Real ale drinkers froth at firm’s ‘fresh ale’ handpumps

Line of cask beers real ales on bar at Stanford Arms pub, Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, UK. )
A line of cask beers at the Stanford Arms pub, Lowestoft, Suffolk - Getty Images

As any fan of real ale knows, the perfect pint of cask-conditioned beer must be poured by a barman skilled in the art of pulling traditional handpumps.

But now a brewer associated with the more gaseous world of lagers has been accused of hijacking one of the hallowed rituals of the great British pub.

Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) has announced that it is to serve a new “fresh ale” keg beer through handpumps.

The firm, which makes top-selling ales such as Marston’s Pedigree, Hobgoblin and Wainwright, claims it helps mimic the flavour, body, and even theatre of real ale.

But the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has claimed the “handpump hijack” will “confuse consumers” who expect genuine cask beer rather than a pasteurised alcoholic drink to come from handpulls.

More than 7,000 of the distinctive pumps – the traditional method for dispensing live cask ale – have been lost in the past four years.

A woman pulls a pint of beer behind a bar in the Great British Beer Festival in the Olympia exhibition centre
A woman pulls a pint of beer behind a bar in the Great British Beer Festival in the Olympia exhibition centre - Getty Images Europe/Oli Scarff

Of the 17,090 licensed premises that have closed since 2020, an estimated 6,000 served real ale. It is unpasteurised and contains live yeast that continues to ferment right up until it is served and drunk, as opposed to more modern keg beer, which is pasteurised and no longer a “living” product.

CMBC, a joint venture between British brewery Marston’s and Denmark’s Carlsberg Group, says its “fresh ale” has a shelf life of up to 14 days, compared to just three to four for real ale. The firm released figures detailing the decline of handpumps since the mass closure of pubs during the pandemic.

A cask of real ale, known as a firkin, contains 72 pints, and its relatively short shelf life is thought to have put off many publicans from continuing to stock it because of fears over wastage.

CMBC insisted “fresh ale” is part of an attempt to “reinvigorate the on-trade ale category, supplementing, not supplanting, traditional cask ale.”

It said more than a third of drinkers believe real ale is a hallmark of British pub culture, but only 24 per cent of pubs have enough throughput of stock to offer more than one cask beer. The company said its “fresh ale” is first brewed using the same method as real ale before being kegged in 30-litre barrels, equivalent to around 52 pints.

It added: “‘Fresh ale’ provides exciting new opportunities for pubs to serve ale, all while preserving the beloved handpull ritual that delivers the traditional theatre of serve that ale is famed for.”

But Camra, a consumer body with branches across the UK, said: “CMBC has announced its plans to start serving keg beer through handpumps, which beer drinkers widely understand as usually being exclusively used for cask-conditioned beer.

“Keg beer is not a ‘live’ beer, in that once it leaves the brewery it contains no viable yeast and does not undergo further conditioning, unlike cask-conditioned beers, which continue to develop flavour and carbonation in the pub cellar.”

Camra said it has been told by CMBC that its fresh ale served through handpulls will be labelled “brewery conditioned beer”, but added: “The campaign fears this will still confuse customers and erode their long-held understanding that only cask beer is served in this way.

“The campaign is also concerned that CMBC’s plan will reduce choice to consumers, and by taking up handpump space, elbows out genuine cask beers produced by smaller, independent brewers.”

Gillian Hough, a Camra director, said: “It would be even better if this company, despite claiming to be incredibly proud to be a leading brewer of cask ale, actually invested in producing new cask ales and supporting its existing beers.”