Some things in life are predictable to the point of inevitability: yesterday the sun rose in the east, Coors tried to sell us a way to keep High Life colder, and Brew Dog was involved in a craft beer controversy. You might remember Brew Dog from such classics as their 41% ABV Sink the Bismark or their 1.1% ABV “Imperial Mild” protest beer Nanny State with “theoretical IBU’s” of 225, or perhaps their End of History beer packaged inside the carcasses of a dead rodents. They also made headlines by offering a Viagra beer to Prince William during the buildup to the Royal Wedding. Brew Dog love to push the boundaries of brewing and engage in activity that enhances their “Punk” reputation and ethos, and are masterful at generating publicity for their company through public controversy. Their latest foil (and not for the first time) is Britain’s largest consumer advocacy group, the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA).
As the majority of our readership is American, the term “Real Ale” is defined by CAMRA thusly:
“In the early 1970s CAMRA coined the term ‘real ale’ to make it easy for people to differentiate between the bland processed beers being pushed by the big brewers and the traditional beers whose very existence was under threat.
Many pubs and brewers use the term to describe their beers, but, just to keep you confused, they are also called cask beers, cask-conditioned ales or even real beer! In the (UK) pub the huge majority of real ales are served using traditional hand-pulls, rather than through modern fonts, but there are some exceptions to this, so if in any doubt, just ask.
Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide.”
CAMRA organize the Great British Beer Festival, by far the largest craft beer festival in Britain, and the sort of event a disinterested observer would assume a small independent Scottish brewery would attend every year. Yesterday Brew Dog announced that the contract for their bar at the festival had been cancelled by CAMRA and they would no longer be permitted to attend. While International brewers are allowed to serve beer using whatever method they prefer (in past years US brewers like Stone and Dogfish Head have submitted both keg, bottled, and cask offerings to the festival) British brewers are obligated to provide Real Ale, i.e. cask-conditioned ale to participate in the festival. Brew Dog contend that they had reached an agreement with CAMRA that would allow them to serve their beer with kegs, so long as CAMRA’s Technical Advisory Group could independently confirm the existence of a threshold of living yeast cells in Brew Dog’s beer, and that CAMRA changed their minds and reneged on the contract. CAMRA countered that Brew Dog missed the due date for payment and the contract was cancelled for that reason alone.
From an American beer consumer’s point of view, it’s of little interest who is right or wrong in this dispute. Neither party acquits themselves well- CAMRA comes across as a stodgy, bureaucratic institution with an outdated definition of “real” beer, while Brew Dog are clearly hoping to drum up publicity for their impending Glasgow location or investment campaign. The biggest concern I would have as a beer aficionado in the UK is what effect this definition of Real Ale has on innovation within the domestic brewing industry. Britain’s Campaign for the Revitalization of Ale in the early 70’s that became CAMRA was a reaction to the homogeneous sea of fizzy commercial lager offerings available to consumers at the time. The bad guy was, and is, large corporations looking to maximize profit by using marketing muscle to force cheap swill down the throats of an unsuspecting populous. But now this demarcation between keg and cask beer is creating a wedge between members of Britain’s craft beer community.
Cask-conditioned ales from local pubs is an important and worthwhile institution to protect in British culture, but should it be the primary focus of the largest beer advocacy group in the country at the expense of other beers and serving methods? Defenders of CAMRA point out the cask-conditioned ale is the only sector of beer growth in the UK, and that dozens of new breweries are opening all the time. But with craft beer as an alternative to macro lagers trending throughout the world, it would be surprising if we didn’t see such growth in the UK, especially with a large and influential group advocating primarily for cask ale.
Despite their penchant for publicity stunts, Brew Dog with their hop-forward IPA’s and extreme offerings are undergoing tremendous growth as shown in their Equity for Punks Investment Prospectus:
Cask beer is also starting to make inroads in the USA. Piper’s Pub, my local watering hole always has at least two cask offerings available, usually from local brewers. It’s fun when a beer you’ve had in bottles and on draft a hundred times like Troeg’s Nugget Nectar shows up in a firkin, but in my experience hop-forward offerings like Nugget actually taste better on draft. Perhaps the increased carbonation and lower temperatures give the bitter flavors more “pop” or maybe it’s just what is more familiar to my palate… but if brewers like Brew Dog would prefer to serve their offering from kegs, shouldn’t they be allowed to do that at Britain’s biggest beer festival? Why not create a new section where innovative brewers like Brew Dog and Meantime who choose to keg beer for whatever reason are able serve it at the Great British Beer Festival?
I would love to hear from any of our readers (especially those across the pond) if I am missing some important nuance to the argument, but from here it seems clear that Brew Dog and CAMRA should be on the same side. It’s been said that CAMRA is a cask beer advocacy group and not a craft beer advocacy group- but with the tremendous market share held by corporations like Anheuser-Busch/ In-Bev and SAB Miller, the real enemy of the interests of loyal Brew Dog drinkers and CAMRA members alike are the same crappy lager peddlers that necessitated the Campaign for the Revitalization of Ale forty years ago. To maximize the good it can do for both brewers and its members, CAMRA should reexamine this overriding focus on cask ales and become more inclusive and in tune with the the larger trends in the world of craft beer.