Debate…

We’ve covered all points of view now in the whole craft keg and whether CAMRA members should embrace it, Mark Coxon who wrote the original article now wraps up the debate (no more please!!)

If you take the article I wrote back in May by itself, at no point do I actively encourage CAMRA to start including keg beer as part of the campaign or ask for them to be included in any of their definitions. I am not calling for people to only drink keg and give up cask.

The general vibe I get from standing at the bar waiting to buy a pint, is that there is a lot of negativity from real ale drinkers towards keg beers. Andy Cullen describes the poor quality of these beers in the past but also realises how this type of beer form has improved over time and now there is a lot of exciting choice available.

Therefore from this and my personal experience of trying keg beers, I always like to give them a chance every so often. While I generally prefer cask overall, I do sample keg for a change and believe that it offers some different insights to cask. While this may seem counterintuitive to the “Campaign for Real Ale”, it is important to realise that this campaign also supports the drinking of real cider. Therefore for every pint of real cider that is sold, a pint of real ale isn’t. Yet CAMRA encourages the production and distribution of real cider. Maybe this is getting into a completely different argument.

To summarise, I wasn’t putting forward that CAMRA should include them in their initiative. All I was commenting on is that this form of beer is on the rise and there seems to be a negative feeling from ale drinkers. I was simply raising the point that people may want to simply try keg every so often (even if it is just a taster). Each to their own.

(As a side note, it’s great to see more people getting involved with beer matters and striking up some interesting discussion and opinions).

And now Dave Unpronouncable of Steel City Brewing moves the debate on in his own special way… As far as the Campaign for Real Ale goes is the war won and should we now move our focus to beer quality?

At the moment there is much debate around ‘Craft Keg’, whether it’s good or bad, and whether CAMRA should embrace, vilify, or ignore it. I’m not going to wade into that debate, but I am going to pick up one of the recurring points and follow a tangent…

repeated phrases heard from the ‘Anticraft’ lobby is ‘cask is cask, keg is keg’, as if the container is the be all and end all of decent beer. Frankly, it isn’t. It’s a small factor in the long process chain from harvest to glass.

The reason the likes of Watney’s Red Barrel were so dire is not that it was in a keg (though pasteurisation certainly doesn’t help!), but that what went into the keg was so poor. Believe it or not, neither casks nor kegs have magical powers – if you put decent beer in a keg, it will come out decent (even if you feel it would be even more decent from a cask!). If you put rubbish beer in a cask, it will remain rubbish – contrary to what some CAMRA stalwarts would have you believe, a handpump is not a guarantee of divine nectar.

Britain now has well over a thousand breweries. This is more than any time in the last hundred years, in fact more than any time since transportation of beer became viable and so we moved away from nearly every pub brewing its own beer. I haven’t counted, but given how few breweries there were in 1980 there must be around a thousand breweries that are younger than me.

These ‘new’ breweries come in various forms. Some have been opened by experienced brewers moving from being employed brewing somebody else’s recipes to ‘going it alone’. Some are started by new graduates of brewing degrees. And some are opened by people starting a brewery because it ‘looks like a fun living’. The latter have varying degrees of success, and varying approaches (which must be pretty strongly linked!).

Often we see media articles about how lots of new breweries are opening ‘despite the recession’. I’d argue it’s in no small part because of the recession. A familiar story from any local newspaper tells how ‘brewery xyz’ opened when the brewer was made redundant from his (or less frequently her) IT/Finance/Marketing/etc job and invested their redundancy in a brewery.

All well and good if you go in with your eyes open, learn how to brew and learn how the beer market really works. But in many cases it’s clear that they’ve ‘learned’ to brew by reading a homebrew book and scaling up (and in many cases it seems to be a homebrew book from 30 years ago, judging by the recipes!). The trouble with this (aside from the fact scaling up doesn’t really work…) is that they perhaps don’t learn the ‘why’ of the processes. They take shortcuts either deliberately or inadvertently. They may miss crucial cleaning or not do it right. So they get off flavours in their beer, but don’t know why so don’t know how to correct it. I’ve lost count of how many new breweries I’ve tried recently that had off flavours such as Phenol (smells like TCP), Diacetyl (smells/tastes like butterscotch), Esters (pear drops) or ethanol (caused by fermenting at high temperature, smells like nail varnish remover!).

Unfortunately, often the unknowing customer blames it on the pub not keeping the beer right – but again, if that’s what goes into the cask, the cask won’t magically make it taste right. Obviously, keg is also not a cure for this either, but the ‘craft’ breweries that are heavily involved in kegging beer are generally drawn from those who get the brewing right (that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of breweries making excellent cask beer!).

The other issue is the recipes themselves. Some brewers brew ‘traditional’ beers because that’s what the brewer likes, or because they think that’s what the market wants (the latter is more true in some areas than others). Others do so because it’s cheaper and has wider appeal. However, while ‘middle of the road’ beer has wider appeal, you also have more competition, both from other local micros, and from the big boys (who can probably brew it cheaper and more consistently than you!).

In any industry you can aim for market penetration based on cost leadership, or on differentiation (can you tell I’m an accountant in my day job…). Some breweries go for the former, the old-fashioned ‘pile em high, sell em cheap’ – the trouble with that is you reach the Progressive Beer Duty cut-off a lot quicker, and have to brew twice as much to make the same return (i.e. work twice as hard!), as well as having the big and regional brewers to contend with.

If you go for differentiation, you immediately create your USP (unique Selling Point). You pay more for ingredients, you give the beer more time, but you sell your finished beer for more – and people will pay more for it if they think it’s worth it. We all agree it’s worth paying two or three times as much to drink a proper beer in a proper pub than to sit at home swigging supermarket bitter, and many of us would think it worth another 10-20% more to have a really good beer rather than an average one. As with anything else in life, you (usually!) get what you pay for. If a brewery is flogging firkins for £50 and offering big multisave discounts, they probably can’t have spent much on ingredients.

So, in conclusion, the ‘war’ to save Real Ale was won a long time ago. It’s not going anywhere any time soon, but if there is a threat to the popularity of Real Ale it’s certainly not from craft keg, but from the abundance of mediocre to poor cask beer. Even as a CAMRA life member, given a choice between a well-brewed hop monster in a keg or a brown twig juice from a handpump, I know which I’ll choose every time!

So before we throw stones at the ‘craft keg’, let’s make sure cask isn’t in a glass house…

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Andy Cullen

About Andy Cullen

Andy has been actively involved in CAMRA since the early 2000s after being recruited to sit on a National Younger Members Task Group. Since then he has held roles on the branch committee including Secretary, Membership Secretary, Magazine Editor, Chair and now Social Secretary. Andy has also been involved with the Steel City Beer & Cider Festival almost every year since becoming active in the branch.

1 comment

  1. Dear Editor

    I thought Dave Unpronouncable’s article in August’s Beer Matters was generally very good. However, I would take issue with him over his list of ‘off flavours’. One person’s off flavour is another person’s sought after flavour. Of the four he mentions, I happen to like three of them.

    Phenol is the flavour found in some Islay whiskies. If it is good enough for whisky, why not for beer? At a recent beer festival there was a stout that was very phenolic due to being aged in a whisky cask. The resultant beer split drinkers pretty much 50:50 with people either raving about it or hating it – a real marmite beer. Some esters give beers a banana flavour as can be found in many German wheat beers and Finnish Sahti. Finally, I don’t know why diacetyl has such a bad name with some CAMRA tasting panel members. There is nothing nicer than a nice toffeeish old fashioned mild.

    Off flavours are only off flavours if the brewer did not intend them to be there.

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