That seemed weird to me, as it did to many others – both Craig and Rich have already written about it. The next Scottish CAMRA beer festival is Larbert, run by the Forth Valley branch, and I recalled drinking Cromarty at the same festival last year as well as at the same branch’s Alloa festival in the autumn. What had changed?
Enquiries uncovered that this decision came from higher up in CAMRA, above branch level. But why does it matter that the brewery makes keg beer, if the CAMRA festival is buying the cask version?
Well, CAMRA has something with the unglamorous name Internal Policy Document which embodies policy as decided by the AGM.
The relevant paragraph is as follows:
“Beer festivals are not to stock or admit for any award, any beer brand which is produced in both cask and keg versions that mislead the drinker into believing that there is little or no difference between the versions.”It should be immediately clear that there is considerable room for interpretation of this rule. But the Scottish & Northern Ireland Director interprets this text to mean that a beer cannot be stocked at a CAMRA festival if both keg and cask versions are sold under the same name and has been pushing this line on festival organisers.
The important word, though, is “misleading”.
I don’t know any microbrewer who isn’t happy for customers to know whether they’re buying cask or keg. But, with some justification, they might well say that they have every right to sell the same beer under the same name, as the keg and cask versions both come from the same gyle.
CAMRA would certainly like brewers to clearly indicate when a beer is keg and when it’s cask, but the failure to do so is quite different to a deliberate intent to deceive. That would be e.g. the passing off of a keg beer as cask or the supply and use of fake handpumps. The latter is a battle which CAMRA successfully fought against Scrumpy Jack keg cider, and one which cask ale activists in the United States had to fight against (the importers of) Greene King and Fullers. In the case of Fullers I seem to remember it was eventually resolved by John Keeling himself stepping in to put a stop to it.
There’s no such intent to deceive in the case of Cromarty – and nobody claims there is. The only objection is that the beer is sold with the same name and the same branding.
It’s important to recognise that visual clues at the point of sale are not always just on the pumpclip any more. Of the outlets where I’ve seen Cromarty’s keg beer for sale, generally they either didn’t sell cask at all, or had huge blackboards on the walls listing THESE ARE OUR CASK BEERS and THESE ARE OUR KEG BEERS. That’s enough information for most people to ensure that customers know what’s what – and if they don’t, why not ask if it’s cask, as we were once urged to do?
Reinterpreting “misleading” – to mean the potential possibility that someone, somewhere, might be confused – is no use, because there are always some people who are pretty easily confused and you can’t legislate just for them.
The policy dates back to at least the late 1980s. I remember the local branch having a bone to pick with Maclays over the brewery’s desire to sell their Oat Malt Stout in both formats.
But it hasn’t been an issue for a long time, for one simple reason. As the mass market shifted more and more towards lager and huge global megabrands, the big brewers started to abandon cask. And the new generation of microbreweries, for the most part, brewed only cask (or, in a few cases, only keg). So the policy only became an issue again in the last couple of years since micros have started creating keg versions of their beers.
It’s worth pointing out that the Internal Policy Document contains all manner of stuff that is cheerfully ignored as a matter of routine. There’s the sweeping statement:
“Beers (and ciders and perries) dispensed under any system, except the traditional Scottish air pressure system, which applies gas (be it carbon dioxide, nitrogen, or any other gas or mixture), shall not be recommended in any CAMRA publication.”If this policy was as strictly applied as the “misleading dispense” clause, not only would Roger Protz be stopped from going on about Budweiser Budvar in every other issue of What’s Brewing, but BEER magazine would have to severely restrict its choice of articles, Des de Moor’s guide to London would lose its comprehensive character, and the Good Beer Guides to Belgium and Germany wouldn’t exist.
I brought the matter up in my branch last week. I was trying to get an idea of how many people thought this interpretation of the policy was a good idea and how many thought it was nonsense.
The justification for the hardliners is that CAMRA is basically guaranteeing the beers it offers for sale at festivals are real ale, and that when people see a beer in the pub with the same name as what they drank at a festival, they might reasonably assume that it is also real ale. (Amusingly enough, the two people most strongly defending the hard line were both happily drinking Cromarty’s AKA IPA at the time).
I understand this argument, though I disagree. But even if you accept the hardline argument, surely the cure is worse than the disease.
We are supposed to be promoting real ale, but have ended up refusing to promote it. We are denying people the opportunity to experience some excellent real ale and to discover how much better it is cask-conditioned. This is stupid.
I cannot defend this to my beer-loving friends outside CAMRA. Nor would I like to be the poor beer festival organiser placed in the embarrassing situation of having to phone up a brewer and cancel an order already placed.
Who will be to blame if a hypothetical young drinker tries some keg Cromarty and thinks “Ooh, that’s nice. Better than the stuff they had at the real ale festival” – and then tells all her mates?
Well, it will be the fault of the person who threw his weight around to stop a CAMRA branch giving this imaginary drinker the chance to try the Cromarty beer in cask.
It’s incredibly fatuous, it makes CAMRA look ridiculous, and it gives ammunition to CAMRA-bashers everywhere.