Pete Brown recently set out his reasons for being disappointed in CAMRA’s decision, taken at an AGM, to retain its focus on cask beer (and cider and perry) rather than all beer (and cider and perry). The text of the special resolution that fell short of the 75% majority required to be accepted was “2(e) to act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub- goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers;”, with only 72.6% in favour. The wording of the text doesn’t seem objectionable on the face of it, but it neglects to restrict the advocacy to drinkers of real ale, real cider, and real perry, so it was understood to involve broadening CAMRA’s remit beyond real ale.
The proposed change was part of a modernising project. CAMRA arose in opposition to mass-produced, sterile filtered, light-bodied and lightly hopped, very cold, very fizzy, virtually ubiquitous and indistinguishable lager. But in the current market there are lots of flavoursome and appealing beers that don’t meet CAMRA’s definition of real ale, that is beer containing live yeast and conditioned (continuing to ferment) in the container it’s dispensed from. In other words, an up-to-date CAMRA should support good beer in general and certainly all good beer from small independent microbreweries and not get fixated on the matter of beer dispense. It’s absurd to think that a batch of beer could be real ale in the tank at the brewery (if you tasted it there), then split and packaged separately into kegs, which are dispensed with external CO2 and are not real ale, and casks, which are dispensed with a hand pump and are. It’s the same beer.
But the absurdity is not absurd!
CAMRA makes an honourable exception for bottle-conditioned beers, and for unfiltered unpasteurised cider and perry, but the focus and animating principle behind CAMRA has always been cask dispense. ‘Real Ale’ is really a kind of metonomy or shorthand way of referring not simply to the liquid but to a whole complicated set-up involving brewers, publicans and of course pub-goers. That is why CAMRA’s campaigns against the beer-tie and for community pubs were a natural part of its remit. You cannot have ‘real ale’ without pubs, not really. And bottle-conditioned beers don’t cut it.
‘Real Ale’ is an instance of metonomy, specifically synecdoche, referring to a whole through referring to a part, just like saying ‘King Joffrey can muster a thousand spears’ when you mean he can muster a thousand soldiers. ‘Real ale’ really means ‘cask ale’ and it really means the liquid and the apparatus that dispenses it and the breweries and pubs that sustain it.
Cask ale as an institution really is something different from the rest of the “craft beer” thing. Here in Ireland we have a small but rapidly growing craft beer scene and it’s part of the same international cultural movement that has seen people tire of pretty generic and characterless lager brewed by multinationals. Craft beer in Ireland, NZ, Australia, Canada and the US has plenty of good examples (and also some bad). But it’s not really the same as the cask ale thing in the UK.
Cask ale is almost like a style of beer to itself, except that its defined by the processes of production and dispense rather than by the ingredients. When the ‘same’ beer is served on cask and on keg, does it taste the same? Is the experience really the same? Of course not. The cask beer is a handful of degrees warmer, and the beer has less carbonation, and the beer may have started to oxidise. These things all influence the experience. The keg version may have a haze lacking in the cask version. But really, the ‘same beer’ shouldn’t be served on cask and in keg. A good brewer will optimise recipes for their method of dispense. Especially the amount of carbonation in the beer is not a separate thing from the beer. Volumes of CO2 in solution is a recipe choice just as much as the choice between Saaz hops and Centennial hops, or between Nottingham yeast and W34/70.
Because cask ale is an institution that involves pubs as much as it involves breweries, it’s really hard if not impossible to introduce it into a community that doesn’t have it. There aren’t the customers to sustain the short shelf life of cask beers and the brewery’s reputation is in the hands of publicans who may or may not have the training to ensure the beer reaches the public in a fit state. Too many risks to make the economics work out. It’s almost more important that CAMRA focusses specifically on the dispense side of what makes cask ale what it is because breweries could change from cask production to keg production (and vice versa) pretty easily, whereas cask cellarmanship is a particular set of practices and know-how specific to cask beer.
If we see cask ale as an institution, and as something like a certain style of beer, and something that could die out and would be near impossible to resurrect if it did die out, then it seems OK to have a consumer group that retains that focus. Craft beer in general is a thoroughly good thing, but it would be a very real loss to beer culture in the UK if it lost cask beer.