August 2011

A Crafty Pint

The embrace of “craft keg” may prove a double-edged sword

BACK IN THE EARLY 70s, things were very straightforward. Real ale, the traditional beer of Britain, with all its rich palette of flavours and characters, was under attack from cold, bland, fizzy, standardised keg beer. This was always a touch simplistic, especially when people tried to apply it to beers from other countries that had no tradition of “real ale”. However, in terms of what was actually happening in this country at the time, it was a reasonable enough approximation to the truth, and it allowed CAMRA to mount a campaign that led to it being described as “the most successful consumer movement in Europe”.

For a long time much the same remained true. Keg beers were bland, mass-market brews produced by the big brewers, and in the 1990s they gained another dimension of unpleasant­ness with the soapy foam of nitrokeg “smooth”. But recently things have changed as we have begun to see well-regarded new generation breweries producing keg beers. Some, such as Lovibonds and Meantime, produce nothing but; the publicity-seeking controversial­ists of BrewDog produce some real ale, but much more keg, while others such as Thornbridge major on real ale but also produce keg versions of flagship beers like Jaipur IPA. BrewDog have even started to roll out a chain of specialist beer bars that serve no real ale, only keg.

Surely, it is argued, these new “craft keg” beers are entirely different from the old industrial keg and are worthy of recognition. Of course, there’s a lot of truth in that. It can’t be seriously argued that keg Jaipur is no better than Red Barrel, and to believe that there is a Manichean division between good “real ale” and bad “chemical fizz” has always been elevating a definition into an article of faith. It has never been the case that all real ale is good; equally, it has never been the case that all keg beer is inherently bad, although in the 1970s most of it was.

However, the problem with embracing “craft beer”, whether real or non-real, is that you then have to make subjective judgments as to what qualifies. If Timothy Taylors, a respected, long-established small family brewer, started making a non-nitro keg version of Landlord, would that be craft? Or Black Sheep, a very successful new brewery, albeit one whose cask beers are sometimes thought a little dull? And, if not, why not? How are those beers different in kind from keg Jaipur IPA? And, if keg Landlord, why not keg 6X, or keg Pedigree?

This is not to say that people shouldn’t drink and enjoy these new-wave keg beers, or that the editor of “Opening Times” shouldn’t say that they are available alongside real ales and might be worth trying, but to argue that CAMRA should metamorphose into a “campaign for craft beer” is a misguided and dangerous idea. It plays into the hands of those who advocate a much more narrow, √©litist and frankly snobbish approach to beer, and dismiss out of hand anything that has achieved mainstream success amongst non-enthusiasts. They sneer at the “boring brown beers” from brewers such as Shepherd Neame, Wadworth’s and Robinson’s who in the early days of CAMRA were at the heart of what the campaign was all about.

“Real ale” is something that has a clear and objective definition, whereas “craft beer” is whatever people choose to call it, and can all too easily just become “beer from breweries that we approve of”. Real ale is a distinctive British tradition that is worthy of celebrating and preserving, although it is ignorant and narrow-minded to assert that it encompasses all that is good in the world of beer. To champion real ale shouldn’t mean you oppose everything that doesn’t qualify. As Michael Hardman, one of the four original founders of CAMRA, said in a recent newspaper interview: “I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something.”