When CAMRA was founded back in 1971, one of their main protests was against the forced fizz that brewers were inserting in beer. CAMRA’s loud, persistent and successful protests ensured that in Britain drinkers had and still have a choice of still or carbonated beer. Gradually increasing numbers of drinkers around the world are discovering that naturally carbonated beer suits their palate better than forced carbonation. Modern French micro brewers are producing unfiltered, naturally carbonated beers. Cask ales are being sent to Spain, Italy and the Scandinavian countries in increasing numbers. Belgium has an enviable reputation for their naturally carbonated bottled beers. American brewers are experimenting with cask ales and naturally carbonated beers. And all this is happening at the same time as people around the world are turning away from artificial flavourings and preservatives, turning away from high levels of salt and sugar in food and drink products, turning away from carbonated water, and turning away from the factory processing of food and drink products that interfere with genuine flavour and texture.
But even though there is this global movement toward naturally carbonated beer, the movement is still very slow and even in Britain artificially carbonated beer outsells cask ale and naturally carbonated bottled beer. There are still many beer drinkers who either don’t care what they are drinking or who prefer the “crisp bite” of injected co2. While we know that the majority of carbonated beers will be pale fizzy lagers drunk without much thought on a Friday night piss up, there is still a large volume of bottled ales, such as the Samuel Smith range, that are regarded as a bit special but which are not naturally carbonated; and all keg beers are propelled into the glass with some degree of forced carbonation – either co2 or nitrogen or a mixture of both.
Carbonation is a natural by-product of brewing – the yeast produces both alcohol and carbon dioxide. But after primary fermentation and conditioning the carbonation is fine-bubbled and soft. The most aggressive natural carbonation that I have encountered is in beers that have been re-pitched or krausened with healthy doses of yeast and nutrient and then served while still actively fermenting, such as some Belgian bottle conditioned beers which I have opened too young and not allowed to rest before drinking. But even then the carbonation has not been as harsh as that commonly encountered in many (though by no means all) artificially carbonated beers.
What I am curious about is why artificial, and in particular harsh artificial carbonation is still so popular. Artificial carbonation was introduced in Britain in 1936 with Watney’s experimental pasteurised beer Red Barrel, though it wasn’t until the 1950’s that Red Barrel and other pasteurised beers started to become popular. Carbonation is typically forced into these pasteurised beers in order to give the mouth-feel some life – though the bottle pasteurising process as used by Budweiser, so I am told, does retain natural carbonation. But when forced carbonation is used it does feel sharp and excessive in comparison with natural carbonation – the excessive co2 when mixing with saliva is sharp and slightly acidic, producing slightly sour metallic flavours – the infamous “crisp bite” of global pale fizzy lagers.
And perhaps it is me, but I seem to note that it tends to be the beers with the least quality flavours and/or the most cheap adjuncts that are the most aggressively carbonated – as though the producer is attempting to hide flaws with the carbonation itself, as though the carbonation is being used to provide fullness or mouth-feel or indeed flavour.
But it is not just pasteurised beer that is normally force carbonated – filtered beer also has some artificial fizz inserted. While filtered beer is not such an abomination on the planet as pasteurised beer, and such modern methods as cold filtering are to be preferred to flash-heating, filtered beer is inferior when compared to fresh unfiltered beer. The filtering process is not done to improve or enhance the flavour, but merely to stabilise the beer and make it easier to handle and keep. De Koninck is a beer that is known to be better on draught because the bottled version is pasteurised; but even on draught the beer is filtered and force carbonation (although the carbonation is kept quite low). When served in the Wetherspoon pubs in Britain the beer is unfiltered and naturally carbonated. Wetherspoon seem to have no problem bringing tankers of the beer over to Britain, having the beer transferred to casks by Shepherd Neame, and then transporting these casks all over the country. No pasteurising or filtering is needed. No additional carbonation is needed. The beer is served and drunk natural and pure.
Why put up with artificial replacements? All beer should be, and can be, served and drunk natural and pure. Drinkers who are not prepared to just blindly accept whatever practises their local brewers are following but are prepared to ask questions when it comes to quality beer, should be asking their local brewers why they are artificially carbonating when they could be delivering fresh, pure, unfiltered and unpasteurised beer. Make a stand, make a protest, let your voice be heard: no more forced carbonation, no more artificial fizz, no more allowing the brewer to care more about their convenience than your palate.
Let us stop this artificial carbonation nonsense now and drink beer the way it has been for thousands of years – naturally and softly carbonated.