Cask Ale is Too Cheap/Expensive

Illustration: Pound Sign/Pint Glass.

Cask ale is both too cheap and too expensive. Or, rather, both of the following statements are true:

  1. It is a problem for brewers that cask beer – culturally important and relatively more difficult to brew, distribute and serve at its best – is expected to be cheaper than other forms of beer on sale in the UK.
  2. Consumers cannot be expected to pay more for cask beer.

Let’s look at item No. 1 first.

We have testimony from multiple brewers that cask ale not only offers only slim profit margins but also comes with additional challenges not found with keg or small-pack products. Take this from Northern Monk, for example:

[Logistically cask is] a massive headache for us… It makes no sense for us to package in a format that we’re not really set up for, has a lower market value than other packaged formats and our beer isn’t particularly suited to.

Or, if you don’t much value the views of ‘upstarts’, here’s Roger Ryman of St Austell: “Overall profit on cask beer is wafer thin in free trade and national distribution where we compete against the many hundreds of breweries that operate in this market”.

So, competition is an issue but we also find ourselves suspecting that if it weren’t for certain oddities in the market – the gravitational pull of the Campaign for Real Ale, a historical expectation that cask will be cheaper than keg – cask would be a premium product costing more than most keg beers. That is sometimes expressed, for the sake of brevity, especially on Twitter, as “Cask is too cheap”, or “Cask ought to be more expensive”, or “I’d be willing to pay more”.

There’s a cheap rhetorical trick that often gets played at this point: “Oh, so you think £3 a pint is too cheap? Alright for you, moneybags.”; “So what you’re saying is that want to exclude poor people from cask altogether then? You elitist bastard.”; “You want to pay more? Are you quite mad?”

(Also a cheap trick: paraphrasing those rather than quoting specific examples, but we don’t want to get into beef with anyone in particular.)

The problem is, those latter voices also have a point, which brings us to item 2.

Nobody Has Any Money

Journalist Will Hawkes put this well on Twitter last week (and, indeed, prompted this entire post):

"People can't pay more. Wages have been in decline for years and will be for years. Brewers need to accept this."

As a consumer it can get pretty exhausting: support pubs, support small breweries, boycott supermarkets, support record shops, support bookshops, support struggling restaurants, support your local butcher, baker, artisanal candlemaker. Buy local, buy Fair Trade, buy British. Oh, and pay into a pension, and save for a rainy day, and put a roof over your head in a property market gone insane, and also we’d like you to go onto a contract which means we can’t guarantee your income from one month to the next. Oh, and it’s 30p to use the toilet now, by the way, because there’s no magic money tree and so on and so forth.

If somehow the price of cask ale rose by, say, 20p a pint across the board, it wouldn’t unlock some secret pot of money that consumers are sitting on. Indeed, it would probably push a significant number over the edge, reducing the number of trips they make to the pub.

“Well, drink less but better,” people sometimes say, but, honestly, if we drank much less we might as well give up and join the Band of Hope, even though going to the pub is our biggest leisure expenditure each month. (If you haven’t already done so try totting up how much you spend in the pub each month – the numbers are a bit scary.)

To us, and others like us, and especially those worse off than us, it doesn’t feel as if cask ale is cheap. The fact that some really cheap beer is available, at Wetherspoon or Sam Smith pubs, doesn’t ‘devalue cask’ – it’s a lifeline, part of the balancing act that means we can occasionally afford to splash on something special at £5 a pint.

So Mr Hawkes is right: brewers and their boosters need to find better ways to tackle this issue than berating or guilt-tripping. Equally, when a brewery makes a commercial decision to pull out of cask, or refuses to budge on price, consumers (and especially real ale campaigners) shouldn’t be turning the guilt-gun back on them: they’re doing what they feel needs to be done to survive in an ever-more competitive market.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 September 2017: Pils, Pepys, Pricing

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the last week, from Belgian Pils to China Ale.

Last week we mentioned in passing the launch of Drinkers’ Voice and expressed our instinctive doubts about the whole business. Now the Pub Curmudgeon has attempted to make the case in a passionate post on his blog:

Drinkers’ Voice as a matter of policy does not accept any industry funding, to ensure both the reality and the perception of independence. It speaks for the consumers of alcoholic drinks, not the producers. What it does have is a certain amount of involvement from CAMRA, which has led some to conclude that it is effectively a CAMRA front organisation… In recent years, there have been several motions passed at CAMRA AGMs urging the organisation to take a stronger line against the anti-drink lobby. However, CAMRA by definition does not represent all drinkers, and can all too easily be accused of glossing over the negative effects of alcohol in seeking to promote beer and pubs. There also remains a somewhat delusional tendency within its ranks who believe that the type of drinking that CAMRA supports can in some way be presented as less harmful. So the decision was taken that the objective could be better achieving by helping with the creation of an independent campaigning body.

We’ll keep pondering this and perhaps put our heads above the battlements with an actual blog post on the subject. Or (checks comments from last time we got involved in this kind of debate) maybe not.


Inside Brasseries Atlas.

For his website Brussels Beer City Eoghan Walsh has written about an abandoned brewery in the Belgian capital which reflects the changes and challenges of the past century:

As breweries shut down or moved their production outside of Brussels from the 1960s on, most of their buildings were torn down to make room for an expanding Brussels. The few that survived this destruction were converted into art galleries, performance spaces, or hotels… These are the neighbourhoods – in Anderlecht and Molenbeek – that comprised “le petit Manchester belge”. Keep going past streets with names like Birmingham, Liverpool, Industry. Past the faded signs on crumbling brick buildings advertising “Ford” and “Coke”. Past the old Moulart maltings complex that has been renovated as an interactive centre and a business incubator. And there, just along from the wrought iron rail bridge, is the art deco brewing tower of Grandes Brasseries Atlas.

The post is accompanied by lots of lovely photographs just one of which is reproduced above.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 September 2017: Pils, Pepys, Pricing”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 29 July 2017: Germany, Quality Control, Staly Vegas

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that’s grabbed us in the last week, from the politics of micropubs to the price of a six-pack.

Suzy Aldridge (@lincolnpubgeek) brings interesting news from Lincoln which might or might not be meaningful in the wider scheme of things: the keg-heavy local craft beer bar has morphed into a cask-led micropub. Suzy quotes the local CAMRA chair:

As I see it, the craft scene is predominantly aimed at the younger market, and with Lincoln’s nightlife being predominantly student led I could foresee such a business struggling during the University break. Who knows in the future things may change, but for now I will support “The Craft Rooms” in its new incarnation as “The Ale House”.

This certainly fits with our reading of how micropubs and craft beer bars fit together — as versions of the same thing, both essentially products of changes in licensing law and renewed enthusiasm for beer, but catering to different demographics.


Detail from the cover of a German brewing textbook.

Ben Palmer (@Johnzee7) is a British apprentice brewer studying in Germany. On his blog Hop & Schwein he has gathered some observations on German brewing culture based on his experience so far:

The reason I make the generalisation about ‘German brewers’ in the first place is because they must all jump through the same educational hoops in order to become recognised as a brewer… I estimate that 99% of people in production based brewery roles have at some point completed this apprenticeship, sat the exams and, most importantly, received the certificate to prove this. Germans really like certificates. And official stamps too.

His thoughts on how this might be changing with the rise of learn-on-the-job American-influenced Craft Beer brewers are especially fascinating.


Anonymous beer can viewed from above.

At Beer and Present Danger Josh Farrington provides a useful round-up of recent quality control incidents in UK brewing — exploding cans, dumped batches, product recalls — and reflects on why some breweries continue to let customers buy flawed beer despite the current culture of highly-publicised self-flagellation:

Even in the past weekend, I had two canned beers from a pair of small breweries, only to find one was a scorched earth of smoky phenols crammed into a supposed Bavarian helles, while the other was a classic English IPA that had become a metallic soup, like slurping on a slurry of batteries. I can accept that mistakes happen after the beer is packaged – that everything was given the okay in the first instance, that the first swig tasted swell – but there’s no excuse for not making regular checks, or taking samples from across the range, to ensure that what you’re sending out to market is as good as you think it is.


The Wharf Tavern.

One of our favourite blog post formats is the thoughtful home town pub crawl and this week’s contribution is from Mark Johnson at Beer Compurgation who has been exploring Stalybridge, Greater Manchester. He starts by setting the scene:

To many in the north-west it is famous for its nickname of Staly Vegas, that came about (as far as I’m aware) through… a sort of revitalisation project around the central canal area by the new Tesco, improvements to two bus stations and an influx of age-restricting, dress-code-enforcing bars and pubs… The concept of Staly Vegas began to die around 2007 and officially broke in 2011, with the lowering of strict entry policies bringing delinquent youths and drug dealing to the once respectable bars. What the town has been left with for six years is numerous boarded up buildings once used as venues that seem to be no longer use or ornament.


Fry: "Shut up and take my money!"

Jeff Alworth at Beervana has some interesting thoughts on beer pricing that take into account the question of reputation over time:

Every decision a brewery makes about pricing has benefits and risks. Budget-pricing may move product, but it reduces profit margins and may eventually damage a brand’s reputation, miring it in the lower tier in consumers’ minds. Once there, it’s difficult to raise prices. On the other hand, pricing beer at the upper end increases profits, establishes a brewery as a premium producer, but may appear like gouging once the shine has worn off the brewery’s reputation.

(The first comment there is interesting, too, reminding us that even if conversations about price/value aren’t visible on social media doesn’t mean they’re not happening.)


And, finally, here’s some eye candy from the Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London which has recently been digitising some fantastic images of pubs from their archives, as shared on Twitter by Stef Dickers, Special Collections and Archives Manager.

A London pub in black-and-white, c.WWII.

The Craft Beer Life on a Budget

Is craft beer in the UK (definition 2) hopelessly exclusive to those on a budget or are there ways in?

We got thinking about this in response to two Tweets, the first from Mark Dexter…

…and the second from Tony Naylor who writes about food and drink for the Guardian and other publications:

Mark (former blogger, actor, doesn’t like 330ml bottles) went on to argue that those who suggested paying it was reasonable to ask more for a better product were essentially saying, ‘Screw poor people. Let them drink piss.’ (His words.)

This is something that nags at us somewhat. A few years ago we suggested that breweries might consider finding a way to offer an entry level beer at a reasonable price by, for example, being pragmatic about hops and shooting for a lower ABV.

Continue reading “The Craft Beer Life on a Budget”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 11 March 2017: Queues, Le Coq, Suffragettes

Here’s all the beer and pub writing that grabbed us in the last week, from business rates to faux-Belgians.

Written as part of his journalism degree James Beeson’s piece on the threat to pubs from forthcoming business-rate hikes, aimed at mainstream audiences, is a handy primer:

According to rates and rents specialists CVS, 17,160 pubs will have to pay more in business rates from April, and this is just the start, with rates expected to rise by £421m in the next five years.  This hike means that pubs will need to pour an extra 121 million pints to fund increases in property taxes paid to councils. CVS estimate that high business rates have contributed to one in five pub closures in England and Wales over the last six years.

As it happens, in his budget on Wednesday the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced business rate relief for pubs, as reported by the Morning Advertiser, albeit coupled with an increase in beer duty.


Price list in a pub.

We’ve already linked once this week to Peter McKerry’s thought-provoking piece on why people choose to drink at home or the pub but there’s been more chatter around this interesting subject, notably from Mark Johnson who argues that drinking at home isn’t really cheaper. He roots his argument with a welcome discussion of price-per-litre and relative value:

Bottles of good beer aren’t cheap. I very rarely purchase, in my most frequented bottles shops, a beer for under £3. Most of the time I’ll purchase 5 or 6 bottles at a time and this shop is never under £25… 5 or 6 pints in the pub doesn’t cost me £25+… A pint of cask beer in my favourite pub ranges from £2.60 – £3.60, dependent on strength and purchase price. This is for a 568ml measure of beer as opposed to the standard 330ml size for bottles or cans in the beer shop. In terms of quantity equivalent (ml to ml) 6 beers in the pub will cost approximately £18.60. The bottles will cost me approximately £43 for the same amount of beer.


A queue at Magic Rock's brewery tap.

Staying with the same author, Mark also asked this week why on earth people would go to Huddersfield and join a long snaking queue for the Magic Rock brewery tap when there are so many other great pubs in town:

This is an anecdote that canvasses my feelings at present about anything that involves queuing or FOMO. This won’t be the only time I see people queue for a pub I’m sure. It’s just like those that scurry for online beer releases the moment it goes on sale. It is only for certain breweries with certain beers. It is the same ones doing the rounds on Facebook forums. There’s no frenzy for beers that aren’t universally praised, just like there seems little desire to drink in establishments that don’t have some form of bucket list status behind them.

(For what it’s worth, if we’d gone all the way to Huddersfield specifically to visit the MR tap for whatever reason, we’d probably have joined the queue, but when we found a similar line running out of the door at the Wild Beer Co bar in Bristol the other week, we walked.)


The Crynes on a beer festival balcony.
The Crynes at the GBBF in the 1980s.

For Craft Beer London, the website that accompanies the book and very useful smartphone app of the same name, Will Hawkes trailed the London Drinker Festival with a profile of two key figures in the British beer scene, Christine Cryne and her husband John:

‘We’ve had hate mail!’ says Christine. ‘Some stalwarts think having keykeg is the sell-out of sell-outs.’ She doesn’t seem overly concerned. ‘For me it’s about also being commercial. We need to make this beer festival a success. Young people don’t distinguish between real ale and non-real ale – for them it’s all craft. That’s what we’re doing here: for people who aren’t into real ale, we want to encourage them to try it. If we don’t do that, how will we get those youngsters in in the first place?’


The Shades, Hartlepool, closed and boarded.
A closed and boarded pub in Hartlepool.

An interesting nugget from Tandleman: looking back over his considerable archive he found mention of a pub that was doomed in 2009 and wondered what had become of it since. (It would be an interesting project to look back at a whole lot of stories like this and see how often they have a similar punchline.)


Text from a bottle of Harvey's Imperial Stout: A Le Coq.

You might not have the stomach for the in-depth details of his family tree that follow but the headline in this story about Albert Le Coq by Martyn Cornell is a killer for beer history nerds:

Le Coq is remembered as a 19th century exporter of Imperial stout from London to St Petersburg, whose firm eventually took over a brewery in what is now Tartu, in Estonia to brew Imperial stout on what was then Russian soil. The brewery is still going, it took back the name A Le Coq in the 1990s, and an Imperial stout bearing its brand has been brewed since 1999, though by Harvey’s of Lewes, in Sussex, not in Estonia. But every reference to the company founder, Albert Le Coq, apart from in the official history of the Tartu brewery – which is almost completely in Estonian – says he was a Belgian. He wasn’t.


A bit of brewery closure news from the US: two Californian outfits have folded in the past week, San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lagers and Orange County’s Valiant Brewing.


And, finally, amongst the flood of cheering, inspiring images and stories that accompanied International Women’s Day on Wednesday this 1908 cartoon stood out:

(You can see the original at the US Library of Congress website.)