As the Cask Report has amply illustrated, there are only two growth areas in the on trade beer market, the so called "craft sector" and good old real ale, or cask conditioned beer. Real Ale is everywhere and the cask bandwagon eclipses by far the growing keg "revolution" (let's call it a keg "revolution", as by almost every definition, most craft beer in the UK is cask.)
The year just gone has seen an expansion - some call it an explosion of craft beer bars. Explosion would probably be pushing it. It isn't even an explosion in London given the size of it and the relatively small numbers, though London is at last awake and thinking of beer. This trend in London will continue, as that's where the numbers are and more importantly, that's where the money is and it is a good thing. It is too where the momentum is. Craft beer bars will push the envelope in other places, as there is money to be made there too, but they will be limited by population and by lack of such well padded wallets. They will appear though and provide choice. Choice, repeat, is good.
So, if it is such a good thing - and it is in my view - why all the fuss about CAMRA and its attitude to keg beer? Shouldn't CAMRA be praising and supporting it all? To some extent it does. Long since forgotten by many, but among CAMRA principles is the promoting of choice. So, to that extent, there can be little against what is happening now can there? Well, as always it isn't as simple as that. The reason why CAMRA campaigns for real ale - cack handedly at times admittedly - is because CAMRA fights to protect the availability of live beer in the UK. It doesn't, or maybe that would be better as "shouldn't" (and some members need to be reminded of this) fight against other beers or dispense methods, except where that limits choice. Hang onto that choice thing. It is important.
The better amongst these new bars (and sometimes pubs) the Port Street Beer Houses, Euston and Sheffield Taps and the Crafts of this world, mix easily the two genres of imported expensive bottles, keykeg versions of stronger British beers and well chosen and more reasonably priced cask, and are a delight to drink in. The arguments about which type of beer is better is not really relevant there and drinkers mix easily and happily and switch from one to the other as they see fit. Nothing at all wrong with that. In fact quite the reverse. It isn't all that new either, as bars like, say, Fringe in Manchester have been doing it unsung for years, though of course with imported keg products, the British alternative, simply being unavailable.
"But the fight for real ale is won" I hear you cry. Well no. Cask beer is a niche drink, albeit a pretty big niche, but to maintain it there needs eternal vigilance. While cask beer may have an ascendency and CAMRA have a large and growing membership, we must always recognise that like any niche product, real ale is under threat. It is a live and perishable product and that makes it vulnerable to quality issues and the convenience of keg. Also, most of us in the Campaign can remember when we didn't have hundreds of breweries, when choice was hugely limited, when keg and cask were sold through identical pumps, when cask beer took a huge downward turn after the beer orders. We don't want these times again and that's why we fight to protect our kind of beer. I'd hazard a guess that it is why CAMRA has both a growing membership and an increasing retention rate. Despite JDW vouchers (most of which are never used), it is that feeling of supporting something you intrinsically believe in, as you have a sneaking suspicion, that it might disappear if you don't, that results in retention being so high.
Boak and Bailey talk about "thin end of the wedge" in somewhat mocking tones, as if such a thing doesn't exist, or is an imagined bogey man. In the meantime, two producers of excellent cask conditioned beer have announced they will no longer do so. While you can disregard BrewDog and Camden as minnows, they are influential enough to some drinkers and very well thought of by others - well Camden is anyway. That alone should set alarm bells ringing. They are choosing, as is their right, to restrict what they produce, despite these products being beers that sell well and have a keen following across a broad spectrum. Is that the thin end of the wedge? Will Hardknott, SWB and others follow? Would that be the thin end of a wedge? These two cases, small though they may be, illustrate why you can never take real ale for granted.
This isn't a peon of praise or support for CAMRA though some will think it. It is a genuine attempt to explain some of the rationale. Inevitably though some responses will be to attack CAMRA, but I'd like you to think more widely about this and watch my blog for a further posting in which you can help CAMRA's thinking on both keg and craft beer. Things are afoot and I'm a part of it, so rather than knee jerk anti CAMRA reactions, have a think about it all.
Remember what I said about choice and not taking things for granted? Of never assuming that fight for choice is won. It is important to us in the Campaign to protect our unique cask conditioned beer. We believe in it and we don't and won't ever assume that it will always be there. It influences greatly how we think. This, is as always just my thoughts on the subject and my take on CAMRA policy.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, CAMRA Chairman and (local) activist, beer author, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
This blog mentions specifics; pubs and beer, good and bad. The opinions will be forthright, but you can always disagree, just don't be offended. Comments from those mentioned are particularly welcome and a right of reply is hereby offered.
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