They say…

Des de Moor
Best beer and travel writing award 2015, 2011 -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
Accredited Beer Sommelier
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Des de Moor

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Is cask craft?

Cask or craft? Can Boris tell the difference? Opening of Lovibonds brewery 2006, with brewer Jeff Rosenmeier (right). Pic: Lovibonds

This is the first in what will undoubtedly become an occasional series of posts addressing some of the theoretical and policy debates currently besetting British beer culture. If your interest in beer is entirely in drinking and enjoying it, then I recommend you read no further. However for those that are interested, what follows isn’t just rabbinical hair-splitting. Such debates can, and have, had a major impact on the way beer is produced, marketed, consumed and appreciated.

What do we mean by and craft brewing? And more specifically, what do I mean by these terms, which I use regularly on this blog and in my other writing? The issue has arisen because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that, in the British context, not everyone uses the terms in the same way.

When I write “craft beer” I’m thinking globally, across international brewing cultures and irrespective of particular brewing techniques. To me, a craft brewer is one who prioritises brewing as a craft, using quality ingredients, skill, experience and imagination to produce beers of character and distinctiveness, whether that’s by adhering to deep-rooted local brewing traditions or innovating with new and experimental recipes and styles.

This definition is inevitably fuzzy-edged and requires a certain amount of value judgement and insight into particular brewers’ intentions, and it’s easy to think up particular cases to test it. And of course brewery staff have to make a living, so commercial considerations enter into the decision making of even the most artisanal producers. But I do think there is an important and useful distinction to be made between this vision of craft brewing on the one hand, and large scale industrial brewing on the other, where decisions are primarily driven by the need to pay dividends to shareholders who otherwise have little interest in brewing, and branding and marketing techniques are at least as important as brewing skills.

I admit my definition doesn’t correspond with some of those used by bodies that are more authoritative and influential than me. The term ‘craft brewing’ originated in the United States in the 1980s to designate the emerging counterpoint to the prevailing dominance of large-scale monopolised national brewing, encompassing both new brewers producing more flavoursome beers and the handful of old-established local and regional brewers that had survived Prohibition and postwar consolidation.

Originally US brewers and drinkers used the term as fuzzily as I do, but the Brewers Association (BA), the trade organisation for smaller, independent brewers, needed a less disputable definition. The BA now defines a craft brewer primarily by size, as a brewer producing up to 6million US brewers’ barrels (just over 7million hl) – raised in 2011 from 2million barrels (2.35million hl) when some of the Association’s most successful members came within reach of the previous threshold. Volumes like these have little relevance to the UK where, for example, the three breweries owned by the world’s biggest brewer, AB InBev, produce barely 11million hl between them and a major independent like Fuller’s is unlikely to chalk up more than 500,000hl a year.

The BA definition does, however, go on to specify that a craft brewer must also be independent, with no more than 25% ownership by a non-craft alcohol producer, and either produce an all-malt flagship beer or dedicate at least half of its production to “either all malt beers or…beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor”. This last stipulation arose from the US context where industrial brewers took to using significant proportions of ingredients like maize (corn), rice and refined sugar to create blander mainstream beers. But within that context, it begins to address the issue of quality, and the significance of brewing tradition.

Given the differences in both scale and historical context, there’s little to be achieved in attempting to force the BA definition onto the UK brewing scene. But it’s notable that there’s nothing in the BA definition that specifies particular technical aspects of beer production, like fermentation, conditioning and dispense, and certainly nothing to preclude cask beer – the traditional British style of draught beer that is still fermenting in its container when dispensed without additional carbon dioxide pressure – from being counted as craft beer. Indeed while cask beer accounts for a tiny proportion of production in the US, interest in it is growing among craft brewers.

Yet in Britain there are growing signs the term is being used more narrowly, to exclude cask beer. This confusing new usage has arisen partly to fill a vacuum in terminology that’s been exposed by changes in the beer market. When CAMRA coined the term “real ale” in the early 1970s to distinguish traditional British cask ale from the new low quality, low alcohol, cheaply produced and overpriced pasteurised and artificially carbonated draught “keg” ales and lagers that were being foisted on the drinking public through the monopoly positions and marketing budgets commanded by the industrial brewing groups, the overlap between cask beer and beer worth fighting for was almost exact.

In the early 1970s, publications such as the first Good Beer Guide (1974) defined “real ale” more broadly, including quality considerations such as adequate conditioning periods and the avoidance of cheap adjuncts, extracts and chemical additives, alongside cask conditioning and unpressurised dispense. But the messages were soon simplified, and generations of British beer drinkers grew up with the notion that whether a beer was “good” or not was somehow entirely determined by the presence of live yeast cells and the absence of extraneous CO2.

This oversimplification was always problematic, leaving out for example considerable numbers of British bottled beers that though filtered and sometimes pasteurised had a least as much tradition behind them as cask ales. In recent decades it’s become more and more unsustainable, challenged first by increasing awareness and availability of international beers of self-evident quality that don’t fit the definition of “real ale” and now by still small but growing and influential numbers of small and high principled British brewers producing beers that don’t fit the real ale parameters.

The rather clunky term “craft keg” is in relatively common use to describe such beers in draught form, encompassing both domestic and imported brews. The techniques used in producing and dispensing some of these beers challenge easy categorisation. Unlike industrial keg beers they are not necessarily pasteurised and artificially carbonated – many are unpasteurised, some are conditioned in the keg and with some the natural carbonation produced during fermentation is captured and added back in later to aid a sparkling dispense. Their brewers can make a good case that, for some beer styles, the additional sparkle and the generally lower serving temperatures enhances the taste experience rather than compensating for the lack of it, as with industrial keg beers. But they still don’t count as real ale.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that people reach for the simple term “craft” to designate non-cask beers of this kind. Here’s Robin Walton, author of The Search For The Perfect Pub: Looking For The Moon Under Water, writing on the Huffington Post website on 9 January 2012:

Craft beer isn’t real ale. In fact, in some ways it’s the antithesis of real ale. Where real ale might be (fairly) represented by scenes of beer festivals populated by lovable old Gandalfs, craft beer might be two demented blokes driving a tank up Camden High Street to promote a bar launch…Where real ale is cask and handpull, craft beer will proudly pour from the keg or the bottle.

Admittedly the tone of the article is lighthearted, and Robin later admits he is making “huge, sweeping generalisations”. His reference to real ale drinkers as “lovable old Gandalfs”, and, later in the article, to young people and women drinking craft beer, suggests he’s talking about cultural perceptions as much as about technical definitions. Nonetheless a newly minted beer enthusiast reading the article might at best end up confused, and at worst be prompted to avoid cask beer, which Robin implies, perhaps unintentionally but nevertheless completely mistakenly, is less flavourful than “craft” beer from keg or bottle.

Yet this confusing usage is in danger of spreading even to brewers. Soon after the above article was published, US-born Jeff Rosenmeier of Lovibonds in Henley-on-Thames, one of the small breweries now specialising in “craft keg” beers, caused a stir on Twitter by stating that what he brewed was craft beer, as distinct from real ale. “You have craft beer,” tweeted Jeff, “and you have real ale (cask). Including real ale as craft beer just confuses things…real ale is bedded in, people know it. Why does real ale get included?” Jeff seemed to be saying that beers like his deserve a category of their own, and “craft” is that category.

While I’m sympathetic to brewers like Jeff wanting to boast about their excellent beers in their own right and not just as a subcategory of something else, I disagree strongly that the way to do this is by attempting to claim exclusive rights to the term “craft beer”. Education of the consumer matters, and terms like “real ale”, far from being “bedded in”, are widely misunderstood – they may be familiar to people like Jeff, myself and other members of the beer twitterati that participated in the exchange, but what about those new beer drinkers potentially excited by the flavour potential of both cask and non-cask craft-brewed beer?

Exempting cask beer from the craft category would send out the unhelpful implication that cask beer isn’t crafted, which is patently untrue. Although there are a handful of high volume bland brews out there from bigger brewers that might stretch our generosity a little, by and large cask beer is crafted by definition, given the greater levels of care and skill required to brew and serve it compared to industrial pasteurised beer.

More importantly, anyone constructing a definition of craft beer around the question of whether it is or is not cask will fall into precisely the same trap that has ensnared CAMRA ever since it attempted to define the value of beer according to the technicalities of conditioning and dispense. While it’s undeniable that CAMRA’s approach has brought great success, which brewers and drinkers of both cask and non-cask craft beers should be grateful for, that success came at a price.

For forty years since, rather than focusing on beer quality and integrity, CAMRA has been riven by divisive, destructive and ultimately rather pointless debates about detailed technical issues that mean nothing to the average drinker, from an early furore about air pressure dispense that almost split the organisation, through endless hours of anguish about cask breathers and “fast cask” yeast, to the current craft keg debate and its resulting terminological impasse.

Surely, as several contributors to the Twitter discussion suggested, we should be concentrating on the things that really matter when deciding whether or not a beer is worth drinking or celebrating – its quality, flavour, distinctiveness, provenance, appropriateness to occasion, its sense of tradition or indeed of imagination, and other factors that speak to whether or not it was brewed with pride, and craft.

We can be sure the categories will come – they’ll be foisted upon us by marketing people, most of whom know little and care less about the technicalities and traditions of brewing, not to inform the public but to help “grow the category” and assist supermarket staff in deciding which shelves to put the bottles on. And doubtless those of us who care about such things will fulminate online about how inaccurate and unhelpful they are, just as we do when we see Leffe Blonde and Erdinger Weissbier labelled as lagers or read that a beer has been brewed to the same recipe for a thousand years. But please let’s not give such confusion and misinformation a head start.

17 comments to Is cask craft?

  • very well said, balanced and informative piece Des

  • Hal

    Perhaps it’s best if “real ale” gets its own designation based on its quality? How about “Proper Real Ale?” It would really simplify things in the beer world.
    It’s either Proper Real Keg or Proper Real Ale. Done, sorted.

  • steve th

    jeff and robin are both clearly flamming idiots. camra is clearly looking out of touch with a significant number of the best new brewers in last few years have been doing keg (magic rock a personal fav) but to knee jerk against that and define what your doing as completely seperate is totally foolish and equally excludes some amazing brewers doing wonderful work.

  • Peter Edwardson

    In my view it’s a bad idea to try to sort out beer (or anything else) into absolute, black-and-white categories. Too often, CAMRA people are asking “is it real?” rather than “is it any good?”

    Some years ago, CAMRA did try to introduce a definition of “quality real ale”, but the motion was amended by the AGM to restrict it to all-malt beers, and after that it quietly died a death.

  • Well put, and the last paragraph about marketing people? I can see certain brewers coming unstuck once someone at InBev picks up on the term ‘craft’ and decides to use it in an ad. I am assuming since we have no definition here there’d be absolutely nothing to stop them. oh, hang on…

    “Named after the holiday star, Stella Artois was first crafted for the holidays as a gift to the people of Leuven, Belgium. In celebration, Stella Artois presents its gift to you – a specially crafted holiday jazz album free for download.” (http://www.ab-inbev.com/)

  • Given the differences in both scale and historical context, there’s little to be achieved in attempting to force the BA definition onto the UK brewing scene.

    Not trying to force any other definition on to the UK market, but they hit it on the head with the size and independence thing. We would just need to re-scale things for our market.

    Craft beer is the stuff brewed by a craft brewer – however it’s packaged. I see little hope for this discussion until that penny drops.

    The word “craft” is already misappropriated by the marketeers, if anyone wants to try to stop them, you’ll have to come up with a useful definition that works in our market. Or we could just hum and haw (and haver) while the issue fades away, having done nothing useful.

  • “industrial brewers took to using significant proportions of ingredients like maize (corn), rice and refined sugar to create blander mainstream beers”

    I was under the impression that most adjuncts used in the States was as a result of their using primarily 6 row barley in the 19th century as opposed to 2 row. 6 row barley is higher in protein and the lager brewers attempting to recreate German style beers in the States needed something to lighten the beer, hence the use of maize/rice.

  • Here, from a small village near Prague all this craft vs keg bollocks looks really silly. Like it or not CAMRA has a very clear agenda, yes, it’s true that some of the organisation’s members have said and still say some pretty stupid things about keg, but the likes of BrewDog, etc. aren’t much smarter, either.

    I would go as far as to say that I believe that there are many people in CAMRA who would welcome a similar organisation that promoted “craft keg”, which would organise their own festivals, give their own awards, etc. But perhaps that is too much work and bashing CAMRA is a lot easier and gets some attention.

  • Des

    Hope you haven’t read this piece as CAMRA bashing, PF, though I do think they tied us all in knots back in the late 1970s by ducking the issue of beer quality — which was what drove the orcanisation’s emergence in the first place, long before anyone outside the industry knew anything about conditioning and dispense — and opted instead to campaign around technicalities. I also disagree with the “form your own organisation then” response. CAMRA is the de facto British beer organisation and the majority of its members, I suspect, care little for doctrine, they just enjoy good beer. It’s also a democratic membership organisation and as a nember I retain my right to urge it to reassess its policy!

  • Stuart

    I am a craft brewer, I work in a craft brewery, everything I brew is craft beer. Cask, Keg & Bottle.

  • Yvan

    CAMRA is an “orcanisation”? Love it! Beware the CAMRA orcs my friend, for they eat noisome bloggers for their tea! (Yes, yes… it’s a typo;-)

  • Des, thanks for putting so much effort into trying to sort this out, I really didn’t mean to wind so many people up. I really didn’t.

    I would like to point out that the tweeting started quite simply by me saying that I don’t like ‘Craft Keg’ as a descriptor of what I do and that I make Craft Beer.

    What ensued was probably a bit of knee jerk douche baggery on my part, driven by several things. One being that most of the ‘caskarati’ (for lack of a better term, you know what I mean) have shunned the term Craft Beer since it started to be banded around in the UK when ourselves, BrewDog and others started using it to describe what we do.

    Also realise that I was a disciple or child of the Craft Beer revolution when living in the US, in fact that revolution eventually led me to do what I am doing today. I have Craft Beer burned into my brain and when I go down to my local tied house and have a pint off the hand pull, it is most certainly not Craft Beer. In my mind, it is real ale. That is me, my history and experience. If I had a Thornbridge tied house here, I may back track on that one.

    What you also see from me is some level of frustration of a certain self proclaimed consumer rights group that has been adamant that my beer isn’t realHave you read the memo?

    So, I may have been just giving a little bit back.

    Back to my original point, I really dislike Craft Keg and think it is just another attempt to try and pigeon hole something based on how it is dispensed or packaged, and this is the sort of crap that causes these lengthy discussions when we all ought to be chilling out and sharing a beer.

    I think you probably have the best definition Craft Beer in your opening paragraphs that I have seen, and I’m happy to go by that for now. Cheers, Jeff

  • Des, I didn’t think this post was CAMRA bashing. Quite the contrary, I think is well balanced and I feel that as a member of CAMRA you are right in wanting them to embrace keg beer, and they probably should, but likely is that they won’t.

    My talk of another organisation that will promote keg beer is not directed at CAMRA or its members, but at the CAMRA bashers.

  • As an entrepreneur with a foot in each camp, both Cask and Keg, I don’t see any value in differentiating between the method of dispense that my beers choose to use. But in the real world I have endless discussions with Landlords and Managers, especially those who have a reasonable turnover of Cask beers, all of which are tainted to one degree or another by CAMRA’s unhelpful definitions.

    I prefer a more simple and traditional approach. We sell GOOD beer. Every beer from every brewer we sell is something that I would personally be very happy to drink and enjoy. I can’t say the same of every product that I see and size of brewery or method of dispense isn’t always a key identifier.

    I think that Brewdog, Camden, Cotswold and Jeff amongst others selling great beers in Kegs is FAR less dangerous to the Industry as a whole than certain Cask producers flooding the market with stupidly cheap products that are unfortunately and inexplicably popular with some Landlords.

    More so, the Pubco Tie prevents Brewers from being able to trade in anything like a free market, they either have to abandon the tied house sector of the market, or enter into a deal with the devil that sees their product leave their door at a deflated price, and then ra-appear on the bar of a pub where the landlord has paid a massively inflated price SIBA included. In many cases the Beer itself has been transported through several sets of hands and stored/settled once or twice at least and for casks at least can be of ‘variable’ condition.

    Beer bloggers seem fanboy obsessed with the minutiae between great brewers, and unbothered by the things that will see the Craft Beer business in the UK collapse if pressure is not exerted by all parties to make the situation better. There are simply not enough independent Publicans about to support the number of independent brewers that we have now.

  • Des

    Thanks everyone for your comments on this post – it’s provoked much more discussion than is usual on this site! Thanks in particular to Jeff for taking the time to explain his remarks on Twitter. Jeff, you really don’t have anything to apologise for. Your frustration is understandable, at least by me.

    Justin – there’s certainly a related discussion around bad, bland, cheap and nasty cask and bottle conditioned beer (the other side of the coin from good and characterful keg beer), and it’s one that I plan to take up at a later stage. And there’s certainly a challenge around routes to market, though some of the cannier small brewers are recognising there are ways to get your products out there besides the pub trade, particularly if you package or, indeed, keg.

    Meanwhile I’m finding yet more examples of the unhelpful way in which the use of the terms “craft beer” and “craft brewer” is developing in Britain. The Pub Curmodgeon published the results of a poll, admittedly with only 48 respondents, showing few respondents identified established independents as craft brewers. The highest scoring brewer on a selective list was Timothy Taylor, which 10 people regarded as a craft brewer.

    Then there’s Euan Ferguson’s piece in Time Out recommending “craft beer bars and pubs” in London. Craft beers, according to Euan, are “interesting, progressive beers made by small-scale microbreweries, and distinct from real ale… often explosively hoppy and quite unlike traditional British beer.” He goes on to list 14 pubs and bars – all of whom, of course, stock real ale, many offering exceptional selections. His top two recommendations are the Southampton Arms and the White Horse. The former stocks very little beer other than real ale. The latter built its reputation by dry hopping cask Draught Bass and now does very well from keeping Sloane Rangers lubricated with Harveys Sussex Best. How distinct from real ale and unlike traditional British beer can you get?

    Some beer geeks have expressed the view that craft beer is beer brewed for beer geeks. If that’s the case, aspiring craft brewers could save themselves some time by filing for bankruptcy right now.

    Comparisons with the US have their limits – and in response to Jon, it’s not just about scale but about commercial and cultural context. But it’s striking just how much narrower such views of craft beer are compared to the view across the Atlantic. European beer connoisseurs too easily forget that the sort of high strength, highly hopped, wood aged and Brettanomyces-dosed extreme beers that crash the servers at ratebeer.com actually account for only a fraction of US craft beer volumes. The impressive development of craft brewing in the US is founded not on beers like these but on much more everyday, straightforward and approachable brews.

    The top three selling craft beers in the US are Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and New Belgium Fat Tire. Deschutes, for example, hasn’t grown to its current size thanks to The Abyss and The Dissident, marvellous though these beers are, but through selling millions of barrels of the tasty but much more innocuous Mirror Pond, currently the 10th best selling US craft beer.

    These beers are the real US equivalents of Fuller’s London Pride, Harveys Sussex Best, Timothy Taylor Landlord and the like, yet no-one doubts they are craft beers. Beers such as these, no matter where they are made, should be applauded and respected as products made with craft and pride that nonetheless appeal to large numbers of ordinary drinkers seeking a credible everyday alternative to industrial fizz.

  • Mike Fallopian

    I am slightly uneasy with the use of the term ‘craft beer’ in the UK (don’t worry, I’m not a demented CAMRA devotee). Whilst I fully understand (and agree with) its meaning in its original context, in that it was, effectively, the US’s ‘real ale’ movement, its use in the UK is often characterised by superficiality (on behalf of some drinkers) or cynical marketing techniques (on behalf of some brewers).

    Particularly corrosive, for example, are the methods of BrewDog; through their keg-is-better-than-cask dichotomy, they create a binary opposition which says to consumers if you drink keg you’re cool and ‘punk’, but if you drink cask/’real ale’ you’re a socks-and-sandals CAMRA fatso, thus eliminating many of their competitors. Unfortunately, many young drinkers, being horrid products of the late-capitalist culture we find ourselves in, buy this nonsense and won’t drink cask conditioned beer as it does not signify hipness.

    In my eyes, beer is beer – drink the ones which taste good, and don’t drink the ones which don’t!

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