Cask vs keg? A dispatch from the beer wars

6. June 2011 08:54

All sorts of unpleasantness has erupted after Colin Valentine, chairman of Campaign for Real Ale, laid into bloggers at the body’s annual conference in Sheffield, accusing the influential new breed of beer writers of, among other things, trying to convert cask drinkers to keg*.

The beer bloggers themselves are on something of a high having just got back from their own inaugural conference. They are a genuine force, now numbering more than 1,000 digital scribblers, and they have made an important contribution to a growing interest in beer, which has to be a good thing.

They have played their part in the cask ale revival, which has halted a long-term decline in sales. They have also promoted the emergence of interesting keg beers, which is what the fuss is about.

Camra recently celebrated its 40th birthday. It is a remarkable organisation. It achieved its primary goal within its first decade, uniting with regional brewers to save cask conditioned beer from being totally supplanted by bland, fizzy keg bitters. And it has carried on, taking on other issues important to people who drink in pubs, and it has continued to grow.

Its strength and its weakness is that it is a membership organisation. Activists in the local branches are Camra’s lifeblood. It could not have survived so long and so successfully without them.

Valentine represents grassroots activists, frequently in tension with a professionalised executive in St Albans, and presumably his comments on beer bloggers reflect the views of a substantial number of cask drinkers on the ground.

Not surprisingly the beer writers have taken offence in true, robust, blogging style. I wouldn’t want to get in their way. Valentine is wrong. But there is a danger in conflating the equally valid keg and cask dispense methods into a homogenous draught beer category.

Think of real ale as a once-endangered species. At one time it seemed like we were going to lose it forever. Keg beer, no matter how complex and crafted, could not have substituted for it. Drinking cask was, and is, a distinct experience. It adds to the quality of life.

Cask is my personal default choice. I experiment with the new keg beers, and indeed it seems to me that the best cask brewers have been influenced in a postive way by the adventure and variety that characterises craft keg brewing.

But we mustn’t forget the beer we nearly lost, what makes it different and valuable and, for all its faults, the debt we owe to Camra.

*I can’t find Valentine’s full speech but there is an account, and sharp criticism, in veteran beer writer Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile blog: http://zythophile.wordpress.com/2011/05/28/beer-bloggers-want-you-to-drink-keg-says-camra-chairman/

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About the author

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the UK pub industry and alcohol policy. For more information, and the Politics of Drinking blog, go to www.philmellows.com
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