Friday, 11 February 2011

Craft Beer: The right name?

pencilandspoon suggests we all consider if Craft Beer is the correct name for the new wave of 'drinkable' keg beers.

Rather than answer the question directly I thought that I would offer a bit of history first for my younger readers. In the ‘olden’ days when I was a slip of a lad we knew where we stood. The good guys were Real Ale, represented by the likes of Young’s, Greene King (!) and Boddington’s. The forces of evil aka Keg included Whitbread (Tankard), Courage (Tavern) and of course Watney (Red Barrel) plus everthing else that wasn’t ‘real’.

Of course, it wasn’t so simplistic even then. Handpumps were far from universal in the dispense of cask beer. For instance, in many parts of the North and Midlands the Metron electric pump was commonplace but it wasn’t immediately obvious if the beer dispensed was kosher. As time passed, pubs that were previously viewed as paragons of virtue were black-listed for the use of cask breathers. Bottled beer was deemed universally bad apart from Guinness, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Courage Imperial Russian Stout and Gale’s Prize Old Ale. Fake handpumps appeared as well, which to the expert looked as convincing as those used in say Coronation Street or Emmerdale, but fooled the naïve and unwary. But mostly we knew where we stood and happily fought over the same strip of land for thirty years, with the enemy occasionally inventing new weapons of torture, a sort of beery battle of the Somme.

Things got a bit more complicated as the new Millenium dawned. The Brits discovered the Czech Republic, Germany and in greater numbers Belgium. Most Belgian bottled beers passed the test but some didn’t and the draught tasted pretty good and was often unpasturised and or unfiltered so a blind eye was turned to the fact that it was still kegged. Drinking keg was o.k. if you were in a foreign country wasn’t it? Ditto, a revolution was taking place in the U.S.A. The trickle of new breweries became a flood as the Americans looked at what the great brewing nations had done and decided to adapt and accentuate the styles to their own ends.  The result was a plethora of new breweries, beers and styles which had their roots in Europe but were proudly American in attitude. In particular the hops grown in the U.S., Cascade being a good example, were particularly suited to big hoppy beers. Keg beer was the norm in the U.S. and so that was how they were served, chilled and sparkling. The new bottled beers were mostly pasturarised and filtered too. Some people consider kegged and chilled to be the premier method of dispense for these beer but that’s for another day. Anyway, this movement needed a name. Real Ale didn’t aply, sounded a bit stuffy and belonged to a different continent. Someone coined the name Craft Beer to differentiate the beers from the products of the Multi Nationals and it stuck.

Each to his own you may say. But these beers are seen increasingly in Britain. At first, only in the fancy bars of London, nothing to worry about for the rest of us. But their range is spreading across the country as specialist bars (they don’t call themselves pubs) spring up in cities such as Manchester and Sheffield. The traditionalists could still ignore these cuckoos in the nest until along came Brewdog the self-styled punks of British brewing. They do brew cask beer and very good it is. But they’re on record as saying that keg is their preference and their reach is increasing. Shock horror, the previous saintly Thornbridge are also producing keg versions of their beers. Other breweries are following suit in increasing numbers. Meantime have quietly ploughed the keg furrow for some years and more are taking this path, especially in the London area.

What these breweries have in common is that they brew good beer and embrace the term ‘Craft Beer’. This is a major problem for CAMRA whose position as the ultimate arbiter of what is good beer is under threat, with some brewers and bloggers prominent in their criticism. Their position is founded on the principle that correctly dispensed cask beer is the start and finish with a cursory nod to bottle-conditioned beers. But many CAMRA members willingly embrace the New Keg as an alternative and enjoyable product. They may prefer real ale most of the time but recognise that the alternative is not necessarily fire and brimstone. The argument is starting to rage between the traditionalists and modernisers such as Tim Webb. The worry is that CAMRA may become as relevant to the mainstream as the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood

Finally, I'm not trying to dodge the question so Craft Beer seems a perfectly reasonable name to describe the new wave of good keg beers. I can’t think of a better one offhand - 'Nu Keg' hardly inspires. If I do I’ll copyright it and licence it for a reasonable fee. But unlike some I’d prefer to see it considered as a separate category to real ale and not all embracing. I like to know where I stand so for me real ale = cask, craft = keg. Simple!

*Photo courtesy of  Mike Sweeny


  1. This is an interesting ones, isn't it? Especially as some of the "Nu Keg" beers aren't really. Thornbridge keg beers use something called the Keykeg (and I am reliably informed that others do do). What this involves is racking naturally conditioned beer bright into a sealed plastic bag and then have that beer forced to the tap by exerting gas pressure on the bag - the beer itself is neither filtered, parteurised nor force carbonated. It's very similar in fact to the re-racked beer that many festivals draft in as emergency supplies when they are running out (albeit with a longer shelf life as it's in a sealed plastic bag). So how does this fit in the great scheme of things?

  2. Interesting breakdown between cask and keg and that may be where the line ends up falling? I do think there's more to it than that as an overall concept but to the British market then perhaps that's the key.

    The keykeg is an interesting one. It veers towards the craft side in its nature. I'm really interested to see what CAMRA say on it - I'd like to write a piece about them in more detail.