Embracing Keg, Rejecting CAMRA, 1995

Alastair Hook's editorial.

In 1995, a handful of Brits were beginning to get excited about American beer and, at the same time, rather irritated by the Campaign for Real Ale.

The Grist began life as, to all intents and purposes, the magazine of SIBA, in 1983, under the editorship of Elisabeth Baker. In that incarnation, it focused largely on offering technical advice to small brewers, and pre-Beer Orders policy propaganda.

By 1995, however, its ties to that organisation had been all but severed, and it was being edited by Alastair Hook, now best known as the founder of Meantime, but then head brewer at Freedom in West London. Under his control, and, later, that of his friend Peter Haydon, The Grist became more concerned with personalities and the passionate advocacy of ‘great beer’.

The Grist, November/December 1995.The November/December 1995 edition (No. 67) gives us a glimpse into a time when more than one influential voice was beginning to evangelise about the quality of American beer and the benefits of ‘brewery conditioning’, while also criticising the Campaign for Real Ale’s dogmatism. From Hook’s editorial:

[Most American microbrewery] beer is brewery conditioned. It might be bottled or kegged, but always cold matured and filtered. The American micros know that without a consistent product there is no business… For hundreds of UK micros who fight to survive in a fiercely competitive market, producing beer that by its very nature is difficult to handle, the role of CAMRA is critical. It strikes me that unless CAMRA’s nonsensical opposition to the cask breather and blanket opposition to brewery-conditioned beers is reversed, the microbrewing industry will suffer chronically. The irony is that the micros are, after all, the greatest agent for the change and choice that CAMRA claim to desire.

Elsewhere in the same issue, Mark Dorber, then manager of the White Horse, also in West London, gave an account of the Great American Beer Festival XIV:

A tradition unencumbered by the ideological baggage of our ‘real ale’ movement appreciates quality in terms of flavour and absence of faults, as it should… Vibrant flavours stood out in many of the beers judged and sampled. (Alas, much of the UK brewing industry, by contrast, seems reluctant to offend any portion of the beer market with its bland {aka ‘balanced’} beers.)

A third article by Keith Laric (a pseudonym?) in the same issue lays into CAMRA’s ‘Cask Breather Hypocrisy’: “Perhaps we need to be less insular, and to look at the best European and American traditions as well.”

Just to make sure the point was absolutely hammered home, Hook also gave over two-and-a-half pages to a piece on his own brewery venture, written by Peter Haydon, who said:

The American microbrewers were not able to produce cask conditioned beers when their revolution started. They produced keg beers of startling quality and sophistication that really deserve a different appellation. If a keg beer is produced by a brewer who wants to produce good, exciting beer, then there is no reason why such a beer cannot be produced… Keg beer is only bad when it is produced by accountants, or when it is masquerading as something else.

OK, we get the message!

Though the term ‘craft beer’ does not appear once in any of the articles — Hook uses the term (brace yourselves) “gourmet beer” — this particular issue of The Grist suggests that the idea of a ‘third way’ that was neither ‘industrial fizz’ nor ‘real ale’ was fully formed by the middle of the 90s.

19 thoughts on “Embracing Keg, Rejecting CAMRA, 1995”

  1. That’s quite a find! Interesting to see some of the pro-keg thinking spelt out like that. But thank goodness ‘gourmet’ didn’t take off…

  2. Interesting stuff but it does over emphasis the importance and relevance of CAMRA.

    Most drinkers just drink what they like and brewery conditioned bottle ales are the big growth area of booze in supermarkets.

    1. “bottled keg” according to CAMRA, Cookie. I’m not making this up.

      1. and they are as entitled to their opinion as you or I. It appears the vast majority of beer swilling punters ignore it and just drink what they like.

        CAMRA are a great drinking club and it’s well worth the £23 but no ones really signs up to be told what to neck.

        I like cask beer, I like the brewery conditioned bottles, I like cheap lager. Yesterday I quite liked the can of Strongbow dark fruits I necked. It was like Ribena.

        Does anyone but the deeply insecure need an authority to tell them what is and isn’t okay to throw down their own necks?

  3. Hmm.
    “It strikes me that unless CAMRA’s nonsensical opposition to the cask breather and blanket opposition to brewery-conditioned beers is reversed, the microbrewing industry will suffer chronically”

    Breweries in 1996 GBG – 300-ish. Breweries today – 1,200-ish. CAMRA’s malign influence laid bare.

    1. so you’re claiming CAMRA’s continuous promotion of small brewery output through its beer festivals has assisted the growth of UK brewing rather than hindered it? This is the blogosphere, pal, you’re not getting way with that nonsense.

  4. I was thinking the same myself John.

    The remarks of Mark Dorber sound to me as much as surprise as anything else. Nothing like that was happening here. Alistair Hook has long been a contrarian where beer is concerned.

    Of course there have always been those outside CAMRA that want to pursue an agenda of their own, as well as those in it. That’s as it should be.

    Let a thousand flowers bloom, but the best cask will always taste better than the best keg – like for like of course – and with many provisos to allow me as much wriggle room as I need.

  5. If (for the sake of argument) CAMRA had nothing to do with the remarkable growth of small breweries, then it must be the market that is entirely responsible. In other words, drinkers have chosen cask. What is clear is that the prophets of 1995 couldn’t have been more wrong.

    1. I’m not sure they were really in the business of making prophecies. It strikes me as just having a good old moan about CAMRA (either directly or indirectly). Plus ca change, as they say.

    2. Ah, but the drinkers haven’t, except in small part, been offered “craft keg”, – so there hasn’t been any choice in the market for them to choose from. This is only slowly changing now.

  6. So there are capitalists out there ignoring a marketing opportunity to persuade us to buy overpriced superkeg? Really? Or perhaps their test runs weren’t promising and they’ve stuck what they know does sell. As a secret leftie, I’m no fan of market forces, but they do seem to have operated here.

  7. Of course, there is the evidence that the only pubs that are opening or succeeding over the past 10 years are the craft beer pubs, whereas all the old school pubs with their CAMRA recommended beer choice (a small selection of old well-known favourites such as Bombardier, Pride, GK IPA and Doom Bar) pubs are shutting down left right and centre, and will continue to do so indefinitely, mainly because they sell a shit product that no-one in their right mind would want to drink.

    The evidence is there… if you are willing to look at it.

    Wherever drinkers have been offered the choice of craft beer, they have voted unanimously in favour. These things take a while. The idea that the market equilibrates overnight is a ludicrous myth.

    1. We’ve been through all this before, but the “craft beer bar” is only going to succeed in a limited range of locations defined both by geography and demographic profile. The idea that it is going to be the salvation for your average estate pub, village inn or inner-urban boozer is a ludicrous myth.

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