Beer Matters

A Tale of Two Bitters

I have been pondering again. During my recent trip to the USA I had two pints, one after the other, which challenged me. Ostensibly they were the same beer, the first chilled and dispensed by gas pressure, the second handpumped from a cask at room temperature. I have to say that I enjoyed the former, which was fresh and full of flavour, and not the latter, which was tired and lacklustre.

When I was a young CAMRA* member, things were simple. Cask was good and keg was bad. The evil Big Brewers were flooding the nation’s pubs with mediocrity while the noble independents fought for their very existence. Perhaps, thirty years on, the time has come to take a more considered view.

In the middle of the twentieth century there was a massive movement towards dispensing beer by gas (normally CO2) pressure, either from a pressurised container (keg) or by connecting a gas cylinder to a traditional cask (top-pressure). The rationale was ease of handling and improved shelf-life, and an older generation of drinkers, having maybe had a few bad pints too many, accepted the change without too much demur. It has been said, and there is probably a degree of truth in it, that certain brewers could not afford to go down the keg route and only made a virtue of it when they unexpectedly found themselves with a cult following. It is worth noting too that, in the other great beer drinking countries of Europe, CO2 pressure is ubiquitous and the backlash against it virtually non-existent.

However, the British brewing industry at that time was in a different state to those on the Continent. Half a century of mergers and takeovers had put the vast majority of pubs and breweries into the hands of half a dozen large conglomerates and technology rather than craftsmanship was the order of the day. The keg bitters of the 60s and 70s were not just fizzy, they were bland, sweet (remember Whitbread Tankard?) and weak (allegedly Watney’s Starlight could have been legally sold in America during prohibition). This, according to the marketing men, was “what drinkers wanted”. Had CAMRA not taken the uncompromising stand it did, and left campaigning to the older but less aggressive SPBW†, much of our brewing tradition might have been lost for ever.

But that was a generation ago. Can we now afford the luxury of a more even-handed assessment? I think so. True, the technology moves on and the old enemies return in subtler guise. True, the dead hand of Mammon still rules the industry and, as I have lamented before, some of the heroes of the revolution have since fallen by the wayside, but plenty of new brewers, young, vigorous and idealistic have taken their place. One should not be complacent, but I would say British brewing is reasonably healthy at the moment. And, as the days of spam and salad cream have given way to the era of wind-dried ham and manifold varieties of extra virgin olive oil, consumers have certainly become more demanding.

What, then, are my conclusions regarding quality? Well, firstly I’m still adamant that you can’t beat a pint of cask-conditioned ale, properly tapped and spiled, at the peak of perfection. But this takes skill and dedication that not all cellarmen possess.

Pasteurisation of beer is at best a mixed blessing. It does of course kill off any potentially harmful bacteria which could turn the stuff to vinegar but, by indiscriminately slaughtering the yeast as well, it stops the secondary fermentation which allows the beer to mature in the cask. It certainly doesn’t improve it.

Nor does heavy carbonation. As well as making the beer indigestible, the CO2 tends to dissolve, forming a solution of carbonic acid which affects the flavour. Lighter “blanket pressure”, however, can protect the beer from hostile organisms and, as my experiences abroad have shown, need not have too adverse an effect on a robustly flavoured beer, although it is arguably not so good for a lighter session ale. The “cask breather”, that cause of much soul searching among CAMRA diehards, is undoubtedly a good compromise where turnover is too slow for a whole cask, conventionally spiled, to be drunk before deterioration sets in.

Incidentally, nitrogen can be used instead of CO2. This has always been done with “draught” Guinness and is the basis of the newer “nitrokeg” beers. Being a more inert gas, it does not interact with the beer but gives it that “smoothness” so beloved of advertisers and apparently of younger drinkers. Personally, it’s not a texture I care for.

As for temperature, I maintain that, if beer is too cold, you can’t taste it properly, although much of the world seems to prefer it that way. Nor, pace John Major, should it be “warm”. The even temperature of a good deep cellar is perfect for most ales but, as with wine, some styles benefit from warming a few degrees before drinking (particularly strong, dark winter brews, but I suspect the traditional pin of “old” on the bar has long since fallen foul of hygiene regulations).

So, that’s my view. Have I mellowed and become more reasonable with age or am I a traitor to the cause? Is our brewing industry healthy and acting in the drinkers’ interest? You’re experienced topers out there – what do you think?

* Campaign for Real Ale. † Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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