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:
— John West (@jwestjourno) January 2, 2017
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.