Real ale may be the solution to Britain's CO2 shortage
If there’s an overall theme to the events of the past few years, it’s the proof that the increasingly interconnected global economy has embedded within it new vulnerabilities to sudden unexpected shocks. A crisis at one end of the world may have unpredictable results at the other, leading to shortages in completely unexpected areas. And among the unintended costs of the rising energy prices brought about by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat to Britain’s millennia-old social lubricant: beer.
In bad news for drinkers of commercial lagers, brewers have warned this week that the country is facing a beer shortage, as supplies of CO2 needed to give lager its gaseous fizz have suddenly dwindled. Why? Because commercial CO2 production is a byproduct of the fertiliser industry, and industrial producers of ammonia are shutting down their production due to rising wholesale gas prices.
With the country’s major CO2 production plant in Billingham — responsible for nearly a third of UK supply — shutting down production last month, Britain’s brewers are facing early last orders. As Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association warned the Mirror:
But every crisis contains within it the seeds of opportunity, at least for beer snobs like me. After all, what’s bad for lager may well be a welcome boost for brewers of Britain’s traditionally flat and tepid real ale, a drink whose limited carbonation is a product of natural fermentation in the cask, and whose journey from keg to glass relies more on the strength of the barmaid’s arm at the hand pump than of the suddenly fragile chemical industry. Just as the Covid lockdowns led to a precipitous expansion of Britain’s homebrewing fraternity as bored office workers (including me) turned their idle hands to making their own beer, so could commercial lager’s difficulty become real ale’s opportunity.
As the real ale pressure group CAMRA smugly observed during last year’s lesser CO2 shortage, “with cask products, served in the traditional way, likely to have less environmental impact and be less reliant on gas supplies, this is a reminder to pubs and drinkers that there are more sustainable ways of enjoying beer, cider and perry” — advice which is doubly true today.
Even still, tweedy post-liberals salivating over a great Chestertonian real ale restoration shouldn’t raise their foaming tankards just yet: rising energy bills still threaten the viability of Britain’s thriving craft beer industry, as well as the survival of the thousands of pubs around which the country’s social life, for good or ill, revolves.
Even still, it’s hard to avoid a broader conclusion from the brewing industry’s woes. With no medium-term solution on the horizon to rising energy costs, and the nuclear revival some decades away from fruition, there remains the nagging sense that we are heading into a mini-collapse of the late twentieth century world. Essentially, a sudden, unavoidable reversion to simpler technological forms.
From the revival of sail for shipping cargo, to reversion to burning wood for heat and now to lager’s potential eclipse by traditional ale, our lived experience of the next few decades may suddenly and unexpectedly look more like the world of the near past than the hyper-modernity we all expected.