So where better to start than with an issue which is already having repercussions for a type of beer which is claimed to be the "pinnacle of the brewer's art".
I am talking of course, about cask-conditioned ale; the style of beer which is unique to Britain. With sales seemingly in decline, there are dark rumblings about the future of this unique style of beer, and with no real consensus as to what to do about it, let alone how to save it. the future is not looking good.
It can't have escaped the attention of those who care about beer that the recently published Cask Report (an annual review of the state of the cask-ale market), has highlighted a 6% fall in sales of cask.
Martyn Cornell asks the question, "Why after nearly 50 years after the birth of CAMRA, can't he get a decent pint in most pubs?". He suggests appointing "cask ale champions" to ensure quality standards are met, and also believes Cask Marque should implement accurate record keeping, so publicans can demonstrate just how long a particular cask has been on sale. Finally he wants to get the message across about the problems associated with stocking too many cask ales, as this is contributing to the quality problems which is one of the prime reasons for the drop in sales.
Pub Curmudgeon suggests that because hand pulls allow customers to instantly recognise cask beer, they also give them the chance to instantly reject it as well. His proposal is to mix up the cask with the keg, by putting it on the "T bar".
Benjamin Nunn asks the question, "Is cask ale going the way of vinyl?", and if so, would it not be better if it was promoted as a "niche" product? Whilst this could see cask disappearing from many main-stream pubs, it would at least ensure its survival in specialist outlets, which know how to keep the beer properly.
Tandleman conducted his own research into cask quality, by trying several pubs in an area he doesn't usually drink in. In the four pubs he visited, there was only one pint he'd describe as very good. This, coupled with regular visits to London, where he often comes across poor quality beer, reinforces his view that cask has a problem.
And this is where I come in, as Tandleman's findings closely mirror what I experienced during our recent trip to Norfolkand Yorkshire. It is becoming abundantly clear to many people that ordering a pint of cask ale has become something of a lottery; and an expensive lottery at that, given the price of a pint today.
Retired Martin's blog where Martin is reporting much the same in the many pubs he visits up and down the country. What makes this situation even worse, and potentially explosive, is the news that most of the pubs Martin visits are Good Beer Guide entries!
From where I see things, quality has always been the Achilles Heel of cask ale, and whilst its short comings can be mitigated by quick turnover and proper cellarmanship, the fact that cask-conditioned beer is reliant on being cared for by someone apart from the brewer, is asking for trouble.
"What's Brewing", the Campaign's monthly newspaper is anything to go by, not a lot. CAMRA at present is pre-occupied with its campaign to save the nation's pubs.
In a way, I can see where CAMRA is coming from, as there is no future for cask (Real Ale) without pubs to stock and serve it. But equally, if CAMRA continues to ignore the quality issue inherent with cask ale, drinkers in pubs which the Campaign has managed to save, will continue to avoid it, and will switch to something more consistent and reliable.
raison d'être is worth fighting for. My membership of CAMRA stretches back over 40 years, during which I have witnessed various highs, as well as lows in the Campaign's fortunes, but I feel that the group has a real fight on its hands to try and rescue cask ale from oblivion, and the trouble is it doesn't seem to realise the problem exists.
There is a perfect storm heading cask ale's way, as the genre comes under pressure from all sides, but what makes things worse is the situation is being masked by the seemingly unstoppable rise in the number of new breweries coming on tap. With over 2.000 breweries in the UK, no neighbourhood is far from a brewery, so from CAMRA's viewpoint, everything in the garden is rosy.
With all these breweries fighting for space on the bar, and many CAMRA members on the look out for a new beer to "tick" or a new brewery to scoop, the temptation, when it comes to Good Beer Guide selection time, is to pick pubs offering a wide selection of real ales, whist turning a blind eye to the obvious quality problems ensuing from stocking too many ales. This issue has been around for a long time, and whilst some branches are now belatedly addressing it, they are still the exception rather than the rule.
I'm not sure what is the best way of saving cask ale, because no matter what innovations are put in, its quality is ultimately linked to the person or persons who handle it in the pub cellar or serve it at the bar. Keg, or "container " beers, which are the default option in virtually all areas of the world, apart from Britain, get round this problem because they are kept in, and dispensed, from a sealed containers. They therefore receive virtually no exposure to oxygen and, more importantly, spoilage organisms which might be present in the air.
A couple of months ago, whilst I was visiting the United States for Beer Bloggers Conference in Virginia, I had several conversations about cask-conditioned ale with some of the delegates. The universal response was that Americans just don't get "cask", with the reasons most often cited being it is flat and served too warm. During my travels I only came across two or three bars stocking cask, and wisely I wasn't foolish enough to try any of it.
Now I'm not advocating an abandonment of cask, in favour of keg, but perhaps the future of "real ale" does lie more in specialist outlets, which cater for that specific niche. Whilst this may have been Ben Viveur's perception of where the market is heading, and was where the comparison with vinyl came about, Ben was quite adamant that wasn't the destination he wanted to see for cask.
I too don't want to see cask disappear from mainstream pubs, but on the other hand, if the style is struggling to sell amongst a myriad of global lager brands, I would rather that the pubs concerned knock it on the head. In some cases "no cask is better than bad cask" - now where have we heard that sort of argument, before ?