It might not seem like much, but when British retailer Marks & Spencer decided to launch four bottle conditioned beers from various small-scale producers around the United Kingdom, it marked a significant step forward for the fortunes of what the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) calls “real ale in a bottle.”
For as Iain Loe, the campaign group’s research and information manager, points out, it’s not that long ago that such a development would have represented a doubling of the number of bottle-conditioned brands on the market.
But as small regional and microbrewers have driven the cause of cask ale forward, so too have they embraced bottle-conditioning as an antidote to pasteurised and artificially carbonated brewery-conditioned beer in a bottle.
The CAMRA-published Good Bottled Beer Guide – written by Beers of the World contributor Jeff Evans – lists more than 500 of them and has enough material in bottle conditioned beer to be able to shun brewery conditioned products altogether.
Should we infer from this that in CAMRA’s opinion the exclusion of brewery-conditioned beer from the Good Bottled Beer Guide means that they are all, by definition, no good?
“A lot of them taste metallic and are lacking in complexity of bottle-conditioned real ale,” argues Loe.
One of the reason many brewers still eschew bottle-conditioning is that very complexity. It’s technically very difficult to get right, a problem Loe admits some of those already trying are still struggling to overcome. But he adds: “People should look out for the ‘CAMRA says this is real ale’ logo and look at those listed in the guide because not only are they bottle-conditioned but they are brewers who we know have developed the best practice for producing them.”
Some brewers have shied away from bottleconditioning because they don’t have the technology to do it themselves and have to rely on contracting out which can mean they lose control over their own product.
Bottle-conditioning can be done in two ways: either by transferring the beer from fermentation tanks to bottle unfiltered with the fermentation continuing in bottle with the original yeast; or by filtering and then reseeding with extra yeast to allow a secondary fermentation to take place. One micro in South West England claims the filtering option means some bottle-conditioned beers merely give the illusion of being the real thing.
“Bottle-conditioned is when you get to crack the bottle open slowly, pour the beer out and leave a bit of sediment in the bottom of the bottle, or else you get a cloudy beer,” he says. “There’s an art to pouring a bottle out. With some you can give it a good shake, pour the entire contents out and it’s still crystal clear. Bottle-conditioned to me is where you take the beer and let it condition in the bottle. You don’t filter all the good bits out of it.”
Ian Dixon, production director of Shepherd Neame, whose premium ale 1698 is sold bottleconditioned, argues that both methods work – but only if the brewery has the skills and equipment to make it do so.
“If you know what you’re doing, you’ve got a good brewery, and a low level of infection and a good bottling line and have the supply chain to look after it, you should be OK – but that’s a lot of maybes.
“A lot of producers will filter because after fermentation the yeast can become tired. The key is to be able to know when to stop the primary fermentation and leave a little bit of brewing sugars which will the allow the yeast in the bottle to continue the fermentation. If you don’t do that they’ll be nothing for the yeast in the bottle to work on to continue to develop flavours and provide the carbonation.”