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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 10 March 2017

Why 'craft keg' - whatever that is - is the saviour, not the enemy, of cask ale


The vibrancy of London's brewing scene in 2017 shows just how antiquated the argument over format has become. 


On Wednesday I opened the 33rd London Drinker festival, in a grand old hall just opposite St Pancras Station. For the first time, the festival was stocking exclusively beers brewed in London. This wouldn't have been possible until recently - ten years ago London had two or three breweries. Today it has around ninety.

This was also the first time the festival had a keg beer stand. It was tucked quietly into a corner by the cider stall, but it was there. Festival organiser Christine Cryne told me she'd had some hate mail about the inclusion of beers that some feel are 'the enemy of cask', the 'thin end of the wedge' of some vast, corporate conspiracy, carefully woven over the last forty years, to exterminate cask ale, for reasons that have never been really made clear. 

But Christine did say she'd had about the same number of messages congratulating the organisers for having a more progressive stance. CAMRA is not some single monolith, but a sprawling mass of people with differing views. Parts of it at least are moving with the times. 

But on my way to the festival, I read something in one of CAMRA's branch magazines that reiterated the old arguments against 'craft keg' - a phrase which, in its very existence, to me shows the absurdity of those making the argument, defining and judging beer by the container it's served in rather than its style, ingredients, or the intent of the person brewing it. The whole argument feels like it should have gone away after 2010, and for most beer drinkers, it has. 

So I don't want to reignite a debate that's pointless in that neither side is likely to change their minds, but I do want to share one observation, given that this was on my mind when I was looking around the festival and trying to think what I was going to say onstage to declare it open. 

I was struck not just by the number of London brewers around, but also by the nature of the beers they were offering. 

I didn't even get chance to visit the keg bar: the central cask offering was utterly absorbing. 

Most of the brewers didn't exist ten years ago. Those that I know personally consider themselves craft brewers, and sell their beers in cask, keg, bottles and cans. I can't speak for them, but I suspect many of them were inspired to give up their old jobs and start brewing because of the energy and momentum surrounding craft beer over the last decade. 

The beers they were offering would certainly seem to bear this out. Alphabeta's Best Bitter was quenching and refreshing at 3.8% ABV and wouldn't have been out of place at any time in the festival's 33 year history. But I doubt the same brewery would have been offering a brown ale aged in old bourbon casks if it were not for the pioneering work of American and British craft brewers in barrel ageing. 

Anspach and Hobday's pale ale, like many British pale and golden ales now, was brewed with American hops popularised by US craft brewers. Barnet's Pryor Reid IPA was brewed to a Victorian recipe. Before US craft keg and bottle brewers rediscovered such old recipes, IPA had become a low strength session beer indistinguishable from any other bitter. Craft beer hasn't just inspired brewers to try something new and different, but also to dig back deeper into our own past. 

And so it goes on, all the way through the beer list: Brick's American pale ale brewed with Cascade, Simcoe and Mosaic, Canopy's session IPA, Clarkshaw's Darker Hell - a dark lager, East London's Oatmeal Stout brewed with vanilla, Howling Hops' double chocolate coffee toffee vanilla milk porter, One Mile End's blood orange wheat double IPA, Uprising's wheat beer with American hops, Southwark's Russian Imperial Stout...

The dependable milds and best bitters, the golden ales and ESBs are still there. But before craft beer came along, every brewer in the room would have been brewing in the same narrow template. The number of breweries is soaring. The range of cask beers those brewers are creating is unprecedented. And attendance creeps steadily upwards. 

The first generation of American craft brewers were inspired by British cask ales from the likes of Fuller's and Young's. In turn, those American craft brewers are inspiring British brewers to brew not just 'craft keg' beers, but also breathe new life and creativity into cask. 

If craft keg really is the enemy of cask ale, it's doing a terrible job of trying to kill off cask, which has never looked more vibrant.

7 comments:

Rob Nicholson said...

Couldn't agree more and hopefully the entire organisation will relax and move on, campainging for good beer in good pubs and not naval gaze over definitions

Liam K said...

Very well put, entirely agree.

John Medd said...

I, too, shan't bother reigniting the (pointless) debate either. Suffice it to say, and I guess you know better than anyone, Pete, what this is all about; and I'm surprised you've not written a book about it - but when you do, you'll probably call it 'It's all about the taste'.

Stuart Carter said...

speaking as a Scotsman living in the US, the CAMRA old guard who rail against craft beer are just as much a threat to British beer as the neo-prohibitionists are.

JonathanG said...

Good piece and this sums up my view entirely.

J Mark Dodds said...

You are right.

Not planning to visit Berwick-upon-Tweed any time soon are you by any chance?

Ian Laker said...

I'm heartened by the positive response. As a long time real ale drinker and ex-member of CAMRA, I only really became aware of the craft beer movement and how it differed from cask relatively recently. It has inspired me to start home brewing again after a 20 plus year hiatus. Ingredients and, crucially, the quality of yeast is hugely improved and I'm producing beer that is as fine as commercial equivalents (in my humble opinion!). My recent all-grain clone of BrewDog Punk IPA beats any insipid cask version. I've always loved cask but Green King IPA, by comparison, is a travesty. The last ten years have brought us some of the most exciting and innovative beers ever. It is indeed all about the taste, regardless of how it's served.