There is a civil war going on in one of the largest consumer groups in the world. After 45 years, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) may be heading for an acrimonious split. The reason? Craft beer.

I headed down to CAMRA’s annual Great British Beer Festival in London to find out more. Held at Kensington Olympia and host to over 55,000 patrons over five days, it is the biggest event of its kind. Over 900 real ales, ciders and perries are served, all on cask — being a real ale festival, there won’t be a keg in sight.

Real vs Craft

Real Ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature (“secondary fermentation”) in the cask from it is served in the pub.

Craft Beer doesn’t have a set definition in the UK, but is mostly associated with kegged beers. Keg beer has a longer shelf life. After the beer has finished fermentation in the brewery and has been conditioned, it is chilled and filtered to remove all the yeast and is then pasteurised to make it sterile.
There is no secondary fermentation in the keg which means gas has to be added when it is served to “fizz up” the beer.

Adapted from camra.og.uk

 

I spoke to Linda and Bob Thompson about CAMRA’s split. They have been members for over 30 years, and have been volunteering at beer festivals for most of that time. Bob curates and writes for his own website, beervisits.eu (which is well worth a visit — it has reviews of hundreds of pubs and fesitvals around the world). They know their stuff. But they are resistant to the introduction of craft beer in the UK market.

“When we started, we were basically trying to save real ale,” says Linda, At the time, mega breweries were mass producing bland, fizzy lager and serving it on keg. Real ale was on its knees. But now, thanks to CAMRA, the scene is thriving again. “The number of breweries has increased enormously since those days, and we have saved cask ale,” Linda continues. But she now sees a new menace to the cause. “I don’t think we’ll lose real ale now, but craft ales are a bit of a threat in pubs. I have tried a few but I don’t enjoy them as much. They are a bit too fizzy for my liking.”

Linda’s husband Bob doesn’t like craft ale either. He thinks the shift in consumption comes from the supply side: “It does smell a bit of a rip-off. I doubt if there would be any breweries in this country which would sell the same beer on cask and on keg at the same price. Craft will always be more expensive. I think that’s what is driving a lot of the movement as far as the producers and retailers are concerned.” He does accept that craft beer may have some merit in being a gateway for young people into the beer scene, “but that is only part of the case.”

There does seem to be an age divide. I spoke to a couple in their twenties, Chloe Harrison and Rob Britton. They both work in the pub trade. Both got into beer through real ale, rather than craft. In fact, Rob’s ultimate aim is to open a proper British pub abroad, and serve real ale. “If you’ve got the right team behind it and the right marketing, you can get real ale selling wherever you’d like,” he says. “People come here for real ale, so why not take it to them?” Chloe adds. So they are passionate about real ale.

But they also don’t see a problem with craft beer. They see the arguments between the two sides as irrelevant. “If you all enjoy beer, you should all drink it. There’s no point having these petty arguments about craft beer coming in — at the end of the day a beer’s a beer. If you enjoy it, you’ll drink it,” says Rob. He feels that the similarities between real ale and craft beer are many. “If you know the story about it, brilliant. That’s what sells a beer, knowing how it’s made and who it’s made by. Craft beer and real ale should be working together.” Chloe adds: “more people trying to get into the industry shouldn’t be a problem.”

Olympia London

What do people in the industry think? Dave Bott, co-owner of the Titanic Brewery in Stoke-on-Trent, describes the rise of craft as “hugely exciting.” His beers, although mostly cask ales, have capitalised on the creativity and experimental attitude brought to the industry by craft brewers. Titanic’s exceptional Plum Porter (winner of CAMRA’s speciality beer 2015, and runner-up this year) is part of a range of excitingly flavoured brews, which include a Raspberry Wheat and Cappuccino Stout.

In my opinion, Bott succinctly sums up why younger drinkers are less bothered by the reintroduction of kegged beers. Us youngsters weren’t around when six massive breweries dominated the market with boring fizz and nothing else. We don’t associate kegs with generic lager, like older drinkers do. “Everyone went against the keg beer, because keg was what was being brewed by the mega breweries in the 1970s, and it was all bland, all the same, and nothing to talk about. So CAMRA stopped that,” he says. But the product inside the kegs has evolved drastically since then. “Now keg has come back, and there’s all sorts of things you can do with kegs now.”

Martin Howard, Head Brewer at Blue Monkey Brewery in Nottinghamshire, agrees: “The keg beer is a lot better than it was the last time round.” Although his brewery already had a failed attempt at entering the craft market a few years ago (“We didn’t do the market research first… we ended up destroying a lot of the beer”), they are not averse to trying again in the future. I see the passion he has for real ale — which is utterly deserved, as his award-winning beers are fantastic. But I can’t help thinking that a second foray into the craft market would purely be a business decision for Blue Monkey. This is where Bob Thompson’s point — on some brewers only producing craft beer because it fetches higher prices — becomes valid.

But producing craft beer for monetary reasons is no shameful thing. First and foremost, it can still be equally as flavoursome and exciting as cask ale (see Beavertown, Mad Hatter and Cloudwater for examples). Secondly, if it can subsidise real ale production whilst introducing new people to the cask stuff, it can only be a good evolution. And breweries like Titanic show that craft has kept real ale brewers on their toes, experimenting with new ingredients and producing some incredibly inventive, unique real ales.

Bradley Cummings is Co-founder and Director of Welsh brewery Tiny Rebel. They have invented such casked beer as a marshmallow porter, chilli stout and fig & hazelnut ale. They also produce equally as imaginative beers on keg. Cummings completely dismisses the divide between the two. “Craft is just a word. At the end of the day, it’s the same beer. It’s just served differently,” he says. “We’re not real ale, we’re not craft — it’s just beer. Beer is beer. It’s a social thing, it brings people together. At the end of the day, as long as it tastes good, who cares?”

Hear, hear. Now who’s getting the next round in?

Titanic Brewery – home of the fantastic Plum Porter and Cappuccino Stout
Tiny Rebel – probably the most popular brewery bar at the festival

Bottoms up: What I was drinking at the Great British Beer Festival

  1. Twisted Oak — Spun Gold, Golden Ale (4.5%)
  2. Titanic Brewery — Cappuccino Stout (4.5%)
  3. Dancing Duck — Sapphire, Pale Summer Ale (4.2%)
  4. Allendale — Mosaic, Pale Ale (4.4%)
  5. Tiny Rebel — Stay Puft, Marshmallow Stout (5.2%)
  6. Greif — Annafestbier, German Marzen (5.5%)
  7. Kew — Green (&Black), Chocolate Milk Stout (3.9%)
  8. Deschutes Portland Pub — Pinedrops IPA (6.6%)
  9. Ninkasi Brewery — Hop Cooler, Citrus IPA (7.2%)
  10. St. Austell — Italian Job, IPA (5%)
  11. Titanic Brewery — Anchor, Golden Bitter (4.1%)
  12. Tiny Rebel — Loki, Black IPA (4.5%)