Chemical Beer and CAMRA

From fairly early on in its existence, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has shown a concern with the purity of beer, almost as much as with the method of dispense, and arguably more than with the quality of its flavour.

This has been on our mind lately, since Yvan Seth asked this question:

We’ve previously touched upon the hippy whole-food influence on CAMRA’s language and approach, not only here on the blog, but also in chapter four of Brew Britannia.

The idea that there are two types of beer — living, wholesome and natural vs. industrial, dead and soulless — clearly overlaps with concerns about additives and chemicals, but that latter anxiety is much, much older. As Ron Pattinson said in a post earlier in the week, “Just about as soon as the Free Mash Tun Act became law in 1880, some began to campaign for ‘pure beer’… brewed from malt, water, hops and yeast alone.”

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, that campaigning was a serious matter — in 1900 hundreds of people Manchester and the surrounding areas were poisoned by beer containing arsenic (PDF) — but as the 20th century wore on, lobbying for pure beer became the preserve of cranks and dabblers.

Fairly early in its existence, however, CAMRA realised the sheer rhetorical power of the idea of ‘chemical beer’, and this cartoon, from the November 1972 edition of What’s Brewing (then a rabble-rousing tabloid-style rag) is typical:

Cartoon from 1972.

When Michael Hardman, one of CAMRA’s four founders, published Beer Naturally in 1976, he beat the same drum, conflating the issue of purity with an opposition to practices such as pasteurisation, filtering, and the use of hop extracts:

Beer Naturally.Beer at its best is a reflection of a golden field of barley, a reminder of the rich aroma of a hop garden. Scientists can argue endlessly about the merits of the man-made concoctions which go into much of today’s beer but the proof of the pint is in the drinking… the best of British beer is produced from the gifts that nature gave us… The story of beer is a story of nature and of craftmanship; a story of farmers and brewers who create beer naturally.

Roger Protz’s 1978 paperback Pulling a Fast One was an attempt to do for beer quality what Christopher Hutt’s The Death of the English Pub had done for pub culture, and now stands as a fantastically evocative snapshot of the issues of the day:

In June 1976 I asked Peter Scully, head brewer at Tolly Cobbold in Ipswich, whether he used potatoes, onions, and pasta flour to help brew his beer… Members of the Campaign for Real Ale had earlier returned from visits to Tolly with [such] alarming rumours… The use of adjuncts and malt substitutes have become a major problem in recent years and some of the beer brewed in Britain would not be classified as such in countries that have strict laws governing its production. [p69]

He goes on to sing the praises of the Reinheitsgebot and the Isle of Man’s Pure Beer Law, as Hardman had done before him, and this would become an increasingly strong thread of CAMRA’s campaigning throughout the 1980s.

Graham Lees, another founder member, had moved to Germany where he became something of a Reinheitsgebot evangelist. In a piece for the 1987 Good Beer Guide he wrote:

The Germans have a word for it — chemiebier. Not for them the dubious substances which brewers in other lands mix in with their hops and malt.

That piece was part of a wider push in 1986-87 which saw beer purity become a key campaign issue — another stick with which to beat the reviled Big Six brewers.

Headline: UPROAR OVER POLLUTED PINT.

Some brewers saw it as a marketing opportunity but most seem to have resented the idea that they should be required to declare the ingredients used in their beer.

Since then, perhaps with the rise of speciality beers containing all kinds of strange ingredients, beer purity seems to have taken a back seat in CAMRA’s campaigning.

The idea that there are some things that simply shouldn’t be put in beer continues to bubble under, resurfacing every now and then in a new configuration. In around 2001, for example, CAMRA came out in support of organic beer, and, ten years later, BrewDog began to criticise big brewers for using ‘loads of chemicals’ and ‘fish guts’ (isinglass finings).

‘Chemical beer’ might be lazy language, and it might, in many cases, betray a lack of scientific literacy, but it is powerful, and we suspect will continue to haunt the discussion for years to come.

23 thoughts on “Chemical Beer and CAMRA”

  1. Over the next couple of years there’s to be consultation on beer labelling. It’s quite possible that we’ll see a requirement for ingredients listing brought in. Should be fun.

  2. Federation Brewery used to brew a 5% lager called LCL which was supposed to stand for Low Carbohydrate Lager or Low Calorie or such, because of the very low residual sugar level.

    I once had a chat with one of their brewers and he was ever so proud of managing to produce a 5% beer from a wort of just 1034OG, telling me how it was done with yeast nutrients, maize, rice flour. He failed to mention the taste once, and funnily enough also overlooked the drums of tartrazine and PGA that I’d noticed in a chemical cage, along the usual koppakleer.

    It really was nasty stuff, and while I’m a firm believer in ‘men in white coats’ brewing balanced, properly drinkable beer, sometimes they go too far.

  3. Anti-additive, but only where convenient? Take the Moor Beer perspective on unfined “natural beer”:

    http://moorbeer.co.uk/unfined-beer/

    Debatable & debated of course. What’s not natural about “fish guts” anyway? (Another example of picking an emotive but inaccurate term to describe something.) I gather that sulphites are used to stabilise liquid isinglass… but in the beer the final dilution must be tiny.

    Still – has given the keg beer movement something to work with. “Sure, we put supposedly-evil CO2 in our beer… but yours has fish guts in! Neener!”

    The German “chemibier” is worthy of some further digging? Only 1070 Google hits for that term. +1 when Google finds this post I guess. 🙂

    1. Some care about finings (though not so much kettle finings like protofloc/irish moss?).

      Some care about filtering, though mostly due to the removal of yeast to make it “non-real” or the stripping of flavour from the beer – not necessarily that it’s passed through DE/kieselguhr or that micro particles of PVPP (eg Polyclar) are used for some fining methods.

      Some care about the addition of non-fermentation produced CO2.

      Does anyone care about gypsum, calcium chloride or use of acids for treatment of high alkalinity liquor (eg AMS)?

      The broad range of possibles makes “chemical” a bad word to use IMHO. Even “additive” needs careful qualification. And non-malt adjunct use can probably be argued on a case-by-case basis too (example above with rice/syrup laden lager vs. use of sugar products as throughout much of the Belgian brewing industry and in historical British brewing via the use of inverts/caramel…)

  4. There was a beer purity crusade in Albany NY in the early 1830s which led to a government inquiry in which the locals were cleared of the sorts of nasty activities that went on in England, according to the Senate Report. In the 1960s, Dow, one of Canada’s biggest breweries, collapsed over chemical additive health claims.

    1. “German beer – it is the purest/ And there’s no room for chemicals here”

      Slightly worried that might be a metaphor for a different kind of purity law.

      1. Except that German megabrewers put various cleansing-type stuff in during the process, on the basis that it is (allegedly) removed later on in the process. Or was that what you were getting at?

  5. I’m often amused by some modern brewers who favour unfined beer and decry the addition of “fish guts” to clear it. Phrased like this it conjures up the image of an armload of fish entrails being chucked in the beer when of course isinglass is simply a fish product. As Yvan says this is using deliberately emotive language and is used to make a highly debatable point..

    1. I must add that I am pro-unfined though 😉 I respect and sometimes admire the vegetarian stance. I like that such folk have access to good beer without compromising on their values.

      Beer haze doesn’t bother me much. But good beer clarity does impress me (and doubly so in unfined beers!) I’ve had beers with huge new-world hop aroma and flavour that are pin bright.

      I’ve had ‘hop haze’ Citra beers with nowhere near the Citra character of pin-bright (fined) Oakham Citra.

      And there is something delightful in a pin-bright pint, and with that in mind I’m pro fined beer as much as I’m pro unfined.

      I’m yet to be convinced one is inherently better than the other.

      I guess a lot more beer needs to enter my mouth as a matter of “research” into this subject.

      1. While there never used to be a veggie alternative to isinglass, there clearly (groan) is such a thing now; Marble beers haven’t been cloudy for yonks.

        1. Similar for BlackJack. They use a “finings adjunct”, which is beyond my ken – but believe it has something to do with particle charge and helping the yeast to be more flocculant. (Probably entirely wrong.)

          So many breweries rack beer from CT to cask practically bright these days it barely seems to matter for some.

      2. In my experience, a hazy-to-cloudy drink tastes more yeasty than a clear beer. It just does, which often throws off the balance of malt-hops-yeast. The effect often is to muddy the taste and perhaps this is why in the 1800’s cloudy beer was called muddy. Do a test yourself and then taste blind. I have and consistently pick the clear beer.

        Gary

        1. My homebrew uses no conventional method to clear it (either cold crashing or finings), just time, and yes a lot of it is very yeasty which makes certain styles a challenge for me.

  6. This is from the Brewer and Wine Merchant, 1931, where some chap was making a speech at a luncheon at the Brewers’ Exhibition:
    ‘There was a standing joke about beer being made from chemicals, but there was no truth in it. Loads of chemicals went into breweries, but they were not used in connexion (sic) with brewing, but for washing, cleaning and purifying brewing utensils. No brewer would think of putting chemicals into beer.’

  7. Anyone who refers to isinglass as ‘fish guts’ should call gelatine ‘cows legs’ to be consistent.

    As regards chemicals/adjuncts/filtration/pasteurisation there’s actually a lot of common ground in the attitude taken by CAMRA and anti-CAMRA craft beer fans. Trouble is there’s no easy way of telling what goes in a beer or how it’s made just by looking at it.

  8. There is a difference between consumer expectation of a product and the reality of the product. If a consumer expects UK beers to not contain adjuncts and additives like head foaming agents then perhaps ingredients should be listed. If mass consumers do not require nor care for this information then why bother.

    If campaign groups wish to use myths to scaremonger then they should go and stand in a corner and think about what they have done. Unless they want to call themselves Campaign for Biotechnology Companies producing neurotoxic, psychotropic drugs by the most natural chemical processes using only Soil Association certified produce.

    honestly I am heartily sick of my body taking food and turning it into energy using chemicals and chemical processes. And the by- products, disgusting.

  9. I never liked the term “chemicals”, which has a kind of uneducated sound to it if I may be permitted the word. Or perhaps a better way to describe it is the term is a loose, shorthand way of thinking and therefore of limited usefulness. All cereals and yeast are composed of chemicals. Chemicals, as one of the quotes above shows, are vital to beer quality in their role of cleansers and sanitizers in the brewing process. The only question is what chemicals are safe to use. And for that we rely on our food scientists and other experts, that is why Heriot-Watt exists and other specialized places of learning around the world. Often too IMO, people mistook unfamiliar tastes for “chemicals” including the starchy tastes of some adjuncts and perhaps the deadening taste of a pasteurized beer. The term lacked usefulness in the 1970’s let alone now and doesn’t belong in a rational discussion of beer and brewing technologies IMO.

    Gary

  10. My butcher was once asked what happened to all the fatty trimmings by a customer, who assumed that they got made into dog food or whatever.

    My butcher replied: Ask your beauty salon.

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