When I previewed the opening of the Euston Tap, this was the first question I received on both my blog and Twitfeed. It's because the real ale taps come straight out of the wall rather than being from hand pumps on the bar.
And when I replied that they were served with gas, there was a supplemental question: "Does that mean air pressure or do they also use CO2?"
These questions are of no interest to the vast majority of craft beer drinkers. But they are of fundamental importance to the Campaign for Real Ale. And because CAMRA is the biggest and most influential consumer body in beer in the UK, that makes them important.
While I'm a champion of cask ale, I obviously love other beers as well - as I think do most drinkers. But this is an issue that won't go away, and the Tap has thrown it, for me, into sharp relief.
CAMRA as a body fight for real ale. When it suits them they fight for other stuff as well, but let's leave that to one side for now. When it comes to British brewed craft beer, by their constitution they have to champion 'real' or cask conditioned ale. Given that, it's quite understandable that they need to have a pretty specific technical definition of what real ale is. That means there are bound to be some beers that are pretty close to that definition, but fall outside it.
I can accept that. What's more bizarre is what happens to beers that do not qualify as real ale, and to the pubs that serve them. If they are not real ale - even by a whisker - CAMRA cannot support them. Pubs that start using cask breathers are promptly dropped from the Good Beer Guide.
I understand how they get here. But I still think it's bizarre.
I don't know whether the beers in the Euston Tap are served with CO2 (i.e. cask breathers) or not. But what if they were?
Let's take Thornbridge Bracia. Normally a bottled beer, it's won numerous awards around the globe. It's breathtaking in its complexity, subtlety, structure and power. Now it's on cask at the Euston tap, and nowhere else.
Now, I know most CAMRA members join because they love great beer and by and large that's what CAMRA's about. But let's focus on the hardliners, the people who propose motions at AGMs, who campaign most actively, who write stuff like this on Cambridge CAMRA's official website:
"The beer must remain untainted and utterly genuine. CAMRA have fought off all sorts of threats, some blatant, others more subtle and the image remains intact. The dishonest cask breather must not be allowed to corrupt CAMRA's standards."
If you agree with this, I would genuinely like to hear from you...
Let's say I get you into the Euston Tap and place a pint of Bracia in front of you. Would you demand to know about gas and cask breathers before you deigned to drink it? If I told you it was served without cask breathers, and you drank it and enjoyed it, would you then change your mind about it if I said, "Actually I lied, it is served with cask breathers"?
What would you do if I said "Why not taste it and decide if it has a cask breather or not?" Given that the main argument against cask breathers is that they supposedly affect the taste (something every brewer I've spoken to denies), surely you'll be able to tell whether it has a cask breather or not? If you can't, then what exactly is the problem?
Because this is the nub of the debate: the Campaign for Real Ale was founded from a genuine belief that cask ale tastes better than other beers. Whether you agree with that or not, it's an argument about the quality and delivery of the beer. But it's about your senses. It's about the beer. If I give you a beer that doesn't fit with your definition of cask, but is generally regarded as a flavourful, quality beer, you could:
- Drink it and say, "Amazing - it's not about cask or keg or cask breathers - it's just about the taste of the beer."
- Drink it, and perhaps say something like, "Wow, I still prefer cask beers generally, but I'll admit there are some pretty damn good beers that are not cask conditioned."
- Say, "If it's not cask beer I refuse to drink it. It must be rubbish."
Most people I know would go with the first option. I think the vast majority of CAMRA members would go for the second one. But I have met people who do the third.
I once told the chairman of Edinburgh CAMRA I'd really enjoyed a pint of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted in my hotel while visiting the city. Because it was delivered to me at a table by a waiter, I had no idea whether it was cask or keg. This man, who surely considers himself an expert on beer, was adamant that if it had been cask I must have enjoyed it, but if it was keg I couldn't have. He was telling me to ignore the evidence of my senses and instead focus on a technical aspect of beer dispense to decide whether my beer tasted nice or not.
Surely it's meant to be about the taste of the beer. Why else are we all here? If you need to ask technical questions about methods of dispense before deciding if you like a beer or not, you are making your decisions based on dogma. You are making a political decision rather than taste driven decision. And I believe that means you've lost sight of what the whole Campaign for Real Ale was supposed to be about.
Some CAMRA people argue that things like cask breathers, and FastCask from Marston's, are "the thin end of the wedge" - that if we accept this, we'll see a gradual erosion of real ale until it doesn't exist any more and, by stealth, CAMRA will have been defeated.
I think that's a pretty paranoid argument. And if I were being contentious, I'd also say "But if the quality of the beer doesn't change, what's the problem?"
CAMRA was established because beer most beer was shit. A lot of beer still is. But dogma, definition and politics mean that the most hardline CAMRA members often save their hostility for really good beers that simply don't meet an over-specific technical definition.
If you're one of these people, I know ranting and telling you you're stupid isn't going to change anything. But I believe craft beer bars like the Euston Tap demonstrate that the definition of quality craft beer has changed an awful lot since 1971. I don't think your hardline attitude does anything to help beer drinkers, CAMRA's image and credibility, or even cask ale itself.
I've tried to outline the argument in reasonable terms, understand your position and specify why I think it's wrong. I'd be hugely grateful if you wanted to respond in kind.