Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 2000
Bottle-conditioned beers, however good, can never achieve mass market acceptance
Last year, Shepherd Neame attracted some criticism for replacing their bottle-conditioned Spitfire with a brewery-conditioned version. In the past few years there has been an upsurge in the number of bottle-conditioned beers available, and high hopes have been held out for the sector as a whole. I have probably tried more of them than most. But the results of my samplings lead me to the conclusion that their appeal is always going to remain distinctly limited, and that Shepherd Neame, in the real world, made a sound commercial decision.
The relationship between bottle- and brewery- conditioned bottled beers is by no means the same as that between real and keg draught beers. Real ale takes more effort to keep, but in the pub, it is no more difficult to dispense or to drink than keg. On the other hand, the drinker has to treat bottle-conditioned beers with a certain amount of reverence. You can't drink them as soon as you get them home from the shop, but have to let them stand for several days for the sediment to settle. Then, you have to pour them very carefully to ensure that the sediment stays in the bottle and not in the glass, that is unless you like drinking cloudy beer and spending hours on the toilet. They're not suitable for drinking outside the home at picnics or parties, or for getting in on the spur of the moment.
A further problem is inconsistent and often poor quality. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of the bottle-conditioned beers I have tried have been disappointing, and certainly inferior to the better quality brewery-conditioned bottles such as the range produced by Caledonian. Crucial to the concept is that the beer really does undergo a vigorous secondary fermentation in the bottle that gives it, when drunk, a distinctively different, more complex character than the stabilised, brewery-conditioned version. But, all too often, what you end up with is what could be unkindly described as a bottle of rather flat beer with some gunge in the bottom. True bottle-conditioning is conspicuous by its absence, because if a beer really has conditioned in the bottle, it will produce an unmistakeable natural carbonation, making it just as "fizzy" as many brewery-conditioned products, albeit in a different, more subtle way. You certainly knew with the old Worthington White Shield that the yeast had been working away, but the new King & Barnes-brewed version is dismally flaccid. The style also works best with stronger, richer beers like the excellent Fuller's 1845, and "ordinary bitters" of 4.5% ABV or less do not respond to it at all.
There's no doubt that a top-notch bottle-conditioned beer will be superior to the best brewery-conditioned bottles. But, as with real ale, poor examples can be truly dismal, and there is a long way to go in terms of consistent quality control before the paying public begins to really trust bottle-conditioned products. Added to this, the care needed in transport, storage and decanting means that bottle-conditioned beers will always remain a limited, specialist sector and, unlike draught real ale, never command a mass market. It was no accident that the brewers largely replaced bottle-conditioned beers with bright ones in the inter-war years, thirty or forty years before they began to replace real ale with keg. If CAMRA, in view of the decline in the pub trade, decides to throw a lot more of its weight behind take-home bottle-conditioned beers, it will very much be barking up the wrong tree.