Tag Archives: CAMRA

Great British Beer Festival 2015. Some thoughts – a lot of them critical

Great British Beer Festival glass

The festival guide cover says, “The Campaign for Real Ale proudly presents…”. But one of my strongest memories from the the Great British Beer Festival yesterday isn’t of a standout ale, but of standing near the Harveys bar and handsome delivery van, chatting with Edmund Jenner (of said brewery). Beside us stood a row of an industrial-size wheelie bins. Their contents: a suppurating mix of packaging, food and dregs. There are no specific receptacles for dregs; no water for rinsing or moderating the flow either. No lids for the bins. No recycling.

Now, I’m not relishing being critical, nay negative, here and I’m very thankful to Ed for offering me a ticket to the trade day. I do wonder, however, if CAMRA needs to raise its game a bit for this festival, held annually at the fine Olympia, Kensington, west London. Oozing dumpsters, centre stage of a drink and food event: is this really the best we can do to celebrate our national drink?

Now, some commentators are suggesting that the event, and CAMRA itself, are changing fast, but I’m not sure I got a great sense of that. Sure there were some beers showing the influence of more experimental “craft” brewing (in-your-face hops, apricot juice, US beers in casks etc) but overall the vibe was somewhat tired, staid, mired in convention. Not a showcase of the best of our brewing tradition. And it’s all still very male, very middle-aged, very white to boot.

CAMRA meets US "craft" in casks

Time to move on
This becomes a thorny issue, however, as any discussion of younger beer-drinking demographics brings us to so-called “craft beer”, which the younger, or new-to-real-beer, demographics favour. The purists will dismiss “craft beer” as the product of upstart breweries that most likely keg their beers, and may even pasteurise them. The purists themselves preferring the CAMRA-sanctified virtues of live cask beers.

The Harveys bar under Olympia's fine vaulted roof

This is troubling for someone like me. I do naturally tend towards cask, most frequently drink Harveys, but I’m open to any decent beer that’s made with knowledge, passion and skill – any well-crafted beer. CAMRA’s narrow focus is depressing – especially now.

British beer culture, frankly, is in a bit of a muddle. For people like me – forty-something, neither young craft beer hipster nor aging CAMRA member – the disjunction between “real ale” and “craft beer” is largely irrelevant; for others just dipping their toe into the waters of real beer, it’s probably just confusing. CAMRA saved real beer in the dark times of the 70s and 80s; but it can move on now, surely? Great British Beer Festival should be about all great British beers*. And represent a wider spread of the populace who enjoy real beer.

National pride
As Spain, France or Italy are enormously proud of their wine culture and heritage, Britain should be of its beer.

It’s our national drink, it fed and watered centuries of British artisans and farmers, workers and traders; it was one of the key fuels of Britain as it rampaged around the globe; it was something we took to colonies and conquered countries. The latter has difficult imperialist connotations, but the point is that Britons were among the key migrants to take the craft and skill of brewing overseas: notably to America. And yet many young British brewers today look to the US “craft beer” scene for inspiration over their own extraordinary British beer heritage.

While the results can be brilliant – The Kernel, Beavertown etc – they can also be crude, with brews overly laden with high alpha hops, resulting in concoctions that are reminiscent of toilet cleaning products. Compare such a thing with the subtle, nuanced blending of British hops and malts in a Harveys ale, for example, and it can be quite shocking.

The splendid new-old Harveys van

Straddling the divide
I live in hope of encountering more British beer that straddles the gap, connects the disjointed cultures – a beer that truly balances and combines assertive hoppiness with full-bodied, warming maltiness. Oddly, I’d say I drank a few beers that fitted this description better while living in Italy – a country whose new generation of brewers happily take inspiration from the US and Britain, or Belgian, or Germany.

Yesterday, I sampled several beers from the hundreds on offer. None of them really straddled the great divide. I wish I could have sampled more, but it’d take days to drink through more, especially as the event also adheres to another frustrating convention. At the GBBF you can only order in pint, half or third measures – that is, 568, 284 or 189ml. Even the latter is a big measure if you’re not sure if you’ll like the beer in question or if you’re a drinker who wants to sample as much as possible but stay sensible and compos mentis.

Triple FFF Brewery's Pressed Rat and Warthog

A few days ago Fran managed to – boo-hoo – break one of our two glasses from the inaugural Fermentazioni beer festival, which we attended in Rome in 2013. The remaining glass is marked in 10, 20 and 30cl measures – 100, 200 and 300ml. Now, sure, a Brit may want a full pint if he or she has found a desirable drink, but I do appreciate the 100ml measure – enough to get a whiff and a taste when there are hundreds more beers on offer. What about introducing a quarter pint (about 140ml)? It’d be especially useful for those beers at 6% plus.

Sample sizes are just one of the ways that CAMRA could revise and, dare I say it, modernise the festival. As far as I’m concerned, the ideal route would be somehow overcoming the differences and enlarging the Great British Beer Festival to include not just cask beers that tick the CAMRA boxes but also the newer wave of “craft beer”. It just seems silly to have separate entities in the form of CAMRA’s GBBF and, a few days later, the London Craft Beer Festival. Surely, they’re all craft beers? I mean, what’s a traditional British brewer doing if not using his (or her) craft? I do not like the distinction.

A bit dusty, not as aromatic as hoped from the Elder Ale, by Flowerpots, from near my home town of Winchester

Sorry but…
I do not like the filthy bins. I do like lack of a small sample measure. I do not like the divided demographics: GBBF I would say was about 70/30 male; Fermentazioni was about 50/50. A wine festival I attended in Italy, meanwhile, was also very mixed age-wise – from youths to oldies, male and female equally. If Italians celebrate their wine that broadly, why don’t we do so with our beer?

Craft beerists – you need to look more to your own country’s heritage. CAMRA – you need to recognise all real beer. Enough of this absurd division! Put them all under one roof, and us consumers can pick and choose as we like. And many might even learn something, overcome their prejudices. And proudly celebrate all our brewing culture, traditional and modern, with more open arms. Oh, and please, sort out the bloody vile dumpsters!


* Real beers that is. Not generic industrial lager etc from semi-British owned multinationals and whatnot.


Filed under Ale, beer, Discussion, Events

The Eighteenth South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, Lewes, 20-21 June 2014

18th South Downs Beer Festival in Lewes town hall. With many empty casks.

The poster for the 18th South Downs Beer and Cider Festival nicely riffs on the cover design of Neil Young’s 1972 classic album ‘Harvest’. As I’m a fan of both real beer and that album, it got me excited about the event when I first spotted it. As Fran was interested in going, and couldn’t do the first day, a Friday, due to work commitments, I got tickets for the 11am to 5pm Saturday session.

South Downs Beer Festival 2014 PosterHarvest album cover

A week or so before the event, I went to the CAMRA site and printed off the list of breweries represented, going through it to highlight all the local ones. This festival, being held in the handsome Lewes Town Hall, marked forty years of the Brighton and South Downs Branch of CAMRA, so promised to be special.

So it was a kick in the teeth when we arrived at about 1pm on the Saturday to find pretty much all the local beers had run out, bar those from Harveys. Now I love Harveys, but I drink it most days, so I was most keen on trying other stuff from around Sussex. So it was disappointing to see crosses through the signs for both the beers from 360 Degree brewery at Sheffield Park, just north of Lewes; through those of Bedlam in Aldbourne, West Sussex; through both the beers from Burning Sky at nearby Firle; ditto Downlands, at Small Dole, West Sussex; ditto both beers from Goldstone, from nearby Ditchling; ditto Kissingate of Lower Beeding, West Sussex; ditto Brighton’s Laine; ditto Pin-Up Brewery of Southwick, East Sussex; ditto the intriguing Rectory of Streat, East Sussex, brewed by a priest.

Guttering and empty casks. Sorry, bad photo.

The few local beers I tried were: Lammas Ale from 1648 Brewing Co in East Hoathly, East Sussex. This had bubblegum-ish aroma, from malted wheat, and low carbonation, medium body. Then a Wolseley Best from The Stanley in Portslade, also East Sussex (though currently brewed at Downlands). This had nice hints of liquorice, charcoal and nuts, but frankly, I drink Harveys Best all the time and I wasn’t here for the best bitters. Cavedweller from Caveman Brewery, over in Kent, was a bit more interesting, a porter nicely combined blackcurranty flavours with more piney, resiny hints from UK Bramling Cross hops. I wouldn’t call porter a summer beer though. Another more interesting one was Regaler from Franklins, in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. The notes called it a “cold-fermented lager-style ale”. I assume it was a Kölsch-style beer, top-fermented like an ale and more full-bodied and less carbonated than most lagers.

Festival beer list

All of which was fun, but not what I was hoping for. Interestingly, a lot of what had run out was the more hoppy American craft beer-style stuff: not what you typically associate with CAMRA, which can he thanked for keeping British cask ale, notably bitters, alive through the 1970s and 1980s when dreadful industrial lagers took over British pubs. Although Britons still drink mostly industrial lager by proportion now, we’re coming back round to real beer – in part thanks to CAMRA, but also in part thanks to the vitality of the highly influential US craft beer movement and the exciting flavours and aromas offered by US hops.

My favourite beers these days are those that take our incredible British brewing heritage but aren’t afraid to be inspired by US beers and US hop flavours. That’s what I was hoping to try more at the festival, things like Burning Sky’s ‘Arise’ “Session strength IPA”, here available in cask. But it had run out.

Drinking out third-pints at the 18th South Downs Beer Festival

Now, I’m aware that things do – and have to – run out at these beer festivals, but considering the event was running from 11am on the Friday to the evening of the Saturday, when everything was finished, a total of about 20 hours of sessions, it seemed pretty poor that so much was gone already when we arrived – at roughly just after the mid-point. I realise part of the buzz of a beer festival is the first rush to try the latest products of interesting breweries on the first day, but well, it just seemed like poor event management that so many punters like us who didn’t arrive till the second day were deprived of the so many of the beers, in particular those local brews.

Now if I was writing about the event in a journalistic capacity, I would contact the Brighton CAMRA branch and the festival organiser, Ruth Anderson, but instead I’m just blogging about it as a disappointed punter and don’t feel like chasing around after them for quotes. Plus, I suspect they’d just reiterate the line about how it’s normal for casks to run dry after the initial evening throng has been at them. I really didn’t want to be writing a moany post about the event I’d been so looking forward to but, well, here we are.

Lewes Corn Exchange, with surprisingly mixed crowd at the beer festival

Still, while pretty much all the stuff I’d marked on my print-off had run out, at least it meant we’d only drunk a few third-pint samples each and were subsequently able to cycle down to the Kingston village fete, along a lovely traffic-free path. The festival was held in the Lewes Town Hall and corn exchange, a great venue where I usually just go to give blood, but as it was a gorgeous hot, sunny day, being outside appealed greatly.

Pints at the Kingston village fete

At the fete, we met some friends. And visited the beer tent – which not only had a cask of Burning Sky’s delicious Plateau pale ale, but the guy serving the drinks even gave us a free glass from Long Man, another nearby brewery. We went home via The Swan in Southover, where we had a Harveys Olympia golden summer ale in the lovely garden, so the day turned out well in the end.

Bikes outside fete, nr pub


Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, British beer, Discussion, Events

Real beer, real bread, and how to define “craft” foods

Bottled beer conditioning at Mastri Birrai Umbri

(I know long-form blogging isn’t popular these days, but think of this more as an essay. Hell, it’s no longer than an article in the paper.)

Visiting Mastri Birrai Umbri (MBU) and talking with MBU’s master brewer Michele Sensidoni and science and food communicator Jeremy Cherfas, who did a podcast about the visit here, really got me thinking about the whole question of craft foods. Especially beer and bread, as they’re my obsessions and they’re siblings born together at the start of human civilisation. Specifically, it got me thinking more about how one defines such craft foods. If you’re a baker, brewer or beer enthusiast, this is something you probably think about too.

I’ve visited MBU before, last year, and one thing that struck me then, and on the second visit with Jeremy, was the sense that the brewery was a place of industry and science. Of course it is, in literal terms – with industry meaning diligently creating something, and brewing (like baking) being a process that involves a sophisticated balance of biological processes. But also, it seemed industrial in the more technological sense, of large-scale metal equipment, and a small scale human presence. The fact that MBU is currently Italy’s biggest craft brewery, producing 1 million litres of beer a year, would seem to confirm this. And yet it is still a craft brewery.

Putting it perspective
Of course “Craft brewery” and “microbrewery” are difficult terms. Different countries have various legal or tax-related definitions of them, different organisation or beer writers have varying semantic interpretations of them.

In the broadest sense, though, a craft brewery is small, independent and uses traditional techniques. The Brewers Association in the US indeed includes these parameters in its definition, but then it goes on to define the production limit as “6 million [US] barrels or less” that is around 700 million litres or 7 million hectolitres (hl). Which is a helluva lot bigger than MBU, and doesn’t sound that small. But compared to the mega-brewery conglomerates it is. This 2010 Reuters article says Anheuser-Busch InBev (producer of the US Budweiser, amongst other brands) produced 350 million hl in 2009, and SABMiller (which owns innumerable brands including the nominally Italian Peroni Nastro Azzuro), just less than 250 million hl.

Which does put into perspective.

That perspective goes even more squiffy, however, when you consider that in the UK a craft brewery, or microbrewery, is generally considered to be one producing less than 500,000 litres (5,000 hl).

This definition of sorts came about because of the Progressive Beer Duty, a system introduced in the UK in 2002 to help encourage small, local breweries, with lower taxation based on the scale of the operation. The system originated in Germany and although it has its critics, it has been credited as one of the key factors in the rapid expansion of the small brewery scene in the UK and elsewhere.

Progressive Beer Duty was adopted throughout the EU and was potentially a factor in the expansion of the Italian craft beer scene too. There are currently around 500 craft breweries in Italy. A threshold for their production is 10,000hl per year, though the country has no other, specific legal definition of craft brewery. Indeed, in Jeremy’s interview, Michele discusses how introducing a legal definition in Italy could have a negative impact, as there’s so much variation in the Italian craft brewery scene it could impose restrictions on creativity. (And have no tangible effect on quality.)

Honest beer
For Michele, craft brewing is more about the ingredients and how you use them, about innovation, and about how much you care about the quality of the product. He also believes that although large-scale breweries could produce quality craft beers, instead they compromise. They rush. So whereas a brewery like MBU might condition their brews for months, a large scale industrial brewer might rush the process in 12 days or so. This rush, he said, “is not the best for the beer, but it’s the best for your distribution chain, it’s the best for your sales manager, it’s the best for your volume production.”

Jeremy mooted a potential definition of MBU’s beer as not craft or artisanal or industrial, but “honest” – where there’s total clarity, indeed pride, about the ingredients. But this notion of large scale industrial beer being rushed also immediately made me think of bread. Or more specifically the principle problem with rushed, large-scale industrial wheat-based products. From the spongy, plastic wrapped products made with Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP) that dominate the UK to Italy’s comparable crime against nutrition, tradition, and taste, pancarré.

A few years ago, when I was still living in the UK, I became a supporter of the Real Bread Campaign (RBC). This was founded in 2008 under the aegis of Sustain, “the alliance for better food and farming” and its rise in prominence has paralleled the renaissance in interest in real baking. In some ways, the Real Bread Campaign is a cousin to CAMRA, the UK-Irish Campaign for Real Ale that was founded in 1971 to counter the rising tide of bad industrial beer that was then starting to dominate bars. Likewise, the RBC was started, in part, to counter the white sliced crap and encourage people to demand the real deal.

I’m not a CAMRA member, but I enjoy visiting pubs they’ve endorse and respect their goals, specifically to protect the production of real ale, and educate about it. They have specific definitions of what qualifies as “real ale”, a term they coined. The full definition can be found here, but it starts by saying “Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.”

The Real Bread Campaign has not dissimilar definitions. After all, both bread and beer depend on the naturally occurring, unrushed action of living yeast (and bacteria) for fermentation: the process that transforms grains into digestible and delicious products. Of course, the key difference between the siblings is that baking kills the yeast, so the ultimate bread product is not a living thing like real ale, where the process is ongoing (until your stomach kills the yeasts).

The Real Bread Campaign’s definitions are here but the crux is: “Real Bread is that made without the use of processing aids or any other artificial additives.” It continues, “Technically, the only ingredients essential for making bread are flour and water. With these two things you can make flatbreads and sourdoughs. That said, without a little pinch of salt bread can be a tad bland, and you might prefer to let someone else culture the yeast, rather than do it yourself. So, for plain Real Bread that gives us at most: flour, water, yeast, salt. Anything else is, by definition, unnecessary.”

They do say “plain Real Bread” and allow that you can add other ingredients “as long as they are natural” (eg seeds, milk etc). I like this about the Real Bread Campaign, it’s clear and passionate, but not unrealistic. I have the sense that CAMRA, for example, wouldn’t have liked the beer I was drinking last night as it contained spices and jasmine blossom; even though it was top fermented, bottle conditioned and these added ingredients were natural.

Anyway, according to RBC definitions CBP products simply are not bread; they have too many dubious additives, they’re made in too much of a rush.

Keepin’ it real

So for me, rather than talking about real ale, or craft beer, or microbrewery beer, or honest beer, I’d rather just talk about real beer. It’s a term that’s come from these discourses about real ale and real bread. I feel  I can’t use the term “real ale” unless the beer in question stricly conforms to CAMRA’s definition: and that would exclude much of Italy’s wonderful birre artigianale (artisan beer). Indeed, there’s arguably a danger than CAMRA can be overly dogmatic in its perception of tradition, and traditional beer.

Respect for tradition is essential for craft food production, but there’s a danger of being reactionary, which isn’t.

One thing I love about the Italian birre artigianale scene is how dynamic it is, how open to ideas. So much of Italy food culture is mired in tradition, and as such can be hidebound. Just read John Dickie’s great book Delizia and the chapter about what qualifies as pesto, for example. It’s absurd. Likewise, viniculture here is effectively strictly regulated by tradition, with very little room for creativity.

As I said in my previous post, there’s been beer in Italy for millennia, but as it’s never been a dominant drink, it never got so mired in tradition. So now, all these craft breweries are able to take inspiration from all over the world, notably from the dynamic US craft beer scene, but also from Britain, Belgium, and beyond.

Plus, they can also dip into local tradition, to give their products distinctive, like MBU using local legumes in the brew for example. Or they can dip into classical history, for things like the Etrusca experiment co-ordinated between Italy’s great craft breweries Baladin and Birra del Borgo and the US big name craft brewer Dogfish Head, which involved working with a biomolecular archaeologist to create a beer made with ingredients consumed by the Etruscans two and a half millennia-plus ago.

Time – too important to rush
Quality beer is the result of respecting proper fermentation and conditioning times. Likewise, quality bread is the result of respecting proper fermentation times. Proper fermentation means waiting.

The Real Bread Campaign says, “Real Bread is a natural product and just as with fruit or cheese it takes time for it to ripen. Although research so far has been limited, there is growing evidence that leaving dough to rise for longer periods can have a range of benefits to the consumer.” Benefits to the point of being more digestible, or even being able to help reduce disorders such as coeliac. One such piece of evidence comes from scientists in Italy who concluded “a 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with celiac disease.”

This is the main problem with the Chorleywood Bread Process.* Throughout history, bread has been made by slowly fermenting wheat flour, then the CBP was developed in the 1960s, millennia-old fermentation times were thrown out and since then more and more people have reported digestive problems from eating CBP products.

Fermentation time is just too import to neglect or reject. Time is just too important to rush. Time is the defining ingredient for craft bread or craft beer, or as I’d prefer to call them, real bread and real beer.

A definition of real bread and real beer
So my definition of real beer, or real bread, would be a product that’s made with the proper respect for time. (Indeed, all good produce requires time – hence the Slow Food movement’s name.) Time, quality natural ingredients, a passion for the product.

It doesn’t matter if the brewery or bakery in question is all shiny stainless steel or a more rudimentary shed. What matters are time, quality natural ingredients and passion.

I’d even add that it requires a respect for and knowledge of tradition, but not a dogmatic adherence to it. Like Italy’s craft brewers, free from being mired in tradition. Not all their beers are necessarily great, but I at least admire their willingness to experiment, to enjoy their craft – and to relish taking the time to try make great real beer.

* I know the CBP was developed to enable British bakers to use lower-protein British flours, to reduce UK dependence on imported, higher protein (14-15%) flours, but that’s a whole other argument. Indeed, as far as I can tell, many Italian bakers still make stupendous traditional breads without recourse to Manitoba (ie Canadian strong flour), instead relying on traditional Italian flours with lower protein (11-12%).


Filed under Ale, beer, Breads, Discussion