Why cask ale matters — sticking up for CAMRA

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A recent post of ours about the Good Beer Guide set off a wider debate about CAMRA‘s focus on cask ale, at the expense of other good beer, a point which Tim picks up here.

Just after we started blogging, we posted about the use of the word “craft” beer, and why we preferred it to “real ale” as a concept.  Re-reading it, I would still agree with most of the sentiments but I feel the need to stick up for real ale a little more now than I did then.

As a beer lover, I adore the fact that my favourite pints in the pub will rarely taste exactly the same.  I like that the fact that you can get amazing-tasting beer at relatively low strength — I can’t think of many sub 4% “unreal” beers that taste great, whereas I can think of many wonderful cask ales at that strength.

Sometimes we think that the UK could do with a “craft beer revolution”, one that focusses on the quality of the beer, not the way it’s produced.  Certainly beers like Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn Lager which are unreal by the time the hit the UK are fantastic gateway beers for people who aren’t that bothered about beer.

However, if there is less emphasis on cask ale, is there a danger that it will decline again?  As Jeff and Dave and various others point out, looking after and serving real ale is a chore.  Why would you do it unless you loved the stuff?  It would seem to be an obvious thing to get rid of if you run a pub company — as Jeff has pointed out, the margins are often worse, particularly for beer from small breweries.

So why do pub companies bother stocking cask ale (albeit often a limited selection) and how come so many landlords sell it even though they “don’t personally touch the stuff“? Could it be something to do with a national pressure group that rewards you in publicity for stocking the stuff?

I do get frustrated with narrow-minded attitudes towards lager, and what I call the “four legs good, two legs bad” dogma that many CAMRA members seem to subscribe to.  But we’re still members of CAMRA (albeit not active ones) because we would still like to see more cask ale around and a greater choice in the places that do stock it.  And while we hate the “take it to the top” campaign, there is a lot of other grass-roots stuff going on (“LocAle” springs to mind) that is helping to promote good beer in a wider variety of places.

Boak

The impossibility of objective tasting

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This is by way of a summary of some thoughts we’ve had in the last year or so, backed up with links to some posts we’ve enjoyed elsewhere on related topics.

1. People’s palates work in different ways, as Wilson at Brewvana points out. For example, Boak’s is calibrated in such a way that anymore than the merest hint of salt in a meal renders it inedible, but she can handle almost as much chili heat as you care to throw at her.

2. Tastes evolve over time. Everyone knows the theory that you become more tolerant of bitter flavours as you enter your twenties. In the case of beer, there’s a similar theory (“Lupulin Threshold Shift“) which suggests we become more tolerant of the presence of hops the more we’re exposed to them, so a beer which tasted crazily hoppy two years ago when you first had it might not seem quite so extreme today.

3. Branding, marketing and other cultural prejudices influence our thinking. The only path to true wisdom is through blind taste testing, and that can really surprise you, as Lars discovered.

4. Context is all important. As long as it’s of reasonably good quality, the first beer you drink on holiday will taste pretty amazing. In fact, scratch the opening caveat: we always enjoy our first Cruzcampo on holiday in Spain, and it’s of very poor quality indeed.

Active drinking

Confronted with a sparkled pint in a pub in Cheshire recently, I thought I’d try the same trick. I actively supped, rather than just pouring the beer in through my horrible great cakehole.

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In the latest edition of James and Oz Pretend to Argue about Booze, a man told them how to drink Guinness properly. He insisted that you “pull the beer through the head”.

Confronted with a sparkled pint in a pub in Cheshire recently, I thought I’d try the same trick. So, I actively supped, rather than just pouring the beer in through my horrible great cakehole.

It worked.

I got the benefit of the pillowy head, but the beer came through loud and clear — not muted, or subdued. I left the head behind in the glass, where it belongs, making my pint look nice.

It’s odd to find yourself rethinking something as natural and instinctive as the act of taking on liquid through the mouth, but I guess an obsession with beer will do that to you.

Incidentally, we thought Oz and James were pretty dreadful last night, although it was worth putting up with 25 minutes of self-indulgent drivel to see the Beer Nut and Bionic Laura on our screens.


Chaos on tube as drinking ban hits London public transport

As you may have picked up from other blogs (including Impy Malting and Knut Albert), there was a party last night to mark the drinking ban on London transport.

It appears to have turned into a bit of a riot, as can (sadly) be expected when large groups of boozy Brits get together. I didn’t go, as I thought it would get nasty. The BBC has the story.

While not wanting to make light of the fact that people got assaulted, trains got damaged etc, I can’t help a little giggle over the fact that new Mayor Boris Johnson’s politicking has already backfired on him. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really care about being able to drink or not on the Tube — I’m not an alcoholic. But I don’t think many Londoners would say that people drinking on public transport was one of London’s big issues, and we’ve already got laws and regulations to cover the potential nasty side effects like assault, abuse etc. The whole, unenforceable gesture was to make Boris look tough on law and order, and it’s managed to cause a major law and order incident. Nice one.

Incidentally, drinking is still allowed on national rail services (where they sell it to you), which is where I’ve experienced the worst anti-social behaviour. Worse because people are on it for longer and thus drink more, and because you can’t get off and wait for the next train if it gets bad.

Boak

Is beer a luxury, or a right?

This post over at Appellation Beer made us think again about beer’s status in the world.

A lot of people see it as a basic right in life. They get annoyed when it’s taxed and/or the price goes up.

Unfortunately, it’s a heavily processed product. Yes, beer is a processed food. And like all processed food, it is very energy intensive. Think about the energy used in growing barley; malting the barley; mashing the barley; throwing most of it away and boiling the remaining liquid; chilling the remaining liquid; moving, storing and distributing the the finished product, sometimes to the opposite side of the world.

And then, nature takes a funny turn for a year or two, malt and hops go up in price, and we suddenly find that what once we drank as a cheap alternative to clean water has become an expensive luxury.

So, beer really ought to be expensive, and we probably ought to consume it more thoughtfully.

What options do the brewers and distributors have for keeping the price down? Reducing the quality, for one. Or squeezing the people in the supply chain, as in this depressing tale from Tyson.

Personally, we’d rather pay a fiver for our pint than damage the planet, or people’s livelihoods. Is that what it’s going to come to?

For a lot more on related topics, from a more learned writer than us, see Chris O’Brien’s Beer Activist blog.

Bailey