A further attack…

This is a short attack on this post: Should CAMRA embrace craft beer on keg?

I got angry about the word “natural” and wrote this earlier today: What is this “natural” you speak of? A long-winded rant about “natural” when used in the cask-v-keg debate.

But there is more in the “Editor’s comment” I feel compelled to comment on.

[Cask] “is a natural drink that tastes full flavoured as the brewer intended.”

Oh, c’mon. You’re saying that brewers putting beer into anything other than cask are creating beer in some way _not_ as the brewer intended? That they’re somehow compromising perhaps?

Brewers I know putting beer into keg do it for exactly the OPPOSITE reason. To better ensure the beer reaches the consumer with the form/flavour the brewer intends the beer to be drunk in. Without some dodgy cellar work making their beer flat, stale, warm, etc.

“gas is added on dispense to create artificial carbonation.”

a) Fundamental misunderstanding of keg! CO2 is used to *maintain* carbonation, not add to it. The purpose isn’t to add “fizz” to the beer but to maintain the carbonation at the level the brewer intends it to be at.

b) Total ignorance of the currently very common “KeyKeg” – which contains container and/or brewery conditioned beer that CANNOT be carbonated by the CO2 used to push it out of container. At the keg bar I was helping out on at IMBC last weekend nearly all the kegs were of this sort.

Yes, CO2 used to provide top-pressure to push beer out of keg can carbonate that beer above the level it came at. But this would imply that the pub is using too much pressure or an inappropriate gas mix. This is not using keg as intended. (There is a case where an _under_ carbonated keg can be carbed up using the CO2 pressure though. Correcting an error at the brewing end. If only it was possible to do this with casks sometimes!)


In general the Editor’s comment isn’t that bad… there’s a failure to understand “keg” and it is propaganda-tastic in using the word “natural“.

It does show progress is being made! There is no mention of filtration or pasteurisation at least – the word “dead” does not come up. All in all the comment is clearly well-ahead of some CAMRA-folk standpoints and well ahead of where we were at only a couple of years ago. Hurrah!

OK, that’s enough frustrated angry blogging from me today… I’ve gotta go and try selling more keg beer ;) [I do sell a significant amount more cask than keg and love good beers regardless of the container the brewer may have chosen to use.]

What is this “natural” you speak of?

I’ve long been meaning to do a detailed write-up about beer packaging, so I have one place to point people to who’re somehow confused and have odd ideas about about “keg”. A poor and quite misunderstood three-letter-word is “keg”, and to be honest “cask” is pretty misunderstood too. I don’t have time to write that post… but I can address one aspect of the the pro-cask FUD that comes up frequently. The use of the word “natural” with respect to beer. To cut a long story short: it is pure propaganda.

What is “natural beer”? I think I can pick off a few obvious items that may make some people think beer has lost its “naturalness”:

  • Pasteurised – a process of heating the beer to ensure it is sterile – i.e. the yeast, and any other organisms that may change the beer are killed. Heating will of course change the beer in other ways as well, some volatiles (hop flavours for example) will break down. Pasteurisation is great for stability but perhaps less great for flavour. Stability? Well, perhaps not… live yeast has a known protective quality. It will sit in your beer and “mop up” some excess O2 thus reducing oxidation. (And no seal is perfect, so as well as helping with any O2 left in the beer after filling this helps with the small O2 leakage through capped bottles and probably even cans.)
  • Sterile Filtered – a different approach to achieve the same end. Rather than killing yeasts/etc it filters them out of the solution. But such a fine filter will also remove some large molecules that contribute to flavour. As for the beer now being “dead” – this has the same impact as described above. (If one of these two have to be used then I’ll prefer filtration… there is another approach: centrifuge. Thornbridge and BrewDog use this… and their bottled products are pretty fantastic.)
  • Contains “chemicals” – contentious. The obvious truth is that all beer is made from chemicals! What I guess we have to read into this in context is the addition of extra substances not normally used for brewing. What are these though? Near all breweries add chemicals to treat their water, malts come with the required enzymes for starch conversion, adjuncts like sugars/wheat/etc are perfectly acceptable for certain styles. So “chemicals” is really a pretty confused area and probably best considered bunkum. Some breweries may use added enzymes to speed up mash/fermentation processes I believe. I know a couple of good breweries adding an extra enzyme to de-glutenise beers without altering their flavour (a great thing for coeliacs!) I think that, like the word “natural”, the word “chemicals” is an all-too-easy-to-reach-for emotive word thrown around blindly in the whole cask/keg debate. (Were sulphites perhaps once used to stabilise beer?) (Where do finings in cask ale fit in here – isinglass and the various adjuncts used alongside it?)
  • “Extraneous CO2″ – what’s this then? In CAMRA terms it is use, in any way, of CO2 not created by the action of yeast in the beer. This is also a contentious issue. As there is argument even within CAMRA about the appropriateness of CO2 in the cellar. The big question is around aspirators (aka “cask breathers”) which let just enough CO2 into cask to protect the beer from air contact. And air, really, is the worst thing for beer. No good brewer wants you to be drinking oxidised, stale, beer. I go further and wonder what is so bad about CO2 full-stop. But I guess we hit a personal preference issue regarding fizziness here and I’ll leave it at that.

I think those four items are key to what is behind ideas about “unnatural” beer. The first two are ones I personally think are not really in the interests of good beer… and in fact in my book use of either of them is a line crossed. From what I’d consider a “craft” product to one that quite simply isn’t. Does it make beer “unnatural” … sure, I’ll buy into that a bit. It certainly makes it less than it was and, sure, one could say it makes the beer “dead”.

The whole chemicals thing is just puzzling to me. I’d like to know what these evil chemicals are… but I’ve yet to come across them in the brewing world. And as I said – without chemicals you cannot have beer. (Nor life, nor anything really…)

Now, CO2… the point of this post is to show that your ideas of “natural beer” wade into a big grey area in the world of modern brewing. We do have another point often brought up about what makes “cask ale” natural… that is cask conditioning. “Naturally conditioned beer”… i.e. carbonated by the action of yeast in the beer, not force-carbonated by addition of external CO2. So a natural beer is one that is conditioned in the container it is served from and that involves none of the items in the above list (assuming by “chemicals” we’re talking some odd crazy substances used to somehow adulterate the brewing process).

I bring to your attention the humble KeyKeg. An interesting little keg-type device in which beer is contained within a bladder from which it is extracted using pressure (air will do, but often CO2 is used). The important thing to know about KeyKegs is that many breweries who use them put exactly the same beer into them as they put into casks. Live, good, natural, beer. It conditions in the container it is served from. It does not come into contact with extraneous CO2. The only difference between this beer from keg versus cask is that the keg version will probably be served at a cooler temperature and with more (natural) CO2 remaining in solution.

This beer, from KeyKeg, is a fully “natural” product by any wild definition I can think of.

Moving on from KeyKegs… breweries filling conventional kegs usually do so from a conditioning tank where the beer has been “naturally” carbonated. Again. Live, good, natural, beer. Some even let the beer condition in these kegs (Moor, for example). The only point where the “naturalness” may come into question is when CO2 top-pressure is used to expel beer from keg. And frankly… that’s just a bit of an odd viewpoint to have, in my purely personal opinion. CO2 is CO2. The “extraneous CO2″ does not necessarily add “fizz” to the beer – if used appropriately it just maintains the CO2 level the beer is designed to have. That carbonation level has been chosen by by the brewer – it is as the brewer intends it to be. They’ve, naturally, brewed a beer to be served fizzier. You may not like that… but it is still live, natural, beer.

Next step is to swing across to the grey area of “cask conditioning”. Those “conditioning tanks” I mentioned before are used by many breweries to pre-condition beer prior to filling both cask and keg. So again – in all of the above keg scenarios identical beer is being put into cask. The difference is that the keg version has its natural CO2 level preserved by using CO2 top-pressure, and the cask has its CO2 level reduced via venting.

So sure – there are differences… but unless letting “naturally” created CO2 escape from beer to make it flatter is an essential part of being “natural” (really? really!?) then I think you can drop the silly cask-is-natural keg-is-unnatural approach.

(And I’m really really not saying you have to like cooler fizzier beer… I’m just staying stop claiming it isn’t “natural”. This is needlessly emotive FUD that does nothing for good beer except add confusion. If you want to play at politics (aka lying) then go join a political party… what the beer world needs is facts, not bullshit.)

Chemicals, sub-note: is there a finings Elephant in the room anyone? There’s the (emotive) “fish guts” isinglass finings, and alongside these many breweries use various finings adjuncts like silica-gel. There is an argument that these “drop out” of the beer and you don’t drink them. But there’s always going to be some trace of these “chemicals” left in suspension. Justin of Moor Beer also likes to use the word “natural” – in his case to refer to beer that has not been mucked with by adding finings (regardless of what container type the beer happens to be in). I have somewhat more respect for this usage of “natural”, but do prefer simply “unfined”… isinglass is, after-all, simply made from fish and fish are pretty natural.

[I’ve put up an additional post regarding some other iffy statements in the CAMRA article.]

The “Local” Factor

This started as a comment to this post: And the Wheel Turns – but I can’t post my comment there due to BlotSpot/Google annoyances. So I  brought it here and expanded it. It is about the idea of “local” and picks at just this – it is not a general comment on the post in question.

West Oz vs England

West Oz vs England – England basically fits in what we’d think of as the South West _region_

The whole “local” thing in the UK intrigues me. Given that England is such a tiny place everything seems pretty local to me. Then again I grew up in Western Australia… driving from home to Perth was my idea of a pretty normal drive to get somewhere. Driving from home to Exmouth was a jolly good drive, a proper trip. Driving from home to Sydney was really serious driving – 2600 miles of road, which was talked about much the same as folk in England talk about driving to Scotland – “epic”… really? (I did the drive to Sydney once, on my own, when I was 18. Would love to do it again some day.)

So, take my opinion of local with an appropriate grain of salt… us foreigners are weird, I know.

Pondering this got me thinking about ways in which extreme localness may affect the quality of cask ale. An important factor is that cask ale has that added difficulty of actually requiring a bit of skill and care to serve well.

Our example is Adnams. On their home turf, that is pubs within a few miles of the brewery, they have a lot of people on the ground. The brewery has more frequent contact with their customers (pubs). And those pubs probably have some pride in being able to serve a product made on their doorstep by people they know. The whole chain of responsibility is tight and everyone cares about representing not just themselves but their whole locality. An Adnams cask ale chosen at random from a pub chosen at random is likely to be be of high quality when you’re on the brewery’s home turf.

As Adnams beer spreads out from home it is perceived to get less good. It is said “it does not travel well”. But this is untrue. I’ve had great Adnams cask in a pub 200 miles from the brewery. However perhaps in the general case a grain of truth does come in… Adnams no longer served under the watchful eye of locals, in pubs that see Adnams as just another regional commodity beer, pubs that often don’t give their beer the love and care necessary to serve truly great pints all the time. And in the same areas the really good pubs don’t stock Adnams so much because of this “just another bigger brewery” viewpoint – they save their guest lines for things more exotic and “interesting” to the sorts of folk guest lines attract. (But when they do get Adnams in they serve a damn fine pint of it.) When you’re in these areas further from Adnams an Adnams cask ale chosen at random from a pub chosen at random is less likely to be of the high quality you desire. Through no fault of the brewery.

Even with something as sensitive as cask ale I don’t buy the “it does not travel well” statement. If it travels quickly, is stored well, and is served by pubs who care about beer quality any cask ale should travel perfectly well from one extreme of the UK to the other. But if the beer is not respected in the supply chain or by the pub then issues creep in and the likelihood of this increases as you get further from the brewery.

I put it forward that local beers are more likely to be served well in a pub chosen at random, but good pubs will serve beers from anywhere in the UK just as well.

OK, I obviously have a vested interest in this particular message. There is even an element of the defensive – as I argue I bring in “non local” beers because their quality and diversity adds to the overall beer scene in East Anglia.


Supremacy of the beer engine…

Sparkler in Action

Sparkler – being used incorrectly I believe, but it does nicely show how they function – from Flickr

There has been some discussion of sparklers recently. Yet again. The near-religious divide they create in the cask beer world is amusing. Personally I am usually happy to put it down as a matter of personal preference & taste and leave it like that. (Although it can be fun to carry on purely for the sake of a good argument.) Really it is another thing that goes in the same bag as preferences over temperature, carbonation, and actual styles of beer… I’d not profess that stout is the one true way to drink and enjoy beer, so why would I profess that some given fixed method of dispense is a “one true way”?

I, personally, prefer that my pint is not put through a sparkler. What they do is force carbonation out of beer. For the sake of appearances… that nice tight head.[1] There is also an impact on the flavour and aroma of the beer. What they cannot do is add condition that isn’t there in the first place. Neither can using a beer engine without a sparkler. Neither can gravity dispense.

Gravity dispense… is where I found my thoughts wandering. It is common knowledge, widely believed, that the humble beer engine is the best way to serve a cask ale. But why is it so? Is it so?

What a beer engine does is “suck” the beer from the cask along several feet of pipe, through a cylinder, and shoot it down a narrower pipe into your glass. In the process the beer is severely agitated – releasing CO2 from solution and helping to form a nice head on your beer. But this is a side-effect really – the purpose of the beer engine is simply to move the beer, against gravity, from the barrel to the glass. From the best place to keep the beer (nice cool cellar) to the best place to serve the beer (nice warm bar). It certainly saves on having to run up and down stairs a lot.

So what we have is a practical device that has the side-effect of helping to force CO2 out of solution and giving your beer a nice foamy head. The humble sparkler takes this one step further by adding to that agitation, forcing more CO2 out of solution more rapidly – and forms a tighter head on your beer. (Whether or not that is an improvement is entirely up to the individual.)

But the fact is that that same beer dispensed directly from cask into a glass is going to have more CO2 in solution. Beer dispensed via beer engine (with or without sparkler) simply cannot be less “flat” than the same beer dispensed directly from the cask. Yet is seems to be a commonly held belief that gravity dispense means flat beer. This, I suspect, comes down to two things:

  1. The “head” on a beer is seen as an important indicator of non-flatness. Yet is it really? The mechanism of a beer engine (especially with sparkler) can force what little CO2 remains in a beer out of it, it creates head against all odds. The result is your already pretty flat beer ends up even flatter for the sake of that head. Appearances can be deceiving?
  2. Most people’s experience of gravity dispense is beer festivals. And there are a whole host of issues with beer festivals, especially: insufficient conditioning time, insufficient cooling, insufficient cellaring skills. All three of these yield flatter beer.
    1. Conditioning: the tight schedule of festivals relies on beer coming from the brewery/supplier sufficiently conditioned. This is the norm these days, but sometimes a beer needs time that a festival simply cannot give it.
    2. Cooling: warmer beer has less CO2 in solution. If you vent your beer at 15C, say, it’ll loose a lot more CO2 – and if it then cools to 12C it will appear even flatter as a result. (Ensure your beer is cool before you vent it.)
    3. Cellar skills: knowledge of the previous two, but also simple things like use of nylon pegs at all non-service times for most beers. Keep that condition in the beer!

So, basically, beer festivals give gravity dispense a bad name.[2]

An antidote to this is a sharper focus on cask ale “cellaring”/quality at festivals. Adequate cooling, adequate space and time to match bar capacity, and adequate knowledge and skills. With these three sorted a pint of cask ale whether from beer engine or gravity should be fantastic and sport a nice frothy head.

Gravity dispense in pubs is rare – but is a growing trend mainly thanks to the micropub “boom” and use of non-pub buildings as pubs. Where I have come across it it usually suffers the same problems as festivals. A lack of ability to give at-bar stillaged beer appropriate time and cooling are the enemies here – so too is the lack of knowledge of some of these new landlords who’re new to keeping cask ales.

Gravity Dispense - middle of 3-day festival

Gravity Dispense – middle of 3-day festival

Gravity Dispense - end of 3 day festival

Gravity Dispense – end of 3 day festival

If there is a natural superiority to the beer engine it is that it allows you to keep your beer in a properly cooled cellar away from the point of dispense. Gravity can be just as good… but due to various practical limitations the odds are often against it.

The story does not end there with respect to comparing cask dispense methods. I have tasted a few beers side-by-side sparkled-and-unsparkled and there appears to be a flavour difference. Albeit this has not been done in a blind tasting situation – just casually in a few northern pubs. The sparkled beers usually appear muted… blunted… you could say “smoother” perhaps. What is behind this? Tight head on a sparkled pint blocking some level of aroma perception perhaps? Is enough CO2 forced out of the beer to perceptively alter acidity? Is there something else there… does the sparkler add a rapid-oxidation effect, with an impact akin to putting wine through a blender to “breathe” it?

And if a change of flavour is evident in sparkled-v-unsparkled cask ale – is there similar between gravity-v-beer-engine? Can a beer engine actually change, and improve, the flavour of beer? I doubt it. But I keep an open mind…

Some further research is required… aka: drinking beer ;)

[1] I’m not saying sparklers make beer flat! If the cask is well kept and contains a good amount of CO2 in solution there will still be a good vol CO2 in the beer post-sparkler. In fact, as I see it, in order to serve non-flat beer sparklers demand the best in cellarmanship. (And perhaps this is why beer is generally kept better up north than it is in, say, London.) That said, I near-always find a sparkled pint is flatter than I would like. I do have a preference for a bit more carbonation in my beer however, dirty foreigner that I am…

[2] Though some are better than others – I pride myself in the quality of the beer at my own festival. But even I, with my pretty good practical knowledge and scientific understanding, cannot have 100% perfect beer at a cask ale festival. Cooling is a pain – even using the fancy CAMRA HQ cooling equipment (this year I had beer getting a bit too cold). And the “time” element is impossible to do anything about (luckily few beers come to a festival with insufficient condition in this day and age, but there are always some.)

Hellish data

I don’t have a strong side on this whole Camden-versus-Redwell Hells thing really. Trademarks piss me off – I’m basically a communist at heart and ownership of words/”brands” irritates me. Also, Camden “has form” for being a bully about them. But brands and brand-defence are an unavoidable part of the business world, like it or not it is the commercial reality. Camden’s actions are “understandable” – if not always in-line with craft beer chumminess. The Camden BearD incident is being remembered in the current context and is counting strongly against Camden in the court of public opinion. I’d try to put this aside and look at the current situation in isolation.

Anyway… I thought I’d assemble in one place my thoughts and observations from the day. Here it is. I tried to be neutral but have failed… both sides have displayed an element of childishness & general arseholery… or perhaps just hasty emotive decision making. (I advised myself against writing this post… but I never listen to anyone.)

Trademark filings & timelines…

I don’t know what Camden’s full history for trying to trademark ‘Hells’ is but in this specific instance and time the trademark seems to have been filed defensively. It was filed as part of the process of realising the brand was “in danger”. Would they have done it without the motivation of a Redwell-copycat? Possibly… will they actually be granted the trademark? Who knows. Gut feeling is that it seems pretty tenuous given it is so very similar to the name of the style ‘helles’ – then again there are far far sillier trademarks in force out there. Trademarks do not adhere to such logic.

I fact they filed not one but two similar claims – covering minor variations in text & graphics. In a similar vein to the Camden filing I’d guess Redwell’s trademark filing was a defensive legal move. They’ve probably spent some money on product development & branding so they’d be keen to be able to continue to use it. A problem I have is that Camden’s post implies that Redwell tried to trademark ‘Hells’ – my search of the UK trademarks site does not show this as being quite accurate:

“This week we found out that this other brewery filed two applications to trademark the name Hells on 27th August”

It looks like Redwell have filed to trademark their branding… which happens to include the word Hells. This is a bit different and blunts the impact of Camden’s argument slightly. That said… there is a certain similarity to the name of the beer, if not the presentation:

Camden Hells RedWellHells

Redwell has previously filed a trade mark for their brewery name/logo ‘REDWELL‘ and has very recently filed two more claims for ‘REDWELL IPL‘ and ‘REDWELL IPL INDIA PALE LAGER‘. They seem to have gone a bit trademark-happy. A bit odd coming from folk who published this in their defence:

“If we don’t stop the creeping rot of one trademark and copyright after the other then it never ends and just keeps creeping ever further into our lives..”

Camden on the other hand has no other trademark filings I can find – only that for ‘Hells’.

Is “Hells” a common spelling of “Helles”?

The data on the web, through the lens of Google is very much on Camden’s side in the argument over whether or not ‘Hells’ in the world of beer is a Camden brand or a synonym for ‘hells’ the style of beer. Check these Google searches:

(To try and keep my results “clean” I did these searches using Chrome’s “Incognito” mode.)

OK – but perhaps Camden just have crack-hot SEO experts. What comes up if we remove Camden?

  • “hells” “lager” -“Camden” – results are a bit junky, still some stuff about Camden, a few things that are clearly typos or spellos, a few actual beers though. US or Antipodean brews or homebrew. I’ve not closely examined all these results – but an eye-balling of the first 5 pages gives a strong impression that ‘hells’ is not common.

But hey, we’re being told that in Germany “dropping the ‘e'” isn’t uncommon. Two Germanophiles say this isn’t so.

A couple of blokes on Twitter are hardly definitive of course, however Google searches locked to ‘.de’ similarly don’t agree…

The spelling for the style of beer is very clearly either ‘hell’ or ‘helles’ and only ‘hells’ due to misunderstanding, misspelling, or jokey beer names usually not from Germany. There’s a UK one from Abbeydale in fact. The funny thing is that Germans do know how to spell German words oddly enough, it also helps that the German pronunciation for “helles” would not map onto the spelling “hells” (as far as I am aware). It’d be like saying “larger” is a common synonum for “lager”. The whole ‘hells’ != ‘helles’ thing is backed up by many beer references…

It is also worth browsing RateBeer and Untapped to get a feel for the reality that ‘hells’ as a beer name is pretty rare, rarer still as a name for a helles or lager.

This ‘hells’ is a not-uncommon synonym for ‘helles’ argument is bunk and should be dropped by Redwell, it won’t do them any favours.

The meat of the issue: Is Redwell’s ‘Hells’ a copy of Camden’s ‘Hells’?

I find it hard to believe there is no relationship between these two beer names. Redwell is based in Norwich – in East Anglia. They firmly place themselves in the ‘craft’ sector – so much so the they put ‘craft’ in their beer name (shudder). Camden beers, especially the Hells and Pale Ale are widely distributed throughout East Anglia. (I’ve often grumbled about this in fact… bars put on an unchanging line-up of Camden Helles & Meantime Lager and think they’ve “gone craft”.) The name ‘Hells’ in a beery context is very much associated with Camden in this region – amongst anyone who’s interested in good beer at any rate. On top of that the styles of these two beers are the same, even the ABV is the same… at this point it starts to look like a BrewDogesque publicity fishing expedition hinging on the idea that nobody likes a bully.

From the start I’d just hoped that somebody basically just couldn’t spell ‘helles’, knew shit all about beer, and had made a daft marketing decision. Currently leaning to thinking ‘not so sure’.

To me it is boiling down to:

Is it “right” to release a beer called “Hells” in the belief that “Hells” is a word that ought not _belong_ to a single company given its generic-seeming nature. Fighting your own “good fight” against “the man”…. or is it just pedantry, headline-whoring, and an act of everyday arseholery?

I kind of want to pick both sides here as I have sympathies either way… but dunno, it will be interesting to see where this goes. Gauntlets have been thrown and it is going to be lawyers at dawn.

Secondary to this: what is wrong with just spelling bloody ‘helles’ correctly people? Or ‘hell’ even? Pint of “Hell Craft Lager Beer” anyone? Personally I don’t give a toss about the ‘hells’, ‘helles’, ‘hell’ part of the name… but it could do without the “craft lager beer” bollocks. If you put “craft” in the actual name of a beer you’re doing it wrong. Leave that sort of idiocy to the marketing monkeys at Marstons and Greene King.

[Update 2014-09-14: SEE ALSO: The Brewery That Cried Hells – personally I find my own bias is swinging towards Camden in this matter. As a drinker I’m not a particularly keen fan of Camden or their beers, nor their past trademark actions, nor their origin fudging (are they still guilty of this?)… but Redwell just need to grow up a bit.]