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Should CAMRA embrace craft beer on keg?

The rise of craft beer has accelerated in the US and is quickly becoming more and more popular in the UK. This has caused the establishment of craft beers being more readily  available by breweries to pubs and festivals. Many breweries who traditionally brew cask ales have started creating their own keg beers to partake in this new part of the market. For example, Abbeydale have recently brewed there first craft beer “Pale #1”. Thornbridge continue to offer some of their traditional cask ales (Jaipur, Saint Petersburg, Wild Swan etc.) in keg form and have proven popular throughout Sheffield.

This has encouraged more and more pubs to provide keg beers and therefore a broader range of beers; for example, the refurbishment of “The Cavendish” on West Street has allowed 6 taps for keg beer to be added. As well as this, the establishment of the “BrewDog” bar on Division Street has prompted even more craft beer availability in Sheffield offering up to 20 different types of keg beer from a wide range of breweries. SIBA’s “BeerX” festival held at “Ice Sheffield” saw many keg beers on offer from a wide range of breweries such as Bradfield, Acorn, Saltaire etc. therefore promoting this growing beer form.

Craft and keg beers usually have more fizz, served a lot cooler and have a higher price tag than cask ales which has caused many ale lovers to turn away from this type of beer in favour of traditional casks. The association of cold and sparkly has some ale drinkers concerned as it feels too familiar to your standard lagers – Carling, Carlsberg, Fosters etc.

However, keg beers have a lot to offer in terms of taste, appearance and aroma. Abbeydale’s “Pale #1” has passsionfruit and peach overtones which leaves you feeling extremely refreshed, and while Thornbridge’s “Jaipur” is one of my favourite cask ales, I enjoy it more so in its keg form. BrewDog’s “Punk IPA” is generously hopped with a sharp bitter finish and there black IPA “Libertine Black Ale” is much hopped while retaining malty overtones. While the prices of kegs may be higher, they are an exciting form of beer that can be full of flavour.

I am not saying that we should turn our back on cask and turn to the fizz, but if you are ever in the Rutland, passing by the Cavendish, wandering along Division Street or wherever else keg beers are on offer, give them a try. They are on the rise all over the UK and will most likely be here to stay; therefore they are worth having every so often, even if it is every so often.  Most pubs will offer you a taste and you have nothing to lose (except a few extra pence).

Mark Coxon

Editor’s comment – CAMRA’s position

I’ve included this article by Mark, one of our branch Young Members contacts and a student at the University of Sheffield as it reflects a question that still gets asked regularly – if CAMRA is about good beer, surely good beer is good beer regardless of dispense method?

Well, lets first of all look at what CAMRA is about. We have grown into a big successful consumer group that campaigns on all sorts of issues that affect beer drinkers and pub-goers, however at heart, as the name suggests, we are the Campaign for Real Ale – set up to promote the availability of real ale.

CAMRA’s definition of real ale, in basic terms, is beer that goes through secondary fermentation in the container it is dispensed from (cask conditioning) and is served without the addition of  gas. Real Ale that has been cared for properly by both the brewer and publican has a natural sparkle from the secondary fermentation and doesn’t require gas adding – meaning it is a natural drink that tastes full flavoured as the brewer intended.

CAMRA isn’t about campaigning against other drinks on the bar, just about ensuring real ale is available – Britain’s traditional quality beer, however the reason a lot of older members get a bit twitchy when keg gets mentioned is back in the 1970s when CAMRA began, keg was the enemy, threatening the survival of real ale. They remember some truly dreadful keg beers that were launched such as the infamous Watneys Red Barrel. Back then keg was all about big brewers cutting costs and quality and about giving publicans a beer with a longer shelf life – akin to replacing fresh milk with UHT long life milk. CAMRA was formed by drinkers unhappy at the increasing difficulty in obtaining good beer.

Back to the current era, whilst we do have poor keg beers such as the smoothflow bitters and generic industrial lagers, keg isn’t really the enemy, the new wave of craft kegs which have become fashionable, inspired by brewers in the USA, are bringing us keg beers brewed with quality ingredients and passion with some absolute hop monster IPAs, rocket fuel chilli stouts, Belgian style sour beer and more, some with quite high ABVs! Many of these go into the keg in a similar state to real ale, the only difference being gas is added on dispense to create artificial carbonation.

So – if these craft kegs are good, why doesn’t CAMRA move with the times and campaign for good ale rather than real ale?

Well, there is a problem of course. If you are campaigning for something you have to be able to define what you are campaigning for. We’ve defined real ale. Good is a bit more subjective…… There is also a danger of course that if everyone goes down the keg route in future we will lose the tradition of natural, cask conditioned beer.

So the CAMRA angle is simple – we campaign for real ale. We acknowledge craft keg is out there and adding some interest to the pub scene and we don’t campaign against it, we simply consider it outside the parameters of what we do.

Andy Cullen

4 comments

  1. The American Brewers Association has recently updated their definition of “craft brewer.” The change attracting the most attention is the word ‘traditional.’ Before the update, their definition was, “A brewer who has either an all malt flagship or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.”

    Now it means, “A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.” The new definition allows brewers to use virtually anything (including corn or rice) and still be considered “craft.” Interestingly, the Americans do not define ‘craft beer’ – perhaps they agree, that as their definition of a ‘craft brewery’ becomes ever more wider, ‘craft beer’ has become a meaningless marketing term?

    For example, our local supermarket sells ‘Hatherwood, Ruby Rooster,’ (3.8% abv) described, on the label, as ‘Craft Ale.’ The reverse states that it ‘has been traditionally craft-brewed using Burton water, 100% British barley and a blend of Pale, Crystal & Chocolate malts.’ The only other clue to the brewer is the London address of the supermarket – Lidl Uk GmbH. After a bit of research, I discovered it’s a product of that well-known ‘craft brewer,’ Marstons plc ……. the price of this ‘Craft Ale’ was 99p for 500 ml, perhaps an indication of the quality of the ingredients?

    Regarding quality of ingredients, Brewdog have recently opened a new bar on Division Street. The tiling is not yet finished but high abv ‘craft keg’ beers are available at over £4 for 2/3 of a pint. At these prices, the ingredients need to be the highest quality possible.

    Also, it’s worth continuing to remember that there are many examples of disgusting keg beers available in pubs throughout the UK – I’m sure I don’t need to name them.

  2. “meaning it is a natural drink that tastes full flavoured as the brewer intended.”

    It is a touch odd to say this, implying that keg beers are “unnatural” and somehow not as the brewer intended!

    Start with “natural” – much of the current new-wave keg is “naturally” conditioned in the container. In the case if Keykegs (which are pretty common), there is also no “extraneous CO2” contact with the beer. So… aside from temperature and the fact the beer is not allowed to oxidise/spoil with time the beer is identical to “cask”.

    In fact much beer racked to standard kegs by these breweries is conditioned at the brewery in conditioning tanks *naturally* (think of it as a huge cask). Why pay for CO2 when the yeasties can make it for you? Funnily enough many cask brewers use the very same CTs to pre-condition beer to rack to cask.

    There is basically a grey area here – one that overlaps cask production methods even and raises questions about this whole “conditioned in the container it is served from” malarkey.

    What I think is common to most craft beer, cask and keg, is that it is brewed for flavour as top priority. This is why it isn’t sterile filtered, isn’t pasteurised – it is good beer, as the brewer desires to enjoy themselves. It is “live” and full flavoured. (I have big problems with anyone who sterile filters / pasteurises and still claims to be “craft”. It is too much of a compromise IMO. *cough*Marstons*cough*)

    Back to “as the brewer intended” – currently there is no container on the market that achieves this better than KeyKeg. The brewer puts their beer in it – after that point it cannot be messed with by either overdoing CO2 top-pressure or staling with air/O2 contact.

    The CAMRA position/beliefs about keg (and cask as well) are simply falling behind the technology curve.

  3. A year on and still a very interesting article. Andy – whilst it’s useful to restate what CAMRA is currently about, the question should be more what should we become. Sheffield CAMRA is lucky in that you embrace two universities but in many parts of the country CAMRA locally is starting to wither and die due to lack of new active members (see article in this month’s WB). Look around your committee and please tell me that it’s not mainly the same people who were around 10 years ago…

    CAMRA needs to change & adapt or it’ll head into decline and become a preservation society. There is nothing actually wrong with that – campaigns are not supposed to run forever. The problem is the CAMRA became so successful that we’re now trying to justify our existence. Trying to help pubs just doesn’t generate the same level of enthusiasm as when CAMRA was set-up and a style of brewing was under threat – the loss of cask ale and local brewing – the later IMO being more important. Ask a younger member if they are worried about pubs closing and they may say “really? there are lots of new bars in the kind of places I like drinking in – it’s the old man pubs that are closing”.

    It may be too late for us. Even if we did embrace other styles of beer, it’s not guaranteed to bring in new active members without which the organisation will stall. The risk is offending the old-guard who throw in the towel even sooner so bringing CAMRA’s demise sooner than would happen if we just let it fade away.

    1. CAMRA can update it’s policy should the majority of the membership believe it is the right thing to do as policy is decided by the membership at the national AGM – simply propose a motion, get it seconded, stand up and argue its case and have the membership that agrees with you to vote for it.

      Of course the updated policy has to have suitable wording. We have to be able to define what we are campaigning for. As mentioned, there is a technical definition of real ale, what is the definition of ‘craft’ or ‘good’ beer?

      The other point of course is some might say we’ve never had it so good on the beer front – so is that where CAMRA is needed? Is the whole cask/craft debate irrelevant if the campaign now more needs to be about saving local pubs, getting tax reduced and seeing off the health lobby?

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