Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2005

* Genius in a Bottle *

Bottle-conditioned beers can be superb, but they are not real ale as such

CAMRA is currently co-operating with a long list of brewers to promote British bottle-conditioned ales (or BCAs), with a logo on the label saying “CAMRA Says This is Real Ale”. When it comes to packaged beer, BCAs are the peak of the brewer’s art, and deserve wider appreciation. But I can’t help feeling that this particular campaign may end up misleading potential drinkers and in a sense even do these fine beers a disservice.

For a start, a defining feature of draught real ale is that, compared with kegs, it isn’t fizzy. But a good BCA will have an unmistakeable natural carbonation resulting from the secondary fermentation in the bottle, making it just as “fizzy” as many brewery-conditioned products, albeit in a more subtle and complex way. If a BCA is flat, it’s a bad sign.

Also the fact that a beer is bottle-conditioned is no guarantee of quality. Some draught real ales are very indifferent, but there is little available on keg that doesn’t fall into the category of mass-produced pap. If you want to drink good draught ale, you will drink real ale. In contrast, there are many brewery-conditioned bottled beers produced by independent breweries that are of considerable merit, even if falling short of the standards of the best bottle-conditioned ones. On the other hand, some micro-breweries have decided to jump on the bandwagon and thought that basically they can produce a BCA simply by bottling some of their draught beer together with its yeast – something that is inevitably going to produce inconsistent and disappointing results, as I know to my cost.

Bottle-conditioned beers should stand or fall on their own merits, rather than being yoked to something else which really isn’t quite the same at all.

* A Niche too Far? *

Branding of pubs makes them less welcoming to the casual caller

AN INTEREST in pubs and beer inevitably leads you to try out a lot more new pubs than most people, particularly when on your travels. Back in the old days when pubs were actually owned by breweries, you could tell what beer a pub was likely to sell, but you couldn’t tell anywhere near so easily what kind of pub it was. So inevitably you would make a few mistakes and end up in places that weren’t your cup of tea. But sometimes you were pleasantly surprised, and sometimes you discovered a rare beer, a classic snug or some good conversation in a pub you might have had your doubts about from the outside.

Now everything has changed. All the big brewers have sold their estates to pub companies, so in general you have no idea what kind of beer you’re likely to find before you venture inside. It’s made very clear, though, whether its target market is upmarket diners, or students, or young circuit drinkers, or big-screen football fans, or even real ale buffs. So, if doesn’t look like your type of place, you probably won’t even consider crossing the threshold, and if you did you might receive some funny looks. It would be obvious that a pensioner couple would be out of place in a brash theme pub, or a group of dedicated drinkers in an adult dining venue.

So the end result is that the number of pubs that the potential customer is likely to try is greatly reduced, as are the chances of an unexpected find, and the old-fashioned pub that appeals to all comers is getting harder and harder to find. It could even be argued that the branding of pubs has, overall, made them much less welcoming to the casual customer.

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