Craft Beer vs. Real Ale

Note: to the Professor this seems an artificial debate: “real beer,” done right IS craft beer. And not every beer brewed right need be cask/firkin- PGA

Written by Danner Kline for bhamweekly.com

Once in a while I read an article that gets my mental gears turning so much I just have to write about it. That was the case this week when someone directed my attention to the BrewDog blog and their post on craft beer vs. real ale. It offers both an opportunity for me to touch on the topic of cask-conditioned ale and the topic of craft beer more generally.

Longtime readers will recall that BrewDog is the Scottish brewery that garnered tons of free publicity last year by engaging in a battle to produce the strongest beer in the world. After several rounds of one-upmanship with Germany’s Schorschbräu brewery, BrewDog ended the battle (at least for a while) with the release of The End of History, a 55-percent ABV beer—a strength produced by ice distillation. The brewery has really made a name for itself by pulling stunts that garner lots of media attention, and by brewing beers that would be much more at home in the middle of the American craft beer revolution than in their native U.K., where dark milds and ESBs are revered more than extreme beer styles or tricks like shooting for ridiculous alcohol contents.

Most recently, BrewDog had a public tiff with Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) over their planned participation in the Great British Beer Festival. The festival organizers claim it was over payment issues, while the brewery claims it was over their intent to serve kegged beer at the event instead of limiting their offerings to cask-conditioned ale. The end result is that CAMRA booted BrewDog from the event.

Now the brewery has a post on its blog talking about what is wrong with CAMRA and their religious insistence on the ultimate superiority of cask-conditioned ale, and why “craft” beer is actually superior. They insist the post has nothing to do with them being booted out of the CAMRA beer festival. Nothing whatsoever. Regardless, the bulk of the post is spot on.

Before I get into the substance of BrewDog’s article, a note about cask ale.

A few hundred years ago, most beer in England was brewed in the same building where it was consumed and served with a minimal amount of natural carbonation. It was hand pumped from vessels called “firkins,” and since it was fresh, unfiltered and still undergoing fermentation, it was cloudy, full of yeast and relatively warm by today’s standards. This is what is meant by the phrase “cask-conditioned ale.” I’ve never had the pleasure of traveling to England and tasting freshly brewed cask ale in the pub where it was made, but it’s on my bucket list. Great Britain has one of the world’s greatest beer cultures, and cask ale is an integral part of that.

But just as the U.S., the Brits lost their way in the mid 20th century. Pale, filtered, pasteurized, highly carbonated, bland lagers gained popular acceptance and dark, warm, cloudy, lightly carbonated cask ale began to fade as an option for British beer drinkers. Enter CAMRA, a consumers’ group intent on saving the traditional beer culture they loved and respected. The goal was noble: fight back against the proliferation of bland lagers brewed for the masses, and preserve flavorful English ales. They created a strict definition for “real ale” and worked hard to promote it as a better alternative to “fake” bland lagers. They were an integral part of preserving hundreds of years of British brewing culture over the past few decades.

The BrewDog blog post catches us up to where things stand today. CAMRA didn’t adapt to the evolving understanding of everything that qualifies as good, flavorful beer in the 21st century. Even in 2011 they still place their focus on natural carbonation, hand pumped beer engines, and yeast cell counts in beer. After citing both CAMRA’s definition of real ale and the U.S. Brewers Association’s definition of craft beer (which specifically states a craft brewery must be small), BrewDog offers their own definition of craft beer which happens to align perfectly with what I’ve been arguing in this column for a long time: “For us the distinction should be as simple as beer brewed for taste versus beer brewed for volume.” Craft beer is about flavor.

The BrewDog guys go on to lament the negative effects of CAMRA’s narrow definition of real ale, the biggest of which is very narrow stylistic diversity in the U.K. Bitters, milds and golden ales dominate real ale festivals. Conversely, go to any beer festival in the U.S. and you’ll find over a hundred different styles of beer, and American brewers are inventing new styles all the time.

Cask-conditioned ale is a wonderful part of craft beer culture, but it is only one small part. I respect BrewDog’s efforts to bring a new level of excitement to brewing in the U.K., and I am thankful to live in the United States, where our brewers lead the world in creative brewing. Cheers to craft beer.

“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to danner@freethehops.org