Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Real ale and craft beer

Tasting trays of real ale

I’ve been a member of CAMRA – The Campaign for Real Ale – for a couple of years now, to support their work in promoting real ale and community pubs. Though I’m not a heavy drinker, and only a recent convert to beer, I enjoy getting discounted entry to beer festivals, and finding out more about independent microbreweries.

The beginnings of the real ale movement

CAMRA has been around for over 40 years, having been founded in 1971 against a tide of amalgamation and homogenisation by breweries. In days gone by, Britain had many breweries, but by the time the 1970s had rolled around we were left with a few large breweries making bland, mass-market beer, and eschewing traditional hand-pulled casks for newer keg systems.

Over time, their work has paid off. Nowadays, the larger of CAMRA’s beer festivals, like the recent one in Manchester, can offer over 300 beers, many of which were from local breweries. West Yorkshire, the county where I live, now has the highest concentration of microbreweries of any English county, and new microbreweries are opening on an almost weekly basis across the UK. Wetherspoon, probably Britain’s best known pub chain, offers real ale at all of its pubs.

From across the pond, craft beer

More recently, over in America, a similar but less formal movement has become mainstream over the past few years, in the form of craft beer. Like real ale, the beers tend to be crafted with care by small, independent microbreweries, instead of being mass-produced by large conglomerates. However, it’s a much broader term; ‘real ale’ tends to focus just on bitter, stout, ale and porter, and is served in casks. Craft beer, on the other hand, can be any type of beer, including lager, and can be dispensed in kegs as well. In other words, you could say that all real ale is craft beer, but not the other way around.

Hipsters versus old northern men

Whilst the two terms could be seen as being interchangeable, there are also different stereotypes attached to them which usually results in either one, the other, or both being used separately. CAMRA started up in the north of England and real ale seems to attract a particular stereotype – older men, usually from the north, drinking in traditional old pubs. Craft beer, being newer and having its British origins in East London, has a more hipster-ish vibe to it, consumed by younger people in trendy bars with rustic features.

Cask versus keg

To me, both cultures should be complementary, and you would hope that CAMRA would be pleased that the younger generation are interested in decent beer. Sadly, all is not quite so rosy. CAMRA is still strongly opposed to keg beer; whereas beer in casks still contains yeast and carries on maturing even whilst on its way to a pub to be sold, keg beer is chilled, filtered to remove the yeast and then pasteurised. CAMRA argues that this ruins the flavour of the beer, but, on the other hand, keg beer is easier to dispense, lasts longer and easier to store. Some pubs – those that do not participate in the Cask Marque scheme – may not store their cask ales properly resulting in a poorer taste.

So there are advantages and disadvantages of both methods – cask is the traditional way, but it requires more care, and keg is the modern, easier way but doesn’t necessarily produce the same taste. Breweries often use both – for my stag weekend last year, we visited The Great Yorkshire Brewery (formerly the Cropton Brewery) which can produce bottled, cask and keg beer. Some newer craft ale breweries may only offer their beers in kegs.

CAMRA’s opposition to keg beer means that any beer that is offered in kegs is not welcome at the beer festivals it organises – only cask ales are available. Controversially, this includes any beer offered in both formats – some breweries will offer the same brew in keg and cask, in which case, neither will be welcome at a CAMRA beer festival. CAMRA’s view is that the taste will be different between the two – but this is also the case when you bottle beer as well, and, as far as I am aware, CAMRA have no such limit on cask ale that is also available in bottles.

Perpetuating the stereotype

Whilst I’m still happy to be a member of CAMRA and believe its work in promoting real ale and community pubs is important, I feel its opposition to keg beer is petty, and will turn away the younger generation. I already mentioned the ‘old northern men’ stereotype and by alienating craft beer drinkers, CAMRA is putting its own future in jeopardy. Maybe not in the short term, but when its members get older, in 20 or so years time, a lack of young and energetic volunteers could make the organisation of events more difficult.

Preserving knowledge about traditional methods is important, and I’m sure there are many breweries out there that will be happy to carry on producing cask ale for years to come. But I feel CAMRA should also support those small, independent microbreweries that want to experiment and embrace new technology, whilst maintaining the wide variety of quality, crafted beers that are are now widely available thanks to CAMRA’s work.

One Comment

  1. “some breweries will offer the same brew in keg and cask, in which case, neither will be welcome at a CAMRA beer festival”

    Afraid you’ve been misinformed there. Definitely not CAMRA policy.