|Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard
writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Check back often for the next installment of
Vince's Adventures in Beerland
There's no "e" in CAMRA
by Vince Capano
Do you remember Ralph Nader? No not the perennial candidate for the
presidency of the Green, Chartreuse, and Teal political parties, but the blazing
consumer crusader of legend. It was back in the sixties when Nader took on
General Motors and their accident waiting to happen of a car, the Covair. GM
tried to discredit Nader, hiring private detectives to tap his phones and investigate
his past. They even went so far as to hire prostitutes to trap him in compromising
situations. Nader remained steadfast regardless of temptation. He was so
straight he even refused their offer of a free life time supply of beer. Well, I’ve
found an organization that Mr. Nader would be proud of, except for the fact that not
a one of it’s members would ever consider turning down a free life time supply (or
glass for that matter) of beer. The organization is CAMRA, or Campaign for Real
Ale. Yes, that really is the name of this indigenous British organization. You can
Google it if you don’t believe me but be forewarned the first one hundred and
seventy two listings will be from some outfit trying to sell you a camera.
CAMRA, like Mr. Nader, fights for the protection of consumers. In the case of
CAMRA the consumer is one long ignored both here in the USA and across the
pond – beer drinkers. I first became aware of this organization when I saw their
club newspaper, “What’s On Tap”. It wasn’t a typical ad dominated American
“brewspaper” but an informative, political, and engaging 30 page production. The
only down side was that while I could understand each individual word that was
written not a single sentence made any sense. It may be called the Queen’s
English but it was mostly Greek to me. “What’s On Tap” could easily have been
the British version of Abbott & Costello's “Who’s on First”. Still, it wasn’t that hard
to get the general thrust of their mission – promote an appreciation of traditional
beers, fight the three card Monte types pouring it, and show that a local pub is
more than just a place to get a pint.
To CAMRA a traditional beer doesn’t mean an old can of Budweiser or a “retro”
lager that has more adjuncts than the local college. It means cask ale. According
to CAMRA, cask ale is beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley,
hops, water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from
which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
As such, real ale is not filtered or pasteurized and has its own natural
carbonation. Think a 7 grain organic oven baked loaf instead of 24 slices of
Now those of you paying close attention have already noted that CAMRA seems
to be missing the letter “C” for cask. No problem in explaining that. In the early
1970s CAMRA coined the term “real ale” to be synonymous with cask ale, cask-
conditioned beer, and naturally conditioned beer. Hey, it’s their group so they can
make up whatever they like. I think they just meant to say real ale is the opposite
of fake ale. After all, it’s hard for a bartender to pour someone a glass of tinted
watery ersatz beer like a Coors or Miller Lite when they forcefully order “real ale”.
Since every drop of real ale is a treat, it’s understandable that CAMRA would take
on those underhanded purveyors of the “short” pour. CAMRA reports that almost
30% of pints served in British pubs are under-filled by up to 10%. While a few
ounces to you might not seem that big a deal it is to the pub owners. It’s
estimated that they saved (or cheated the consumer out of) over $950 million last
year alone. I think Bernie Madoff got his start bartending at one of these places.
Here in the US the practice of the short pour seems even more widespread. The
ubiquitous “shaker” pint actually holds only 14 ounces of liquid even when filled to
the top. Throw in the head and you’re probably getting only 12-13 ounces of
liquid. With these shaker pints the only thing being shaken down is you. Even
worse than the short pour are the “cheater pints” – glasses with extra-thick
bottoms. And naïve you thought the only one with extra thick glasses was Mr.
Combine the short poor with these cheater pints or a sham pilsner glass and you
get a gold mine for the unscrupulous proprietor. Calling 911 won’t help either.
Contacting the Department of Weights and Measures will be fruitless. Even your
local consumer protection agency can’t help since not one of our 50 states has a
law on the books that expressly states how many ounces constitute a serving of a
“pint”. In fact, it’s totally legal to call anything a “pint”. I can see the bar special
now – Pint specials on Jack Daniels today – 2 shots per person limit.
Currently CAMRA’s main focus is on saving the pubs of the UK. I guess they
figure enough people are already saving the whales, dodo bird, and Bali
Snapping Turtle, now it’s time to take care of something a bit closer to home.
CAMRA reports that 39 pubs a week are closing, a lamentable fact if there ever
was one but not Armageddon to me. It’s only apocalypse-now time when it’s my
local pub that’s closing, not yours. Sadly, I did experience that moment years ago
when my favorite pub, The Hornets Nest, suddenly closed. I was devastated. In
fact I didn’t have a beer for almost five minutes which is about the time it took me
to drive to Bogey’s Bar down the road. I do admit that it was only a 2 minute drive;
the other 3 minutes were due to a slow bartender.
Real ale, like people, reacts to how it’s treated. When the barrels arrive at the pub
they are mounted sideways into a holder (stillion) or behind the bar counter to
settle (clear). A “celarman” (the fancy name for a guy with a stained Grateful
Dead t-shirt) vents the barrel and a secondary fermentation begins. The real ale
is then served directly from the barrel using gravity or by a hand-pump (beer
engine). If you see something that looks like a slot machine handle propped up on
bar you’re looking at the beer engine; expect you’re payoff in real ale not coins.
CAMRA warns to be on the lookout for fake hand-pumps. While I can’t believe
producing these phony devices is as lucrative as counterfeiting $20 bills or selling
old shoes worn by Simon Crowell on E-Bay, nonetheless there is a market for this
stuff. The fake hand-pump dispenses pressurized beer with the use of extraneous
gas. These sly contraptions craftily mimic the pulling action of a real beer engine,
giving the impression that the liquid being dispensed is cask-conditioned ale.
They even have a hydraulic damper which makes the pulling action slow and
steady, just like the correct pouring speed of an authentic beer engine. The
customer will assume he’s getting real ale but instead is receiving a pint of
standard gas-infused keg beer. In such cases you clearly have grounds for a
citizens’ arrest or, at the very least, justifiable homicide.
One way to insure your real ale is real is to have it served from a firkin placed atop
the bar. A spigot is turned and gravity, not a hand pump, takes care of the rest.
Oh yes, in this case a firkin is not really a firkin. It’s just a small cask, not the
dictionary definition of 9 imperial gallons. As I said, the Queen’s English can get
From short pours to fake beer engines, with countless caveat emptor stuff in
between, going to the pub is no longer an easy task. It’s nice to know our friends
in the UK can count on CAMRA to help them do battle with the beer chiselers out
there. Sadly we beer folk in the USA do not have such an advocacy group. But on
the other hand, we do have Ralph Nader.
May I suggest to you, Mr. Nader, who by the way is an avid read of Beernexus
(maybe), that you add the cause of real ale to your crusades. I think it’s the firkin
right thing to do.
|There's no "e" in CAMRA