Wednesday 18 November 2009

A Campaign for Great British Beer

Oliver Thring’s piece for The Guardian’s Word of Mouth has opened up the issue of lager and CAMRA. For me, it’s one of those annoyingly frustrating topics in beer that doesn’t look like going away and just gets more and more irritating, without the hope of resolution.

CAMRA (the clue is in the name) have built themselves around pushing and progressing real ale in Britain and beyond. They have a bad reputation but that’s an aesthetic thing which will take years to shift – it took years to grow it so asking it to change is a moot point. If it wasn’t for CAMRA then beer wouldn’t be where it is now. The trouble is, beer is moving on in the UK and the CAMRA-shackles are slowing it down because of their dominant name and standing in the industry. And this isn’t going to change. CAMRA won’t shift their key ideological stance and rightly so. LOBI are new into the debate (I've written about them before). They have nothing like the standing of CAMRA and I don’t ever expect them to. LOBI are lager, CAMRA are real ale and there’s a loggerhead in the middle which isn’t shifting to allow the two to work together. This is about the loggerhead.

I’ve had cask lager at CAMRA beer festivals and that’s not the issue; it’s the kegged version which crosses the line. Would I like to see keg beer at CAMRA beer festivals? I guess so. Why not? Tandleman (in a great post) points out that CAMRA don’t have a style or category for lagers, which leaves them in the ‘speciality’ section. I think calling it speciality is making it something ‘other’. I’d love to see a cask lager category added for judging and maybe this would encourage brewers, too. But, more lager needs to be brewed over a prolonged period of time before this will happen. As there isn’t the support for it, and it’s generally more expensive to brew, then will this happen?

It’s tempting to look at the US and their dispense system, which is more keg than cask. In terms of brewing they are the front-runners in the beer world right now (sure they don’t have the history, but their influence is undeniable). If more brewers are going to follow the US footsteps then maybe we will see more British beer made for the keg. Maybe this will then see more people generally (as in, the non-real ale crowd; as in, the masses) turned on to the delights of craft brews (the stigma of the handpump is a hard one to shift). I have no problem with keg beer and I’d like to see more of it. See: Meantime, Lovibonds, BrewDog.

CAMRA won’t change their essential belief and why should they. I don’t expect to see kegged, micro-brewed lagers at CAMRA festivals any time soon. I do expect to see more lagers but I also expect them to taste like pale or golden ales, which neither appeals to the lager market nor the real ale market (call it lager, make it taste like lager – I love Schiehallion because it tastes great but it doesn’t taste like lager as I know it). One question, though: LOBI represent lager but most (maybe all) of the brewers they support also brew ale, so do they promote the ale side of things, too? The debate just spins around and around.

For me, it is, and always will be, about Great British Beer. The yeast which ferments it doesn’t bother me. The dispense doesn’t bother me (pour it straight from a jug, I don’t care as long as it tastes good). A re-seeding to cask-condition doesn’t bother me. CO2 doesn’t bother me. The staling reputation of CAMRA does bother me, but as drinkers get younger I think it will change. GBBF shows how popular beer is, even if it is like a big theme park. As for lager and LOBI, Tandleman writes, “they must stand or fall by their own ability to penetrate a market which is likely to be indifferent to them. An inconvenient truth? Maybe, but the market will decide.” I completely agree. It’s hard not to. Craft lagers are going up against the huge brands and they won’t win. It’s logical for an organisation like LOBI to start with the real ale drinkers and work their way out from there – it’s a ready-formed market. Of course, the other side of this asks: will those out-spoken members of CAMRA, whose voices raise above all the others, accept lager? The institution may accept it; the (minority of) members may not.

I don’t like these constant ‘battles’ against CAMRA. I am a member but feel no reason to defend them unless they do wrong (if they banned cask lager then I’d have an issue, although it is still the Campaign for Real Ale...). They have downfalls but it’s those ‘downfalls’ which have elevated them, and British beer, to where it is now and we should all be thankful. From here British beer needs to grow. Anything that hopes to ‘challenge’ CAMRA or promote something similar has to start from the bottom and redress what has already been done. We’re a long way off that. This isn’t a CAMRA vs. Lager/LOBI debate and they have to work together, I just wish that there was a Campaign for Great British Beer - whatever it is and however it’s served - because I think the future of drinking in Britain is much bigger than just cask real ale.

I hope that the size of the debate on The Guardian will open some eyes to beer and give it a more prominent place. I like to think it deserves it. A lot of us drink it and a lot of us really care about it. Barm has also covered the story here, focusing on the CO2 side of things, in a good, to-the-point post.


  1. Excellent post Mark, which I think is a good follow on to mine. One criticism though, when you say "Would I like to see keg beer at CAMRA beer festivals? I guess so. Why not?" The why not is because as I thought you'd agreed, it isn't CAMRA's business to promote or support keg beer.

    The people who should be supporting and promoting British Beer generically, are surely the British Beer and Pub Association, but they are far too hidebound in protecting the vested interests of those that fund them.

    And a final point. There is nothing at all to stop the countless non CAMRA festivals that proliferate these days from having keg beer. They don't in my experience. I think I know why, but others might care to give their views as to why this great opportunity is being missed.

  2. Thanks Darcy :)

    Tandleman, yes, you are right, it would be more appropriate to have written: 'Would I like to see keg beer at festival', not CAMRA festivals. It's a shame that the British Beer and Pub Association are not invested in things like this. And I guess not having keg beer is partly to do with cost (mosy festivals I go to serve from gravity) and partly because most people who go to these festivals want to drink cask beer. It folds in on itself again. Those who like cask dislike keg and vice versa.

  3. Aw man, don't get me started on this one...

  4. Interesting and well written piece. I think a major question at the centre of this debate is what we want CAMRA to be. Over the last thirty years it has gone from being a organisation devoted mainly to the preservation of Real Ale to one that campaigns for the rights of drinkers and the survival of pubs. Perhaps this came about because Real Ale has managed to stabilise itself. However in moving from a rather niche interest to a a more general role it opens itself up to these sorts of questions.

    So what do we want CAMRA to be? A general body devoted to the preservation of a good British Beer Industry (Including our national drink lager) or a more specific organisation to protect cask ale?

    Perhaps we should keep CAMRA to protect Cask Ale and have a more general organisation devoted to quality beer in Britain.

  5. It's interesting that this debate is being framed by what CAMRA thinks, or what it is assumed they think, and there is a danger that the whole could run away into defining CAMRA by what it isn't (your 'other', Mark). I see many of the replies at Tandleman's blog are dancing on the head of that pin...

    There have been occasions when keg beer has been available at GBBF. A few years ago, when the American bar lost their entire consignment of cask ale, Sierra Nevada stepped in and supplied some kegs. And I believe some of the beers on the Czech/German bar are still served that way.

    British beer drinkers are seeing a wider selection than ever being made available from places like the US, where craft beer is usually kegged or bottled, and it does sort of tend to affect any 'default' thinking about 'cask good, keg evil' that hangs over our own experience. I have to say that almost a decade of beer tourism (mostly in the US) has changed my views on dispense.

    Good beer is good beer, and while you might take a view on whether a particular beer is better casked than kegged (and some beers are, I believe better in the latter), increasingly it's likely that the niche/slice/sector of the UK beer market that real ale inhabits will be shared with high-quality craft beer from outside the UK. In an ideal world that will mean a growing sector for good artisanally-brewed beer.

    I do wonder if that's a scenario that would eventually mean that CAMRA took up the cudgels to protect British 'real ale' from this sort of thing?

  6. Jeff, I think I can guess where you stand...!

    DunnAle, great points. You are very right to mention the other campaigns - the take it to the top, the tax, etc. Perhaps the fact that CAMRA has opened itself up is to its own detriment and they should concentrate on Real Ale and leave the other things to someone else. It's difficult. Perhaps it's the case that CAMRA has confused itself with what they were/are.

    Sid, cheers for your comments andthey fit in nicely with DunnAle's. I understand your first point. Defining it by what it isn't is dangerous, but then how many people understand exactly what it is now? Maybe what it isn't is easier to understand than what it is...

    Some beer is better kegged and few people will argue with that (if they do argue then they are in the outspoken real ale, hand-pulled only crowd). One problem we currently have in the UK is that our lager is kegged and 'the rest of the beer' is hand pulled (with Guinness/John Smiths being the exceptions - still, big name, multinational brands). That's where the divide lies. People who like cask beer have an almost default reaction against keg, and vice versa, as I replied to Tandleman. Ask Jeff above his thoughts and they'll be very different - he only serves kegs and bottles and no doubt has more difficulty selling them than he would if they were cask.

    Our trouble as lovers of quality craft, world beer is that we are in a thirsty minority which is sadly too insular. I'd be very happy to see kegged Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in every pub next to the Fosters, but it won't happen (at least not for a few years). The 'other' drinkers (real ale and lager) make up a huge majority. After reading and replying to these comments and thinking some more it just feels like there's some big challenges facing the UK beer scene if it wants to progress. Something needs to kick it off, but what, who and how?

  7. "Maybe a bunch of young British journalists holidaying in Belgium, Germany or the US could start a group to campaign for more foreign influence on UK craft brewing?"

    From the British Guild of Beer Writers November edition

    Shall we organise a holiday?

  8. This is funny. About a year ago, blogger scum were laughing at the launch of the term Proper Real Keg, which by the way I started. Now it's being written about as a feasible alternative. How goddamn hard is it to understand the Proper Real Keg technology?? You take a beer and you don't pasteurize it or sterile filter it. Quite a concept if you're still living in the dark ages.

  9. I think many mambers of CAMRA also appreciate good "non-real" ale. I know I do. I was an early fan and promoter of Moravka, for example (including, shock horror, in the pages of a CAMRA magazine I help produce - the world did not end).

    I would also hope to see this sector grow but any avenue for growth won't be through beer festivals (CAMRA or otherwise). To make serious progress it will have to penetrate the on-trade and the way it will do that is to appear on the bars of specialist beer bars and pubs that will also offer cask as well. The two can easily exist side by side. I think that some of this argument that has blown up around LOBI is being confected by the usual CAMRA bashers - one of the LOBI founders commented on Tandleman's blog tht they were very much NOT anti-CAMRA.

    It is telling I think that the only two growth areas in the on-trade at the moment are cask beer (so CAMRA aren't that out of touch with current trends) and speciality foreign imports.

    By the way can I just pull you up on the comment that US brewers "are in the forefront of the beer world right now". I think you may be right as far as "beer for beer geeks" goes - you know Imperial this, Barrel-aged that etc - but as far as the more sessionable stuff goes, well I'm not so sure. Having tried a few of the lower strength beers im Amsterdam's Beer Temple (you must go, by the way) last month they really were much of a muchness. As far as sessionablilty (and hence socialbility?) goes, I really do think we lead the world here in the UK. I have said before one of the great triumphs of the UK brewing scene is to make beers of great character at modest strengths. I think some in the bloggersphere tend to lose sight of that whilst eulogising over the latest brain or palate blaster to loom over the horizon.

  10. Dave, I'll be there!

    Wurst, dark ages indeed.

    John, specialist bars is the starting block, but they are just that: specialist. If cask and speciality imports were the two growths then that's very encouraging. Hopefully it will continue.

    I think the US is at the forefront in the way that it is influencing the rest of the brewing world. If it wasn't for the US craft beer scene then I don't think British beer would be as good as it is now - the knowledgeable UK brewers know what the US brewers are doing and they are delivering it in Britain for the British drinker with a British mentality. I do think that we are leading the world in flavourful, sessionable beers, but these are coming from a minority of breweries. And palate blasters ain't so bad... ;)

  11. "If it wasn't for the US craft beer scene then I don't think British beer would be as good as it is now" Oh, I'm not so sure about that. The use of US hops perhaps? It's true that what was arguably the first UK beer to use US hops in a serious way (Yakima Grande Pale Ale brewed by Manchester's West Coast Brewery almost 20 years ago) was certainly influenced by Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (it was intended to be a copy, more or less) but I think UK brewers would have probably got there on their own. And perhaps I'm wrong here but I get the impression that it is UK brewers who have pioneered the use of NZ hops. Mind you, no-one is making anything that is genuinely new, when you look at the historical perspective.

    I also think you will find there are rather more breweries making flavourful sessionable beers than you credit (you probably need to get and and about round the country a bit more) - mind you that depends on what you mean by flavourful. Palate blasters are OK in their place, but they will only be a tiny part of the beer scene and reliance on beers like that wil not guarantee its long term health; and some are truly awful - Amager Brygus XX sampled in the Beer Temple, Amsterdam (there again!) was horrificly bad.

  12. As founder of LOBI I would like to see us as part of a wider movement to promote hand crafted British beers of all types.Craft kegged lager brewers face specific problems as, I'm sure, do cask ale brewers.Not the same problems, but why not an umbrella group to at least try to compete with the big brands.If anyone has ideas, let's talk.

  13. John, I think you are right about NZ hops. As for the US thing... let's just agree that we are happy that C-hops are used in British beer ;)

    And I do need to get out and drink more, I can't argue with that one. Still, there is more uninteresting beer then fantastic beer. But things are getting better all the time. As for the esoteric beers, they sate the thirsts of the beer geeks but it's the session beer which is most important.

    Mike, yes, an umbrella to promote BEER would be great. If I had the idea or the answer then I'd let you know!!

  14. fantastic post, really wish there was just united front to promote proper, real beer. afterall whether it comes out of cask or keg it's still beer right? i have witnessed the severe raincoat mentality of yeah its good but its not from a big shiny hand pull!

    ive had many a great beer from keg with my personal favourite being zeitgiest! phenomenal! is the only way to describe. however maybe its just because im only young and a student that i dont conform to the stuffy real ale view

  15. I'd weigh into the argument but me mearly making this comment is likely to bring out tickers, freaks, trolls and impersonators.

    I will say that the innovation that does occur with the new British brewers you do mention really only have market penetration with beer geeks etc. The supermarkets are starting to get in on the act, but its not like say the US where you can get Craft Beer in pretty much any off license.

  16. Great post and some good comments too.

    As Wurst said, kegging beer isn't really bleeding the 'innovative brewer' it is a great tool to get your product to a consumer with a nearly 0 percent chance that it will be served poorly. And we've all had publicans try to sell us a pint of ass, so for a new brewer this is a great leap.

    The other thing we need to think about is that 95% of British people drink cold and carbonated beer. The keg brewer gets to play in this side of the market and has a real opportunity to convert, instead of preaching to the converted.

    We need to be asking ourselves if we actually want THEM along for this ride. We are at what I am calling the CAMRA Crossroads. Will they go the way of their parent organisation? Or will they adapt to a changing environment.

    I've talked with Mike about this and as a brewer, I don't like the idea of LOBI as it creates another divide. It also dumbs the British beer market down into just two beer styles (lager and ale), something that has always wound me up here.

    As Mike said, there are some pretty big challenges to anyone trying to sell beer in this country and the most important thing to happen is for us to have a united organisation fighting for us at a political level. We seem to be at a crossroads there as well.

    Do we need a 'consumer' organisation to 'campaign' for us? I challenge you to find any brewer in the UK that has a good thing to say about our great campaigners, so I class them as irrelevant. Mike and I will continue to spend our time converting punters one beer at a time.

    I, personally like the idea of an organisation that is founded by brewers (home and otherwise), which is where the US craft brewing success is grounded.

  17. Jeff, good stuff. However, are SIBA not the organisation that is founded by brewers?

    As a brewer, lover of beer and a publican there is no one organisation that fits for me.

    Brewers love beer, beer drinkers do too. We all have something in common. CAMRA is for some of the drinking fraternity, SIBA for instance is for some of the brewers. I'd love to see something, other than the beer itself, that ties everything together and is above the spats that happen.

    There is some stuff on my blog. I'd love you to comment there Jeff.

  18. Dave,

    Though I am a member of SIBA, as it is the default organisation, they aren't inclusive when it comes to keg beer and I disagree with (but understand) their position on the beer I'm looking for a new home as well...

  19. Davie, us ale drinkers are getting younger and that's playing a big part, I hope. Zeitgeist is cracking, I've only had it cask and bottle, although the last time I had it cask it was simply brilliant. Great beer.

    Tim, it starts with the geeks...

    Jeff, well said. I'm glad you commented. Keg can be the crossover and I agree we are at, or approaching, a crossroads and these comments seem to tell the story well. A brewers association sounds like a great way forward - run by brewers who oversea everything in the industry, promoting great beer for everyone.

  20. I tell you what. After having cask Highgate Dark Mild served on handpump through a sparkler this evening, followed by Meantime Kolner on keg not served through a sparkler but with 30psi pressure of 60:40 gas, Moor Merlins Magic from a truly bottle conditioned 660ml bottle, a Rhone Valley Grenache/Syrah with a screwcap in a 750ml bottle and now a revisit of Aberlour 10 in a 70cl bottle - all of which were served at different temperatures - all of which were served in different glasses (handle for the mild of course) - all from different hands including my own and all at different locations, it makes me wonder, what's the problem? I enjoyed all of them immensely - thinking of it, an unplanned night including the previous beverages couldn't have gone much better - and I can almost say I enjoyed all of them the better for their method of dispense. The mild wasn't excessively chilled and with an ice cream float head the gentle sweetness alongside roast and hop complexity made it entirely what it should be, drinkable yet interesting. Kolner. I don't want cloyingly rich Kolsch/Pilsner in a 3 day old flagging, unbalanced state - I want refreshing complexity with a medium/crisp finish and sustained carbonation.

    I could go on, but basically, fuck people that don't get it. Everything in it's right place or something like that. Freedom should brew better beers, CAMRA tossers should be gassed (just the tossers by the way, I'm a CAMRA member and proud to be a non believer) and well, I know we're British, but come the fuck on, let's bloody enjoy ourselves.

  21. Horses for courses, but I can't see the point in brewing a quality product, and then ruining it to buggery by ramming it with carbon dioxide gas.It probably is ok in the US, where the climate is extreme, and the inhabitants seem incapable of using a glass, but in England? Ithought we'd learnt that lesson in the 70's, or have I been asleep/
    Incidentally, are any of the "craft" US ales available here-if so, where?
    Interesting thread.

  22. wittenden,

    Using a little bit of top pressure will not ruin any beer, that's really is a false notion. The precise amount of carbonation might well be an issue and I personally don't like too much.

    One thing I am quite sure about is that the location of the drinker has little effect on the appropriateness of the use of gas or the intelligence of the person. I feel that to say otherwise is bigoted.

  23. Just catching up with this. I would like to think that ale drinkers are getting younger, but what's the evidence for that?

    What is this crossroads we are approaching then and why does it start with beer geeks? Crossover from what to what? It all seems a bit glib and meaningless from where this beer writer sits. A bit more analysis might just enlighten, but I suspect it is just extrapolation from a limited horizon. That is the view from the kitchen table.

    I quite liked too what Jeff said and James too, until they fell off their respective horses, Jeff by revealing his agenda and James by assuming like Aussie Tim, that everyone is a tosser but him, though I do think it was clunkily tongue in cheek.

    Most of this is a contrived and meaningless argument about how beer should be perceived, but to most people, in whatever form they enjoy it, it is just a drink.

    Sometimes we forget that.

  24. James, interesting points and everything has their optimum mode of being disensed, that's important. But there are people on all sides that don't get it, sadly.

    Wittenden, I disagree. I have had excellent kegged US beer, everything from 5% pale ale to 11% imperial stout and it is in no way affected by the keg. It doesn't come out 'fizzy' and they aren't pumped with bubbles like tinned lager. And surely, the extremety of the climate is only relevant to temperature, not whether it is carbonated or not? Although, I can see in the heat of the south the lure of cool, kegged pale ale in the sun.

    You can get some draught US craft beers but only in specialist bars. The Rake in London, North Bar Leeds, etc, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is probably the one you are most likely to find around, outside of these places.

    Tandleman, have you read the cask ale report? It says in there that drinkers are getting younger. Although it stresses that it's the 25-34 bracket is the highest, below that is harder to 'convert'.

    The crossroads is where beer goes from here. Can it continue to grow or will it potentially get stuck in the middle as a few different groups try to go in similar direction but in different vehicles. And in something like this it always starts with the geeks - the people who are out there drinking the stuff and taking the time to write about it, talk about it, promote it (maybe this is stalling it too, but that's where it grows from). I think keg and cask both belong on the bar, but there's snobbery from cask drinkers on to keg and back again. It's not as simple as just changing a handpull to serve kegged ale (although that's a great start, I think!). Meantime and Lovibonds are doing well at selling keg beer but other breweries aren't or don't because it's so difficult to get a foothold. And maybe it is from a limited horizon, but I don't have the time or resources so go out and get reams of research before I write blogs!!

    And yes it is just a beer and that's the most important thing and that's how the majority see it. But the way something is perceived is very important because that shapes opinion. CAMRA is perceived in a negative way aesthetically, although that's changing, I think and hope; keg is assumed to be lager/guinness/smoothflow; bottles continue to sell well and grow, though. If we are to be advocates of beer progressing positively then it's more than just a drink, sometimes. I don't think the perception of beer is meaningless.

    Lots of interesting comments!! I always know it'll get vocal when I type CAMRA.

  25. Part of the trouble with debates like this is, they can get derailed by those who, for a variety of reasons, are keen to have a pop at CAMRA.

    That's really a side issue. CAMRA does what it does, and will continue to do so. Others will continue to plough their own furrows. That is all really a sterile debate and has been thoroughly done to death here and elsewhere on the blogosphere in recent weeks (I have made a decision not to intervene in those debates any more as the participants will never agree).

    What does matter is quality beer. On the one hand you have what can be called "industrial" cask and keg and on the other hand, the good stuff. A generalisation, I know, but it will do for now. Most people in the blogosphere and beyond who care about beer are interested in the latter. The challenge is to get the great drinking public similarly interested. There may be signs that is happening. Beer sales are falling across the board. There are two exceptions to this - cask and foreign imports. Given that the cask voumes of the industrial brewers continue to fall away more of the cask growth is being driven by those who care about beer, both as producers and consumers.

    OK, a lot of the foreign stuff probably also qualifies as "industrial" but at least is shows people are prepared to try something different.

    What people need to do is accept each other's different perspectives and just get out there promoting, and enjoying, good beer. Fighting like rats in a sack, ain't going to help.

  26. Mark - Thanks for the clarification. I can see better where you are coming from now. I do wonder though about "geek lead". Mind you, I suppose when you think about it, it has been true for years, especially if you count CAMRA types as geeks.

    For me though the pub is where beer needs to make an impression. I guess that's where I was coming from when I said "limited horizon". When like John and me, you talk to people in pubs a lot, talk to licensees and trade people and have done so for a long time, you see that there are lots of different agendas and concerns. I think Woolpack Dave puts that across rather well in his blog.
    I don't actually think we are a million miles apart on this one, but my old git cynicism sometimes kicks in. We must have a pint sometime to talk about it, though I guess everyone will think I'm you dad or grandad!

  27. Tandleman - apologies about the rant, I in no way think everyone's a tosser except me, in fact the great part of my job is the vast array of people I get to meet and talk alcohol and food with every day. We agree, debate and occasionally after a few, argue!

    What I feel needs to be highlighted is some factual information regarding methods of dispense. There are a few gases in use commonly in the UK from pure CO2 to various ratios of Nitrogen and CO2. We also forget that cask ale is under (or at equilibrium) with the atmospheric pressure which not only includes CO2 and Nitrogen (neither under enough pressure to affect the beer) but also in contact with oxygen and bacteria and all sorts of airborne lovelies. The faulty question of why ruin a beer by pumping it full of CO2 could be turned around and you could ask cask brewers why they spend so much time and effort into brewing a beer that they are essentially going to let an unknown tradesman handle it under no supervision and expose the beer to its mortal enemies.

    Gentle pressure is a means of making a beer go from a cellar to a glass. I am all up for keg, cask and bottle. Some beers, and I will continue to believe this, are better in keg than in cask. Look at the majority of US cask beers on display at the White Horse's July 4th American Beer Fest. It was great we had the beers in the country but so many I have tasted much better served from a keg.

    A brief final point. A lot of people associate kegging with pasteurisation. That is not always the case. It does show though how a dispense mechanism can sway our view, often wrongly.

    Beer is great, CAMRA have done good work, real beer should be promoted alongside cask conditioned ale, the more we drink and strive for quality, the more fun we have. Pint? Damn right.

    PS It is good to have an open mind.

  28. I did recognise it was tongue in cheek James (-;

  29. It's that dreaded C word again. Most beer drinkers don't join CAMRA to Campaign as such - they just want to belong to the "club". Plenty also are not so parochial as to solely drink real ale. Perhaps it is time for a new group set up to celebrate good beer. Question - what does it need to achieve ?