As I sit here writing this post I pause to reflect that, even as my fingers press down on the keys, the great and the good of CAMRA, (well Tandleman for a start), will be debating many weighty matters at this weekend's National AGM and Member’s Weekend at Scarborough.
I mention Tandleman because he is proposing what will almost certainly be the most controversial motion of the weekend. The motion basically expresses concern about the increasing tendency for some cask ales to be brewed in order for them to be served hazy or cloudy. It mentions the potential for both confusion at the point of sale and the undermining of customer confidence in real ale, and goes on to instruct the National Executive to examine the matter and report back to next year’s Conference with its findings.
Controversial enough you might think? But nowhere near as controversial as the issue which refuses to go away, and yet is not up for debate at Scarborough. I’m talking here about but the real elephant in the room; the one divisive issue which CAMRA chooses to ignore and refuses to discuss. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Cask Breathers!
Cask breathers or aspirators are a mechanism for keeping oxygen away from beer in the cask, thereby extending, or prolonging its shelf-life. They work by keeping the gas in the cask at atmospheric pressure by either admitting applied gas to replace beer drawn off, or venting any excess gas generated by the beer itself. The carbonation level of the beer is thus kept constant, and because of this mode of operation, they are some times referred to as “demand valves”.
The effect of the breather on the taste of the beer is a matter of hot debate, and remains controversial. In controlled tests, most drinkers have been unable to distinguish between naturally conditioned and cask breather beers, but unfortunately some CAMRA members have developed a pathological hatred of these devices which borders on insanity.
In order to understand why this should be it is necessary to look back to the early days of the Campaign for Real Ale and to examine exactly what the fledgling organisation was up against. The years preceding CAMRA’s formation had seen a massive consolidation within the brewing industry, leading to the creation of six large brewing groups, achieved through a series of consolidations and mergers. Around three-quarters of the nation’s pubs were owned or controlled by these mega-breweries, each of whom was pursuing policies of rationalisation within their tied estates. Locally brewed, traditional cask-conditioned beers were being phased out in favour of heavily promoted, national “keg” brands, which were easier for publicans to handle but which like any mass-marketed product, had a tendency towards blandness.
“Keg” or “brewery-conditioned” beer was to begin with, little more than bottled beer in a much larger container. What made it the object of so much derision not only from early CAMRA members, but also from many seasoned drinkers, was its bland taste and overly gassy nature. The brewers’ quest for nationally available brands meant that many of the characteristics which distinguished beers from one region of the country to another, were removed. The overtly hoppy beers preferred by one area or the full-bodied and malty beers enjoyed by another were homogenised to create beers which the brewers hoped would appeal to people in all parts of the country; for such is the nature of a “national brand”.
So far, so good, but in order to promote their national brands to a still wider audience, the large brewers had to try and sell them to people who didn’t actually like beer; well certainly not beer which tasted of malt with a good smack of hops! The result, even blander and sweeter brews, derided by some as “lemonade beers”. The most infamous example of this was Watney’s Red, a sweetened and dumbed down version of the company’s original keg beer, Red Barrel. Launched in a blaze of publicity during the early 1970’s, under the theme of the “Red Revolution”, with posters depicting look-alike iconic communist leaders, such as Khrushchev, Mao and Castro, the beer was a spectacular flop, but the company persisted with its promotion and with the phasing out of popular local brands such as Bullards, Tamplins, Ushers and Wilson’s.
As if the sweet, insipid taste and the use of inferior ingredients wasn’t enough, the beers underwent filtration, to remove residual yeast, and then pasteurisation to kill off any remaining yeast and to stabilise them. They then needed a method of dispense in order to transfer them from the keg to the customer’s glass. Carbon dioxide (CO2) pressure was the answer, and it was quite a logical one given that it is the gas naturally produced during fermentation, and the gas which gives the beer its sparkle or condition, and also imparts that pleasant mouth feel and refreshing characteristic to the beer. This, of course, is the system used in the vast majority of countries where beer is sold on draught.
The only trouble was that the pressure of CO2 required to force the beer from the container to the glass was such that it made the beer overly fizzy, and also led to a tendency for the beer to fob, or foam during dispense. I remember this well, being in a queue of thirsty drinkers at the bar and watching the bar staff pouring pint after pint of mainly foam, whilst waiting for the stuff to settle down. The brewers countered this by installing chillers in the lines, which worked because, as we all remember from school science lessons, gasses are more soluble in liquids at low temperatures, than they are at higher ones. The trouble here is that whilst lager-style beers are meant to be served chilled, top-fermented ales are not. However, as some critics pointed out, chilling helped disguise the poor taste of many of these heavily promote keg brands, so for some it was a blessing in disguise.
CO2 rather than filtration or pasteurisation, became the bête noir, so far as CAMRA was concerned, and certainly in the early days of the campaign the organisation seemed more interested in dispense methods than anything else. Again it is easy to understand why, because although at this time there was still a lot of cask-conditioned beer around, much of it was served by "top-pressure" dispense. This system involved connecting a cylinder of carbon dioxide to the spile hole of the cask so that when the tap was pulled on the bar top fount dispenser, pressure of CO2 was applied to the "top” of the beer, thereby forcing beer put of the cask, along the pipeline and into the customer's glass.
The brewers argued that it allowed the beer kept to be kept for much longer, as it prevented it coming into contact with oxygen in the air. It also gave an extra "sparkle" and bite to the beer, owing to the increased amount of dissolved CO2. Critics countered this by complaining that the system ruined perfectly good cask beer, and gave it the characteristics of keg i.e. brewery-conditioned beer. CAMRA's choice of words at the time was that it made the ale "sickly and sweet", although quite how it achieved the latter is beyond me. (Dissolving CO2 in water, and beer is approximately 95% water, produces carbonic acid, which is definitely NOT sweet!)
However, as someone who commenced beer drinking during the early 1970's, when this system was quite commonplace, there is no doubt that excess gas certainly did spoil cask beer. I may not have realised it at the time, as to begin with I probably drank far more "top-pressure" dispensed beer than that dispensed by more traditional methods. This was not through choice, but down to the simple fact that most of the pubs I drank in used CO2 dispense. Most were either tied to Courage or Whitbread; both of whom had something of a duopoly in the East Kent town where I grew up. Pubs belonging to local brewer, Shepherd Neame, were more likely to have retained traditional hand pumps as a means of dispense, but at the time myself and my friends tended to avoid Shep's pubs, preferring instead something more modern i.e. tarted up!, and furthermore none of us were keen on Shep’s beers (probably because they had a lot more character back then than the more bland offerings from Messrs Courage and Whitbread.)
Enter the cask breather. It has been argued that if these devices had been around at the time when CAMRA was formed, there would have been no need for the campaign. From an emotional point of view it is perhaps easier to understand the vehemence and distrust with which these devices are viewed by the more rabid members of the campaign. However, from a scientific and totally logical point of view there is no need at all for the cask breather to be treated with such contempt.
Let’s look at the facts: if the beer is already conditioned then the CO2 is simply stopping the air getting to the beer. That air contains oxygen and bacteria which will damage the beer, but the applied CO2 prevents this from happening. The applied CO2 is not going to be detrimental to the beer as it won't get into it. Beer gives up CO2 to atmospheric pressure, so the only thing that will happen to beer kept in casks fitted with cask breathers is it will loose condition, slowly, until equilibrium is achieved. Basically there is no way that CO2 at atmospheric pressure will somehow damage the beer. The only real argument against cask breathers is that they are the thin end of the wedge. Even this though is a spurious one, as why would landlords want to change from a system which works, and which has no deleterious affect on the beer at all, to a fully-fledged "top-pressure" system which DOES alter the beer and which comes with substantial inherent extra costs?
CAMRA's argument against cask breathers is therefore one which is based purely on emotion, and past history, rather than scientific fact. It is of no help to struggling pubs and hard-pressed landlords, and by its extreme fundamentalist nature merely succeeds in making the campaign a laughing stock within the pub and beer industry.
The late Richard Boston, who was an early flag waver for real ale, and a pioneering campaigning writer for better quality beer, became disillusioned with CAMRA quite quickly, and stated in his excellent book “Beer & Skittles”, published 1976, “At times it has seemed that CAMRA’s sole interest was in the means of dispense. It has been said that some of their members would drink castor oil if it came from a hand pump, and would reject nectar if it had no more than looked at carbon dioxide.”
I know several rabid hard-line fanatics who fit into this category, arguing vehemently against cask breathers, particularly at branch Good Beer Guide selection meetings. It is impossible to discuss the issue with them scientifically or logically. These are the people who are convinced they can spot a pub using cask breathers just by looking at the beer in the glass! They are the same self-serving people who think it is their right to insist the landlord shows them his cellar, just in case the prohibited devices might be lurking somewhere in a dark corner. I am normally a peace-loving person, but they are the sort of anally retentive people who make me want to tear up my CAMRA membership card in disgust and throw something at them!
To sum up; don’t expect to see a change in CAMRA policy any time soon. To put the record straight, it is worth noting that CAMRA’s Technical Committee, which advises on various aspects of brewing and cellarmanship, actually approved the use of cask breathers. My memory isn’t quite what it was, but I believe this recommendation was made about 20 years ago, so we are not talking recent history here.
Despite this approval which, incidentally was based on scientific fact and not doctrinal clap-trap, successive AGM’s have voted to reject cask breathers purely on the same emotional, illogical reasons we have already covered. I won’t go into how these AGM decisions come about, as the subject of democracy within CAMRA, and the way AGM’s are handled is a whole separate subject. However, as the dinosaurs and anoraks within the campaign get older, and slowly shuffle off this mortal coil, there is always hope that common sense will prevail. Hope that is, as long as it is not too late, because developments within the brewing and pub industries, such as the increasing popularity of “key-kegs” and tank beer, may eventually make the whole business of cask-conditioning and hand pump dispense, a real thing of the past!
Looking back at the first Good Beer Guide, published in 1974, it's interesting to note that it lists beers from the now defunct Hull Brewery, even though all that company's beers were filtered and served from cellar tanks - albeit by hand or electric pumps!