BREAKFAST DEBATE: Is the Cloudwater News the End of the World?

Eggs with sriracha chilli sauce.

The highly-regarded Manchester brewery Cloudwater is to stop producing cask ale — is this a portent of doom, or a drop in the ocean?

The news dropped this morning in a characteristically open blog post from brewery boss Paul Jones:

We worry that cask beer has backed itself into a corner that risks becoming unattractive to modern breweries. Where we can just about tolerate today’s market pricing for our keg and bottled beer… we see little sense in continuing to accept the labour of racking, handling, and collecting casks whilst we make insufficient margin… When we take into consideration the sort of beer the cask market laps up we see high demands for traditional beer, albeit with a modern twist. In comparison, the keg and bottle market demands our most innovative and progressive beer… There’s another often encountered set of issues we face with the cask beer market – if cask beer isn’t bright the quality is often questioned (and in some cases our slightly hazy casks are flatly refused, regardless of flavour), but if casks are still conditioning out, and because of that, or because of inadequate VDK re-absorption at the end of fermentation, tasting of diacetyl, then it’s all too often good to go.

In other words, for a brewery like Cloudwater, producing cask is fairly thankless task, offering poor financial returns, little satisfaction for the brewers, and huge risk to reputation because of point-of-sale issues beyond their control.

We read it bleary-eyed with our morning tea and then discussed over breakfast with this particular question in mind:

Boak: This does worry me. My impression — and it is just an impression — is that younger drinkers are less interested in cask than our generation was, and that this is part of an increasing divergence in the  market whereby cask is about price and keg is where the really good beer is. I keep thinking about that pub in Bolton that was selling some well-kept but pretty terrible cask ale purely, as the landlord admitted, to reach a price point his customers demanded, while at the same time my brother tells me [he works at Tap East] that some customers won’t drink cask at gunpoint even if the beer is better and cheaper than the nearest keg alternative.

Bailey: I think there’s some hysteria here, though. How many keg-only craft breweries do we actually have? Off the top of my head it’s BrewDog, Lovibonds, Camden, Buxton (kind of) and now Cloudwater. Let’s say there are a few more I don’t know about, or even let’s say the top twenty coolest craft brewers (definition 2) go keg-only — that’s still only a handful of the 1,800 total. Most brewers are really into it. And I don’t think we can equate the era of the Big Six with what’s going on today. Cloudwater’s keg beer isn’t Watney’s Red Barrel.

Boak: No, although there’s a different kind of homogeneity in craft beer. And your first point… That sounds complacent to me. I can easily see this being a tipping point for some breweries that have been considering going keg-only. Cloudwater is a role model for a lot of smaller, newer breweries — more so than BrewDog who have tended to alienate people. And I reckon we could quickly slip into a situation where the places that are known for good beer ditch cask altogether. Or where more distributors start to find it too much hassle to handle cask when keg is easier and more profitable so that even pubs that want to stock cask can’t get a steady supply of the good stuff.

Bailey: But that hasn’t happened! People are borrowing trouble. Cask ale is everywhere and, admittedly with a bit of research, you can reliably get good cask ale almost everywhere in the country. Sure, chalk this up as a warning sign and be wary, but do you really think we’re worse off for cask now than around 2005 when we started taking an interest?

Boak: I think maybe London is worse than it was, and I think it’s on the verge of getting much worse again. I love Fuller’s but the fact that we can have such a variable experience of cask ale in Fuller’s own pubs worries me. Oh, I don’t know… Maybe it’s not worse but cask in London hasn’t made much progress and I still find it hard to get satisfying pints there which surely can’t be right in the age of the Craft Beer Revolution.

Bailey: OK, so if this is one warning sign, what might be some others?

Boak: If a big regional went keg-only, I would be very concerned — Fuller’s, Adnams, one of the breweries that’s been experimenting with craft beer in keg. Or Oakham. Or Thornbridge! If they went keg-only, that would really freak me out.

Bailey: Me too but I can’t see that happening any time soon. I’d be more worried if Doom Bar or Greene King IPA suddenly became keg-only beers because I bet there are a lot of pubs that would ditch cask altogether without those — would literally, 1975-style, rip out their beer engines and lose the capacity to sell cask. The infrastructure would disappear.

Boak: If the Craft Beer Company stopped selling cask that would be a really bad sign. They seem pretty committed to it at the moment — lots of pumps — but who knows? I’d love to know how much they actually sell and what the split is with keg.

Bailey: That micropub in Newton Abbot sells 60 per cent keg, 40 per cent cask.

Boak: Hmm. Related to that, I guess micropubs might be the counterbalance, because (that one in Newton Abbot aside) they’re so cask-led, and so flexible when it comes to purchasing, that they might give that side of the industry a boost. But they’re not, to generalise, popular with young people, are they? So they don’t do much to win the next generation over to cask.

Bailey: There’s Wetherspoon’s, too — they’re playing with craft keg and cans and what have you but there’s no indication that they want to ditch cask. If anything, they seem more committed to it now than ever. Maybe what we need is a big chart with plus and minus columns for the health of the cask ale market in the UK.

Boak: That’s our homework, then. On balance, the reaction to this particular news does seem over the top, but I have to say I’m less confident in my view that The Battle has Been Won than I was when we wrote the book. I think it’d be pretty catastrophic if the only cask ales you could get anywhere were Doom Bar and GK IPA.

Bailey: Me too, I suppose, although I’m only a tiny bit concerned. As I’ve said before, we can’t be on a permanent war footing–

Boak: But we have to be ready to remobilise if the threat re-emerges and, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, make sure that the next generation is educated in the danger signs so that they don’t repeat the mistakes of history.

This has been edited to make it vaguely coherent. We actually rambled a lot more and you don’t need details of our discussion about what to have for tea.

80 thoughts on “BREAKFAST DEBATE: Is the Cloudwater News the End of the World?”

    1. We didn’t! Or, rather, we decided what we usually decide: that it’s complicated and we’ll have to wait and see.

        1. Oh, I see — thought you were demanding a resolution to the debate. Chicken and rice stir fry, probably.

  1. We’ve already been there with BrewDog, and the point must be made that Cloudwater are about as far from mainstream as you could get.

    Although I do hear rumours from that London that a growing number of beer-focused bars are ditching cask entirely.

    1. Most of them couldn’t look after it anyway, best that they leave it to venues that know what they’re doing rather than give eveywhere a bad name…

      1. I’ve often made that point (that if you’re not going to do cask properly, don’t bother) but I guess I hadn’t up to this point anticipated the market swinging so much for craft keg in urban centres that *good* beer places decide not to bother with cask. Hasn’t happened yet but perhaps the signs are there.

        1. It’s interesting though that many of the serious craft outlets here in Manchester have a significant cask offer which seems to turn over easily enough.

        2. It is happening. I don’t know anyone who has dropped cask yet, but I know a couple considering it.

          Plus new venues are starting to open keg-only.

          Not sure how big a trend this will be though.

          1. A lot depends on where you are. I can think of a fairly affluent town in Middle England where the last year has seen two bars trying to jump on the bandwagon and failing within months. One was a Shoreditch-style bare-brick keg&burgers joint, the other was a bottle shop with small keg bar. The cask places have been more stable.

            Who knows, those places might have survived if they were better financed, but I suspect their target market were already being pretty well served by an existing keg/cask bar which is the tap of a local brewery as well as offering the £7 pints from Bermondsey and beyond. There’s also an established bottle shop that has always been busy and has a good community associated with it, although I suspect it’s never made huge money – it has recently been taken over by a different local brewery.

            My feeling is that out in the sticks, there’s only a fairly small percentage of people at present who want keg ale. That’s not to say they don’t exist, and they are certainly enthusiastic and prepared to travel, but there’s probably only enough of them to support one place in the average market town, plus the odd fount of Punk IPA or Oakham Citra in the “normal” pubs.

  2. I’ve chatted about the cask/keg debate with several other brewers, and with publicans and drinkers, quite a lot. And very rarely do people seem to think it through when it comes to cost.

    They see (or rather hear) that a 30l KeyKeg costs about an extra £18, so a lot of brewers send out 30l keg for the price of 40l cask. And that generally is the main thing. However there’s a lot more to it than that as to why profit margins are different (I’m leaving quality alone here because that’s a whole other issue that needs addressing).
    It’s not just the price of the cask though, there’s the conditioning tanks (if you use them), the specialist kegging equipment and the extra gas. Plus there’s the man-hours needed to fill kegs, and check that they’re properly carbonated. This all leads to extra money needed to produce keg.
    There’s also a lot less keg lines out there than there are cask lines. Keg beer has moved on a lot, and still is, becoming far more widely available than it used to be, but it still doesn’t appear to have as much bar space as cask beer. So it’s a smaller market with fewer drinkers that’s being fought for. But (modern) keg is marketed as a premium product, and commands a premium price, and you can make more per keg than you can per cask because of that.

    But cask doesn’t take as many man-hours or specialised equipment to produce. My fermenters don’t even have automated temperature control, they have me going in frequently to check it and turn on the cooling as and when it’s needed. Filling casks can be done with special hose-end gun things, or as in my case with a wide pipe. There’s no extra gas or conditioning tanks needed.

    All told, it’s cheaper to produce cask than it is to produce keg. And there’s more outlets for cask than there is for keg. And there’s more drinkers for cask than for keg.

    But because it’s cask, it’s often seen as inferior. Usually because it is often badly looked after (Here’s that quality issue again) and because people are used to not paying much for it. In the mid ’90s you could still easily get a pint for £1.50. So we can’t make the margins on cask that we can on keg, because pubs won’t pay that. There are pubs that happily pay £85 for a 30l keg of my 4% porter, but baulk at £65 for a 40l cask of it. The pub in question then went on to sell the cask at £3.50 a pint and the keg at £4.00 a pint.

    The market is currently messed up. I do what I can to make better margins by keeping my overheads as low as possibly, and diversifying. It’s a business after all. I don’t employ staff (I’d love to but it’d put my overheads up and I wouldn’t be able to run the business how I want), and I’ve got a premises that will keep me below the rates relief threshold. I don’t contract for the popular, expensive hops, but rather use the more shunned one to good effect. And I have a brewery tap, in the brewery. The overheads for it are covered by the brewery, and I make more money selling a firkin by the pint than whole to a bar.

    Yes, I’m not on the scale of other breweries, but I too am looking to make money. But it isn’t just about altering one thing to make better margins, it’s about the business as a whole. This is why supermarkets (love them or hate them) use loss-leaders. They may lose money on a few lines, but over all they make a lot more on others. I may just break even on a couple of casks that go out, but I consider that “marketing budget” to get my name out, and get people drinking my kegs and coming out to the brewery tap.

    I don’t agree or disagree with what Cloudwater have decided, it’s their business and it’s up to them how they want to do it. But I don’t see a sudden rush to ditch cask coming any time soon.
    Unless we can’t sort out that quality issue.

    1. Thanks for that perspective, Steve.

      I thought the most interesting point in the Cloudwater statement was the reference to trying to sell everything at a standard price per litre & getting feedback that the cask was too dear and the keg too cheap. You’d think a brewer prepared to undercut other people’s keg prices would clean up, but apparently not. Just as there’s a perception that cask should never cost more than £X*, there seems to be a definite expectation that keg should never cost less than £Y. I don’t see that bubble bursting, though, or not until the caravan of fashion moves on from ‘craft beer’ altogether – and even when that happens it’ll take an awful long time for any effect on pricing to materialise. (That exotic imported elixir ‘Heineken “lager”‘ is still sold at a premium relative to boring old English beer.)

      *NB the value of X varies from place to place as well as changing over time. Bars near me sell cask beer at £4 and up without any problems, and £3.50 is pretty much rock bottom. Half an hour on the bus and you can find pretty much the same beers for £2.50-£3.00. (I’m not talking about JDW or Sam’s pubs here.) When beer communicators say that we should get used to paying more for cask, I always wonder who ‘we’ are – and why they think we aren’t paying more already.

    2. Cheers for that, Steve. Very grateful to you for taking the time.

      When we spoke to Alastair Hook the first time a few years back he made the point that, in the 1990s, a cask brewery cost about £12k to set up while a decent keg set w. refrigeration etc. required more like £250k. Seems you’re saying that’s still broadly true.

      We were wondering whether one issue with cask pricing is that it’s a product that’s always been around so people have a sense of what it ought to cost whereas lager was introduced (many footnotes apply) as an essentially brand new product which has only ever been expensive, and keg IPA/pale ale is similar in that regard.

      A side thought: one of the things that you might say did for mild is that people had a fixed idea of what a pint ought to cost which the brewers brewed down to for years until the beer was essentially unappealing to a mass of drinkers who suddenly had a few more pennies in their pockets. There’s a risk that could happen to cask bitter, perhaps. (Mostly the other half’s thought, that one.)

      1. Oh dear lord. No, a (decent, small, barely economically viable) cask brewery cannot be set up for merely 20% of what a comparable keg brewery would cost. You can put either together for about the same price nowadays. Don’t believe me. Check with Dave Porter: http://www.pbcbreweryinstallations.com/8barrel.html

        Once you’ve sorted out your containers, a van and some building work, £100k might do it. Possibly somewhat *less* for keg only. Particularly if you go with single-trip kegs.

      2. Suspect you were talking about the additional costs for doing lager versus ale, which probably does take you into six figures to do properly, from memory PBC charge an extra £30k just for basic vessels let alone extra space needed for lagering.

        Keg does cost a bit more than cask, but not a lot more.

    3. As a one man band micro (plus part time helpers), based in a fairly busy North Yorkshire town, I forsee cask as the main way of supplying my beer over the next few years. BUT in order to be profitable I don’t supply further than 20 miles, I don’t supply to pub co’s who dictate the price (that’s my job), and I make sure I make some profit out of every single cask. I do supply keg for 6% abv and above because I think it tastes better, and I still believe a well kept 4% ish cask ale is superior to an equivalent abv keg. There is a quality / consistency problem in the industry and I’m constantly amazed how my beers from the same batch can vary so much depending on the pub. But I’m small and I can check these things out, so simply don’t sell to the bad ones. I am making a profit (albeit modest) so maybe ditching cask is the most successful business model if you want a decent return from a massive investment… if you’re happy keeping the business relatively small and local, I think cask still has many years left in it.

    4. If you’re comparing keykeg with cask the Cloudwater piece makes the point that you also have to include the manhours spent washing casks, chasing after empties, replacing damaged/losses etc.

      As for pubs selling cask at £3.50 versus keg at £4 – I can believe it, and you can’t really blame the pubs, they’re just following the customers. I recall the horror years ago when a Kiwi winery had the gall to charge 5% more for the same wine bottled under “inferior” screwcap versus “real drinker’s” cork – their argument was that the quality was similar, but screwcap was more reliable so deserved a premium.

      Although people like to make a big thing of the quality arguments, I’m not sure that’s the real reason. Far too many people (including many card-carrying CAMRA members) wouldn’t recognise an iffy pint if it bit them on the backside – and the ability of some new breweries to charge £7/pint for Bretty/sour beers hardly helps…… I think £3.50 vs £4 is more of a cultural and generational thing. £4+ keg ale is the teen’s version of the 80’s premium pilsner or the 50’s pale ale, it’s not really competing against cask as many of its fans wouldn’t drink cask and vice versa. I know there is some crossover, but perhaps less than one might think.

      There’s certainly a massive resistance to paying more than £x for cask – x may vary from place to place, but there’s not much pubs can do about it other than a long slow process of education, and binning many part-used casks along the way. Wetherspoons are definitely part of the problem in setting expectations for the value of cask – but then again you could say the same of £2.50 on a Monday/Tuesday night to clear the stillages of the weekend beer. That may be a necessary evil relating to the short life of cask beer, but it still helps set a mindset of what a pint of cask is worth.

      1. The whole reason people buy cask beer in such large quantities is because it’s so relatively cheap. Order a random cask beer at a pub and you know it’s going to cost been three and four pounds, order a random keg beer and you might get a nasty shock. So a lot of people go for a cask option in a pub despite there being several keg beers available that they would prefer.

        It’s the same reason people eat at spoons in random towns. You know it’s going to be mediocre, but the effort involved in finding a nice, good value place is just too much effort.

        1. “a lot of people go for a cask option in a pub despite there being several keg beers available that they would prefer”

          Actually I suspect it’s not a lot. I can only speak for myself, but a lot of the time I don’t want something fancy and 7%, in the same way I love wine but tend not to drink it when I’m “drinking”, ditto whisky. It’s just a different thing. Plus I’m capable of asking the price – and in most places I know they do double check with the stupidly ££££ beer, if there isn’t a price visible.

          I could also point you to lots of people I know who are so specific in their beer choices, there would be a riot if you expected them to drink keg Black Sheep rather than keg Smiths. Most of the people who are as price-sensitive as you suggest have already been lost to pubs, or are drinking Smoothflow in the boozer round the corner from the craft bar.

          That’s not to say price is never a factor, but if it was as dominant as you suggest then we would all be getting legless on Yates Original (did that ever get down south or is it just a northern thing?). And keg has its own way of compensating – I recently found myself taking longer to sup a half of world-domination keg stout (for those who think imperial shows a lack of ambition – it was >9% anyway) than my companion took to drink a pint of cask, and the two drinks cost within 10p of each other. Sometimes those beers slip down scarily easily, but I struggle with most of them to be honest.

          1. I’m talking in generalities, about punters in general, you’re talking anecdotally about your own experiences, which generally aren’t reflective of consumers in general.

            Most people ARE price sensitive, and often don’t like to have to specifically ask the price of all the beers before ordering at a crowded bar. Keg beer is, sadly, often ludicrously overpriced, often due to the greed and incompetence of both brewers and publicans, and people are therefore reticent to order it in case they get stung.

            You make some simplistic errors of logic in the rest of your post, and a few false assumptions, for example that all craft keg is high ABV, and that all pub drinkers are completely oblivious to pricing because “otherwise they would be drinking in the supermarket”. Both complete nonsense, of course.

  3. This is a really enjoyable read for someone quite new to beer and it helps clarify some thoughts I’ve had.
    I prefer both keg and cask but I know little of cask as where I drink in London it’s more focused on keg.
    I will keep learning.
    Thank you.
    Layla.

    1. Layla — cheers! A useful exercise (not that you asked for one…) is to make a point of drinking the same beer in lots of different pubs for a month or two. London Pride is a good test subject, for example. By the end of that, you should really start to have a sense of its moods and the ways in which pubs can influence the end product.

  4. It’s a shame. The one pub in St Albans that sells Cloudwater on cask has actually made a framed plaque with the pump clip badges. I think the small local breweries will remain cask-oriented while the national ones go keg. I agree that if Fullers decided to ditch cask I’d freak out too. What would the Harp be for?

    1. Fuller’s is a good ‘lesson from history’, too, because they were *this* close to ditching cask in the 1970s but CAMRA turned them round by boosting the market for cask ale and making their beers cult products.

  5. How many brewers can anticipate, and presumably budget for, a 1200% production increase in their third year? How much can the high end keg market expand; how many people can afford to drink a significant amount at standard craft beer prices? It’s all very well for the chattering classes to srtick with an anti-cask ideology, but that isn’t the same as a normal main street bar selling in huge volume. I’d love to see where Cloudwater expect to increase sales, UK or international expansion.
    There will always be a market for reasonably priced beer (does anyone really see the end of the supermarket multipack of lager anytime soon?).
    The more significant and worrying trend has been the almost silent removal of cask beer from estate pubs across suburban UK for the last 20 odd years, that really hits cask sales.

    1. A subject that I blogged about here. Although I’d say the reasons behind it are wider and more complex than simply “brewery/pubco policy”. A lot of it is cultural, and CAMRA has to bear part of the blame for deliberately presenting real ale as a distinct type of beer for the “discerning consumer”.

      Maybe there is a bit of a squeeze, with cask disappearing from both bottom-end working-class boozers and top-end specialist bars.

      1. “Maybe there is a bit of a squeeze, with cask disappearing from both bottom-end working-class boozers and top-end specialist bars.”

        This is a really sharp observation.

        1. We established years ago that thanks to the ongoing efforts of CAMRA to ostracise anyone who didn’t look like them, drinking cask ale is now largely a white, male, middle class, middle aged affectation, and its hardly a surprise that the pubs that sell it are the ones aiming at those clientele. Working class boozers, and bars aiming at young people are going to sell something that those groups are interested in.

    2. How many could budget for that? I don’t know. But you’d expect a well-funded startup with the best part of half a million quid cash to manage. That said, if you burn that cash too fast, you’re going to be under some pressure to switch to profit sooner rather than later. There’s no point in building the brand if you go bust before you can cash out. It’s never easy is it? Poor lambs.

  6. There’s also Chorlton, whose owner told me “cask is basically shite” when I spent a few hours with him on his visit here this last autumn. (His young brewer corrected him on that each time though, bless him.)

    1. Well Chorlton is tiny, very niche and generally making beers that aren’t really suitable for cask. The owner is also a famous contrarian.

    2. Never met the guy, but he is a friend of a friend, so I want to go easy on that basis alone (and because I’ve really liked some of his beer). But he seems to have been off the week they did “How Best to Catch Flies: Honey or Vinegar?”. It does at least mean everyone knows who he is, which is more than I could say for a lot of smaller brewers.

  7. Cheap cask ale is keeping some pubs in business, either because they make a bigger margin on a standard retail price, or they sell high volumes of cheap beer. Pubs trading on a more secure profit base will be more likely to pay a reasonable price, but it is hard work for a brewery finding them and then elbowing their beer onto the bar. There is no longer an “easy sale” anywhere in the UK’s pub estate. A brewer with a renowned name and cachet may sell keg beer on a national basis, but for small breweries away from city centres, outlets supporting small keg beer are few and already well supplied. This argument may come up again in a few years as oversupply floods all areas of the market. It is interesting that you mention Wetherspoons in the context of pricing. A great many start up breweries sell cask beer to JDW and regard their buy in price as a threshold – the very lowest price possible. In fact, for low volumes of direct delivered beer the JDW price is unsustainable for most small brewers. It will be interesting to see if the new HMRC register for alcohol wholesalers removes some of the maddeningly cheap cask beer from the market. I suspect there is a lot of beer sold without any duty being paid, it seems the only explanation for some of the prices on offer.

  8. One factor militating against a general shift from cask to keg for mainstream quaffing beers is that non-nitro keg is simply a lot more hard work to drink in quantity than cask because of its gassiness. This was always presented as a major plus point for real ale in the early days of CAMRA, and I’d say is broadly true. You simply can’t sink pints of keg like you can cask.

    But there is maybe a serious concern that premium draught beers in the on-trade aimed at enthusiasts will increasingly shift to keg. And a lot fewer people quaff multiple pints in the pub than they used to.

    1. Or, to look at that another way, if the price of a drink is really the way you rent space in a pub for a session then three halves of keg IPA ought to cost about the same as five pints of bitter…

      1. Only if you drink keg beer bizarrely slowly. This supposed gassiness appears to be a problem that only affects elderly camra members. Perhaps they should consult a physician?

    1. The Taphouse. It’s what was the old Maltings beer shop. Subject of our next Devon Life column.

      1. Cheers.
        I’ll combine it with my annual visit to The Olde Cider Bar this summer which always produces a legendary two-day hangover.

  9. I think it’s time to inject a much needed touch of realism to this debate. There are now around 1,500 breweries in the UK (far too many, but that debate’s for another time), and one has decided to stop selling its beers in cask and switch all production to keg. Blogs are suddenly springing into life all over the web, proclaiming it’s the end of life as we know it. Come on people, get real, get a grip – and get a life!

    The brewery concerned is a small elitist micro, loved by the craft glitterati, but virtually unknown to your average beer lover; and totally unknown to most pub-goers. The distribution of its products is almost entirely confined to big cities such as London, Manchester and Leeds, where the beers are drooled over by an urban elite, light years removed from reality.

    I’ve never seen Cloudwater beers in Kent, and I strongly suspect Boak and Bailey will rarely see them in Cornwall, and yet all sorts of people are getting their knickers in a twist over this.

    I’ve drunk cask ale for virtually all of my drinking life, and am not in the slightest bit concerned by this piece of non-news. As Curmudgeon says, we’ve seen this before with BrewDog, and the world didn’t exactly come to an end then.

    To put things in perspective, Cloudwater have made a commercial decision to stop doing cask. Their business, their decision, end of!!

    1. “Light years from reality” isn’t a great way of putting this – I mean, the Port Street Beer House is as much a part of reality as anywhere else – and I do think that people who like “craft cask” have reason to worry if several of the UKs most influential craft breweries can no longer be bothered with the stuff.

      On the other hand I do agree that this is more a “craft” thing than a “beer in general” thing. Regionals and traditional family brewers have tied estates and hence don’t have such a need to compete on price, while freehouses that thrive on bargain basement casks can continue to do so, just with somewhat shonkier beer than they’d have if they thought it was worth paying a bit more.

      From the outside, it looks like the difficulty in selling “premium” cask isn’t so much that it’s too expensive, it’s that from a pub’s point of view, selling Cloudwater ESB rather than Bogshed Bitter doesn’t actually get many more bums on seats. I suspect that there’s a large market for which “no cask” is a deal-breaker on where to go for a night out, and a smaller but still significant one for which “loads of rotating cask beers from small breweries” is a strong factor, but still very few people in the general scheme of things will go to specific pubs because they have (what I’d consider to be) “world class” cask beer. Hence paying the extra cost for a cask from Cloudwater or Buxton (or St Austell or Timothy Taylor, come to that) just isn’t good business when you can buy something a lot cheaper and sell about as much of it at the same price.

      1. Well put, Dave. Think that’s about right. No-one seems to actively like (to give one real world example) Cottage Brewing’s beers but they can be *OK* if looked after properly; fulfil the need to have *something* on cask; and can be knocked out, somehow, at well under £3 a pint even in areas where the average is more like £3.40.

        1. As an aside, Cottage would actually be quite an interesting brewery to profile / interview if you were still looking out for possible subjects? They’re totally out of step with the sort of thing that people currently get excited about, but are apparently filling their chosen niche extremely successfully…

          1. We have had that thought but, if I remember rightly, couldn’t get anyone there to respond to our emails when we tried a year or so back.

          2. They’re a funny old one… so reviled in most beer forums I know. (Be they social media, mailing groups, or real life.) But beer out all over the country from the south to the far north. Yet completely low profile… they just knuckle down and sell lots of beer all over the place.

            As an aside they’re a little late filing with companies house (not that that is terribly unusual) but are historically rated rather badly on credit… “very high risk”.

            Aside the aside that prompted me to eyeball one of my usual industry-checks I’ve noticed I missed Penpont/Firebrand going involvent: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/notice/2638956/

            But phoenix-like is rising from the ashes as Altarnun Brewing: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/notice/2670633

      2. The customers of specialist beer pubs like the Magnet in Stockport would quickly complain if they were seen to be selling beer from what were perceived as “cheap” breweries. Their market is more independently-run free houses in small towns and villages that may be struggling a bit financially.

        Incidentally the Magnet has (or had) a sign saying that they had to charge over the odds for Thornbridge beers because of their high wholesale price. Not sure if they have ever done the same for Cloudwater, but in pubs like that the customers *would* be prepared to pay a bit extra for beers from a brewery with a strong reputation.

        1. I’ve not really been to Stockport, but presumably that’s the exception rather than the rule, though?

          Most places that I go, I tend to see a load of pubs with a megabrand-only cask offer, quite a few selling cask from small-ish local-ish breweries of potentially variable quality, and very few that mix in respected or sought-after stuff from around the country. Now the relative sizes of the last two categories might just be down to a commendable dedication to supporting local small businesses, but I can’t help suspecting that it has a lot to do with price versus interest from the general public.

          (NB as someone who lives in an area where the local breweries are mostly very average, I’ll admit that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about “Locale” and related bumf.)

      3. from a pub’s point of view, selling Cloudwater ESB rather than Bogshed Bitter doesn’t actually get many more bums on seats

        Is that really true, though? There are thousands of pubs around the country whose popularity relies on their reputation for great beer, and plenty of publicans scratching their head as to why no-one comes in through the door to drink their fine range of shite beers.

        I would say beer range and quality is probably the number 1 factor that predicts the success of a pub.

    2. Paul — I’m not sure from your comment if you actually read what we wrote above. Throughout, I was arguing that the reaction was a bit hysterical, and Boak’s final position was:

      ‘ On balance, the reaction to this particular news does seem over the top, but I have to say I’m less confident in my view that The Battle has Been Won than I was when we wrote the book.’

      Which surely hardly qualifies as twisted knickers!

      And, to be fair, it was a bit much of us to imply that John West in particular was being hysterical. A brewery that claims a large share of the discussion does something interesting and people wonder if it means anything — quite natural, really.

      1. I did read your post from end to end Bailey, so I’m sorry if my comments came across as having a pop at you two in particular.

        I wanted to highlight the general hysteria which was erupting all over the blogosphere about a decision taken by a relatively small, but much hyped brewery.

        There are things happening in the world right now which are of far greater concern, so stories like this need to be viewed in perspective.

        Wishing you both all the best for the New Year.

        ps. First day back at work, so message sent from my phone during tea-break.

        1. ‘There are things happening in the world right now which are of far greater concern, so stories like this need to be viewed in perspective.’

          This argument is one that gets my hackles up I’m afraid. Life would be unbearable if we were only ever allowed to direct our attention to Big Important Things. We wrote a short blog post about that once, actually:

          Does anyone else get fed up of being told “it’s only beer” and not to take it too seriously?

          Most people with hobbies know that the subject of their interest isn’t that important in the great scheme of things. Global financial crisis, climate change, careers, family — those are serious.

          In our case, beer is something in which we’ve chosen to indulge our interest just seriously enough to occupy a few of the spare hours when we’re not worrying about all that other stuff.

          We take lots of other things just as seriously, too — Bubble Bobble, the Beatles, curry, spaghetti westerns….

          What’s the point of a hobby if you don’t thrown yourself into it?

          1. One thing you learn as you grow older, Bailey is not to take anything too seriously. This applies to life in general, as well as to hobbies. Lighten up, no-one is criticising you for your passion; least of all me!

    3. Paul – agree with 99% of what you say, as always. Issue here is that Cloudwater cask, served at its best, has been sensational. Problem is I couldn’t tell you where to try it, other than probably in the Tap pubs, and even then you’d still probably not find the Bitter or the Pale. Without pubs of their own (like say Marble or Ossett), they can’t guarantee quality as their beers reach a wider audience. And a poorly kept or slow-selling pint of Cloudwater is no better than a dull pint of Master Brew.

      So I can see their business rationale, and to be fair their keg and bottles are equally good. Ask my wife.

      1. “To be fair their (Cloudwater) keg and bottles are equally good.” I don’t doubt this for one minute Martin, and the welcome news that Cloudwater beers are available in bottles, may now enable me to taste them for myself.

        I really don’t understand all the fuss about them giving up on cask; and I say this as a long standing CAMRA member, with over 40 years membership behind me.

    4. @Paul Bailey – not all breweries are equal. If this was Coach House, few people outside Warrington would bat an eyelid. To draw a more Kentish analogy – well, analogy of Kent – imagine if Eddie Gadd said “No more green hops for me, it’s pellets all the way from now on”.

      99% of beer drinkers outside Kent have not heard of Eddie Gadd or drunk his beer, over 95% have never had green hop beer – yet that would be something that had national rippples. Eddie may be just one brewer but he’s a hugely influential figure within one of the important regional beer scenes, which has been invigorated in no small part by his activities. The national scene is the sum of those regional scenes and would be weakened by Eddie pulling back on something that is such a distinctive part of the Kent scene. You also can’t ignore the effect that big regional figures have on the national scene – even people that have never heard of Eddie may have enjoyed green hop beers from outside Kent that owe their existence to the ripples that come out of Ramsgate.

      So just like Eddie pulling back from green hops would be of national significance even for people who have never drunk his beer – so it is with Cloudwater.

      1. An interesting analogy qq, but Eddie Gadd is far more than green hops, just as Cloudwater is far more than cask. Cloudwater may even be better in keg than it is in cask (it is likely to be more consistent), but not having tried it, I wouldn’t know.

        I take your point, but Cloudwater are NOT giving up on brewing. I also am writing this as a long standing CAMRA member; but one who is not blinded by dogma over methods of storage and dispense.

        1. Well that’s why the analogy works – it’s just a part of what they both do, it’s not like Waen closing down completely. The specifics are less important than the trends behind them – which also played their part in the Waen story. And dozens of less heralded breweries who are less well funded and making beers that are less desired/hyped.

          Hopefully this will start a conversation about price expectations of cask beer, which are heavily distorted by Spoons in a way that is less true of keg. At the moment you can barely see CAMRA’s toenails they are so far up Tim Martin’s backside, yet at the same time they never hesitate to bring up the gazillion pubs are closing per minute thing. There’s lots of reasons why pubs close – some are just bad ones, some experience external shocks, some are brought down by greedy pubcos – but discounting and the expectations it creates in consumer are just as destructive to pub economics. Not that breweries aren’t capable of doing that to themselves – my heart sinks when I see local micros’ premium brews in supermarkets or even Bargain Booze at 3-for-£5. They’re making pennies on the deal, but it’s destroying their brand.

          But when you read things like this : http://beernouveau.co.uk/costs-quality-again-and-that-elusive-profit/
          you do have to wonder about CAMRA’s relationship with Wetherspoons. At the very least CAMRA should be neutral on Wetherspoons – treat them in the same way as cask breathers, a necessary evil to get cask ale out to a certain sector of the market rather than a core part of what CAMRA does.

  10. Add Fourpure and Mad Hatter to the list of UK breweries who only produce keg and not cask beer (both of whom I’ve brewed for – perhaps I am the Harbinger Of Cask Doom personified?).

    1. Cheers, Paul. Though of several more after we’d posted but there were quite a few we had no idea didn’t do cask. I was absolutely certain I’d had something on cask from Mad Hatter but must have imagined it.

    1. And when we interviewed the folk there back in 2013 they all said the same thing — they’re cask folk, they love it too much to stop, etc. But you could tell they keep it under review!

  11. If this was Hawkshead or Thornbridge, I’d sit up and listen. But Cloudwater – a very small (though ambitious) brewery with a distinctive vision and MO making a sensible commercial decision to focus on dispense/distribution that best serves their product isn’t really that big a deal, and certainly not a tipping point (on the contrary, in fact – I expect high-quality cask bitters to be a trend from craft brewers this year).

  12. It’s nearly 3 in the morning and I can’t be reading through all the comments. So if someone has already said this. I apologise.

    (I mainly drink cask).

    Cask is not cool. Cask is only cool for 50’s beardies. Keg is cool for 20/30 beardies. Camra is the champion for cask, and it seems to me that they are sooooooo out of touch. Grey…….very grey. So fking boring. The hipsters are a shtstorm of punters, only interested in the
    Biggest hop slag, with no central governing body. We need HIPRA.

    (This post has taken me an hour to write. I apologise. I’m drunk on my homebrew doubleipaimperialrussianbrownalepalealegosepilsnerscunthorpeporterstoutbitter cordial)

  13. I mean I just prefer cask beer and thought Cloudwater’s cask beer some of the very best (the brewery’s 2016 Spring/Summer Bitter was my beer of the year).

    For the (admittedly small – but please can we drop “elite” until I get my swimming pool and helipad?) Venn diagram slither of us that prefer cask from nu wave breweries (i.e. Plateau or Aurora from Burning Sky, Cloudwater’s output, Magic Rock, Five Points, Buxton’s cask (RIP), etc.), this is just bad news.

    What makes it interesting to the wider market is what Mudgie has said: this is the onward march of cask disappearing in a pincer movement from both working class, wet-led pubs and also specialist beer pubs. Non-cask craft beer bars are popping up in London (Mother Kelly’s, The Mermaid E5, Mason & Company – the latter making me ask whether Five Points will at some point also drop cask…) – and despite the eye-rolling in the provinces, what happens here does tend eventually to have impact elsewhere.

    If middling, middle class boozers are the only ones doing cask, the likelihood of coming across anything – forgive me, for I am about to sin… – *progressive* will diminish. If the new, well-capitalised, successful and innovative breweries are increasing in number *and sidestepping cask*, this is an issue.

    Not sure anyone has their “knickers in a twist” or has been OTT.

    I generally agree it would take an Oakham or a Thornbridge to drop cask to really make people sit up.

    But it strikes me this is the canary swaying a little on his perch in the coalmine. We should be alert to the fact some of our most exciting breweries are dropping cask.

  14. I do worry a little bit about whether this is a trend. I’d be pretty gutted if Magic Rock for instance went keg only, and I imagine they think about it quite a lot. Best pint I’ve ever had was cask Dark Arts. The world would just have a bit less joy in it if these breweries went keg only.

    Can’t see there being massive danger to cask in general though. There is also a definite middle ground between the ‘cooking bitter from whoever’ and ‘pub must have at least 10 different rotating casks’. Landlord for instance is a ‘premium bitter’ that is pretty widely distributed to non-specialist pubs.

  15. Also, we’ve had a new micro-pub type place open in my suburb and that is keg only, which I wouldn’t have expected even a couple of years ago.

  16. There are a lot of comments here, and I have little time to read them all. Interesting stuff though.

    From my position the price-point of cask makes it almost stupid to brew, simple as that. We still do it, but we lose more money on it than anything else. It costs us more money to make, sell, deliver, fund the horrendous cashflow lag created by huge amounts of poor paying pubs and collect back the empties than we get paid for it.

    I simply do not know why we produce cask, except for the fact some people expect us to do so.

    1. One reason to produce cask is to get on the CAMRA radar, of course. Especially for a start-up brewery, that can make a big difference and produce a lot of free publicity.

      1. Cloudwater were never going to win any CAMRA awards though, for the technical reason that they don’t have any year-round beers. For most awards only beers available all year round are eligible.

  17. Well that was a long interesting read. Every year a whole new batch of 18 year-olds enter the market and for those of us who thought cask was best, we knew that it would be necessary to present the reasons why we considered it to be best to these new entrants. We could not just assume it a given fact that new drinkers would know all about the various offerings. That in many ways what CAMRA was trying to be all about, education, information and so on. To “extol the virtues of cask”.
    The Cask Report makes it clear that there are still significant benefits of cask to most pub operators. Clearly there will always be a number who have carved a different niche. And feel they don’t need cask. And so some breweries can just serve that need and/or compete against the more mainstream non-cask offerings that will always be on a bar. Eg Meantime London Lager displacing more “standard lagers”.
    On price, I am told that every publican knows or thinks they know what the price of cask beer should be. Hence, brewers are more likely to be challenged on the price they are seeking for cask than for other packaging types.
    I do not think I have ever drunk Cloudwater. No doubt shame on me.

    1. Camra have spent the past forty years doing a really excellent job of putting pretty much everyone except elderly white middle class men off cask ale. The best thing to ever happen to the cask ale industry would be if camra disappeared overnight.

    2. “every publican knows or thinks they know what the price of cask beer should be”

      Try every punter. That’s why most free houses try pretty hard to get away from stuff that the punters can find in a supermarket, to get away from the “How much? It’s £10 a slab across the road” thing. But there’s a thousand breweries in the UK producing a 4% golden ale in cask, so competition is fierce and there’s little scope for pricing power. So yes, the market has a pretty good idea of what the price for a 4% golden ale should be, with some regional variations for property prices/rent etc.

      Compare that with the market for Irish stout, where there’s only one brand that is acceptable to 90% of drinkers, and that brand can dictate the price. It’s no coincidence that Guinness has traditionally been the most expensive pint on the bar.

      “I do not think I have ever drunk Cloudwater. No doubt shame on me.”

      It deserves the hype, it’s great stuff (if you like that sort of thing). Although all the attention goes to the DIPA series, I really enjoyed their Red Ale, which apparently is coming back in a few weeks – hopefully it will squeeze into cask before they stop doing it.

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