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Probably the most controversial issue in CAMRA for a long time is the question of whether some “KeyKeg” beers can be classified as “real ale”. I wrote about this here, which included this admirably clear description of what a KeyKeg is.

So I thought I would do a poll on people’s attitudes to this. The results show a fairly even split between “Yes” and “No, but it’s still worth promoting” with a lesser number going for “Keg is Keg”. Overall 59% thought that keybeg beers should not be recognised as real ale. It should be pointed out that on the blog I added the following caveat “For the avoidance of doubt, I'm referring to KeyKeg beers that are unpasteurised, unfiltered and not injected with additional CO2.” The comment by “Dickthebeer” is worth reproducing:
Good CAMRA members know the definition of real ale and know that dispenses are not always all they seem, but CAMRA has defined Real Ale very closely. A beer not meeting that definition, for brewing, storage and dispense, by definition is NOT real ale. The majority of French and Belgian ales, though clearly top-fermented, naturally conditioned etc. do not meet the definition but are fine beers. Find an honest term for what could become an international variant of the real ale that is peculiar to the UK, and one we should be proud of.
A KeyKeg
CAMRA has always been prone to having passionate debates about the minutiae of dispense methods – the Scottish air pressure system and the cask breather being two good examples. This can be classed as another in the same vein. But it is important to remember that the conditioning, storage and dispense of beer is something that fundamentally underlies CAMRA, so claims of “ignore dispense, good beer is good beer” ring hollow.
At the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, there was a dedicated “craft keg” bar, and I tried a couple. It wasn’t a big scientific survey, but both were quite nice. But it must be said that they obviously came across as keg in terms of temperature and carbonation, and very different from real ale as usually understood.
There are two arguments often advanced in favour of craft keg beer. The first is the “East Sheen Tennis Club” argument, that keg beers are ideal for venues that have limited and infrequent turnover. The second is that they allow pubs to stock low-volume beers for longer. But I get the impression that the reason most people go for craft keg is that they prefer its essential characteristics – that it is served cooler, and has more carbonation, than real ale. Bringing it within the fold of real ale may assuage some CAMRA consciences, but it’s unlikely to make much difference to whether people choose to drink it. Being a touch cynical, I wonder whether the real motivation is making it acceptable to serve keg beers at CAMRA-run beer festivals rather than improving the lot of drinkers in the pub.
When CAMRA was founded, getting on for half of the real ale sold in Britain was dispensed through electric pumps, which may have led to its founders underestimating the amount of real ale there actually was out there. While electric pumps have their advantages, one thing they don’t do is to give a clear indication of the type of beer that comes out of them. Over the years, pub operators have steadily replaced electric pumps with handpumps for this very reason, and electric dispense has now pretty much entirely died out. The once-common practice of serving keg beer through handpumps has also been largely eliminated, so if you go in a pub and see a bank of handpumps you can be confident about what you’re going to get. But if we get “real” craft keg, are we going to get little stickers on the taps saying “CAMRA Says this is Real Ale”? Will we have pubs included in the Good Beer Guide purely on the strength of their craft keg offering? There is also the risk that the boundary with conventional filtered and carbonated keg beers such as Shipyard and East Coast IPA will be blurred.
One of the recurring themes of this blog has been that CAMRA is too dogmatic in making a black-and-white distinction between “good” real ale and “bad” everything else. This is not to say it shouldn’t define real ale clearly and put it at the centre of its campaigning, but it should be far more willing to recognise merit in beers that do not qualify. Most members to some extent enjoy non-real beers, so why should the organisation officially ignore this?
I make no claim to be an expert on cellarmanship, but I would say it is questionable whether keykeg beers really fit the definition of real ale anyway. As pointed out in a letter in February’s What’s Brewing from veteran activist Peter Judge, the beer contained in the bag does not vent to the atmosphere, and the part of the container outside the bag is pressurised with CO2 to dispense the beer, although the CO2 does not actually touch it. Of course it’s vastly better than Red Barrel, and something I’d be happy both to drink and promote. But, to my mind, it isn’t “real ale” as understood by the general drinking public. Rather than arbitrarily extending the definition to encompass something you happen to like, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept that some beers that aren’t technically “real” can actually be very good?
And I can foresee some lively debate at CAMRA’s forthcoming National Conference in Liverpool at the beginning of April.