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.

QUICK ONE: BrewDog and Real Ale

BrewDog has just announced LIVE beer (their capitalisation) — a version of their session-strength Dead Pony Club packaged with live yeast and conditioned in the keg.

Of course they are obliged to present it as a great breakthrough, and deny that it’s anything like CAMRA approved real ale, for the sake of pride, just as CAMRA could only grudgingly approve of certain keg beers after much soul-searching. (See Chapter 14 of Brew Britannia for more on that.)

Live beer being poured.
SOURCE: BrewDog. Photo by Grant Anderson.

The thing is, quite apart from the fact we’ve been hearing gossip about this for months — tales of Martin Dickie and team earnestly studying cask ales with notebooks in hand in Scottish pubs, a false rumour of cask ale’s imminent reinstatement at certain BrewDog bars — it was inevitable BrewDog would do something with live yeast at some point.

Imagine the pickle they’ve been in since they made a big deal of dropping cask half a decade ago just as American brewers decide it’s the cutting edge of alternative beer culture.

Imagine how annoying it must be to know, in your heart of hearts, that beers with live yeast are interesting, are a part of tradition with a compelling story, are the beer equivalent of stinky cheese and sourdough bread, but that you’ve made it a point of principle not to do it in large part because your ‘brand values’ (modern, hip) are at odds with the Campaign for Real Ale’s (traditional, curmudgeonly), as well as for convenience. Not very ‘craft’.

Now CAMRA are finding a way to live with kegs (of a sort), and BrewDog are finding a way to live with real ale (of a sort), is it too soon to start dreaming of demobilisation and street parties? And might we see a BrewDog stand at the Great British Beer Festival in 2017?

Draught Guinness in the 1960s

1970s photograph of two men in horn-rimmed glasses inspecting beer.
Tommy Marling takes the temperature of draught Guinness watched by Mr Bill Steggle, licensee of the Cock at Headley near Epsom.

When we picked up a few editions of Guinness Time, the brewery’s UK-focused in-house magazine, one thing that leapt out at us was an account of the roll-out of draught Guinness after WWII.

It appears as part of an article called (rather long-windedly) ‘The Men Who See That Draught Guinness Runs Smoothly… The Service Representatives’ from the Spring 1971 edition.

First, there are some helpful numbers:

In 1970 we sold more than 16 times as much draught Guinness as in 1956. Fifteen years ago the number of outlets could be counted in hundreds. In 1962 there 3,200 and now in 1971 there are over 40,000 pubs and clubs where devotees of draught Guinness can get their favourite brew.

By way of context, in those mid-1960s Batsford pub guides we’ve been trawling through draught Guinness is frequently mentioned as a sign of an interesting pub in much the same way, say, BrewDog Punk IPA might be today. That is, by no means obscure, but still noteworthy, and a welcome sight for many beer geeks.

Continue reading “Draught Guinness in the 1960s”

St Austell Experiment With Kegs

Admiral's Ale keg font.

We were interested to see this Tweet from St Austell, the most dominant of our local breweries: “Admirals and Smugglers craft keg ale on sale at St Austell visitor centre”.

For some, that phrase ‘craft keg ale’ will cause consternation but, terminology aside, this is an interesting development. Admiral’s and Smuggler’s are two of St Austell’s stronger bottled beers, the latter having been brewed in one form or another for at least fifty-six years as a strong special. They’re currently seen in shops more often than in pubs, which is a shame, because Admiral’s in particular is a favourite of ours.

If breweries start kegging their bottled beers and thus increase the variety of draught beer on offer to British drinkers, without reducing the number of cask ales, isn’t that something most people could live with?

The St Austell beer that would suit kegging best, though, is surely their Clouded Yellow wheat beer — one which calls for high levels of carbonation and low temperatures.

And if Proper Job turns up in kegs… well, then we might start to get worried.

Picture nicked from the St Austell Twitter feed and edited. Hope they don’t mind.

Real ale loyalist or a craft keg fanboy?

Imagine you’re out in a strange town which has two pubs.

Pub #1: The King’s Arms

A pub which serves real ale in good condition. On the bar, Greene King IPA, Old Speckled Hen, Courage Best and Marston’s Bitter.

Pub #2: The Red Lion

Sells only kegged beer. On the bar, Thornbridge Chiron, Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted, Fuller’s London Porter and Magic Rock Human Cannonball.

Which pub would you choose?

We’d be in the Red Lion, like a shot.

A week later, you’re in a different town, which also, coincidentally, has just two pubs.

Pub #3: The Bird in Hand

Sells only real ale in good condition. On the bar, Fuller’s London Porter, Thornbridge Kipling, Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold and Acorn Barnsley Bitter.

Pub #4: The Turk’s Head

A pub which sells only kegged beer. On the bar, Brain’s Smooth, Guinness, Wells Bombardier and Greene King IPA.

Which pub would you choose?

We’d be in the Bird in Hand.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that we don’t subscribe to the idea that craft beer is the antithesis of real ale in the UK, and that we hope the conversation doesn’t go any further down the route of keg=good/cask=bad than it already has.