Cask, CAMRA & Other Things British

IMG_3860England is not exactly the sexiest beer country right now, but is still widely recognized as one of the big players on the international scene. The country has had a huge impact on the culture of beer, both in terms of what we drink (IPAs, porters, stouts, so-called session ales) and how we drink it (cask ale and CAMRA). Trying to give a sense of what the beer scene is like in England right now is tough for a couple of reasons. For starters, there are a couple of different factions of beer drinkers, for lack of a better word. Most importantly, it’s hard to spend ten days in a country and really get a complete picture of how the nation as a whole is drinking beer. So please don’t read this post as the complete and absolute guide to beer in England in the year 2013. It’s more one man’s observations of beer in London, Oxford, Canterbury and Manchester circa June 2013. Very little research has gone into this post, aside from drinking in bars and talking with people along the way.

I was obviously excited to get to spend over a week drinking in the famous British pubs, consuming fresh cask ale in a variety of styles. Trying bitters, milds, golden ales and other styles seems like something that should be done as close to the source as possible. By the time they get bottled or kegged, sent across the ocean and sit around for a while on a shelf or in a warehouse, it is quite likely not the same beer that you would get at the local pub. Armed with CAMRAs 2013 Good Beer Guide, I knew that the pubs would be serving fresh casks that were treated well on their journey to my glass.

The condition of almost all beers served on cask was excellent. They were clear, bright and beautiful looking beers. This was amazing when compared to Ontario, where hazy or cloudy cask beers are not uncommon. The being said, a number also had thin bodies to the point of being watery and the flavours were sometimes a little too subtle. It was a mixed bag, overall – one pint would be stellar and the next would be forgettable. None were terrible, but it wasn’t the amazing cask experience that I was hoping for.

CAMRA is generally accepted as the saviour of cask ale, or at least that’s the narrative they like to present, but there are many reasons why beer drinkers in England are growing skeptical of the organization. As real ale in cask or bottles has a shorter lifespan, it can’t travel as far and eliminates a lot of beers at a time when the beer scene is becoming increasingly global. While some casks from other European breweries do make it to some craft beer bars, CAMRA has also stunted the English beer scene by promoting an ethos that most of those foreign beers that come in to the country via keg, bottle or can are bastard beers regardless of the content inside. (The ale part of real ale has always bugged me. Are we just dismissing all lagers?) At a time when breweries around the world are experimenting with new styles, it seems to me that this has hurt the British beer industry because their products are quickly becoming dated at a time when younger drinkers are looking for different beer experiences.

I had heard the jokes about CAMRA being an organization of old, white men, but it seemed this stereotype was rather true. A lot of older drinkers were only cask drinkers, while younger beer lovers were introduced in a great beer, regardless of where it came from (either country or bottle/cask/can/keg). In many ways CAMRA has become too narrow of an organization. As the craft beer world has exploded, CAMRA feels increasingly dated.

Another bizarre aspect of pubs that specialize in only cask ale (what I call CAMRA pubs because I mostly found them in the Good Beer Guide, though there is no association between them) is that they serve great cask ale but then have cheap European lagers on tap. It boggles me that a pub can put such an effort into one area and then have two versions of Guinness on tap (regular and Guinness Ice – what I assume to be extra cold Guinness). This is not true of every place – there are beer bars like Craft Beer Co, Cask Pub and Kitchen and Euston Tap in London, plus Port Street Beer House in Manchester, that have great cask, tap and bottled beers. But these are great beer bars, not ones that specialize in only cask. But the CAMRA pubs clearly only care about one thing, which is very narrow minded. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of pubs in England are in danger of closing, because they can’t commit to a specific audience. Either serve only shitty lagers and axe the cask or add some great local draught options to go along with all the great casks. Otherwise you’re just confusing the consumer with a muddled message about what kind of bar you want to be.

Maybe the bars feel they can’t have great cask beer without being supported by lager, but I would point out the bars mentioned above as evidence otherwise. Personally, I was more likely to stay in a bar that had a wider range of options in various formats. Plus, thanks to Britain’s liquor laws that charge more taxes as the alcohol content goes up, you’re often charging the same for a half-pint of a 6% kegged IPA as you are for that pint of bitter.

The other problem with CAMRA pubs is that they really are the domain of men. It was a small sample size, but there definitely seemed to be fewer women in most of the pubs than you find at a lot of Toronto beer bars on any given night. I’m sure there will be people out there that disagree, but my wife and I both felt a lot of traditional cask pubs could do with a better balance of the genders. As people fret about the death of the pub, I wonder what publicans are doing to expand their market.

The point is basically that CAMRA could do with a makeover, one that would be more appealing to younger drinkers and women. The organization feels outdated in many ways and feels pigeonholed in their devotion for cask ale. It feels like they have blinders on that hide all the changes happening to the beer scene both at home and abroad. A lot of newer breweries (The Kernel, Wild, Beavertown, Moor) are obviously very influenced by what is happening in America, Scandinavia, Italy and other progressive craft beer scenes rather than following the British ethos of session ales served on cask. (Well, some still do cask beers and session ales, but it’s only a part of what they do.)

I’m very curious to see where the British beer industry will go from here, especially in the next ten years. There were some very nice bottle shops that dealt a lot in American beers, including some highly loved beers like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and Brooklyn Black Ops. There was an event at Port Street Beer House that I was luckily to enough to snag the last ticket for. It was hosted by Andreas Falt, the European ambassador for the Brewers Association, who was helping kick off a two week festival of American beers. It was clear that the market for American beers is quickly growing in England and that people were willing to pay a premium for beers that differed from the traditional British ales. (For those wondering, the occasional cask came from America too. Sierra Nevada Torpedo was on cask at Port Street and we saw Samuel Adams Summer Ale in Canterbury.) British beer might be in for a bit of a shakeup and that could actually be a good thing.

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4 responses to “Cask, CAMRA & Other Things British

  1. As an Englishman living in Canada, I had a very similar experience when I went home for the first time in two years last winter. Whilst it’s fantastic to find cask in so many places, the options were generally very limited in style and really didn’t catch my attention, although this certainly didn’t apply to CASK in London, as you mentioned. By the end of my two weeks (and I didn’t have time to really seek out the specialist places), I was delighted to find a pint of Sierra Nevada to get some hop flavour!

    In regard to the Euro-lager phenomena, this isn’t a new thing. In fact, there’s a lot more good beer around and available in pubs now in England than there was five to ten years ago. Whilst we in Canada think of Ontario as being a bit of a backwater, and of England as being one of the great beer places, the craft scene here is growing faster and gaining a lot wider range of adherents. Simply put, the Carling, Carlsberg, San Miguels of the world are on tap in most English pubs because a majority of the clientele won’t drink anything else.

    The other reason is, of course, the tied-pub system. Most pubs are owned by a brewery (even many of the CAMRA pubs) and so are required to serve what the brewery defines as the standard tap range.

  2. This post makes me, a lovely young female hop lover, a bit frightened to roam the CAMRA scene, I must admit. The Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde duality of the great traditional cask vs the macro lager is only slightly less creepy then the concept of old white men being my drinking buddies. I like to talk beer but am not a fan of ice cold Guinness or drunk recently divorced father’s of five. (mental image, mind you) Maybe I went all wrong in the head while reading. Did you have a female travel partner?

    • I was traveling with my wife and her comments are taken into account. It depends on the place, of course, but some of them were not bars she would feel comfortable if she was by herself.

  3. Great article – very thoughtful writing. I enjoyed the choice of words in your last sentence, that British beer needs to be “shaken up”. It’s undoubtably true, although not in the literal sense: too much physical shaking is probably the reason Toronto cask beer tends to be cloudy.

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