Why Craft Beer Isn't A Threat To Cask Ale

Written by Stuart Flint, General Manager of BottleShop: Margate

I recently read an article in my local Thanet edition of CAMRA magazine entitled “Craft beer is a good thing…. Or is it? Is real ale in danger of being swamped by craft beer?” On the whole, it was largely critical and highly dismissive of craft beer; firing shots at various aspects of the industry, which is perhaps not surprising considering that just the title of the article alone frames the discussion as an ‘Us vs Them’ situation, where only one can reign supreme at the cost of the other. A curious position, which I think worthy of challenging.

To be clear: this article wasn’t written for the Thanet edition of the CAMRA magazine; it originally appeared in Swale Ale and was reproduced in the Thanet edition with permission of the author. While the views of the author don’t necessarily reflect the views of the publication and the article may have been reproduced simply to provoke thought and discussion amongst its readership, to see the article presented without any counter argument and given that this is CAMRA, an organisation that has only recently seen huge disagreement amongst its membership over whether they should be supporting other styles of beer beyond ‘real ale’, it’s a fair assumption that the printing of this article carries an implied endorsement.

Now, I don’t want to spend this blog dismantling every argument put forth in this article, many of which were over semantics of what constitutes “real” ale. Besides, Pete Brown has done a much better job of that here than I ever could. But I do want to challenge the idea that ‘Craft’ beer and ‘Real’ ale can’t coexist as healthy competitors, that they’re somehow diametrically opposed. I’d argue that, despite their many differences, they actually have far more in common than many seem to realise and that the values of CAMRA are in many ways, very much in line with those of the craft beer industry. To see these similarities, I think it’s important to understand the history of CAMRA and the context in which it was founded.

Founded in 1971 with the aim of protecting unpressurised beer, it was clear then that there must have been a perceived threat to traditional cask ale in the form of non-pressurised beer at that time, but what was the source? Many an ale-lover might tell you it was the growing dominance of keg lager; big corporate brands took over with their inferior, foreign keg lager and killed off the traditional English ale industry, but the reality isn’t quite as straightforward. In 1975, four years after the formation of CAMRA, lager still only accounted for 20% of the market. There must have been then, other pervasive issues at play within the industry that prompted the formation of a consumer rights advocacy group, and the truth is there was a whirlwind of factors which led to a seismic shift in what we drank, and how we drank it.

At the time of CAMRA’s formation, the industry was dominated by the “big six” breweries which meant that, just like with the corporate lagers that followed, branding was everything. These breweries were desperate to expand and grow bigger, buying up everything they could get their hands on and even merging themselves into even bigger conglomerate breweries; the further they could cast their net, the bigger their rewards. The pursuit of profits came at the cost of quality and the consumer suffered. Small, independent pubs were increasingly disappearing, replaced with ‘tied’ pubs that offered only the beers brewed by the brewery owners. Microbreweries were bought out and their staple beers were absorbed by their new branded overlords, and often discontinued, much to the anger of local drinkers. When these new acquisitions weren’t deemed profitable, they were often shut down completely, sometimes hundreds of year old recipes and pubs, gone in an instant. None of this was good for the consumer, or the quality of beer, and so the pub industry was on the decline as less and less people were drinking out. The rise of home refrigeration also meant bottled beers saw an enormous boom as people could now drink ice cold, filtered beer from the comfort of their own home, for a cheaper price. As a pub beer drinker, choices were becoming increasingly limited and good cask ale was becoming harder and harder to find; the limited shelf life made it difficult, surely, for only six big breweries to supply a dwindling industry with a consistently quality tasting product that had to be drank within 7 days?

Introducing: keg beer. For the beer drinker, keg dispense introduced many of the benefits of bottled beer into the pub as well as, for the breweries, offering a longer and more stable shelf life. Soon, all the big breweries began offering their ales in keg form and cask-conditioned ale became a thing of the past. Not long after, imported lager began dominating the industry, initially distributed in the UK by the big six breweries who had the infrastructure to introduce it to mass market. The rest is history!

Fast forward to today, and your average CAMRA member has become almost conditioned to despise anything that comes from a keg, without truly understanding why. Huge advancements have been made in keg dispense; key-keg shares many of the same qualities as cask conditioned ale and craft brewers aspire to react against the dominance of bland corporate beer as much as any cask-ale brewer. Yet despite this, many real ale drinkers still perceive the rise of craft beer, synonymous with keg dispense, as a threat to everything they have achieved over the last 25 years; a movement that has the potential to once again kill off everything they hold dear. I believe quite the opposite to be true. Craft beer, like real ale, has helped introduce a generation of drinkers, young and old, to a more responsible, educated and mature approach to beer drinking and in many ways championed CAMRA’s values, born from everything detailed above.

In both worlds there is an emphasis on choice and variety; rarely will you see multiple offerings of the same style/brewery but instead an effort to present the consumer with a selection of different styles from a range of different breweries and a tap list that changes on a regular basis. No longer do I walk into a pub and know, always, exactly what is going to be on offer; both share a climate where no one brewery dominates but instead is seen as part of a larger collective.

In both worlds, clear communication of the ingredients used in brewing such as hops, malt and even yeast strains has changed the language we use to discuss beers and flavour; we look beyond brand names and look to the raw ingredients used to help us in our drinking decisions, as well as a knowledge of where those ingredients have come from, whether it’s East Kent Golding hops or Fuggle hops from New Zealand. Transparency is the name of the game now, a far cry from the faceless corporate breweries that want you to think more about their brand than the beer you’re drinking.

In both worlds there’s a greater awareness of the ABV strength of beers we drink than ever before; percentages are displayed confidently alongside pricing meaning responsible drinking is encouraged and the stigma surrounding drinking halves is all but non-existent. Binge drinking the cheapest/strongest beer you can get your hands on is seldom seen in either craft beer taprooms or micropubs.

In both worlds, staff seem more knowledgeable about beers and are encouraged, if not expected, to taste each beer that goes on in order to test for quality and offer the most informed service possible. Customers are encouraged to taste beers before making a decision and some breweries require their tap room staff to undergo industry Cicerone training. Unenthused teenage staff that would rather be sitting at the bar than working behind it are, thankfully, a rare sight for most of us these days.

In both worlds, there is a fierce pride and confidence that comes with being independent; breweries earn a customer’s loyalty through the quality of their beer rather than pay for it with hefty advertising budgets. Any actions seen to be in conflict with that ethos are often met with stern criticism. Collaboration brews are common; working together is seen as more beneficial to not just yourself as a business, but to the industry as a whole, than working against each other.

Finally, in both worlds there is an emphasis on tradition and preservation. A bold statement considering the inspiration for this blog was an article positioning craft beer and real ale as mortal enemies. Regardless of the method of dispense, CAMRA seek to preserve the legacy of traditional English ales whereas craft beer can be directly linked to, if not responsible for, the overwhelming resurgence of many near forgotten European styles of beer. Just look at Gose and Berliner Weisse beers, two German styles of sour wheat beer which had all but disappeared from public consciousness but are now enjoyed the world over thanks to renewed interest from craft breweries and a healthy import/export market.

In a sense, CAMRA may have managed to turn the tables; cask-conditioned ale appears to be firmly back on the map. Micropubs offering almost exclusively cask-conditioned ale have sprung up all over the country and every Wetherspoons, the biggest pub chain in the country, has a permanent selection of house and guest ales as well as an annual ale festival. Membership numbers have never been higher; they’ve got people to care about their cause. But at what cost? Sales of cask ale have been in decline for the last two years running. Why? Perhaps it’s the kind of attitude displayed in the article I read in my local CAMRA magazine; the kind of stubborn refusal to accept something different, despite a set of shared core values, and instead reject it and position it as an enemy. Maybe if CAMRA campaigned for cooperation and better education regarding modern dispense methods and the support of all independent micro-breweries and pubs, regardless of how they choose to serve their beer, their future would look a lot more certain. I was disappointed to see an article so negative of craft beer, distributed locally, that seemed intent on actively dissuading its readers from drinking and/or supporting an industry that’s made up predominantly of independent businesses, whether they be passionate micro-brewers or like us at the BottleShop, small wholesalers who are dedicated to bringing amazing beer from all over the world to the UK. It’s a shame; the products may be different, in many ways, but there are so many fundamental similarities when you examine the world of craft beer and real ale a little more closely. For a CAMRA member to willfully position themselves as an enemy to craft beer makes very little sense to me, especially when the focus of each is essentially the same: to offer something of a far higher quality than, what has for too long, been accepted as the norm.

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