't need a breather. Period. I for one wouldn't like it to become a lazy default - the thin end of the wedge argument - but there are good arguments for use in the right circumstances. Cask is unique, but eliminating its faults isn't a bad thing. Making it no longer unique is. It's "Pick the bones out of that" I'm afraid. In my view it is unlikely that CAMRA will ever allow breathered cask beer an equal footing with cask conditioned beer in its current definition. Pubs that can say "no breathers here" will always have a cachet providing the quality is right. If this is ever allowed in a limited form, I'll bet the use of breathers will have to be stipulated in GBG descriptions. I wouldn't want a real ale aprtheid either. I'd like to experience breather beer a bit more though and if possible have a tinker with it myself. That is unlikely though mind you.

Unknown said...

Thanks Tandleman, that, I think, was a very balanced view. A good combination of the pro's and con's of the whole issue.

Despite me saying I won't use cask breathers I think I might have to run a test. Having never used them myself I need to know more. I will of course declare that a beer uses them.

Mark Dredge said...

Great post Dave, this whole cask/keg and CAMRA image thing is going to go on for a long time, I think. CAMRA is the major beer organisation and it is country-wide, to break from their essential beliefs about cask and real being good will be tough. CAMRA is dated and uncool and I say this as a young real ale drinker - it just doesn't have a sexy image.

Cask is not necessarily THE answer but it is a part of it. 'Real Ale' is very important - it's a drinking heritage. What could become more important is a 'movement' which supports quality beer and serving beer in its best possible condition, as good pub landlords do. If cask breathers are an answer then that's good, if it's keg then it's keg or maybe it's off stillage?

The beer should be in the best possible condition for that particular beer. If we have ways of helping the beer out then it should be used. But you know what? I think kegged beer is going to get a lot bigger in the next few years with more US beers and US style beers coming into the market (Sierra Nevada, etc, and BrewDog, etc.)

Anonymous said...

A good post with some interesting comment.

Rather than putting the issue to a plain and simple vote and risk having the water muddied by the views of the vocal minority, put it to a taste test over three days. I doubt that the vast majority of people would be able to tell the difference between pints served with or without a protective covering of CO2.

I could be proved wrong and if I am then at least the people vehermently opposed to cask breathers would have a case to argue.

Sat In A Pub said...

Several years ago CAMRA had its AGM in Derby. One of the favourite haunts was a free house in the centre of town. The landlord (a CAMRA member) was frequently complimented on the quality of his beer, including a Mild which had been flying out. It was only on the last day that he revealed that the MIld was being served via cask breather. Cue many red faces...

Curmudgeon said...

I'm no slavish follower of CAMRA's definition of "real ale", but it is perhaps worth setting out the "thin end of the wedge" argument, which is that if cask breathers were officially permitted, they would be taken up by a large number of pubs that didn't really need them, either to mask indifferent cellarmanship or to allow pubs to keep a wider variety of cask beers than they would otherwise be able to.

Personally, if I saw a beer displayed as "kept under cask breather" it might even make me more likely to try it as there would be less chance it had gone off.

John Clarke said...


I suspect that the cask/keg and CAMRA image thing will only have any form of life in the blogosphere. On the ground I think that CAMRA is pretty comfortable with both at the moment. Certainly if you think there is the slightest chance of CAMRA extending its campaigning to keg then that just isn't going to happen. I'm not saying that there aren't many CAMRA people who enjoy "non-real" beers - I certainly do - but that doesn't mean they will come within CAMRA's remit. We campaign for real ale - it's what we do. If you want to campign for keg then you'll have to get someone else to do it.

Will kegged beer get a "lot bigger" in coming years? I'm sure it will get bigger but by how much? Not as mucg as you think, I suspect. Interesting you make reference to the USA - over there more and more of the craft brewers are starting to make cask.


This experiment has already taken place. Several years ago the CAMRA Technical Committee reporte don extensive tests to the AGM. Their conclusion was that it was basically impossible to tell whether or not bere was served using a cask breather. In point of fact, despite the official line, many CAMRA people, are far from zealots on this issue.

Tandleman said...


I know of the previous experiment. I was one of the tasters! I agree with what you say basically.

Tim said...

The blogosphere is a small subset of the real world and if CAMRA or any other body with criticism raised against it choses to keep its head buried in the sand - then so be it.
These opinions and views do exist, both online and on the ground.
I agree with Dave - cask ale is special. But the guidelines surrounding it's dispense are outdated and the prejeduces surrounding cask breathers are pure fiction.

Unknown said...

"I suspect that the cask/keg and CAMRA image thing will only have any form of life in the blogosphere."

I get many CAMRA and non CAMRA members in my pub. I get scoopers, beer nerds and CAMRA activists. I get brewers, beer writers and pub owners. There is even a CAMRA member who also owns a pub chain who occasionally comes to stay. Just occasionally I get a normal person, but once they find there is no smooth flow they leave quickly.

From the above comment it would seem I only get people from the blogoshere in my pub.

"despite the official line, many CAMRA people, are far from zealots on this issue" - that, at least, seems to be true. Furthermore I fully understand that CAMRA is a "broad church" and every CAMRA member, including myself I hope, is entitled to their opinion.

Most important to me is that this issue is not going to go away. Whether the problem be with CAMRA or whether the problem be with the anti-CAMRA people, however small this group of people are, it is good to be able to discuss it openly.

Thank you to everybody who has contributed, I've enjoyed all the comments.

Tandleman said...

"The blogosphere is a small subset of the real world and if CAMRA or any other body with criticism raised against it choses to keep its head buried in the sand"

this would imply there is a vast tide of craft keg about to engulf us all. And CAMRA doesn't live in the real world? Dream on!

And Dave: "Most important to me is that this issue is not going to go away."

What issue is that Dave? If you want to keg or put breathers on your beer, go right ahead. CAMRA can't stop you

I would doubt if John or I would be at all unhappy with quality keg beer competing. Go for it.

Unknown said...

Just as I thought this post had lost it's interest, along comes Tandleman. I'm so pleased, stuck at an unlucky number of comments, phew.

Tandleman, I can't help thinking you misunderstand Tim and I. I'm sure neither of us really mean that a "vast tide of craft keg about to engulf us all" and indeed I would worry if that were that case. I just think more credence should be given to quality keg beer, it's generally all lumped into the same "chemical lager" bracket, incorrectly. Not by you, I hasten to add, but by a large majority.

Is CAMRA living in the real world? I suspect that is a matter of opinion.

As for being able to use cask breathers that is a different issue. If this pub falls out of the GBG there would be a serious risk to it's viability. Putting cask breathers on my beers risks me loosing GBG status. Not having a good enough range of beers also risks that. Having poorly kept beer also will result in the same. I'd like to think you can understand where I'm coming from and what my concerns are.

Tandleman said...

Dave - I believe I do understand your position which I think is genuinely open minded rather than mischievous. Cask beer and GBG status do make a difference to your trade as you say in your last post yet some would have you throw that all away.

You yourself seem to have a rather schizophrenic view of it when you say the real world that CAMRA doesn't live in, is essential to your business. I might be forgiven for being confused I reckon.

CAMRA supports cask ale. That's our job. As I say, if there is good keg beer out there bring it on. Why not urge all free houses to stock it? Because their businesses would sink too I'd guess. Keg beer is synonymous with bad beer in this country and it will take a seismic shift to change that.

It's time for all of us who say "Real Ale IS important" to stick up for cask and not be sidelined by siren calls luring us onto the rocks.

John Clarke said...


I was about to post something very similar.

I think what needs to be stressed is that CAMRA is the Campaign for Real Ale and not some generic "good beer" organisation. There are some people in the "blogosphere" who seem to be having problems getting their heads round that one.

I think any open minded drinker (and despite what you read openly on some blogs and what is, I think, sometimes implied on this one, most CAMRA members will fall into that category), especially those who have enjoyed beer in, for example, Belgium and the Netherlands, will know that "non-real" beers can be excellent.

CAMRA, and certainly many of its members, are happy to acknowledge that. However it is another thing to expect us, as an organisation, to embrace it. It's not what we are for and it ain't gonna happen. And I will repeat - despite what a small number of vocal bloggers would have us belive, out in the real world I have not detected any serious call for CAMRA to change tack in such a way.

I, too, am rather puzzled as to where Dave stands on all of this. he does seem to duck and weave quite a bit. My guess it that in reality he doesn't really care for CAMRA or its solidly pro-cask anti-keg stance but can't or won't come out and say so as he thinks it would seriously damage his trade if he did. Go on Dave, tell me I'm wrong

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comments.

John C,

At the risk of being too blunt, you are wrong, mostly anyway. I do care for CAMRA and it's pro-cask stance.

I don't however care for it's blanket anti-keg stance. Yes, I am more careful than perhaps I'd like to be when discussing these issues as I do have a business to run and so this may colour my judgement on comments I make.


I'd like to think I can see points of view from several perspectives. If this makes me appear to be schizophrenic then it is as a result of this analytical and inquisitive approach. Open minded as you say.

Mischievous? Possibly occasionally, but I hope I reserve this for asides rather than the main nub of the discussions.

Just as a thought, CAMRA is the only beer appreciation organisation, as far as I know, in the UK. Perhaps that's the problem.

Tandleman said...

When I said mischievous I was referring to others, not to you. You are one of the good guys, but others have a less open minded agenda and are more manipulative in their comments.

As I have said before and will say until I'm blue in the face. If good keg is around, bring it on. If someone wants to set up a rival organisation to CAMRA, bring that on too. In the meantime enjoy the benefits CAMRA brings you. And at the risk of slightly disagreeing with John C, CAMRA is pro choice as well as pro cask, but that is nuance rather than anything.

I'm getting less defensive about this now I think. About time.

Unknown said...

"If someone wants to set up a rival organisation to CAMRA, bring that on too."

As you might imagine, I've thought about this many times before. The trouble is I don't think I want a rival organisation - what does that say? I don't really know what it says. Probably my schizophrenia again.

John West said...

At the risk of taking this argument back to the stone age, I have to ask in simple terms - what is the objection to cask breathers providing a protective, non-pressurised, CO2 blanket, replacing the beer as it is dispensed?

The beer would still have conditioned as normal. The CO2 would not add pressure unless the cask breather were misfiring. I think Beer Nut suggested nitrogen could be used as the replacement gas to assuage fears of CO2 absorption.

I agree it is not really necessary in a pub with decent throughput. And I understand from other reading that certain beers are considered to be partly improved by limited exposure to oxygen.

But I have to say at this point, I'm with Curmudgeon - if cask breathers meant average pubs could keep cask beer decent while they sell it that would be an enormous boost to an industry that can be terribly damaged by a dodgy pint (and as has been said before on Dave's comments - the variable nature of ale and the lack of reliability depending on outlet is surely why cask still trades at a discount vs mass-produced keg).

Tandleman said...

"if cask breathers meant average pubs could keep cask beer decent while they sell it that would be an enormous boost to an industry that can be terribly damaged by a dodgy pint"

The problem is, it would do no such thing.

John West said...

Tandleman said: 'The problem is, it would do no such thing.'

I respectfully am not sure that isn't a little glib. I believe there are pubs where the cellarmanship is adequate but the sales not strong enough to keep the beer going. One person has a bad pint - which only retards the ability of the pub to get cask sales up. Which further ensures the pint will be sour.

I'm not saying it's a panacea to combat bad cellar practice. But it may have it's place - and if even CAMRA's hottest tongues can't tell the difference in tastings, I cannot fathom why this is an issue.

Tandleman said...

Well, at the risk of being glib again, I'd say that what you say aint so in the vast majority of cases. I'll expand though; Most pubs that sell bad beer do so through bad cellarmanship, poor beer knowledge, lack of appropriate trade and over optimistic hopes for the amount of ale they'll sell at one end of the spectrum and a couldn't care less attitude at the other.

The breather wouldn't help there one bit. On the contrary it would likely exacerbate these problems.

Pubs can already put a breather on their beer where they wish to. That most don't tells its own story. There is plenty more I could say from my many years of looking after beer, but you get the gist of where I'm coming from I'm sure.

And finally, bad beer should not be going over the bar, That points to a more general malaise.