Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Pull the other one!

In recent weeks there has been considerable debate about Carlsberg-Marston's launch of 'Fresh Beer', a controversial product that has garnered mostly negative coverage before it has even found its way onto the bar.

And I have to admit, I find myself feeling not unduly concerned about this. Yes, it's misleading and arguably the latest in a very long line of wrongs committed by wrong-un brewing conglomerates. But I don't think it's going to be a fundamental threat to the (cask) beers I like to drink.

It's controversial because it's essentially a keg beer, dispensed via a handpump - presumably a full-size one that looks more authentic than the miniature faux handpumps already used for keg dispense, and maybe even one that actually gets pulled rather than simply 'flicked' into the 'on' position. I get all that. But it's just not causing my hackles to rise in a visceral surge of physical disgust.

The Real deal?

Anyone who's read anything I've ever written on beer will likely know that I'm staunchly pro-cask. About 97% of the beer I drink is 'real ale' and I'm frequently at odds with those in the 'beer community' who hypocritically extol the virtues of cask whilst, in practice, spend their time mainly drinking keg and canned beer. I know what I like. I drink it. I live it.

But let's not pretend that the cask-keg distinction is a binary one these days: It's very much a sliding scale, and whether a beer is 'real' or not really depends on where you draw the line upon that scale. Given this ambiguity, what is the optimal definition of 'real ale', where should the line be drawn and indeed, on which side of it will 'Fresh Beer' fall? 

Definitely not keg!
Things were a bit more black and white when CAMRA first coined the term - though not entirely - and there are lot people who haven't accepted (or even acknowledged) the changing landscape.

If we go with 50-year-old binary definitions, real ale is unfiltered, unpasteurised, has no artificial carbonation added, and leaves the brewery in a cask as a living product where it continues to undergo fermentation and conditioning in the cellar of the pub, right up until the point that it is tapped and served - without gas pressure, of course. Yay! Real ale! Nectar of the Gods!

Its polar opposite, the wicked, evil bastard keg beer, is conditioned to completion at the brewery, then filtered, pasteurised and force-carbonated, before being kegged where it served under the pressure of co2 and/or Nitrogen. There is a clear distinction between these two types of beer, but one that is often largely theoretical these days.


Beyond Good and Evil

In reality there is now an awful lot of beer being served that falls in between the two extremes. A great many keg beers now are neither filtered nor pasteurised, which moves them closer along the spectrum towards cask. And some 'cask' beer is racked only when 'bright' - e.g. conditioning and fermentation is almost complete - thus undergoing little further development in the cellar, which moves it closer to 'keg'. Though some non-cask beers (keykeg, eco-keg and so on) do contain enough live yeast to continue fermenting.

All of which illustrates the reality of a sliding scale that is so downright slippery it's tempting to avoid the taxonomy and categorisation and just drink the fucking stuff - which indeed is the attitude a lot of people have adopted and I'm not about to argue with that approach!

There is a valid point about 'misleading dispense' and I accept that the handpump symbolises 'real ale' fairly unambiguously following decades of messaging to this effect from CAMRA - not all of it entirely helpful, as there are other ways perfectly untarnished cask beer can be dispensed: Electric metered fonts, Scottish 'talls' and of course by gravity direct from the cask, to name but three.

But we don't really know yet how close to traditional cask the 'Fresh Beer' experience will be, and whether it will cause 'confusion', as some claim, or if the fact that some are claiming it causes confusion is itself a greater cause of confusion - which is entirely possible.

It's possible for a 'keycask' beer - that is to say a keykeg beer that hasn't been force-carbonated to be hooked up to a traditional beer engine and served via handpump. Is that a misleading dispense? Personally I'd qualify this sort of beer as 'real' so the answer would definitely be a big 'No'. Indeed it would be more confusing if these weren't handpulled.

A few years ago Brewdog Bars made a feature of Live! beer, which wasn't served from a handpump, but which was undeniably far closer in nature to cask than the standard keg beers on sale - even though at the point of dispense there was little or no differentation. Curiously, I don't remember anyone getting up in arms about this at the time - is there a double standard when it comes to passing off a 'cask-ish' beer as keg, rather than the other way around?!?

As for the 'Fresh beer', I suspect it will amount to little more than a storm in a pint pot. The sort of people who drink it in any quantity will likely be older 'bitter drinkers' who don't particularly care if their beer is cask, keg or anything else to begin with. It will be limited to brands that CAMRA members seldom drink and venues we seldom frequent - those that don't have the turnover to reliably support proper cask beer.

Those of us for whom these things matter will continue to seek out the best cask beers and drink them in places where Marstons-Carlsberg products get fuck-all of a look-in anyway.

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