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On the day that pubs in England are finally allowed to reopen their doors (drinkers in Scotland and Wales will have to wait a little longer), it’s perhaps prudent to ask what future is there for cask ale and what future is there for CAMRA? The two are interlinked of course, as well as being closely tied to what happens to the nation’s pub stock in general. The future of cask itself is almost uniquely tied into what happens to pubs, as unlike other forms of packaging (bottles and cans), cask ale is dependent on the skills of the licensee or cellar man looking after it, but also requires a fast turnover.
The question is then, will those former cask drinkers who’ve been subsisting on a supply of “craft” bottles and “tinnies” throughout lock-down, return to the fold now that the pubs have reopened? During the hiatus, I’ve been enjoying a mixture of craft and cask at home, with supplies of the latter brought home in milk containers from an enterprising local pub. One of our longest established local breweries, Larkin’s of Chiddingstone, has also been selling their cask beers in those 5 five litre mini kegs.
Particularly welcome has been the availability of their excellent Best Bitter; a full-bodied 4.4% and well-hopped, Kentish bitter. The Best is not normally seen in these parts, as most local pubs only stock Larkin’s Traditional, a session bitter, brewed to a strength of just 3.4%. The lower gravity makes it especially suitable for rural pubs where driving is often the only option for customers to reach some of these isolated outlets.
I’m digressing as usual, but I’m sure you get the gist; the point I wish to make is that whilst there were cask devotees prepared to go to some lengths to source their favourite tipple, there would have been plenty of others happy to stick with the bottles and cans. Some may even find they preferred the latter, especially as “craft” and other small brewery beers are often served cooler than cask. Another factor to consider, is the degree of carbonation. Beers sold in bottles and cans tend to be more carbonated than cask ale. This is not necessarily a good thing, but unfortunately it can serve to highlight the lack of condition in a pint of cask ale that has been badly kept or has been on sale for too long.
Over the years, CAMRA has placed much emphasis on its belief that cask-conditioned ale represents the pinnacle of the brewer’s art. This intrinsically is nonsense, as there are hundreds of fantastic beers available, across the globe, that are conditioned at the brewery, rather than in a cask in the pub cellar. This pretentious claim does the campaign no favours and plays into the hands of those who say CAMRA is elitist.
The claim may have had a grain of truth when the organisation started, as compared against the lacklustre keg beers that were threatening to sweep away cask ale, the latter would normally win hands down, but by concentrating on storage and dispense methods, rather than quality of ingredients and the brewer’s devotional skills used to brew the beer, CAMRA painted itself into a corner from which it has been unable to escape.

Things have moved on a long way since the dark days of the 1970’s and there are some stunning beers available that are NOTcask-conditioned. They don’t meet CAMRA’s definition of real ale, so the campaign chooses to ignore them. Any beer that leaves the brewery in a cask, even with the minimal quantity of yeast remaining in it, is classed as real ale, and therefore gets CAMRA’s seal of approval, regardless of taste, balance or condition. Given this fixation on cask, CAMRA's role should be to make sure that real ale really is the best type of draught beer you can get, whereas the contrary can often be the case. Part of the problem is very little conditioning actually takes place in the cask these days. Instead most of the conditioning (secondary fermentation), takes place at the brewery, and the beer is dispatched with a minimal yeast count.
I had experience of this fifteen years ago, when I was selling cask ale to take away by the pint, at the off-licence I ran with Mrs PBT’s. Many beers didn’t require soft-spilling and would drop bright within an hour or two. There was certainly no evidence that much conditioning had taken place, and many of these beers would quickly lose any condition they once had. This might make sense from the brewers’ perspective, as the last thing they want are customers being served cloudy beer and licensees returning casks because they are “off.” The lack of properly trained cellar staff has compounded the problem, so brewers play safe by dispatching brewery-conditioned beer with low or minimal low yeast counts. CAMRA has ignored this issue over the years, but it is not going to go away. It calls into question the dubious claim that cask-conditioned beers represent the pinnacle of the brewer’s art.
So as drinkers slowly return to our pubs, will they go straight back in on the cask, or will their tastes and preferences have been altered by months of drinking “craft” and other types of beer. During the initial stages of the lock-down, members of the beer socials WhatsApp group I belong to were posting all sorts of photos and reviews of beers they were drinking. The vast majority were definitely NOT real ale, and yet most of the reviews were glowing. Will these die-hard CAMRA members revert to the real thing once they get inside a pub, or will they continue to be more adventurous? I know these drinkers, and most were already prepared to drink outside the box, if you’ll pardon the pun, so whilst I don’t think CAMRA has anything to worry about in the short term. Looking further ahead though, if the campaign insists on promoting cask ale above all other styles, it will become increasingly irrelevant in an age where people drink according to taste, mood and the occasion, rather than being bound by dogmatic stricture.

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