How hard can it be?

A few days ago B&B linked to this CAMRA-bashing piece from last April. I remember reading it at the time and thinking that, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the argument about CAMRA, the author came across as the barman from hell –

“Expensive, is it, sir? That’s because this is craft beer, not like the warm stale piss sir is probably accustomed to drinking. I do beg sir’s pardon, warm stale cask piss. No, I’m afraid sir may not have a ‘top-up’, and no, sir is not entitled to ask for one. Glad to be of assistance, sir. Now might I suggest that sir shuts his malodorous pie-hole, drinks his beer, appreciates it as best he can and then buggers off back to the nearest Wetherspoons? Wouldn’t want them to start their Curry Night without you, sir.”

(On reflection I probably enjoyed that a bit too much.)

Re-reading the post now, anyway – and whatever about the rights and wrongs of the argument about CAMRA – I was struck by the line highlighted below:

Beer lovers across the country probably have the largest range of choice they’ve ever been able to enjoy. Cask, keg, bottle, and the finest imports from across the globe. CAMRA should be refocusing on this, how difficult would it be to promote just good beer? (#CAMRGB) Make a few definitions about cask conditioned ale, craft keg beers, and get people back into pubs enjoying these great offerings from an ever increasing range of quality homegrown breweries. Neither side of this debate are in any doubt what they think about mass produced, adjunct laden, lagers and the like.

There you go, that’s all you need to do: define cask conditioned ale and define craft keg, then campaign for both of them. Oh, wait, apparently cask conditioned ale already has a definition – well, two or three definitions, depending on what you think about cask breathers, Fast Cask and so on and so forth. More importantly, we know how it’s defined; nobody’s going to pop up at this stage of the game and say that all true cask beer is drawn from the wood, or brewed in Burton, or sparkled, or whatever. Cask ale is cask ale because of something to do with live yeast and a continuing process of fermentation (I can be less specific).

So all we need to do now is define craft keg.




To be fair, there have been attempts to define craft beer – boy, have there been attempts to define craft beer. To be unfair again, they’ve been lousy. Using expensive ingredients and/or not using cheap ingredients seems to be the main factor that’s actually measurable; beyond that you’re into a lot of blather about passion and authenticity. But all of that’s beside the point, because what we need here is a definition of craft keg: something that sets craft keg apart from (say) John Smith’s Smooth, and if possible does so in a way that will make sense to people who understand the definition of cask-conditioned ale. (So “craft keg: it’s brewed exclusively on Tuesdays by men called Keith” wouldn’t work, even if it was true. (I assume it’s not true. How would I know?))

Here’s CAMRA’s official line on keg beer:

No, here’s CAMRA’s official line on keg beer:

Keg beer undergoes the same primary fermentation as real ale but after that stage it is filtered and/or pasteurised. No further conditioning can therefore take place. It is known in the brewing trade as ‘brewery-conditioned’ beer. The beer lacks any natural carbonation which would have been produced by the secondary fermentation and so carbon dioxide has to be added artificially. This leads to an over gassy product. Today some keg beers have a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide added; these are known as nitro-keg beers.

Now, I’ll assume that brewers of craft keg beer – Lovibond’s, Magic Rock, Camden, those sorts of outfit – don’t mess around with pasteurisation. Presumably they filter out every last nano-speck of yeast, so the beer’s flat as ink and no further conditioning can take place, and then gas up the liquid, chill it under pressure to slightly below freezing and squirt it out of a tin.

Or do they?

How accurate is CAMRA’s definition when it comes to “craft keg” – apart from pasteurisation, is there anything else ‘craft’ brewers just don’t do? Is there a “craft keg” line on filtration – do craft brewers leave some of the residual yeast in? What about gas and refrigeration?

I’d love to get answers to those questions, but I’m not holding my breath. Real ale advocates may not be able to give a single definitive answer to the question of what real ale is, but they can at least have an argument with a shared set of premises. I don’t know if the craft keg crowd have even thought about what does and doesn’t qualify as “craft keg”, beyond generally agreeing that Magic Rock Cannonball is in and Carling Black Label is out. I’m not convinced that a definition is possible, but it would be really nice to have.

Here’s another question: let’s say we take beer that’s ready to rack in casks and put it in kegs instead – no filtering, certainly no pasteurisation. I’m guessing that that would still count as ‘keg’ because of the CO2. But what about if the beer’s never in contact with the gas, perhaps because it’s inside a collapsible bag within a pressurised container? Given the appropriate number of ppm of yeast in suspension, would that still be keg? Why, or why not?

Incidentally, as a kid I remember being told by two different people – aged about five and ten years older than me – that they were happily drinking keg as teenagers when an “old bloke” at the bar told them to try something decent and converted them to real ale on the spot (in one case with the words “You don’t want beer squirted out of a tin!”). I don’t think either of them was making it up. Presumably this sort of encounter, later immortalised in Nick Hancock’s ad for Randall’s (of Jersey), was happening up and down the country in the late 60s and early 70s; CAMRA could build on a real, if elderly, cask ale rear-guard.


  1. Posted 17 September, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Craft keg? That’s my take I think. And as part of the CAMRA committee that looked at this, we asked that the outdated definition of cask you quote be removed from the website and replaced by an up to date version.

    Our recommendations were rejected by and large. See my blog for details. I thought that one was agreed. I will ask about it.

  2. Posted 18 September, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

    To further muddy the waters from a perhaps unexpected angle, there is a surprising amount of what is assumed to be real ale (by drinkers and publicans) that is little more than brewery-conditioned beer in a cask. Demands of publicans for beer that will drop bright quickly and of drinkers for pin-bright beer mean that the amount of refermentation that goes on in cask can be surprisingly low….

  3. Posted 18 September, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I’d forgotten about that post, I do enjoy a quality rant.

    “Craft” keg comes in a wide variety of forms and can be Pasteurised, but other than that you get into the blather about passion and authenticity.

  4. Posted 19 September, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink | Reply

    (a) It probably can’t be defined in a concrete way to suit everyone but…
    (b) what’s wrong with various working definitions for different situations, groups and purposes? That’d be fairly easy.

    • Phil
      Posted 19 September, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Not convinced it would. If (as Ed says) ‘craft keg’ can even be pasteurised, we’re clearly not going to get anywhere on methods of production and dispense. There’s this one –

      “What I’d say is, if you can identify exactly where it was brewed, name the brewer and it has great aromas and good strong flavours (and perhaps a silly name), it’s probably craft beer.”

      – but that ‘terroir’ requirement obviously lets out the Scottish Brewer and probably several other of the larger ‘craft’ outfits. And what happens when you drink keg from Thornbridge (or whoever) and find it bland and lacking in aroma – is everything else they do still craft beer?

      I know I bang on about this, but I really don’t think defining craft keg is just an awkward little problem nobody’s got round to solving yet. I don’t think a consistent definition’s possible.

      • Phil
        Posted 19 September, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        this one

        From here (via).

      • Posted 19 September, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        You said: “I don’t think a consistent definition’s possible”.

        I said: “It probably can’t be defined in a concrete way to suit everyone”.

        So I think we agree, don’t we? The difference being, perhaps, that we don’t care if there’s a consistent, widely accepted definition, because it isn’t stopping us drinking beer, thinking about beer or talking about it in a more-or-less satisfying way.

  5. Posted 19 September, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Oh, and did you read this? Ken is on to something with the point about ‘family resemblance’, which relates to your point about John Smith’s vs. Magic Rock.

    • Phil
      Posted 19 September, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I quite liked where he finished up (the ‘authorial relationship’ model) but I didn’t think the ‘family resemblances’ bit did the work he wanted it to. It certainly describes the way ‘craft’ is used, but I don’t think that’s enough.

      It all comes down to what you want a definition for. If you’re talking to craft beer enthusiasts, you don’t need one – you already know the kind of thing you like and the kind of people who make it. For me, the point of a definition is to get cask bigots (like me) to acknowledge that some keg beers are quite decent. In other words, the people who need ‘craft keg’ defining are craft sceptics: they don’t assume that Stuart Howe’s beers are different from any other beer brewed by Molson Coors, they want to know if they are different – and if so in what way. And that’s where it gets tricky.

      • kenanddot
        Posted 24 September, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re right Phil that it’s the craft beer sceptics that want a proper definition.

        I guess it wasn’t very clear in my post that I don’t support the ‘family resemblance’ conception, for exactly the reason you give: it may capture how ‘craft beer’ is used, but that’s not enough. (as philosophers like to put it, it’s merely extensionally accurate. it doesn’t define the concept). That’s why I plumped for craft brewers as authors.

  6. M.Lawrenson
    Posted 20 September, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

    My local CAMRA Branch Secretary takes an even harder line on “craft keg” than the National Committee do. In every issue of the branch magazine, there’s at least one article about the evils of keg (or “Zombeers” as he calls them, and to emphasise this he changes the font of that word from Times New Roman to ITC Kristen). The one in the Autumn issue was ostensibly about American micros, and the digest version is “These beers are much better than Bud, Coors etc. But they’re STILL KEG! KEG MUST DIE EVEN THOUGH I’VE JUST SAID IT’S DEAD ALREADY!”. He even wrote that if “craft keg” becomes too popular, then the big brewers will market John Smiths, Tetley Smooth etc. as “craft beer”.

    As for me, I’ve never seen any of this “craft keg” on sale. I live in Preston.

  7. dsquared
    Posted 25 September, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink | Reply

    It’s like “indie”, isn’t it? Basically meaning “music that the fans can sort of imagine themselves making, if they were that bit more talented”. Viz, “craft” means “beer like what hobbyists and homebrewers make, except done more properly”. Cross-checking – in both fields, people’s judgement of the quality of the product is very much influenced by their assessment of the personal attributes of the individuals producing it…

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