5 August 2019

Cask vs Craft: Two sides of the same coin


See also TANDLEMAN : Have we reached peak murky?


Last week's tweet by Seth Bradley, embedded above, prompted a blog post by CAMRA branch chairman Tandleman, linked above.

Full disclosure: Myself and Tandleman don't exactly see eye to eye on the merits of cask. While I enjoy the format and most of my choices at pubs and bars are cask, I don't see it as some kind of holy gold standard for beer to be revered and worshipped at the expense of other kinds. I am just as happy, content and comfortable drinking beer from keg, bottle, can or other (hygenic) vessel.

This approach leads me naturally to question the very nature of cask beer and how its need to be handled in just the right way, allied to a short shelf life and the increasing need for convenience and consistency in the pub trade, is more of a hindrance than a strength. I postulated that cask's weaknesses could very soon outweigh its strengths and that artificial attempts to save it, for the benefit of a minority of admittedly passionate beer drinkers, was not sustainable and that cask may end up being killed stone dead in a generation or two. It could soon become the beer equivalent of positive discrimination.

Needless to say this went down well with a few hardened CAMRAwonks.

(On a side note, I do wonder what the overall reaction of hardened CAMRAwonks is going to be to the GBBF KeyKeg options this week...)

CAMRA recently had a vote on whether they should become a campaigning body for *all* beer regardless of serve style / storage medium. They needed (an externally mandated) 75% to change the rules. 72% voted aye. 28% no. So CAMRA is now effectively and continually beholden to less than a third of its membership. A membership that used to include me, I must point out. But back then, craft wasn't a thing, real ale wasn't a thing in Newport outside of Doom Bar, and I didn't even get a badge. The vouchers were nice though.

Ah yes - vouchers. To be spent in Wetherspoons, where they ALWAYS look after their ale, don't they?

Cask, when kept well, when served well, when bought frequently by clientele and when a decent variety is presented by the venue, is an ideal drink in many ways. Trouble is you need all four of those things to align, like a solar eclipse, for the perfect pint. Take away any one of those infinitely variable conditions (pun intended) and suddenly you have an abomination, a barely drinkable mess, something that, in the worst cases, can make you physically ill.

Increasingly nowadays, despite the attentions of Cask Marque and CAMRA, Cask is perceived by pub staff as a luxury and by punters as a treat; though increasingly regular mistreatment of cask has left many seasoned drinkers wary and weary. This week's Hopinions survey results will be interesting.

Defenders of cask ale point out vehemently that all of its failings can be mitigated by well trained staff, a well regulated delivery chain and a well kept cellar, as if all those things are easily and readily achievable in an industry where footfall is dropping; the macro kegmeister overlords are getting meaner and more demanding; ties are increasingly binding restrictive, unimaginative and unchanging; and where staff morale is low and staff turnover is high.

Defenders of cask can sometimes, maybe innocently but sometimes with a blinkered and blissful wilful ignorance, level accusations of laziness and incompetence against the very people they need on their side fighting their corner to keep their minority interest hobby alive.

Defenders of Cask can all too easily become jingoistic and elitist despite presenting themselves as the Guardians of the Eternal Working Man's Drink.

Defenders of Cask will point to KeyKeg's environmental impact, in the week when 8000 plastic cask tuts washed up on a North Cornwall beach.

It all leaves a bad taste in my mouth, as well as my glass. I've little to no time for arbitrary pigeonholing. I've definitely got no time for parochialism or elitism, and even less for organised self-appointed groups of "experts". Remember there is no entry standard to achieve to become a CAMRAwonk; they will quite literally let any bugger in as my time there proves.

Still, they give out awards which are nice trinkets for pubs to hang on their peeling  walls next to the faded photo of Churchill.

And before #notallrealalefans starts trending, I realise I am describing a minority within the minority here. But they who shout loudest are those who are noticed, and a lot of people are noticing.

One thing that has always baffled me about the vocal minority in CAMRA is their reluctance to embrace craft beer, whatever craft beer is being defined as this week. My local craft brewery puts out several of its range on cask as well as keg. Surely they can't have a problem with that?

Unfortunately craft doesn't help itself sometimes. It has fallen prey to similarly blinkered behavioural traits despite presenting itself as bringing whole new audiences to beer and bringing about a resurgence in the beer market and bringing variety and interest to a drink which was until relatively recently plodding along in well established grooves. Craft beer is in danger of falling victim to that most insidious of diseases: beer fatigue.

Craft has generated an explosion in the number of beer wankers strutting around. The increase in venues serving new, interesting, experimental and infinitely varied beers has produced a breed of millennial so obtuse and obscene I almost feel ashamed to belong to the same community. They're the type of person who only drinks a beer solely because it is new, or different, or trendy, or (ye gods) expensive. The *taste* and the *enjoyment* don't seem to enter the equation at all. And what's more, breweries seem to be cottoning on to the fact these arseholes exist. They are producing all manner of concoctions in stupefyingly obscene strengths with stupefyingly obscene flavours, slapping a label on it and selling it for the price of a small 1 bedroom flat in Shoreditch.

I am all for experimentation and innovation. We need the boundaries to be pushed, we need the limits to be explored. Beer cannot rest on its laurels else it will just become wine; a boring drink for boring people. But similarly, it cannot become gin; pretentious bollocks dressed up as variety. And most of all, it needs to be accessible to all, not just to a select few with deep pockets, hollow skulls and dead tastebuds.

Cask's future is dependent on its foibles being managed. It can have a bright future if the industry chooses to keep it going. But it must not ever go on life support. That would be cruel. If it is to die, it must be allowed to die with dignity. I don't believe it will totally leave us, but the amount of effort being put into its survival will eventually become inversely proportional to the levels of consumption and financial effort required to keep it relevant. Similarly craft's future is dependent on it not becoming a similarly niche beer for a similarly small audience. Craft must quickly nip in the bud any descent into madness and be the relevant, widespread, tasty and strong standard-bearer for quality beer going forward. The fact a sizeable chunk of it is served on cask is paramount in this. The two seemingly warring tribes can help each other. Maybe one day, CAMRA's membership will pass another resolution to alter their Articles of Association. Maybe a new campaigning organisation will spring up to replace, or supplant, or complement CAMRA, like SIBA or similar. Who knows.

For the vast majority of us, who don't have hangups about how their beer is served so long as it is drinkable, tasty and enjoyable, these battles will be irrelevant and be fought out of sight out of mind. Until that is, one day, because of one or other party, the other disappears and we're either left with undrinkable hazy chunky muck, or undrinkable, vinegary, warm brown sludge.

It doesn't have to be that way.

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