Since CAMRA’s foundation, some real ale devotees have insisted it’s the only style of beer worth taking seriously. But times have changed, and so has beer.
Within the hallowed history of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), there are many stories and legends.
One of the most surprising is that when the four journalists who founded CAMRA were trying to decide what they were campaigning for, they didn’t even know what cask ale was. They knew that some beer on the bar was good, and a lot of it was awful. Lager – soon to become the perceived arch-enemy of good beer – was still a distant glimmer on the horizon.
What was then the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale had been going for a full year before a sympathetic pub landlord took them into his cellar and showed them the difference between carbonated keg ale and fresh, live cask. It was only then that the founders had their technical point of difference between good beer and bad beer: cask versus keg.
To be fair, at the time, it was probably a better measure than most. At the time, keg beer was in the main fizzy and tasteless, and if you were in the right pub, cask tasted far better. The styles of beer we were drinking then – ales, bitters and milds at a relatively low ABV – had evolved alongside cask dispense to become layered and flavourful thanks to the secondary maturation in the cask and the live nature of the beer. The renamed Campaign for Real Ale said cask was real, and keg was, and always must be, inferior.
This was the start of a revolution in British beer. But it contained its own biggest setback too.
Imagine if those four founders of CAMRA had met in the United States. Or met forty years later. Or simply met in a different pub with a different landlord. Like the Americans, they may have decided that 'real ale' could only be made by small, independent breweries traditional ingredients and no adjuncts. That would also have been a perfectly good description of 'real ale' – in fact, the first ever attempt to describe a 'craft brewery' in the US ended by saying that beer produced by such breweries should be known as 'real beer'.
Or imagine if they’d met in what was then Czechoslovakia, the world’s greatest lager drinking country. They would probably have decided that 'real beer' was lager brewed with bottom-fermenting lager yeast and conditioned for a minimum of four to six weeks.
Cask ale is remarkable, easily one of the wonders of the beer world. But for many drinkers who have grown up loving it, there’s a belief that it is objectively the best way to serve beer, in any context. And this is where things can become problematic.
If, when we say "best," we mean "It’s my favourite," there’s not a brewer or beer writer on the planet who can tell us we’re wrong. Your palate is unique to you.
But if we mean "cask beer is better quality than any other beer, regardless of style," we’re doing both beer and ourselves a disservice.
Anyone who enjoys pilsner lager can agree that it’s more enjoyable cold and carbonated (but not necessarily "fizzy") than it would be on cask. "Well, yes," says the cask loyalist. "But ale is better than lager, and any ale of any style is going to be better on cask than keg."
This may – possibly – have been true in Britain in 1971, when any beer we drank was a continuation of a single, British ale tradition dating back to the late nineteenth century. (Those who say cask ale is beer as it has always been made aren’t quite correct – it’s a pretty modern beer in its own way). Now, we’re lucky enough to have access to different traditions from around the world, and those traditions are mingling and cross-fertilising – as they have always done.
A big revelation for me was when I tasted hoppy American IPAs for the first time. They had the depth of ale, the bite of lager, and a character all of their own. Because they were developed without cask dispense, they used hops in a different way from British brewers to add character, placing far more emphasis on aroma than traditional British brewing had.
"Think how good they’d be on cask though!" you could be forgiven for saying. But here’s the thing. When American brewers started to experiment with cask, the intensity of the hop character didn’t work. They were built to counter the fact that carbonation strips out a lot of flavour and delivers it as aroma. Take the carbonation out, and all that hop character stays in the body of the beer and can give it a oily, cloying character.
If an ale wasn’t designed for cask, cask dispense will not necessarily improve it. It may even be worse.
There are beers from some modern British brewers that do work both ways, but differently. But on the whole, if you’re brewing with New World hops, with a modern approach to hopping rates and dry hopping, as a general rule of thumb the beer will work best with the dispense it was developed for.
So when a British brewer creates a kegged, carbonated beer using hops with aromatics of peach, mango and papaya, they’re right to package it kegged and carbonated. This isn’t a threat to cask beer. It’s not heretical. It simply means we have more choice.
To this day, no one will convince me that Timothy Taylor’s Landlord can be served any better than when it is cask-conditioned, with a sparkler on the pump. The beer has evolved in line with that dispense technology, and it is sublime.
But if the same brewer wants to experiment with more modern, exotic styles, with a beer such as Hopical Storm, it makes just as much sense to serve that beer in line with the different tradition that created it.
Look at it this way: imagine if you’d only ever eaten fish and chips, always lashing them with salt and vinegar because that’s what they need. Then one day, you get the urge to have spaghetti Bolognese as a change. Would you want that soaked in salt and vinegar too? Or would you follow the recommendation garnish of fresh grated parmesan and black pepper?
Beer is simply another aspect of cuisine. In the same way as food, it’s best enjoyed as its own tradition dictates. And isn’t it amazing that we now have so many such traditions to choose from?
Written by Pete Brown. Commissioned by Timothy Taylor's.
Pete Brown is a British author, journalist, blogger, public speaker and broadcaster specialising in food and drink, especially the fun parts like beer, pubs and cider. His broad, fresh approach takes in social history, cultural commentary, travel writing, personal discovery and natural history, and his words are always delivered with the warmth and wit you’d expect from a great night down the pub.
He writes for newspapers and magazines around the world and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. He also acts as a consultant to the brewing industry, and is one of the founders of the Beer Marketing Awards. He was named British Beer Writer of the Year in 2009, 2012 and 2016, and Fortnum and Mason Online Drinks Writer of the Year in 2015. He blogs at petebrown.net.