Earth To CAMRA: Craft Keg Is Not The Enemy!

“Smog Rocket” a craft keg smoked porter from Beavertown Brewery

“Smog Rocket” from Beavertown Brewery

There’s a major shift taking place in the UK beer and pub scene and the Campaign for Real Ale seems to be having a hard time embracing the new order. We’re talking about the resurgence of keg beer from Britain’s craft breweries and the craft beer bars that are popping up in response. Craft keg beer is not your grandad’s Watney’s Red. CAMRA; craft keg is not the enemy…

Last week, at the Great British Beer Festival, over 350 UK breweries showcased around 550 craft ales. And not a single one was dispensed from a keg; every one was cask-conditioned, a ‘real ale’ in CAMRA parlance. So why were there no British keg beers; do UK brewers not put their beer into kegs? According to the Society of Independent Brewers they most certainly do: 19% of member breweries are now selling some craft beer in kegs, up from 16% the previous year. Source: SIBA 2014 Beer Report.

SIBA’s 740+ members make up around 70% of the UK craft brewing industry so there’s actually quite a bit of British craft beer sloshing around in kegs. And this is particularly true when you consider that some of these SIBA members are predominantly keg, or even keg-only breweries. These upstart mavericks, who include Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Camden, Meantime, Siren, and of course those notorious punks from Brewdog, are leading the craft keg charge. How dare they go against CAMRA’s self-righteous Reinheitsgebot.

Anyway, back to the Great British Beer Festival, where there was no craft keg beer. Well, actually there was craft keg beer, and plenty of it: around 100 breweries from Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and the USA showcased around 350 of their craft beers. Although some were cask-conditioned the vast majority came to the party in CO2 pressurized kegs. CAMRA was obviously quite happy to have these ‘unreal’ beers in their festival, so what do they have against British craft keg?

There can be little doubt that CAMRA’s campaign efforts against the original “Big Six” breweries almost single-handedly saved traditional cask ale from extinction in the 1970s and laid the foundation for today’s UK craft brewing industry. The problem for CAMRA today is that they are so blinkered by their original ‘guardians of the cask’ mindset that they cannot see how allowing craft keg into their world could actually further their aims. As things stand Mr Fueled by Beer would go as far as saying that CAMRA’s conflicting view of today’s craft beer scene is actually working against its own aims…

“…It aims to…

  • Maintain consumer rights
  • Promote quality, choice and value for money
  • Support the public house as a focus of community life
  • Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers as part of our national heritage and culture
  • Seek improvements in all licensed premises and throughout the brewing industry…”

So how is CAMRA, by not embracing craft keg, working against its aims?

Promote quality, choice and value for money:

CAMRA refuses to accept any British craft keg beer at its beer festivals; if a brewer, who has a cask ale in the Good Beer Guide, releases a keg version, the cask version is no longer eligible for inclusion; in these ways CAMRA is stifling quality and choice.

Support the public house:

At a time when unprecedented numbers of pubs are closing one thing is very apparent. Almost all of the craft beer bars Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer have visited so far were previously traditional pubs that fell on hard times. So what makes a pub go from being run down and shuttered to vibrant and full of customers. Well, if you want your pub to fail, have its draft taps pour only mass-market lager brands and give it only one or two cask pumps and only let them pull boring national cask brands; that’ll do it. However if you want to succeed, give the pub a facelift and make it an inviting place for customers of all ages, paying particular attention to anything that would dissuade female customers from entering.

This might be as simple as giving a few licks of paint and a name change or it might take a little more work. It certainly involves removing anything that equates to ‘lager lout’ or ‘wifebeater’. For starters replace those awful slot machines and video games with some used board games from grandad’s attic; swap the TV screens for a small library of used books, and for God’s sake provide proper free WiFi. Do these things then, most importantly, get all the draft taps pouring craft keg, and ramp up the cask offerings with at least six pumps featuring mostly ‘LocAles’, to use more CAMRA parlance, and you’ll likely have a winner.

Yes, unprecedented numbers of pubs are closing up and down the country and CAMRA is right to campaign against this trend but their intransigent stand against craft keg and the breweries who produce it not only works against their stated aims, it simply goes against an unstoppable evolving market demand.

Seek improvements in all licensed premises:

Here in Reading, a pub of my youth – the Tudor Arms – which was most recently shuttered as the Malthouse, is thriving again as the Greyfriar – so far the town’s only craft beer bar. In London we have seen the former Lord Wolseley in Islington reborn as a Craft Beer Co outlet with no less than 24 craft keg taps and 10 cask pumps. In Oxford, the Grapes has been transformed by Bath Ales with their excellent cask ales and more adventurous Beerd brews.

Meanwhile, back in Bath Ales’ home turf of Bristol, a former wine merchant’s cellar is now the craft keg heaven known as the Beer Emporium, while across the street Small Bar is packing the hipsters in with an ever changing lineup of craft cask and keg offerings. Beerd Brewery has opened a pop-up pub just for the summer featuring all-keg beers in a disused storefront in Clifton Village; if this doesn’t demonstrate the most significant advantage of keg over cask, nothing will. And last but by no means least, Bristol’s Brewdog bar provides a regular home from home for Mr & Mrs Fueled by Rice Beer.

Maintain consumer rights:

The way CAMRA is responding to all of the above issues is restricting consumer choice.

At this point it’s worth reminding readers that Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer are subscription paying CAMRA members who fully support the campaign’s aims – just not they way they are choosing to pursue them at this time.

In the USA there is no conflict between cask and keg. Over there all breweries are essentially keg operations. It has to be this way because American beer outlets are not equipped to handle cask ale; they lack the cellaring space and cask-conditioning expertise of the traditional British pub. Instead there’s a cold room full of kegs and CO2 cylinders, with draft lines going to the bar, and taps to dispense the beer.

However, as Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer know very well from personal experience, US brewers deliver a product that when dispensed at the bar is just as flavorful and high in quality as a UK cask ale. At the same time American brewers regard cask ale as something to strive for. It’s why, in Seattle for example, the Washington Brewer’s Guild holds an annual Caskfest in celebration of cask ale. Many brewers will present a one-off special brew for the festival but many more use the opportunity to showcase one of their mainstream keg beers in a cask-conditioned form, often with extra dry-hopping, barrel aging, etc. At this year’s Caskfest over 40 Seattle area brewers presented over 100 cask ales. They see it as the ultimate expression of their art.

And we believe it is partly in recognition of the peaceful coexistance of cask and keg under the American craft beer umbrella that UK cask ale brewers are now increasing their craft keg production. Our experience over here, tasting UK craft cask and keg beers that stand side by side at the craft beer bars certainly confirms the wisdom of this move.

What’s really great about all this – and it’s the bit that CAMRA seems to be completely missing – is this growth in the keg segment of craft beer poses little or no threat to the cask ale business. In fact it is Mr Fueled by Beer’s opinion that growing craft keg can only help switch more people on to craft cask – there I said it – they’re both craft! Acting together or separately, it doesn’t matter; either way they are taking market share from the “Big Four” brewers’ lager brands; the real enemy!

Like most good things there are downsides too. The good news is; regardless of your opinion about the keg versus cask debate, assuming you even have one, the craft segment – cask and keg combined – is increasing its year on year share of the UK pub market by double-digit percentages. The bad news is this gain is happening at a time when sales of the Big Four global brewers lager brands are falling by 3-4% a year. In purely monetary terms the Big Four’s losses dwarf the craft segment’s gain by several orders of magnitude. So this is not a time to be wasting opportunities.

Some photos from our craft keg travels…

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