Good Beer, Bad Beer

by Steve Renshaw

CAMRA members from Lincoln and Grantham recently met up in Newark to visit some of the town’s hostelries. All the pubs we visited were great and most of the beers we sampled were very good. But there were exceptions. One beer I tried looked and tasted like it had been drawn from the River Trent. I took it back to the bar and it was exchanged for one that wasn’t much better.

I’m sure that if we’d been keg beer drinkers, we’d have had no complaints about anything we were served. That’s the problem with real ale – the quality of the same beer served in different pubs can vary dramatically.

CAMRA members can use the National Beer Scoring Scheme to assess the quality of the real ale, each time they visit a pub. The scores range from “Perfect” to “Undrinkable”. Yes, I know it sounds a bit geeky, but it helps us to monitor the performance of pubs. And the data is very important when it comes to choosing entries for the Good Beer Guide.

Drinking beer goes back thousands of years but, somewhere along the line, humans discovered that beer could be carbonated by sealing it in a container and letting the “spirits” of fermentation go about their business. But fermentation is an unpredictable process and beer was prone to spoiling.

During the 19th century, brewers used science and technology to increase the life-span of their beer. The most important advances were the development of commercial refrigeration and the introduction of pasteurisation. Pasteurisation is a process by which beer is rapidly heated and then cooled. This ensures that any organism that may be left in the beer is killed, thus extending the shelf-life. These methods were embraced in mainland Europe but, at the time, they did not catch on in Britain’s cooler climate.

However, by the early 1970s most beer in Britain was filtered, and pasteurised. It was artificially carbonated and served from pressurised kegs. The great advantage of keg beer for the brewers is that they have complete control of the quality of their product. The appearance and flavour of the beer on the bar is as it left the brewery.

On the other hand, cask-conditioned beer is still fermenting when it’s in the cellar of the pub. Managing a living product is more demanding than one that has been artificially preserved. It requires extra care in its handling and serving, and it must be drunk within its short lifespan. So keg beer makes life easier for landlords because staff don’t need as much training and they don’t have awkward customers coming back to the bar to complain about their beer.

So why has cask-conditioned beer survived in this country? And not just survived but undergone a resurgence. Is it because we British don’t like change? Or do we hanker after the good old days and an Orwellian view of the perfect pub?

I’m sure for some people there’s an element of nostalgia but, for me, it’s all about the taste. For a depth of flavour enhanced by natural carbonation, you can’t beat a good real ale. Even if it means having to return a bad one every now and then!

And what about the beer? The highlight of the Newark trip for me was a visit to the Organ Grinder, recently opened by the Blue Monkey Brewery of Nottingham. BG Sips (4% ABV) is a pale, intensely hoppy beer with hints of tropical fruit. An excellent beer in excellent condition.