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There is a continuing debate surrounding CAMRA and keg beer. Some say that CAMRA should embrace craft keg beer and others say that they most certainly should not. I'm not, in this instance, expressing a view on this debate, or perhaps I am by proxy, but either way it does seem that the vast majority of people calling for CAMRA to embrace craft keg are not members of CAMRA and those who have no truck with such a concept are members.

Whatever, the debate has highlighted an interesting question for me, one that I have oft mulled; do we really think that "real ale" is as definable as we believe?

One of the arguments against "craft keg" is the problem of defining "craft". This is indeed a problem. Mudgie, in the comments on this post, has stated not for the first time that;

" end up with the problem of defining exactly what "craft" beer is. "Real ale" has a clear, black-and-white definition, whereas "craft beer" can mean anything you want it to mean, and can all too easily boil down to "breweries we like".

I can't disagree with that observation with respect to "craft beer" - many of us are happy with our own idea of what is craft, but with a wide variety of different breweries on something of a continuum from very small and artisan to really quite large and everything in-between. Personally I like some very big breweries much more than some small mediocre ones and would assign the term craft accordingly. Exactly the point Mudgie makes.

That is all well and good, but lets turn to "real ale". It is defined by CAMRA thus;

"Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide."1

Now, there is quite a lot of cask beer that is produced that conforms to this, but there is also quite a lot that certainly does not. Much cask beer is in fact conditioned in tanks under extraneous CO2, racked with nearly no yeast in it but with a reasonable amount of carbonation, sealed in the cask, rolled out of the brewery door and delivered to a pub. Within hours this beer can be served without any conditioning and very little settling time.

True cask conditioned beer is racked direct from fermenting vessel into cask and will have a very healthy yeast count. The down side of this is that it will not drop bright so quickly and takes considerably more care from the cellarman. Also, the beer should really be kept at the brewery for a week or so to allow the secondary fermentation to occur. Many breweries much prefer to fill the cask the day before delivery or even on the very same day. Many breweries have neither got the spare casks or space to store them at the correct conditioning temperature.

I would postulate that a large proportion of cask beer really is not "real ale" as defined by CAMRA and I certainly think that the whole issue is far more muddy than some would like to assert.

As for CAMRA and keg I'm not at all sure it makes much difference. Cask beer will be around for some time as will CAMRA. "Craft keg" or whatever you want to call it seems to have a growing acceptance amongst a younger group of beer drinkers. If perhaps the "no" camp, as represented by Pete Alexander's piece in Beer2, is happy to continue to "foster good relations" then why should CAMRA do anything more?

Having said that, I'm also a fan of keg as an option, this does mean I'm sensitive to the inevitable anti-keg factions that really do exist. I'm still considering the very good article in Beer and am likely to have more to say. Whatever side of this particular thought process you might be, it's a grand debate that is unlikely to go away either.


1Taken from the CAMARA web site on this page

2The picture in this post is stolen from CAMRA's very good Beer magazine. I suspect I'm breaking a copyright law somewhere, sorry guys.