CAMRA is right to retain its focus on cask ale.

Ken writes:

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.



Hot Wort Oxidation

Ken writes:


One of the nice things about craft beer has been how the drive for novelty has ironically lead to brewers revisiting old beer styles and practices that went out of favour when the big breweries decided to focus on super light lager.

I’ve been reading old brewing textbooks recently (because they’re out of copyright and therefore affordable) and it’s fascinating to read about some of the practices they used.

Hot Wort Oxidation (or hot side aeration) is mentioned in both A Textbook of the Science of Brewing (Edward R Moritz and George H Morris, 1891) and A Textbook on Brewing (Jean De Clerck, 1958) as a process step in its own right.

The benefits of hot wort oxidation according to de Clerck are:

  • increasing the colour of the wort
  • reduced bitterness
  • promotes clarification

Moritz and Morris explain the action of oxygen on hot wort as follows.

Oxygen taken up by hot wort plays a different part. It is not mechanically dissolved, but is chemically fixed, entering (as Pasteur shows) into some form of combination with the hop resins. It is this form of aeration that plays so important a part in the natural clarification of beer, or in its ready clarification by isinglass finings. When resins are modified by chemically fixed oxygen, they conglomerate into particles of greater density: these sink easily to the bottom of the storing vessel, forming a compact sediment, and leaving the supernatant beer bright. When, however, for some reason or other, the aeration of the hot wort is incomplete, the resinous substances, instead of conglomerating and acquiring the density necessary for their rapid deposition, remain suspended in the finished beer in a very fine state, and in that condition they are equally unready to deposit naturally or to yield to the action of finings. (E. Moritz and G. Morris, A Textbook of the Science of brewing, 1891, p. 272)

Neither textbook speaks of hot wort oxidation as a replacement for or alternative to cold side aeration (mechanically dissolved oxygen), but a complementary process step to promote clarity of the finished beer.

Hot side aeration happens naturally in coolships during the first minutes after filling the vessel owing to the large surface area. However it takes place only while the wort is close to boiling temperature. After that point the slow cool down to yeast pitching temperature  increases the chance of infection so the authors recommend switching to plate heat exchangers before the temperatures favourable to bacteria are reached (150˚-130˚F Moritz and Morris, p 269; 70˚-60˚C de Clerck p.334).

Given that deliberately aerating wort to encourage oxidation goes against what we’ve been taught for ages, I don’t see anyone ordering a coolship to try it out (unless they hope to get spontaneous fermentations as well). But in many breweries it would be easy and inexpensive to modify the pipework slightly to accommodate to create a venturi-effect just before the whirlpool inlet to suck in a steady stream of ambient air.

I’m not ready to do even that much, but I might try it on my pilot brews for the next while to see if I notice an improvement in beer clarity (or any problems with oxidisation off-flavours!) It might be a technique that is better suited to English and Belgian styles.

Visit to DB breweries

Ken writes:

I’m back in New Zealand for a long overdue holiday and a visit to friends and relatives.

And since I’m here, I had to pay a visit to DB breweries’ Waitemata brewery to view the continuous fermentation system (cf). I wrote about cf earlier in this post.

The DB cf process was covered in brief in the earlier post. There are three main tanks. The tanks are all stirred to keep conditions homogeneous within each tank. The first tank, known as the hold-up tank, comprises 6% of the total system volume and blends vigorously oxygenated fresh wort (O2 25-45ppm) with actively fermenting beer from the second tank and recycled yeast to maintain a pH of <4.4 and ABV of >2.5%. Hold-up tank temperature is 9C. The cool, acidic, mildly alcoholic conditions help guard against bacterial infection.

Drawing of CF system at Waitemata Brewery


The second tank is 63% of the system volume and is where the bulk of the fermentation happens. The tail end of the fermentation happens in tank three, which is 31% of system volume. The second and third tanks are maintained at 15C. A fourth, yeast sedimentation, tank finishes off the CF system proper. The yeast is washed with cold sterile carbonated deaerated liquor and some is recycled into the hold-up tank. CO2 is collected from fermentation and used elsewhere in the brewery and packaging lines.

I was really struck by how small the cf system was. The total system volume was 2000hl it is capable of producing up to 50hl of green beer per hour, meaning a residence time of 40hours, although my guide on the day, brewery technical manager Doug Banks, said that the residence time is varied between 50 and 90 hours depending on demand. The green beer undergoes a continuous maturation stage for a further 40 hours to remove diacetyl and then is ready for preparing for packaging (I assume this means clarification, and possibly bringing CO2 levels into product specifications).  Traditional batch processes would need a huge tank farm to accommodate these volumes of beer (and in fact the Waitemata brewery does have a large tank farm because it also produces beer by the batch for different brands, notably Heineken). Before seeing it for real, I don’t think I’d really appreciated just what an enormous capital saving cf achieves. A quite physically small brewery could produce huge quantities of beer.

The other highlight of the tour for me was seeing the old brewhouse. It was built in art deco style and is a work of art as well as an impressive piece of engineering.

lauter tun with run off sample ports.
lauter tun with run off sample ports.
Steps up to upper level where the mashing and lautering happens.
Steps up to upper level where the mashing and lautering happens.
brewhouse control panel
brewhouse control panel

One interesting feature of the old brewhouse is a lactobacillus delbruecki reactor vessel for acidifying the mash. Lactic acid was produced in this vessel to bring the mashing conditions to optimum pH level.

Lactobacillus Delbruecki reactor
Lactobacillus Delbruecki reactor

It was a very impressive space. Beautifully uncluttered and beautifully designed and I can imagine it would have been a wonderful space to work. I don’t think the brewhouse is in regular use at the moment although it is still in working order.

I’m very grateful for the chance to view first hand a piece of New Zealand brewing history and happy to see one of New Zealand’s key innovations still going strong into the future. (Some people may be snooty and dismissive in a kind of reverse snobbery kind of way, but fermentation technology is in principle something every brewer can use provided they have the sales to justify producing beer in such large volumes. The details of the recipe matter for the earlier stages of wort production. Maybe in the future the likes of Brewdog or Sierra Nevada will use this technology for their flagship products).


Yoghurt and raw ale under the microscope

Ken writes:

The title is intended literally, I’m afraid. I got out my microscope today and had a little play around.

Yoghurt at 400x magnification
Yoghurt at 400x magnification

I first had a look at some of the boys’ yoghurt that they’d left lying around. I diluted with a little tap water and had a look. You can’t see too much from the photo. I think the debris you can see is probably some kind of protein. When I increased the magnification to 1000x I could definitely see motile particles, which I took to be bacteria (the rest of the field wasn’t moving so that eliminates the possibility that I just had too much liquid sloshing round on the slide). The little movers were pairs and chains of little circles (cocci?). I couldn’t get a decent picture unfortunately. The photos were taken with my phone, incidentally.

raw ale, iodine stain, 400x magnification
raw ale, iodine stain, 400x magnification

This one is interesting. I stained the slide with iodine, because I want to see if there was any unconverted starch in my beer. Unconverted starch stains black in the presence of iodine. You can see form this picture that there are indeed two lumps of it. The rest of the tattered looking stuff is protein, I think. A raw ale is one that hasn’t been boiled. It’s naturally cloudy because it still has a lot of protein in it. In the bottom of the picture, the circle with a thick dark outline is a tiny air-bubble. You can’t make out any actual yeast in this photo graph, but there were a couple of yeast cells visible in the live microscope version of this picture. Unfortunately, the iodine killed off any bacteria so I couldn’t see any little swimmers like in the previous picture. I think I will try to repeat this later without the iodine.


Ken writes:

Despite being a fairly middle of the road sort of person politically speaking, I sometimes get a bee in my bonnet about things. I’m tagging this post ‘Red Ken’.

My views have hardened on the subject of renting and letting property. While I agree that people should be able to use their property to make a profit, in certain cases that fundamental right needs to be balanced against other people’s rights. I would like to see a massive rebalancing of the legal framework of renting in favour of the tenants. Landlords shouldn’t be able to do whatever they like with property they let to tenants. Changes I would bring in include:- having the rental deposit held in a separate bank account controlled by a third party, so that the landlord must apply to retain the deposit at the end of the tenancy; security of tenure (rental contracts would be by default on a permanent and ongoing basis, with the tenant having the freedom to leave on a month’s notice, and the tenancy being protected under a change of ownership of the property); the tenant would be allowed to decorate the property; rent would not be allowed to increase at more than the rate of inflation during the tenancy and so on.
Continue reading “Landlordism”

some thoughts about whisky prices.

Ken writes:

After just over two months sitting on my hands after packing in the old job, I’m now gainfully employed again. Hip, hip… I’ve had a finger and a half of my special ‘getting a job’ Scotch which is about 30 years old and way out of my regular price range (but I won it as a scholarship gift). It’s truly a beautiful, beautiful drink, but I don’t think it’s so very much better than, say, a 15 year old whisky, or better enough to justify paying more than 50 to 60 quid. When it comes to pricing whisky (in this country at least) there’s a minimum floor created by the truly massive duty on alcohol which together with VAT amount to close to €14 per 700ml bottle. Then there is the fact that whisky is a very expensive commodity to produce, since it has to be warehoused for a minimum of three years in oak barrels before it counts as whisky (think how much vodka the distillery could have made in the meantime instead of making that bottle). So the manufacturer, distributor and retailer all have to make a profit out of the balance over €14. That covers production costs, wages, marketing, materials etc etc. A micro-sized distillery probably has to retail for €40 at a minimum to make any sort of return on investment. So basically €50 doesn’t buy you much of a premium in whisky. That’s just your average product. However, actual price is merely influenced by the fundamentals like duty and cost of goods to produce. it’s also affected by rarity and marketing. So the actual price can go way up. Obviously the older the whisky gets the rarer it is (because inevitably some whisky is sold young). The reason I say it’s not worth paying too much for whisky is that, in my opinion, the pleasure you get from whisky doesn’t increase in line with price. To a degree more mature whiskies taste better than younger whiskies, but only up to a point, and they don’t necessarily increase in proportion to the increase in cost. You’re not buying the sensation on your taste buds. You’re buying the right to have that sensation instead of someone else having it. The qualities of the sensation itself drop out of the picture. All this means: Don’t let the snobs fool you about whisky. Drink the stuff you like and the stuff you can afford and be happy with that. Sure, if someone gives you an expensive bottle, enjoy that too, but keep things in perspective.

Good Angry

Ken writes:

A few weeks ago while I was driving back to Dublin on a Friday I missed about five or six calls from my boss. I was driving so I couldn’t take the calls. Eventually, he switched and rang my understudy Chris who took the call and got the bollicking. I called and left a message on my bosses answer machine returning the call but he never called me back about it. I had to find out from Chris that he was upset because we had finished early on the Friday. He was out of order for many reasons. The first is that we had told his wife, Boss #2, that we were finished and leaving early and she didn’t object at the time. We can only assume they speak with one voice or else having two bosses is impossible. But secondly, he was out of order because we had in fact done all the work there was there to do. Boss #1 had said in the past that he didn’t want to be involved in the day to day running of the floor, because he works most of the week in Dublin, for starters. He has given that responsibility to me. And there was no more work to do. I don’t believe in engaging in pointless make-work projects just to make up the hours. Finally, no way should he be taking the matter up with Chris who was the person with the least input into the decision to finish early.

Anyway, there is a deeper reason why we were finished early and I wanted to address it so I called a meeting for the next available time (the following Wednesday) when all interested parties were available. At root the problem is that we are making more beer than we are selling. Sales and production need to be coordinated or else you get steadily increasing stockpile of beer that is slowly going off (You can’t keep beer from ageing and staling no matter how carefully you prepare it). The blame for the overproduction falls squarely with the bosses because they have been riding me and Chris hard all year to get us to produce more beer more efficiently. They also are the only ones with access to data on sales. So they should know how much they are selling. In recent weeks over production has meant that we have been relying on other breweries kegs to package our product which is akin to squatting in someone’s property rent free. We deprive them of the use of their kegs for weeks and weeks while our beer sits unsold in it. To top it all off, the sales/production thing could have been managed perfectly if they had been willing to brew on contract for other microbreweries (most Irish microbreweries don’t actually have breweries as such but exist as brands only, produced and packaged by someone else). We could have had a piece of that action, it would have allowed us to run the brewery at full capacity and most efficiently and selling the beer would have been someone else’s problem.

It was because we had been over-producing that there was nothing more to be done on Friday afternoon. I called the meeting because I wanted to put on record and let the bosses know that sales was the problem for the brewery at the moment. You can tell boss #1 and boss #2 these things but the is no evidence that they listen. I wanted to make a more formal representation and also to clear the air after the nasty business that had been the Friday afternoon telephone call.

Despite the fact that I’d requested a meeting on Monday morning, no body mentioned the Friday call or the meeting all morning and so after lunch I went to the office to ask for the meeting to take place. Boss #2 said boss #1 had gone off making deliveries so we couldn’t have the meeting. I wasn’t happy with that so I asked her to deputise for her husband. She said she would but must have called boss #1 because when we arrived in the meeting room fifteen minutes later she said boss #1 would be back at 4:30pm and had insisted that we wait until then. While she was saying this, boss #1 called me and launched in to a tirade. He was incensed that I had called a meeting and had insisted it take place. He was the boss. It was his company and we would be doing things his way. As it happened, a 4:30 meeting would mean that I would miss an appointment later that day, but apparently that was not important. In fact it didn’t matter because while he was on the phone, boss #1 became so overcome with anger that he had to turn the car around and return to the brewery to have the meeting.

Now there has been a general souring of relations between the bosses and the workers over the last few months (probably because they’re worried about sales and revenue). But I didn’t want to get into that in the meeting. I really just wanted to clear the air and make as plain and clear as possible that production cannot outstrip sales (it’s hard because you have to anticipate sales so you can have beer available for them. They have never managed to give me any sales forecasts and yet I am supposed to provide them with packaged sellable beer of every kind when they need it). Anyway Boss #1 opened the meeting by reading me sections of my contract where is says no premium will be paid for anti-social hours or weekend work. Why? because he wanted us to brew late one night the next week so that we would still be brewing in the evening when he invited some local area publicans and tradesmen to the brewery. As it happened, only one publican showed up, and none from the little village where the brewery is located (Irish publicans are a truly inspiring and imaginative group). I said my reading of that passage was that it meant I would not get paid extra for working any antisocial hours, not that I had to work them. The contract states I will work a 40 hour week as well, but it doesn’t say I have to work any period of hours that the boss decides. As far as I am concerned that is all subject to negotiation and I told him that calmly and slowly. Boss #1 ranted and raved and tried his best to derail the meeting and talk about everything except the production issues that we had put on the agenda. Throughout he was talking about it being his business and him being the boss throughout, which although true, doesn’t give him licence to play the tyrant.

I never raised my voice and I steered the meeting back to the agenda and I didn’t permit myself to saying that I would regret. I am not happy in the job, but I recognise that it has given me opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have, and it also pays my bills. I didn’t just want to chuck that away because boss #1 is a prize twit. During the meeting, it felt great being angry. But not angry in a hot, can’t think or see the wood for the trees way, but in a cold way. I knew why I was there and what I wanted from the meeting, and what my goals and vulnerabilities were. Above all it felt like I was in control and I liked that. I’ve got to go back to work on the 5th. There will be new meetings in the new year. and although it is tiring and effortful to have to do so, I will be going in to bat for me and for the production crew on the floor and I will do it in the cold cold way I handled myself in that last meeting.