Friday 17 November 2017

CAMRA and cask beer quality

A hardy perennial in the world of beer is people saying that CAMRA should focus on cask beer quality. The owner of Magic Rock brewery is the latest pushing this line in a Morning Advertiser article.

He bemoans the cask beer "discount culture" but is it really the place of a consumer organisation to try and raise prices? He also talks of cask breathers, which might help in some places, but old cask beer kept under a CO2 blanket is unlikely to be as good as fresh cask beer managed traditionally.

So what exactly can a beer consumer organisation do to promote beer quality? I doubt CAMRA members marching up to publicans and telling them where they are going wrong with their beer would go down well. And anyway isn't something like beer quality best dealt with by the industry, not consumers? Perhaps there could be an industry body to assess and accredit cask beer quality in pubs.

Oh, hang on.

However, perhaps CAMRA members could give scores for the quality of beer in pubs and maybe register it online.

Oh, hang on.

CAMRA members could then select pubs that sell the best beer, and the national orgaisation could then publish some sort of guide to where you can drink the best beer.

Oh, hang on

As cask beer is something really only found in pubs maybe CAMRA should campaign to promote and protect pubs.

Oh, hang on.

Perhaps CAMRA branches could run competitions at their festivals for the best beers in various categories, and on a national level overall champions could then be declared.

Oh, hang on.

I suppose CAMRA could get its publishing arm to produce a guide to how to look after cask beer.

Oh, hang on.

Come to think of it, although talk of CAMRA and beer quality does crop up regularly I'm not convinced there's much more they could be doing.


  1. Great article, Ed, points well made.

    What CAMRA members (all of us) could STOP doing, of course, is promoting the belief that more hand pumps is what's needed, whether by seeming to publicise and promote increases in beer range or telling pubs that GBG places depend on adding hand pumps.

  2. I was just about to make the same point as Martin. The one thing more that CAMRA *could* do is to row back on the fetishisation of ever more choice, which is one of the main reasons for tired and inconsistent beer. But it will be very difficult to break the habit of many years.

  3. My local has over the years increased the number of handpumps from two to five and it's great (and business is up). But I get where you're coming from, I've been in pubs with masses of handpumps all serving vinegar before.

  4. In my experience though the most likely place to find vinegar is the pub with one solitary handpump, where none of the customers are drinking the real ale. The handpump is there because someone in the pub company’s head office at the other end of the country has read the Cask Report and sent out a memo that all the pubs in the chain have to serve cask ale.

  5. " old cask beer kept under a CO2 blanket is unlikely to be as good as fresh cask beer managed traditionally. "

    That's a false dichotomy though, the choice is between older cask beer kept under a CO2 blanket and older cask beer kept under an air blanket, or no cask beer at all.

    Clearly cask breathers are not ideal, but they have a place, and CAMRA's demonisation of them has undoubtedly led to a much worse cask experience for many customers in "marginal" cask pubs. It also tends to force cask into a bit of a narrow rut, wider use of cask breathers would allow "minor" styles like mild and stout to earn a place on many more bars.

    "I doubt CAMRA members marching up to publicans and telling them where they are going wrong with their beer would go down well."

    It depends - if a publican is clearly struggling then if he's got a brain he will welcome assistance. I certainly know of cases where pubs have paid CAMRA-ites to help with cellar quality on a consultancy basis. So some pubs are rather less defensive on this point than you might think.

    A bigger problem is that about 1/3 of CAMRA-ites are very knowledgeable, but there's a long tail who are more talk than knowledge.... CAMRA could do more to train their own members about eg beer faults, some bulk buying of off-flavour kits would be something they could do.

    And there's a world of difference between telling the publican what to do, and merely givinng feedback about when a beer is on the turn. A beer can decline significantly just in the course of a session, and both customers and barstaff should feel uninhibited about giving and receiving feedback on the state of a beer.

    1. While I'm no anti-cask breather dogmatist, the concern is that they will be used as a substitute for proper stock rotation rather than a last resort in low-turnover pubs.

      Of course cask beer kept under a breather is better than none at all, but do we really want pubs using them as a means to keep ten old beers on in borderline OK condition?

    2. If I remember rightly cask breathers got the thumbs up from CAMRA's technical committee, but were voted down at the AGM. Certainly CAMRA's cellarmanship book talks positively of them.

      I see your point about feedback to pubs, but I'm dubious about how much amateurs beer enthusiasts can do to provide technical support to them.

    3. A lot of CAMRA members have now received cellarmanship training in order to manage beer at beer festivals, and therefore do have technical knowledge that they can offer to pubs. Some of them probably know more about cellarmanship than many licensees.

      I know that Peter Alexander (aka Tandleman) has provided pubs with help in cellarmanship.

  6. The pubs with 10 cask lines aren't really the problem, there's maybe 1 of those for twenty with Doom Bar and Theakston mouldering in the lines. You deal with the 10-line pubs by "CAMRA" having a good talking to them and nudging them downwards, that's the kind of pub where "CAMRA" has a lot of influence as that style of pub will be trying to get into the GBG - but the trend now is towards having 20-30 keg lines and cask being squeezed out. We need breathers to ensure cask stays in the pub mainstream, that the average person can go into their local pubco pub and not associate cask=vinegar. And they are also useful in nudging the quieter-but-more-casky pubs to make it worth their while to have that extra line or two to stock styles like mild, stout etc without going mad.

    On the technical support side - I don't expect it to be a big thing, not least because many landlords won't take it well, but it's worth mentioning as something that does happen even if <5% of CAMRA members actually know enough about this stuff to be useful.

    To be honest one of the biggest problems is that CAMRA, an organisation of middle/old-aged beer geeks struggles to understand that many barstaff just aren't really into beer, certainly not cask. The best salesperson for something on a bar is the person pouring the pints, I've seen how just a bit of enthusiasm there can make a huge difference to how much cask gets sold - but many young bar staff either don't drink cask or don't even drink at all. That has implications not only for the enthusiasm with which cask is pitched at the indecisive drinker, but also quality - they don't see checking beer quality as part of their remit, because they see themselves as "non-cask drinkers", and they don't know how to handle things when a customer does complain about beer quality.

    Sure, company training can deal with some of that (not always with some companies though, particularly smaller ones and freehouses), and the likes of Cask Marque programmes etc. But there does seem to be a bit of a gap in the market for an organisation to enthuse and "convert" bar staff to cask, and educate them a bit about different styles etc. CAMRA seem quite well placed to do that - it can be as simple as having trade tickets or a trade session to beer festivals, to give barstaff some hopefully good cask experiences in a less formal non-"work" environment, as well as showing that cask ale goes beyond just Doom Bar.