We can do without “craft” elitism…

Dabbled in Facebook briefly. I use it as a “business tool” mainly (and it is a useful one), but if you’re there you get dragged into being “friends” and into “groups”. There’s a “Craft Beer” group where you’re only allowed to talk about “craft beer”. Some poor chap got told off for mentioning Robinsons beer…


I’m not a big fan of Robbies. Old Tom on cask can be a delight mind you. Like most trad brewers their sterile shelflife-first flavour-second bottled stuff is mostly not great compared to their cask, and their cask is mostly a bit unexciting. But entirely pleasant when found in good condition.

But just because they’re a bit trad, presumably pay full duty rate, are more than 10 years old as a brewery, and that you find their beers in Tesco… seems little reason to blithely dismiss them as “not craft” in my mind. Let alone get on a high horse about it.

They’re independent and family run… do not represent a huge chunk of the UK beer market… well below the 3% that makes up the US definition for craft brewers, let alone the overall volume of beer produced under the US market definition. I’d be curious to know if they brew less or more than BrewDog at the moment. BrewDog… that common, or garden variety, Tesco brewer who most certainly are on the full duty rate.

Craft defined by style? Maybe craft defined by hops?

The mindless faddishness of it gets my goat and I want no part in it. It reflects badly on the industry as a whole, and it makes folk who claim that they like beer look like a bag of fashion-victim style tossers.


I think we need a better vocabulary around the subject of sourness in beer. I hear a lot of stuff described as sour and I’m rarely quite sure what someone means. Usually it just means they’re a malty beer drinker and they don’t like a thin pale ale. (Such as Oakham Citra being described as “sharp”.)

Keep in mind that beer is always acidic… be it berlinerweisse at a pH of 3 or malty ale at a pH in the low fours… and palates vary… but some things are definitely detectable and definable.

Here’s a few forms of “sour” I come across:

Sharp – what I call the sharpness of thin pale ales, the Session IPAs of this world, I actually hear people take a sip and say “oh, that’s sour”… I’d not use the word sour personally, but I do use the term “sharp”. See also: being contacted by a bar and asked why a beer is so sour… worrying about infection… then hearing it is a 3% session pale and thinking: ah-hah… Some I know think of this as a lack of “balance”, especially in new-style Brit-IPAs that lack the meatier crystal malt character of some of their US counterparts.

Lactic – this is a properly biting lemon-juice sour which can be often found in mouth-puckeringly dry berlinerweisse, but also sometimes in bigger sweeter beers which take the edge off it. It is a “clean” sourness, not one that usually comes with a “sour” aroma, it can be described as enamel-stripping at times, but shouldn’t be too challenging to the white wine or cider drinker. Ice cold it is amongst my favourite type of summer refresher, especially at typical sub-4% strengths.

Acetic – always bad in my opinion, but accepted by some in some styles. Basically this is vinegar, sometimes complete with malt-vinegar pong. Usually a sign of badly kept cask ales. Sometimes mildly deliberate – notably in the (in)famous Duchess de Brogdoggognogwhateveritisyer...

Brett – I still don’t quite understand this one. I see bretted beers decribed as a “sour style” and I’ve had folk say they won’t have bretted beers because they “don’t like sours”. I’m still a bit confused by this. I’ve had some sour-ish bretted beers but I don’t think of brett as a giver of sourness. Usually it is more umami and woody spiciness… but hey ho, it is worth mentioning. The sense of “sourness” could come from them often being dry (little sweetness) and not hugely hopped (little bitterness). Perhaps this subject needs a bit of deeper exploration beyond Orval ;)

Ropey – this is sort of my own one. Is is that specific sourness you only seem to get in old fined cask ale. I suspect it is the finings going “off”… it’s a sort of tang, I call it a “twang”, a discord in the beer flavour. It is distinct from any of the above… think old pongy cheap port perhaps, not acetic but soured. Needs more analysis… unpleasantly.

There are probably others but these are what I some across most often in talking to folk who buy beer at various levels and drinking beer myself. Are their tannic sours, citric? Not sure. But the point is we need more precision as currently the word “sour” is doing me ‘ed in.

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.