Why sitting on the beer fence can be a good thing!

Cask Ale

Put on your protective armour, the beer armies are coming to get you! Well, that’s what it almost feels like when listening to some of the in-fighting going on within the industry. "Come and have a pint of real cask ale", say the beer defenders in the blue corner. "No, come and enjoy a craft keg beer", say the young upstarts in the red corner. Seconds out, round one and the bell rings…

Cask, real, keg, craft - what is going on? Can’t we all enjoy a pint of our favourite tipple? The trouble is, we don’t know what our favourite tipple is any more, as the doors have been opened so wide, letting in a veritable Pandora’s Box of flavours, ingredients, techniques and styles, that the choice has never been better. Time now for a calming look at what this all means for us, the consumers and where the industry may be heading in the long term.

In the early 1970s, CAMRA, the most successful single-issue consumer campaign group in Britain, devised the term 'real ale'. According to their website, the idea was to make it easier for drinkers to "differentiate between the bland processed beers being pushed by the big brewers and the traditional beers whose very existence was under threat". Real ale is a natural, living product, left to mature in cask, in the right conditions and at the correct temperatures, where it then undergoes a slow secondary fermentation. The term also covers bottle-conditioned ales, since a natural fermentation occurs in the bottle instead. It is claimed that this method allows the unfiltered and unpasteurised beer to develop a range of aromas and tastes that "processed beers can never provide". However, this does mean that such beer has a limited shelf life and that if it is not looked after carefully, may not develop the desired complexity. Real ales are served in pubs direct from the cask, either by gravity dispense, or by using conventional hand-pulls.

In contrast, CAMRA argues that keg beer is not a living product, as it has been chilled, filtered and pasteurised. The resultant beer is then sealed in a keg, ready for transportation to the pub and will enjoy a longer shelf life. They maintain that the processes involved in creating keg beer remove many of the natural aromas and tastes, which cask-conditioned beer preserves. Furthermore, the lack of secondary fermentation means that there is no "natural carbonation of the beer" and, as a result, a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen may be added to produce the fizz, with the beer dispensed under pressure.

For real ale diehards, particularly in the UK, cask ale is the true artisan product, whereas keg beer and by association, its love-child craft beer, are not. Nevertheless, in the United States, craft beer has been widely embraced with a huge slobbering kiss. The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as "small, independent and traditional" (the last of these terms refers to the use of malt). However, precise origins of the word 'craft' in relation to beer remain uncertain, but it may have evolved from the concept of small, boutique breweries. British beer writer, Michael Jackson mentions the term in his 'The World Guide to Beer', first published in 1977. Describing France, he writes that "in the Région du Nord, craft-brewing survives, and there are one or two superb top-fermented speciality beers". In the US, a rise in home brewing, predominantly in the late 1970s, led to the establishment of small/craft breweries over the following decade, increasing in number to the present day. In 1980, there were fewer than 100 breweries nationwide, yet in 2013 there are now over 2,500, of which nearly 98% are craft breweries, according to the Brewers Association.

The US craft brewing industry has clearly been leading a revolution in quality beer produced in keg and the craft beer craze shows no signs of abating, whether in the United States or globally. In the UK, for example, there is a newly invigorated beer scene, divided, but united in a love of the hoppy stuff, traditional, yet utterly modern as well. So far, so good, but what about the potential drawbacks of keg-conditioning, as opposed to cask? Let Brewdog, the self-styled punks of the British brewing scene explain further. For them, regardless of the method of production or of dispense, craft beer is "beer brewed for taste". Moreover, many craft brewers, including themselves, ferment their beers under pressure, so the resultant carbonation occurs naturally from the initial fermentation. A light filtration then occurs, retaining some yeast in the beer and there is no pasteurisation. Additionally, they believe that full-flavour beers need carbonation "to stop them from becoming sticky or cloying on the pallet" and help deliver that flavour in the best way. As a result, many people now claim that craft beer offers a much greater range of styles than 'old-fashioned' cask ale, but they see other advantages too. When faced with a choice, some consumers may avoid drinking cask ale, in case it is past its best or is badly conditioned and quality levels can vary hugely from pub to pub. In contrast, keg beers offer consistency, as the production process allows brewers more control and so the resultant brew keeps better.

Curiouser and curiouser – it now sounds like craft keg is in the winning corner and we should all eschew boring old cask ale. However, this is plainly off the mark. Real ale is definitely not dead and the hundreds of beer festivals, serving new and old styles in pubs up and down the British Isles, are testament to that. Modern interpretations of cask-conditioned beer are increasingly available, made with a range of old and newer hop and malt varieties. Indeed, it is noticeable that an increasing number of British brewers, including those using cask, are experimenting with hops of different geographical origin, e.g. from the U.S. and New Zealand, as well as rediscovering old varieties from the UK. This has broadened the variety of styles even further, among both real ale and craft beer, with many brews now showing strong citrus notes, typically from American hops.

What is becoming more evident all the time is that well-made beer is in the ascendancy and recognition of the value of traditional styles, albeit with a modern twist, is a natural consequence of this. So could the 'craft' epithet relate to any beer made with high-quality ingredients selected for flavour, including malted barley, plus coffee, ginger or anything else if desired, brewed in a manner which preserves notable aromas and tastes? A trifle subjective, isn’t it and a rather unsatisfactory definition? Leaving that question temporarily hanging in the air, let’s take a look now at a few breweries and try to search out some common ground:-

Beer

Some definitions

The following does not represent an exclusive list, but includes many styles popular today:-
  • Bitter
  • Typically a session beer of around 3.5% ABV, often quite hoppy, usually brown with medium to strong levels of bitterness.
  • Best Bitter
  • A similar beer style, generally above 4% ABV, with a stronger malt profile and which can, but not always, be more bitter than the above.
  • Mild
  • A traditional style, undergoing a bit of a revival in the UK. Although characterised by a distinctive malty and less hoppy flavour, usually but not exclusively a darker colour and lower alcohol (less than 4% ABV), there are exceptions and subdivisions, such as 'ruby mild', 'strong mild' and 'dark mild'.
  • Stout
  • A beer style made with dark roasted malts, which normally impart a black colour and a characteristic roasted malt flavour. Deriving from the 17th/18th century use of 'stout' meaning 'strong', the term evolved to mean 'stout' in body, i.e. dark, full-bodied with dry roast bitterness. However, there are many variations, including 'sweet stout', 'oyster stout' and the stronger 'imperial stout'. Normal alcohol levels range between 4% and 8% ABV.
  • Porter
  • A style, often compared to stout, which emanates from the 1730s and is named after the porters in London’s docks, markets and streets who drank this style of strong beer to quench their thirst. Generally heavily malted, well hopped, black or dark brown in colour and relatively sweet, there are similarly a number of subdivisions, including 'brown', 'robust' and 'Baltic'. From personal experience, I can vouch for some excellent porters from Finland! Typical alcohol levels range from 4% to 6.5% ABV.
  • Golden Ale
  • A hoppy, fruity, refreshing style made with pale (not roasted or dark) malt, served cool and sometimes seen as an alternative to lager. Developed in the 1980s and increasingly ubiquitous - it is the fastest growing category of cask ale in the UK - the very mention of this style appears to elicit a response of rage akin to an apoplectic fit among some real ale traditionalists! Alcoholic strengths range from 3.5% to 5.3% ABV.
  • Brown Ale
  • A generic term from the 18th and 19th centuries often used to describe stouts, porters and other dark beers from that period. The dark amber or brown-coloured style now ranges from mild and relatively sweet to strong, dry and malty, with differences in expression between Southern England, Northern England and the US. Typical alcohol levels for English Brown Ale fall within 4.25% and 5.8% ABV.
  • Pale Ale
  • A style brewed with lightly roasted 'pale' malts, which has spurned many variants, including:-
  • Indian Pale Ale (IPA)
    Characterised by higher hop content (used historically to preserve the beer on its long journey from England to India) and often a touch of malty sweetness. Originally between 5% and 7% ABV, IPAs can now exhibit a greater range of alcoholic strengths, including below 4% ABV.
  • American Pale Ale
    Frequently exhibit strong citrus notes, a more bitter flavour than conventional IPAs and an alcoholic strength of around 5% ABV and above.
  • Double IPA or Imperial IPA
    Massively hoppy with extra malts added to help balance out the flavours. Alcohol strengths are higher too, typically at least 7.5% ABV.
  • Old Ale
  • A term, sometimes used these days instead of 'strong ale' or 'winter ale', but originally referring to a type of beer brewed before the Industrial Revolution. The style tends to be rich, dark, malty, sweet and strong with alcohol levels generally above 5% ABV and seasonal 'winter warmers' may even top 9% ABV.
The award-winning Meantime Brewing Company was founded in 1999 and has since become world-renowned as one of London’s most exciting new breweries. They do not pasteurise their craft beers and several have been ranked among the 'World’s Top 50', as compiled by the International Beer Challenge. Among their recent successes was a bronze for its 6.5% ABV London Porter in the 2nd New York International Beer Competition, February 2013. Based on a recipe created in 1750, it is made with seven varieties of malt and English Fuggles hops, resulting in flavours of sweetish caramel, smoky maltiness and touches of dark chocolate, nuts and fruit.

Located in the historic Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, this national and international-award winning brewery produces both cask and bottle-conditioned ales with a real emphasis on flavour. For example, Skull Splitter, named after Thorfinn Einarsson,7th Viking Earl of Orkney, also won a bronze at the 2nd New York International Beer Competition and is the company’s strongest offering at 8.5% ABV. Rich, complex and full of sweet malt character, spice and dried fruits, the beer is made using another established English hop variety, East Kent Goldings.

Brewdog burst on to the British brewing scene in 2007 and are among the biggest supporters and innovators of craft beer in the UK today, with beers encompassing a gamut of styles and alcoholic strengths (2.8% to 35% ABV). They are known for their experimental and modern approach both to brewing and to product marketing, creating a range of core and limited edition beers, which they sell in their growing number of bars and from their online shop. 5am Saint is probably one of their least controversial, but still original and flavoursome beers. It is an amber/red ale (dark amber-coloured style based on a pale ale) and is so named because it is made from five malt and five hop varieties and has an alcoholic strength of 5% ABV. Very smooth and easy to drink, it has a floral, fruity, earthy, spicy and toffee-like character.

The Kernel Brewery is another example of London’s regeneration as a global brewing capital. Garnering praise from beer lovers within the industry and outside, this small London craft brewery has established a reputation for quality and reliability. Their award-winning range of beers includes a 7.8% ABV Export Stout London 1890, a real taste explosion of hops and roasted malt with dried fruits, smoke, chocolate, coffee and vanilla, based on an original recipe from that year. Their IPAs, where they blend international hop varieties with English malt, are also incredibly packed full of flavour, producing a mix of citrus, pine and other aromas, with fruit, spice and caramel sweetness on the palate. All their beers are beautifully packaged in simple, but classy-looking bottles and have a shelf-life of four months.

Since they began brewing in 2005, Thornbridge, based in Derbyshire’s beautiful Peak District, has gone from strength to strength, winning over 350 national and international awards. The brewery produces a varied and innovative range of cask, keg and bottled beers with some cross-over between the three categories. One of their most feted beers is Jaipur IPA (5.9% ABV), a particularly good match for many spicy dishes, including hot curries. Soft, smooth and bursting with citrus and aromatic hoppiness plus flavours of honey, elderflowers and dates, this is as far removed from a tasteless keg beer of the 1970s as you can get. Available in the three formats mentioned above, among its many accolades, it was voted 'Champion Keg Beer' in The International Brewing Awards 2011.

Thwaites is a long-established, family-controlled brewing and pub company based in Blackburn, Lancashire. With over 200 years of successful cask ale history behind it, the company has nevertheless embraced the craft label, setting up a 20-barrel microbrewery, Crafty Dan, to develop a separate range of experimental brews. In addition to their limited edition 'Signature Range' of cask ales, they produce craft keg and bottled beers, including Big Ben (5.8% ABV), described by the company as a "strong dark ale with balanced bittersweet flavours". This beer won a Silver at the 2nd New York International Beer Competition, with Thwaites also being awarded 'England Brewery of the Year'.

Within the UK, London especially has seen an astonishing increase in the number of microbreweries, i.e. independent, small-scale breweries. According to The Good Beer Guide 2014, there are now twice as many London breweries as last year. The number of brewpubs (pubs which brew and sell their own beer on the premises) is also rising and there are now over 10 in London alone. There is freedom to brew either craft beer in keg or real ale in cask and there is common ground in the principle of brewing beer with a strong emphasis on flavour. Furthermore, larger regional breweries within the UK, e.g. Thwaites, are also increasingly launching their own 'craft' / 'micro' businesses.

Beer Fermenter Tanks

Renowned beer writer Pete Brown’s latest Cask Report, Volume Seven 2013-2014, which investigates the state of cask ale in Britain, contains many interesting findings reflecting this growing demand for beer choice. Notably, more pubs are increasing their range of cask ales. However, this would appear to be spurred on by the interest in craft beer, a term which many drinkers believe denotes quality and encompasses cask ale. Therefore, on the back of all these changes in drinking patterns, attitudes and in the overall beer landscape, will CAMRA at some stage consider amending its constitution, redefining 'real ale', to embrace some or all non-pasteurised craft keg beer? Apart from the difficulties in defining what precisely is included – gentle refining, light carbonation etc. – would this mean reneging on its underlying principles? On the one hand, yes, as cask-conditioned beer is what CAMRA has been fighting for all these years, but on other hand, no, for the following reason. The organisation was formed over 40 years ago, as its website explains, because many brewers had moved away from "producing traditional, flavoursome beers which continued to ferment in the cask from which they were served ". In other words, the notion at the time was that in order for beers to be full of flavour, a benchmark for quality, they had to be cask-conditioned. Clearly times have changed since the early 1970s and the US has led the way in proving how brewing methods have successfully evolved to incorporate new technology and techniques, producing a much larger range of flavourful, excellent beers. So although bad beer is still available, the chances are vastly improved now of finding a good one, as the choice is so much better, incorporating cask, keg and bottle-conditioning. Thus recognition of these positive changes would be entirely in keeping with CAMRA’s original primary aim – to safeguard the quality of beer. Moreover, as described earlier, Thornbridge and Thwaites, among many other breweries in the UK are noticeably bridging the gap between real ale and craft beer enterprises, proving that good quality can be attained across the board.

The issues of how and even whether CAMRA should respond to the emergence of craft beer are continually being debated by members, especially those seeking to uphold the organisation’s original stance. This is likely to form the basis for many ongoing discussions, yet in order to survive long-term, the campaign has to remain relevant. Maybe there is a parallel to be drawn in the wine industry’s incorporation of screw cap enclosures, designed to prevent aroma and flavour faults caused by cork taint and oxidation, compared to the time-honoured and somewhat romantic notion of cork-only stoppers. After all, there’s never been any need for a 'craft wine' label.

Despite continuing pub closures and drinks industry consolidations, interest in beer is obviously very strong. The UK is even starting to recognise the potential in matching specialist glasses to different kinds of beer, as is common on the European continent. There is also a growing number of beer sommeliers in Britain, a phenomenon which could see wine facing a new rival in many restaurants. Surely then, now is a time for looking forward to a bright new 'cheeks filled with beer' future, rather than indulging in pointless internecine debates about what constitutes real or craft? Responding to consumer demand, modern palates and the desire to be innovative are worthy aims shared by many craft keg beer and cask ale producers. This is the direction beer is taking and there is undoubtedly a place for all styles – cask or keg, real or craft, draught or in bottle. We’ve certainly started to see this in the UK and changes are happening all the time with breweries carving out their own niches.

If, as Pete Brown indicates, many drinkers equate real ale in cask with the notion of 'craft beer', surely this can be regarded as a complement to the virtues of cask conditioning in bringing out depth of flavour, rather than merely being a misguided belief. Indeed, perhaps the word 'craft' is just too divisive, particularly within the industry, but also among the people that really matter most, i.e. the consumers. Therefore, returning to the earlier question of redefining craft beer, it is clear that 'craft' is just a term that merely serves to muddy the hop-flavoured water. It could apply to any good, skilfully made product and so perhaps the sooner it’s dropped the better. We can all use our own judgement to decide whether our chosen tipple is 'crafted' or fits any description with which it is adorned and whether we prefer our beer made with chocolate, coffee, elderflower, chilli, oysters or none of the above. It can only be hoped that the beer industry does not become too polarised, hampering progress, as ultimately what matters most, is that the end product is of good quality and that we all have enough choice to find something we like.

There’s no point in taking sides. Real ale can be good or bad, while the same is true for craft beer. So fight over, shake hands – it’s an honourable draw with a shared common purpose of espousing good quality beer. I’ll raise a glass to that and take my place on the fence. Cheers!

This article is also available on The Alcohol Professor website.

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