Objective Definition of Craft Beer

Don’t try to define craft beer, that way madness lies… [Added 3/8/15 21:41: Please don’t read this as me insisting there ought to be some sort of an enforced definition… nor that I think I am laying down a One True Definition of Craft… it’s just a thought exercise. I do still think the concept is worth pondering.]

But hey, everyone seems to be defining craft beer again. I decided to give it a ponder, to flog the dead horse per se. Nowt better than a well flogged equine corpse. (I clearly don’t have enough to do… like accounting, inventory, and sales for example.)

The problem is nearly every definition goes into some wishy washy non-measurable territory about “quality” and ethos. This isn’t going to work… after significant thought (5 minutes, but on the back of several-years worth of feedback loop), here’s what I boil it down to from my own personal perspective. This is _my_ best attempt at a definition of “craft beer”, it gels with a lot of others, even BrewDog’s, but brings in stricter ownership rules and discards what I see as unnecessary minutiae & subjectivity.

  1. Brewery is “privately” owned and controlled.
    This is about being in control of creative direction, not being answerable to shareholders and investors. Freedom. Being an exchange listed company _definitely_ rules you out of the “craft beer club” (which, to my pleasure, takes Greene King out of the definition, huzzah!). Collective employee ownership is OK however – that’s about as craft as you can get I reckon. You can buy a brewery and have it still be craft too, so I’m not tying this down to founder-owned. Look at breweries like Moor, for example. [Disclosure: I sell Moor beer. It is awesome.] I’ll allow breweries owned by rich benefactors as well, so long as they have entire ownership of the brewery, so I’m not tying it down to brewer-owned either. If the owner(s) build it up, and sell it to Molson Coors… craft status stripped. Harsh perhaps, the beer probably won’t change in the short run (it will almost certainly change in the long run). But I believe craft is about more than the liquid in the glass.
  2. Investment companies / investors own, collectively, no more than 10%
    I think equity-investment in brewing is fine, see “rich benefactor” above, but a large corporate or institutional investor pretty much says one thing to me: where’s the exit strategy? It isn’t quite universal, perhaps, but it is nearly always the case that investment means travelling a path towards a destination of either sell-out-high or get-listed. Cash-in, cha-ching… that’s not craft. On the other hand, making lots of money by building a mega-successful brewery is perfectly OK. It’s “selling out” that I don’t believe is craft, unless the “sell out” is privately to a private owner in which case there’s room for the operation to remain “craft”.
  3. IMG_20150802_163304Beer clearly states origin and name of origin brewery.
    Origin fudging is not craft. I won’t budge on this one. Being shy about your production is not craft. If you’re embarrassed about how & where your beer is produced: it is not craft. I’ve no problems with cuckoo or contract brewing so long as it is done honestly – Yeastie Boys are an example of honest (and worthwhile) contract brewing. [Disclosure: Yes, I sell their beer. Because I love the beers.]
  4. Beer lists all ingredients.
    At a minimum top level ingredients, including brewing essentials such as yeast – so a list such as: Barley Malt, Flaked Wheat, Hops, Yeast, Blood Oranges, Otters’ Tears. I don’t really understand why this isn’t more normal, in my opinion it ought to be a legal requirement. But failing that – brewers should just naturally choose to do this! If you’re not proud of your ingredients, not ashamed to admit what goes into the beer, than you’re not craft as far as I’m concerned. I’m not saying brewers should give out the recipes to their beers – I am saying every beer should say what is in the bottle. And I want more than most here, as much as is practical. Malt types, hop varieties, yeast strain (and “our house yeast” is fine here). Whether isinglass is used at any stage too. Ideally this should be on the bottle, it can’t practically be presented for keg/cask – and sometimes hops have to change, often recipes evolve, but that’s what websites are for: 8 Wired, Hopwired [Disclosure: Hey, I happen to sell this stuff too.]
  5. Brewery meets a (to be determined) set of basic standards.
    This one needs some work. But, basically, I would lay down a set of minimum standards in addition to the core points above… I don’t think it is good to be too specific, like ruling out use of certain adjuncts, or brewing processes, etc. But there are some basics that are simple to audit. Some rough initial ideas: pays at least living wage (quality of people, I don’t think living wage is perfect but it is a start), invests in cold-storage (quality of beer), deals with wholesalers who invest in cold-storage (self-interest afoot here! But I believe *strongly* in improving supply chain in this direction – and the same applies for exporters and foreign distributors), educates employed brewing staff (owner-brewers excepted perhaps?), does not package beer in clear glass (personal enraged bugbear!) … what else? (All subject to debate…) [I’m, astonishingly, changing my mind on pasteurisation just a little, there are circumstances where I can accept it is not a compromise. Late additions of maple syrup, for example… how’s that for a subject for a “craft debate”?]

What, nothing about about size? Production volume? Etc… I think the US has shown that measuring craft by brewery size doesn’t work very well.

It may not quite be perfect… but it is “craft” as I see it, as much as I can pin it down within my own mind. Plenty of breweries I think are a bit crap fit within the definition, but defining craft beer can’t be about what I do and don’t like and it needs to be objective if it is to work at all. I use the word and if I’m to continue to use the word I ought to be able to outline what I mean when I use it… that’s one of the points of this post.

I’ve an ulterior motive in all this of course. Because I think, if done right, this can be used as a mechanism to drive change and improve quality in the UK beer industry. A proper craft beer representative body can pick up where SIBA fails to deliver, and bridge the gap to where the Beer Academy doesn’t quite seem to have the grunt to execute.

If there is to be a wider crystallisation of a concept of craft then mere definition is not enough… it needs an organisation behind it to work. Sometimes there are grey areas and a committee, perhaps, needs to make a ruling. For a definition to work lines do need to be drawn. And the organisation doing this needs to really stand up for the ethos behind craft beer… creativity and independence, and striving for quality. (We can’t make quality part of the definition, but an organisation can support and encourage it.)

This should be a membership based organisation like SIBA, where all breweries that meet the definition can join for a fairly low fee. (£250?) [But you don’t have to be a member to _be_ a craft brewer!] Major decisions are made on an open democratic basis – we have the technology to achieve this quite simply. The purpose of the organisation is to manage the membership, manage the definition, promote the concept of craft beer, and – importantly – make an attempt at defining best practice. Work to improve and modernise the world of great beer in the UK, which will be of benefit to everyone in the chain from farmer to drinker.

In the UK we’ve a lot to do to improve the pint of beer that ends up in the glass. SIBA isn’t doing it (but it does help), the Beer Academy isn’t doing it (but it does help), CAMRA isn’t doing it (and may actually have become a barrier to good quality).

Finally – “craft beer” should try hard not to look down on “not craft beer”. We’ll all have our own personal prejudices which we won’t give up (*cough*GreenKing*cough*). But we have to accept that some multinationals do make a high quality product, and sometimes it even happens to be rather tasty.

This has been a craft community broadcast brought to you by the vested-interest department… and I may very well change my mind tomorrow. Or after I’ve had a beer.

P.S. In all of this I think it is well worth being aware that craft is not necessarily equal to “good”, and non-craft is definitely not equal to “bad”. Good and bad are subjective and undefinable, there is debate even around identifiable brewing/beer flaws. Craft is not equal to “better” – but it will _usually_ be more interesting than the alternative thanks to the creativity and flexibility of the style of operation I think my above points encompass. Cases in point are to look at Greene King’s efforts at “craft”, and Marston’s “Revisionist” beers… which for the most part I don’t think are _bad_ beers, but they’re clearly contained and restrained beers… yet are the most “adventurous” beers breweries of this scale and shareholder-value maximising sensibilities will produce. (You can still brew really dull beer within the points of my attempt at a definition above, of course.)

To fine the unfined?

This is a sort of a “repost” of a BollocksBook post by a friend of mine.

He’s a very experienced cellarman, running a very good pub, serving good beer in typically very good condition. He really knows his stuff.

He likes the sound of some beers but they happen to only come in unfined form. The question is:

Is it OK to buy a deliberately unfined beer and then fine it so you can serve it clearer?

My own view on this is: NO – unless you have agreed this with the brewer of the beer. At least that’s the only case in which I’d do it myself. But I’d also probably not buy an unfined beer if I didn’t want an unfined beer.

Now I am pro-unfined and regularly sell products from three breweries that are 100% unfined (Moncada, Moor, and Weird Beard). I certainly don’t pressure folk into thinking they ought to be buying unfined beers though. But I’ll explain fairly passionately why some of the beers I sell are unfined if I am asked. Ultimately I sell these beers because there is a demand for the products in question of course – this doesn’t mean you have to buy or drink them though.

On the other hand I’m not anti-finings. I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t mind fish parts being used to clarify beer. I don’t think it is entirely necessary for the goodness of the beer, but it is necessary for selling beer to most of the beer-drinking market. And there is something beautiful about a crystal-clear pint. Yeast also doesn’t necessarily taste good… but a good unfined beer ought not be “yeasty”, nor even “cloudy”, with a few days on stillage it should be hazy at worst.

Anyway… my friend’s post is inside the walled garden of unofficial-CAMRA Facebook so I reproduce it in entirety here:

I have some cask real ales coming in that are unfined and will therefore have a haze to a greater or lesser degree. I am considering adding finings in the cellar before I condition the beer – I have done this many times before in my 30 years of cellarmanship, but only when the beer has been hazy due to a problem of some sort.

The reason for this is that the vast majority of my customers will not drink cloudy ale, and at the end of the day they pay the bills! Finings (made from the swim bladder of the Sturgeon) have been used for centuries to clear beer by taking out the unwanted stuff that sits in suspension in the beer. Finings cause these particles to congeal and sink to the bottom of the cask, hence making the beer clear. There is many an argument as to whether the floaty bits are good or bad for you, but that is not for here.

I appreciate that this means the beer will not be as the brewer intended it. Some of there brews are purposefully unfined to make them suitable for vegetarians or vegans, or because a brewer might wish their beers to be as pure as possible. I have the greatest respect for these folk and again this is not about whether a beer should be fined or not.

I am passionate about real ale, and want to be able to offer as many unusual, experimental and rare brews from small, independent brewers. But we are not in a trendy city – not even a busy town centre! I have a traditional local on the edge of a small town and therefore need to balance what we offer carefully. We generally struggle to sell cloudy beer and as small brewers ales are usually much more expensive than mainstream ones, we can’t afford to risk having to chuck it away!

So it’s a simple yes or no question – should I add finings to the beer.

Yes – It’s crystal clearly the right thing to do. Cut Diamonds are always better than Rough. Its fine with me!
No – How dare you? Leave the mist in the mystery, the amazing haze, the fuggled fog! Let the clouds reign!

And I’ve created my own everybody’s-welcome Survey Monkey poll for this too. Remember this is not a debate about whether finings are good/bad or clear beer is good/bad or haze is good/bad… just about whether it is “OK” for a publican to fine a beer that a brewer deliberately sells as an unfined product.

If you do the ArseBook you can go over there and join/read the existing discussion. (And please continue the discussion there if you do do the arsebook, but if you don’t there’s comments below and Twitter…) There’s supposed to be a poll there too, but it doesn’t work for me. Thus I have this:

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

CAMRA – can it be part of the equality solution?

The issue of women in beer is being discussed a lot lately – continuing reverberations of the session #81 I expect. Read those links, that’s background material.

GBBF Bar Staff

Opening-time volunteers on my GBBF bar

I want to know: how can CAMRA be a part of the solution to making the world a better and more equitable place for women. Currently the beer scene, and in the UK the “real ale” scene more so than average, is adept at alienating 50% of the human population. CAMRA publications, events, and pubs in general are often uncomfortable, and sometimes even hostile, places for women. I personally don’t think CAMRA is a source of the problems – my experience volunteering for CAMRA from the branch level (North Hertfordshire) through to GBBF has always given me the impression that your typical active CAMRA member is relatively forward-thinking and progressive. Why then do we sit by and allow the “real ale” scene to be regressive with respect to equality? Why does the organisation, in its passivity, help to proliferate misogyny?

I should note that I am in the camp of thinking that says: organisations must be pro-active about equality and the rights of women. Further to that: we live in a very inequitable society – the cultural, social, and political balance of power is very much in the hands of men. Men cannot dismiss feminism and equality with “ignore it, it’s getting better on its own” – because it isn’t really – we must do all we can to help push the world forward. By not helping to fix things we accept the status quo – we become, or rather remain, part of the problem.

Coming back to CAMRA, here’s some rough proposals that occurred to me today:

  1. Strict editorial standards banning advertising that sexualises or trivialises women.(Really ought to add the same for race, sexuality, and gender issues in general.)
    • Example: The infamous “Top Totty” pumpclip, and similar – never to be seen again in a CAMRA publication. Oh, and please toss this “keg buster” rubbish on the “relics of yesteryear” pile.
  2. The same standards applied to beer branding and point-of-sale material at beer festivals and events.
    • Example: As per above, pumpclips are a particular problem. But problem beers on a “banned” list until the marketing is altered. (I’m hesitant to suggest blanket-banning the brewery, but I wouldn’t object to the idea.)
  3. Strong & enforceable codes-of-conduct that apply to CAMRA office holders, volunteers, and event-goers:
    • Example: This is a hot topic in the technology sector, see what the Ada Inititive has to say on the matter of codes of conduct: Conference anti-harassment policy.
  4. A “FemAle” scheme, like LocAle
    • OK, I don’t like the name “FemAle” (and expect it has been used already) – but the point is to have a scheme whereby pubs agree to a code-of-conduct under which they will not display sexist materials (i.e. pumpclips again) nor sell beers with inappropriate “humorous” names. Furthermore they must come down like a tonne of bricks on harassment on the part of their customers. Like “LocAle” they will be marketed (i.e. a GBG icon) as female-friendly pubs – but they must be strongly held to account, to ensure they maintain their side of the bargain. Complaints will be taken seriously – perhaps using some sort of “three strikes” style of system.

This is a vague spur-of-the-moment rough idea at the time. Do the above make sense? If not: why not? What else could be added to the list? What can CAMRA do nationally and what can CAMRA branches do at the “grass roots” level to become a part of the solution?

How do you sell this to the CAMRA membership? A guideline/policy would have to go up for a vote at an CAMRA AGM. I think a simple justification is: the success of your beloved “real ale” and “local pubs” depend on sales… yet right now the “real ale” world is alienating 50% of its potential market. What is the sense in that?

In fact this ought to be priority #1 for CAMRA’s current key campaigns: “Encourage more people to try a range of real ales, cider and perries” & “To raise the profile of pub-going and increase the number of people using pubs regularly” (login required) – yet the issue is not even mentioned! I’m actually astounded that whoever wrote those campaign outlines didn’t even consider addressing this.

To stoke the fires we could even leverage a dirty bit of container-politics: right now the “craft beer” movement is doing a better job on this front, attracting customers who are uncomfortable with the misogyny in the traditional pub and cask ale market. They’re taking their friends and family with them… out of the traditional pub and into keg-only BrewDog bars. The horror!

Can we do this, can CAMRA be a force for good?

Response: The Point Of CAMRA

Yet another excessive blog comment turned post… these words are written in response to some very valid points raised by M.Lawrenson at Seeing The Lizards in: The Point Of CAMRA. I couldn’t submit my comment because it was more than 4096 characters. Ooops.

I speak for only myself of course. I dislike some things CAMRA does, I like other things CAMRA does. I’m an active CAMRA member and have done time on the committee of the North Hertfordshire branch. I currently live in the Cambridge branch area but have had my membership tied to North Herts as I’m still actively involved there. So “my branch” is North Herts.

Please read this first. As the below is a direct reply.

CAMRA festival funds – profit driven? Excess raised by the festivals I’m involved in gets sent to HQ where I presume it goes into the “general campaign pot”. What we keep pays for: setup costs for the next beer festival (including float), newsletter publication, subsidised minibus trips [edit: to hard-to-reach countryside pubs], occasional buffets at branch meetings. [edit: forgetting: as a branch we own a lot of equipment related to beer festivals too, which needs continual maintenance and replacement] Costs are going up so festivals don’t seem as cheap as I’m guessing they once did (before my time in the UK). Venue hire is increasingly expensive, beer is going up quite a bit too. Profits are certainly not shooting up and (my branch at least) has no goal to increase profits at successive festivals.

'spoons vouchersLicensees relations – not good? Nope… CAMRA branches don’t quite do enough to get them onside. The problem is every one seems to want personal attention and a member drinking in their bar 100% of the time. (There probably is – the problem is they only see the “core” members as “CAMRA” – in my branch that’s ~18 out of nearly 900 members – and we have 200 pubs.) IMO more needs to be done to improve relationships with pubs across the board. The fucking ‘spoons vouchers really don’t help here. I’ve nearly rage-quit CAMRA several times over them. On the other hand the very very low number of active members makes it difficult. I wonder if this might really be an member “activation” problem. Not enough of us, we’re all using our “spare time”, it really is time-consuming…

Beer discount rage? I don’t really know where this comes from. (Outside of the ‘spoons vouchers.) I think there must be certain members (and maybe branches) that are a pain in the arse about it. I’m not even sure if any pubs in my branch area offer a CAMRA discount – and I’m speaking as a committee member. As a branch, in recent years at least, we’ve had no policy to badger publicans to offer discounts. I expect some do so because they’re “playing the game” – they’re the ones willing to spend money on marketing. I’d say the more “business minded” licensees perhaps. They know this helps spread the word about their pub… and that really most drinkers aren’t CAMRA members so it isn’t going to have a huge impact on their bottom line. (I have noticed Cambridge branch publish a list of pubs that provide a discount.)

Active members campaigning? In my branch a dismal 2% of members are regularly “active” despite significant membership increases. I’ve puzzled myself about why we have this constantly increasing membership (about +100 this year IIRC). Festival entrance? Not ours, it’s only 3 quid and doesn’t suffer from queuing – but we’re near Cambridge… huge queues there… so maybe. Pub discounts? (Very few in my area AFAIK). Wetherspoons vouchers maybe? (Only 3 ‘spoons – though soon to be 5.) I’d love to know more demographic and “churn” stats but I don’t have ready access to that data (for quite sensible data protection reasons). I know the geographic distribution and it is fairly wide & even, certainly not clustered on Wetherspoon pub locations.

As for CAMRA newsletters… almost universally an embarrassing relic. Including, to some extent, the one that covers my area that’s edited by – CAMRA heartland – the South Hertfordshire branch.

'spoons vouchers

To address “The Point of CAMRA”: I think there are a few factions/mindsets in CAMRA who see this differently:

  1. Core oldsters who’re still “fighting the war” – keg may come back at any time, keg is the antichrist, keg is “cold chemical fizz”. Many of these are probably not exactly flush with cash so they might appreciate the vouchers and discounts I suppose.
  2. “For the consumers” – it’s all about getting deals for members. They’re somewhat price-focused, and see pubs as a “resource” in the dehumanising “Human Resources” sense. These are the ‘spoons voucher defenders – and CAMRA HQ seems to be a concentration of them. The ones super-focused on the membership number strangely enough. (And apparently membership would fall like a STONE if CAMRA stopped the flow of vouchers and made What’s Brewing & Beer available to the general public.)
  3. “For the beer” – for the most part simply want to enjoy a good beer beer. To this end the goal is promoting cask ale: festivals spread the word but pubs are the core. Supporting pubs is key, running GBG selection and selecting a Pub of the Year is an important campaigning activity with the goal of driving up standards.

I’m in group 3 myself. IMO this group wants to help pubs because helping pubs means more good beer. This seems to be a majority of the group you’ll find volunteering at GBBF and many other festivals. In my experience these folk are more concerned about quality than price. I think this sort of member is the dominant force in my own branch. We still get all of the flack listed above though as, I expect, a) some general members out there are right real-ale-twats & b) some landlords don’t seem to realise that they can’t manage cask ale to save their lives and meagre branch resources are not able to hold their hand. If they’re not attracting CAMRA members & attention then the reason is probably nothing to do with the price of a pint. I’ve done more than enough “pub rambles” where as a branch we deliberately visit a set of pubs where all but one or two are ones that we *know* will likely be pretty damn awful on the cask ale front. We go, we drink their beer, when it is properly crap we tell them (we return the properly crap beer and likely end up having either a discussion or an argument about it). The ball’s really in their court at this point.

I should state that I’m entirely on the side of CAMRA focusing on support for _cask_ale_ in pubs. I have nothing at all against other beer formats, but really do see CAMRA as a cask-specific organisation. (Controversially (?) I wish the cider folk would go get their own organisation, and think that “real ale in a bottle” is a distraction… what next – should CAMRA add a committee to support morris dancers?) That said, I think CAMRA should crack down on ALL negativity about “keg” and “craft beer” (sigh, whatever that is… fucking What’s Brewing letters section. Stop publishing that shit!). I do think there should be more focus on pubs – but I also do think this IS happening, it’s just taking a long time for it to filter down to the branch level. And, frankly, I get the impression from people I know that some branches are the “Real Ale Twats”… solution to that? No idea. I might think of some suggestions – like a “HOWTO execute a hostile takeover of a CAMRA branch” blueprint.

Alas for the general direction of CAMRA at a macro-level… it’ll be slow to change, because as far as the AGM and vocal membership goes there seems to be a lot more support by member types 1 and 2. It feels, to me, a lot like national politics in that way.

Sorry about the incredibly lengthy reply. I should probably try and write my own modern/young(hah) CAMRA member manifesto some time.



GBBF: CAMRA Bar Management Training

Bar and Kilderkins

These kils need to be on that scaffold… time for some proper work.

I did my first GBBF this year. My first as a volunteer I mean. Except I wasn’t there just to pull some pints, I was attending the CAMRA Bar Management Training that is held at GBBF every year. What is a “CAMRA Bar Manager” – what does this so-called “training” cover? Some would make jokes about beer gut cultivation (doing fine there on my own alas), choice of correct sandals (was a confirmed sandal wearer before I moved to the UK), and beard growth strategies (follicly challenged in the face department alas). Hey, I make fun of CAMRA too sometimes. However, the training really is a good and useful thing for anyone who wishes to care for cask ale – especially in a beer festival environment.


My fellow GBBF Bar Manager trainees.

How do you get to do it?
The training is for CAMRA members and you need to be nominated by your regional director. In my case I was lucky to have been pushed into it along with a colleague from North Herts CAMRA branch because our festivals lacked technical knowledge, plus as of this year we’re running a festival in summer and this requires cooling equipment. Under some guidance I’ve done most of the “cellar” for the last couple of festivals, and looked after the cooling at the last festival. (Luckily we had the GBBF technical director to hand to give us a crash-course.) I say “under some guidance” but there are only a couple of folk in the branch who’s guidance I particularly trust, whilst I’ve had some downright suspect instructions from others! Basically I was a little confused and certainly lacking confidence.

If you’re interested in doing the training I suggest that first you need to be involved with your local branch and have an interest in running festivals. If your branch lacks technical knowledge (many seem to) and you’re keen, you probably have a good chance of getting on the course. (However numbers are limited, so if at first you don’t succeed…). This year the course had people along ranging from 18 years old through to (at a guess) well into their 60s. We only had one woman on the course, which isn’t surprising I guess – is that in line with active membership or below? For my branch it is certainly below. Anyway – one is better than none. The trainees had travelled from all over, a chap even harking from the Isle of Man – plus a dude from the US doing the course as part of some exchange programme.

Scaffold Training

We learnt how to put together this modular scaffold stuff. (Not rocket science… but there are some tricks to it.)

What is covered?
A suffusion of beer festival information! The course is misnamed in a way. Whilst set-up and care of cask ale was core, we also had sessions on health and safety, risk assessment & insurance, ordering kit from HQ, foreign beer, beer flaws & infections, dispense technicalities (a keykeg made an appearance – yes, they can be perfectly OK as “real ale”), scaffolding, beer logistics & stock management, and cider. So really you could call this a “festival organiser course”, I think I probably could have a go at running a whole festival now (if I was that masochistic).

The course is a mix of theory sessions, hands-on practical sessions, and for the majority of the time plain old hard graft behind a GBBF bar. Every trainee is given to a GBBF bar manager (Buster Grant from Brecon Brewery in my case) and expected to get stuck into all aspects of looking after the bar (whilst trying not to get in the way too much).

Beer beasties!

Beer nasties under the microscope in the GBBF QA lab. They take this stuff seriously.

GBBF trainee schedule, in brief…
I arrived on Saturday August 10th, signed in and immediately reported to Buster – for the first two days trainees are handed straight over to their managers to provide extra muscle for set-up. First job: kils are arriving on pallets and need to be up on stillage. Cooling was hooked up. Beer lines and pumps set up and cleaned.

A typical GBBF stillage exists in two distinct parts – one is what you see behind the bar: a scaffolding structure with a lower and an upper deck where casks are sitting under cooling jackets. Part of the art of setting this up is deciding where to put the casks in order to aid efficient take-down. I.e. under Buster’s system the 1st and 2nd casks on are all out to the edges so that the outer cooling systems can be broken down early. There is no prescriptive one-way-to-do-things however, and each GBBF bar manager has developed their own methods and tricks. There are some constraints of course, such as: there are typically 4 kilderkins of each beer and these need to be arranged such that the line from a given hand-pump is able to reach them all. (Having done this GBBF I can very much see why kils are a necessity!) [Edit: I forgot to explain the “second part” – this is a huge refrigerated box located behind the stillage that has the other half of the beer in it. Up on a double-layer scaffold. The cooler boxes are much simpler to set up and manage and some think it should all be done that way as it is so much easier – however others think the “look and feel” of a festival is not as good without all the kils out on display.]

The first casks were vented and tapped on Sunday so they would be ready for the “trade session” on Tuesday. Through the week the remaining casks are vented, tapped, and hooked up to lines as required. Twice a day the volume of beer in the casks that are on is measured with a dipstick and this feeds in to deciding when to vent the next-casks-in-line. When a cask runs dry it is sealed up and moved to “the crypt” at the end of the day.

This all amounts to a truly epic operation. Have a look at the crypt for an idea of the scale of things… (you can drag the image around for a full 360-degree experience… Google did NOT make this easy to achieve!)

The actual coursework and theory of the training is held in sessions from Monday through to Friday. Monday is a quiet day for a good bar team anyway – as most of the set-up is done and it is just a matter of spit-and-polish. A day of rest before the beer-drinking hoards hit the festival on Tuesday. Throughout the weekdays trainees split their time between the sessions and helping out at their bars wherever they can be of use. Everything from beer technicalities to serving customers at the bar – plus quite a bit of mopping at times.

Colin thirsty for hops...

Colin thirsty for hops… enjoying a beer in the Voly after another long GBBF day sitting on my head.

The reward at the end of every night is time for a couple of free pints in the “Volunteers Arms” (aka “the voly”) - the staff-only bar (with over 200 different beers on over the course of GBBF – it is a beer-festival within a beer-festival). It was a long week with post-voly bedtime most nights being about 2AM. However we didn’t need to be on-site until 10AM(ish) so that’s not all that bad.

At the end of the final day, within 2 hours of 5pm “time at the bar”, all casks and equipment were off stillage and on pallets. On Sunday the 18th, my last day, I was mostly in the crypt sorting and stacking dead casks. One final batch of hard graft before scooting home on the train for a much needed night in my own bed before heading back to office drudgery on Monday.

It was a long 9 days – and the seriously hardcore volunteers have a couple more either side to make it about 2 weeks on-site. Dedication to cask ale!


The handpumps of Bar 19.

Cask ale care…
(especially with my own festival in mind)…
All the topics covered interested me. (Well, to be honest: the cider session was a nightmare). But I was really there for the beer. How does one serve cask ale in good form? Unfortunately there isn’t 100% agreement on this! However most disagreement comes down to peripheral issues like whether or not venting tools were good and how you should arrange beers on stillage. The term “dark art” came up more than once. However there was enough of a consensus for me to build up a plan for my next festival. I’m lucky enough to have one that isn’t complex – we have 1 cask of each beer (a mix of firks and kils) and they all go on at once for 2.5 days of service starting Thursday evening. Here’s my rough timeline - feel free to critique it. Please.

  1. Monday: (preferable) or Tuesday (ASAP) get all casks on stillage and under cooling.
    • Would prefer Monday with casks sitting overnight before venting, but that incurs the cost of an extra night of overnight security.
    • Conflict exists about whether or not to be variously violent with casks to “redistribute muck and finings”. My position is violence here doesn’t seem necessary. Plus they have already been rolled around the ground quite a bit at this stage.
    • Conflict exists here with respect to use of soft/hard pegs. My position is that soft pegs should only be used where casks exhibit excessive activity. Hard pegs should be applied as soon as activity dies down.
    • Ideally casks should have a few hours to sit at this point prior to venting.
  2. Tuesday: vent and tap all casks.
    • Hard pegs firmly in all casks unless there is excessive activity.
  3. Wednesday AM: 1st check of beers.
    • If good mark as “OK”, otherwise mark as appropriate – making note of any particular taints or excessive haze.
  4. Wednesday PM/evening: 2nd check of beers.
    • If good mark as “OK”. Any still with with excessive haze that hasn’t changed since the 1st check to be tested for overnight with isinglass and aux finings (if possible).
  5. Thursday AM: 3rd check of beers.
    • If determined that finings should be added to any beers, do it now. Carefully & in-place, using a funnel and bent tube. (This is how it is done at GBBF.)
  6. Thursday pre-opening:
    • Check any non-“OK” beers before opening. Attach/flip their cask-end-cards for “OK” beers. Soft spiles in “OK” casks for duration of service.
  7. Thursday end-of-night: Stock-take with dip-sticks, and hard spiles in all beers.
  8. Friday pre-opening: Check any beers not yet “OK”. “OK” them if possible.
  9. Friday end-of-night: Stock-take with dip-sticks, and hard spiles in all beers, perhaps plastics in any below half-full.
  10. Saturday pre-opening: Check, “OK”, etc…
  11. Saturday end-of-night: It’s all over!
    • Pack up as much kit as possible before bed as it all needs to be packed and off-site by Sunday arvo.

This isn’t actually a massive change from my usual schedule – but it does contain more detail and care than previously! Any glaring problems in the schedule? Please let me know in the comments or on Twitter… Some trivialities are omitted, it is the general timeline that’s the important part. It contains things I did not do before, such as:

  • Much more fine-grained checking of the beer in the lead-up to opening.
  • Using finings on beers that really don’t seem to want to drop bright.
  • Regular stock-taking throughout the festival (we need a flexi dipstick!)

My primary goal at any beer festival is: serve an enjoyable pint of beer. Sometimes the beer works against you and it seems to be a given that less-than-perfect pints are not unexpected at CAMRA festivals. I wish this were not so. We should be shining a light upon what a good pint of cask ale can be. Alas the beer works against you sometimes. I have had perfectly fine tasting beer arrive dead flat. What do I do then? I’d like to mark it as crap and send it back to the brewer – cue frustrating arguments. If it tastes fine, has condition, but carries a little haze or “cast” (a very very light haze) I put a note on the cask-end card and tell the bar staff to give prior warning along the lines of “it tastes perfect, but has a little haze to it”. (When we have unfined beers this is perfectly OK of course – though this is more difficult to explain to staff, let alone customers!) Anyway – enough of an aside here, this paragraph is what comes from my personal experience prior to GBBF. (GBBF training cannot offer any silver bullets for these issues.)

These are the tools of the beer QA/lab.

These are the tools of the GBBF Beer-QA lab. Probably a bit more than I really need…

Tools & Toys…
My branch has a couple of toolboxes. Mostly they’re full of rusting relics. Post-training we’re going to have to audit the selection… and we already have a shopping list! Perhaps more on that another time, “The CAMRA Bar Manager’s Toolbox”?

One interesting point is the obvious issue of returning part-full casks. We just hammer in the hard spile and put a cork in the end. While this is clearly not sufficient to stop beer leaking out I’d figured it was simply “the done thing” as it is the thing that is done. After having worked at GBBF, with an actual brewer as a bar manager, I now know this is one of the things that can make brewers quite grumpy. So… want to keep your friendly brewers friendly? Your festival should have a de-shiving tool and sufficient replacement shives and bungs. Any beers returned with a lot still in the casks should have new shives and bungs fitted and ideally be marked as part-full. If the beers were “wrong” in some way this should be marked in some way too – red tape over the bung helps to identify casks with a possible infection. We shall be obtaining such a tool (a sturdy screwdriver can do the job, but the correct tool is easier & safer) and some bags of shives & bungs.

GBBF bar banner

Featuring “Let There Be Beer” – a travesty.

I have great personal conflict & angst over my involvement in CAMRA. On the one hand I think cask ale is great and worthy of advocacy, I love the CAMRA community, and I love being involved in and going to beer festivals. On the other hand I  have found the organisation’s vague support for pubs disheartening – though that seems to have improved greatly in the last year. I’m regularly angered over CAMRA’s willingness to be an advertising-front for JD Wetherspoon and their friendliness with some “brewers” who’re also actively destroying pubs. More recently, I’m really irate about their ill-conceived involvement with this whole Let There Be Beer shambles. LTBB is primarily (solely) promoting big-brand beers available on the cheap from your local supermarket. This does nothing for cask ale and is actively anti-pub.

I swing between really enjoying being a part of CAMRA and feelings of ARGH, CAMRA! *angryface* I QUIT! (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

I have, quite inaccurately, split the target of these feelings between “what normal CAMRA people do” and “what HQ decides”. HQ gets the anger pointed in their direction and meanwhile I get on with beery things with the normal CAMRA folk. The ones who love beer, enjoy beer festivals, and mostly just want to have a good time. Whilst doing so they hope that they can help others discover the beer they love to drink and ensure its availability in the future. We are volunteers putting our own time into something we love. GBBF is the product of 10s of thousands of hours of volunteer time – I can’t help but be impressed by that, and be proud to have been a member of the 2013 GBBF team.

I’ll be back.


I did it all for this – I’m official now. Look – it has a shiny sticker on it!

Complete photo-set: