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For the last year or so we’ve been slowly chewing over a single big question: how healthy is British beer culture?
You might remember, if you’re a long-time reader, that we first wrote about the idea of healthy beer culture in 2013, but that was a set of bullet points. This post expands on those ideas with another five years’-worth of evidence, experience and thinking.
We should confess that our starting point is one of mild frustration at the pervasive idea that British beer – and beer culture more generally – is ailing. We see various worries expressed on social media, and in blog posts and articles, each one discrete and personal, but adding up to a mass of anxiety. If you’re in this bubble it can feel like the end times.
To provide fuel for this specific blog post we asked our Twitter followers to tell us what, if anything, made them worried for the future of British beer. Some statements echoed things we’ve seen said many times before, while others flagged issues we had not considered. Quite a few effectively cancelled each other out, highlighting the absurdity of thinking about British beer as a monolith. There is no single idea of what healthy looks like, and no victory that won’t feel like a defeat to somebody else.
In this post we want to focus on some of the most commonly expressed fears, question whether they have a basis in reality, and consider the the likely impact of those that do.
Let’s begin with a staple of beer commentary for the past 25 years or so: the perils of the pursuit of novelty.
One: Always New, Always Shiny
We – Boak & Bailey – tend to celebrate stylistic diversity. It seemed exciting to us that even in a small, distant town like Penzance, where we lived until last summer, it was increasingly easy to find draught beers at a range of ABV, across a spectrum of colour, expressing different degrees and varieties of hop, malt and yeast flavour.
A contrary view might be, though, that the more beer styles there are, the fewer truly great examples there will be in each category. What if more choice across 150 styles just means less choice for fans of any particular one?
Then there is the question of keeping those styles in appropriate balance. How can we be sure, for example, that the increasing popularity of golden ales won’t crush traditional bitter into the ground?
There’s certainly no denying that beer styles do disappear, coming into and going out of fashion over the course of years or decades. The demise of mild, the biggest selling style before the 1960s and now hard to find on draught outside certain hold-out regions, is one notable example.
But rest assured that bitter, which usurped mild and was itself usurped by lager, is not, for now, scarce.
Every Fuller’s pub sells London Pride, and most Sam Smith pubs have Old Brewery, to name two examples. In Bristol, throbbing with craft beer vibrations, there is nonetheless plenty of Bass, Greene King IPA, Doom Bar, Courage Best, Bath Ales Gem and Butcombe.
And here are the ten best-selling cask ales in Britain as of August 2017 according to CGA:
|Brand||Value of sales|
|Greene King IPA||£89m|
|Old Speckled Hen||£21m|
Of those, only two approach golden ale territory (Deuchars, Wainwright); two (Landlord and its tribute, Tribute) are more amber than brown; and Abbot is notably strong. But none on the list are especially floral or citrusy, and all are essentially variations on bitter or pale ale at between 3.7% and 5% ABV.
In our view, if you live in England and can’t go out and find a pint of bitter with relative ease, or even a choice of bitters, then you’re being fussy about pubs, fussy about beer, or perhaps just plain awkward.
On the flipside, we’re also baffled by the suggestion that hazy IPAs have somehow come to dominate. It’s interesting that Adnams has brewed one as an experiment, and we were amused to see that Alec Latham encountered a cask version of the style at a regional beer festival, but, equally, we can go weeks without seeing one on sale.
This really is a case of where the so-called ‘bubble’ might be distorting perceptions. NEIPA is highly visible on social media, and very present in a particular subset of specialist bars. Even so, we’ve yet to find a situation in which, even if one or more NEIPAs were on offer, there weren’t also plenty of other options available. BrewDog Bristol might have three NEIPAs on at once, but will also have four different lager sub-styles, stout, and a choice of amber ales.
Regardless of their reach, we’re yet to be convinced NEIPAs are more than a passing obsession, like black IPA before them, or that they have untapped mainstream appeal. We haven’t seen much evidence of them flooding supermarkets, or turned up in Wetherspoon pubs – both key barometers of broader acceptance, which is certainly a necessary step before anything like dominance.
Session IPA, on the other hand, we do foresee muscling in on bitter’s turf. Essentially one-dimensional, they are easy drinking if you have some tolerance for bitterness, and the typical ABV puts them right at home alongside big brand lagers and cask bitter. One staff member at a traditional family brewery told us that management there is all-but obsessed with session IPA, and there’s evidence of this tendency appearing in tied pubs up and down the country.
* * *
Another observation we’ve heard many times over the years, from many different brewers, is that customers and pubs won’t buy the same beers twice, which makes it difficult to establish a core range and a steady trade.
From the perspective of brewers and retailers the pursuit of novelty is a concrete, practical problem, as it has been since the genesis ‘guest ale’ culture in the 1990s, and the extreme manifestation in scooping and ticking. How can a brewer operate if their customers demand a new beer every time? Some cheat, brewing essentially the same beers with different names, or blending two beers to create a third, or chucking caramel into a pale beer to create something that at least looks new. Others drive themselves half-mad attempting to innovate, brewing with ever-weirder ingredients, or strange techniques.
Of course it’s natural – healthy, even, if we can use that word yet again – to be interested in new things. To want to try them, at least, and if you’re lucky to enjoy unfamiliar sensations and flavours. This is how the next porter, mild, bitter or golden ale is discovered.
But we also think there’s something else going on. When a customer says they want something different or new, and when a publican relays that request to a brewer, we’re certain that at least some of the time what they’re really saying, in a gentle way, is that they haven’t yet found a beer they really love, which is a step up from mere enjoyment.
The stereotype of the endlessly flitting beer geek might have some basis in reality but, speaking for ourselves, when we find a beer we like in a pub, in great condition, we tend to stick with it for the session, or even over a few sessions, until the cask is dead. Timothy Taylor doesn’t struggle to shift Landlord, even at a premium price, and Beavertown can’t brew enough Neck Oil to meet demand.
Or, bluntly: if a brewery’s core range beers don’t seem to be earning repeat orders it might be because, even if they’re excellent in every way, they need a little more work to attain that magic quality that inspires loyalty, or at least the desire for a second pint of the same.
Two: Too Many Breweries – the End is Nigh!
When we wrote Brew Britannia there was white-hot excitement in the air. Breweries were opening everywhere, every ten minutes, in places nobody ever expected to see such a thing. They were brewing everything from black IPA to saison, using every variety of hop on the market, while some experimented at the far edges of convention with hazy, sour, wild, weird beers. Pubs were boosting the diversity of their offers and craft beer bars were appearing not only in more and more cities but even small towns, such as Newton Abbot in Devon. It felt like a golden age.
Even then, though, there were people fretting about how long it could last. This 2013 blog post from Dave Bailey (a committed and open-hearted industry commentator as well as an interesting brewer) made the case:
The total volume of beer being consumed in the country has been declining for some time. Despite this there has been a steady increase in the capacity of micro-brewing. Yes, this is partly driven by an ever increasing demand from drinkers, which in turn, it could be argued, has been inspired by the increasing choice that has occurred… Locally to me there continues to be a disturbing increase in the number of breweries. I’m not even going to quote a number, as to be honest, I’m not sure it is possible to count… Here you see I’m starting to be negative, having started this post on a fairly positive slant. I find it disturbing because I do not believe it is commercially sustainable. Really, I simply don’t believe it is.
Many of those who responded in the comments agreed with that analysis: “The ‘bubble’ is certain to burst soon and unfortunately, may take some talented brewers with it, leaving some mediocrity behind.”
But these doomsayers were wrong, or at least made their call too soon. When that post appeared the Campaign for Real Ale’s count of UK breweries stood at around 1,100. Almost five years on that number stands at more than 1,700. In other words, if there is a bubble, it wasn’t ready to burst in 2013.
Five years ago, it turns out, there was unsuspected room for growth in places such as London, which went from having a mere handful of breweries to the latest count of 112, and Bristol, which had around seven breweries within its city boundaries in 2013 but now has a fluctuating fifteen or so.
It seemed back then that the limited number of free taps open to the market across the British pub industry was fatally low and that too many breweries were already competing for them, driving down prices and quality. But many of us underestimated the potential for the rise of the micropub and the brewery taproom (of which more later), and perhaps also the potential for craft beer to pop up in surprising places – chain hotels, for example, or noodle bars.
And, on balance, we can’t find any particular reason to think the clap of doom any more likely in 2018 than 2013, other than that if you say “It’s going to rain” every single day you will eventually be right.
After all, entire cities remain relatively short on breweries-per-head, such as Birmingham (thirteen breweries for 1m people) and Cardiff (five for 450k), and also have vacancies for the kind of unconventional free-of-tie venues that might support them.
That’s not to say that individual brewers haven’t had, and aren’t continuing to have, a challenging time.
In March 2018 Dave Bailey announced that his own brewery, Hardknott, was to cease production on its own plant though the brand is to live on in some form. He is less optimistic than us, writing: “It continues to frustrate me that many commentators in the industry are heralding how massive the craft beer thing is, and yet stupefied by what appears to me to be an inevitable likelihood of massive attrition of many small brewers as they realise that making money at this daft job is the preserve of very few.”
During 2017 we did our best to keep a log of every brewery closure in the UK – to really focus on the reality of the situation – and there were a few notable casualties. Cottage Brewing in Somerset and Tom Wood’s in Lincolnshire, for example, both went into administration, while Ballard’s shut up shop after almost 40 years trading.
If we were to draw a conclusion from those and similar announcements it would be that there is a particular squeeze on conservative, locally-focused brewers founded in the wake of the real ale boom of the 1970s. These are breweries whose beer has neither the national cult reputation of, say, Timothy Taylor, nor the novelty of the current generation of craft brewers.
Breweries will continue to come and go. Some will find their niche, make their name; others will struggle, and eventually succumb. From where they are sitting this might not feel like evidence of a healthy culture but from a consumer perspective, we’re afraid to say, it probably is.
Three: Quality is Poor
The word ‘quality’ comes up time and again in the conversation. What is the good of all these breweries, and all this choice, if the beer you spend rather too much on is mediocre, or even bad? If the quality isn’t there.
Before we got into this one, however, we wanted to probe what people mean by ‘quality’, our impression being that like ‘craft’ it is a vague term used by different people to suggest different things. To this end we ran a simple poll on Twitter and these were the results:
POLL: Which of these is closest to what you mean when you use the word ‘quality’ in re: beer?
— Boak and Bailey (@BoakandBailey) May 20, 2018
It’s evident that to most respondents ‘quality’ is about technical prowess. It suggests that a beer is well-engineered – that a brewery QA tester or competition judge would find no concrete flaws. It isn’t sour, hazy, buttery, and so on. (Unless of course it is meant to be, and advertised as such.)
As a subset of that, others tend to use it to refer to how the beer is delivered at point-of-sale, especially in relation to cask ale and the old-fashioned cellar skills needed to present it at its best. (A well-made beer can be ruined by careless handling; and a mediocre one, it seems, elevated through the skill of a good publican.)
For another, smaller group, quality refers to some aspect of the beer beyond the technical: is it exciting, original, innovative, interesting, perhaps a bit ‘fancy’? These people, we would guess, also enjoy consistent beer without obvious flaws, but would rather drink a less than technically perfect NEIPA for example than, say, a very precisely brewed but restrained 3.7% English bitter, or a basic lager. In fact, we ran a Twitter poll with that specific thought in mind, the results of which are somewhat interesting, if less useful than the above:
OK, another poll: Which would you rather drink – an interesting beer with flaws, either through production or keeping; or a technically perfect but rather boring beer?
— Boak and Bailey (@BoakandBailey) May 20, 2018
We do know from our own experience that finding a good pint of cask ale can be difficult, even in breweries’ own prestige pubs where it ought to be a given, and that too many bottles and cans can be substandard.
But is there really any reason to think that, on the whole, the quality of beer – in either the technical sense or in terms of sheer character – is any worse now than 30 or 40 years ago? In 1985, for example, Roger Protz wrote in his regular column for What’s Brewing, the Campaign for Real Ale newspaper, of what he called ‘Our Ailing Ale’, reporting on a conversation with CAMRA co-founder Graham Lees:
“What’s happened to ale in this country, Protz?” he demanded. “It tastes like warm tea.”… During the course of the next few days… Graham returned again and again to what he saw as the sad decline of the quality of our much of our cask beer. I did not disagree with him, for I too have become increasingly concerned by beer that is as undemanding on the palate as it is demanding on the wallet… [Many] have lost their zip and character. Boddingtons, Brakspear, Gales and even – and I say this with terrible reluctance – Adnams, seem to be pale shadows of their former selves… Even when the beer is without blemish, it is too often served so badly that you might as well sit at home and put up with ‘stewed cardboard’ home brew.
It’s a fact of life that things were always better a decade or two ago, and people will be saying the same a decade or two in the future, too.
We do suspect that some cellaring skill has been lost. This is a point Steve Dunkley, brewer and former cellarman, makes frequently:
I started in the trade when I was 18, and I learned from someone who’d been doing cellar work for years. The pub I was working at also sent me on a course to get qualified in it, and I learned a lot. Not just the guidelines of how to stillage a beer, but also what’s actually going on inside the cask, and how its affecting the beer. I also learned how to strip and rebuild most dispense equipment, and the importance of cleanliness on it. Back then there were only about 300 breweries, and the bar I worked in tried to get as many different beers as possible each year, I remember breaking the 600 mark one year! Without knowing about beer itself, there was no way that we’d have been able to keep beer in good condition. Just because it’s bright doesn’t mean it’s right, and a chill haze doesn’t mean it’s drain pour. Even back in the 90s. Understanding that leads to good beer going over the bar, and we built up a reputation for it… I think these days we’re in desparate need of cellar staff. Quality is such an important issue in a flooded market, and brewers can easily point the finger at the end of the chain.
With the death of the brewery-pub tie there are also fewer opportunities for publicans to really get to know a handful of standard beers very well, which issue is only compounded by the tendency to novelty (see part one, above) and wider ranges of beer in individual pubs and bars. This is a particular bugbear of Good Beer Guide pub-crawler Martin Taylor:
One of the themes of my blog… is that the explosion of choice is rarely beneficial to quality… The argument for heading for pubs with many pumps seems to be that anyone who cares about cask would have at least half a dozen on, to which CAMRA members cask drinkers will gravitate, leaving the local bar with Doom Bar and GK IPA (provided on sufferance) to serve soup to Carling drinkers… And reading CAMRA magazines it’s hard not to be persuaded that more is better, with Pub News focusing on quantity and rarity, and quality barely mentioned.
He is right, we think, and our feeling is that choice across town – different ales from different breweries in different pubs – is preferable to a whole world of options in a single pub.
Overall, though, we suspect there is a lot more that is very good in 2018 than there was in 1978. It’s just that it’s harder to find among all the noise and excitement; and we have all become so much more demanding and experienced as consumers.
Very much signs of a healthy culture.
Four: Beer Excludes
Another issue that came up more than once in response to our Twitter query, and at intervals in the wider discussion, is the fear that beer was becoming elitist and exclusive.
And when it comes to the sharp end of High Craft Beer – limited releases, festivals, events, subscription services, and the very most specialist bars – this is certainly true.
Yes, the most expensive beer is relatively more affordable than wine of equivalent cachet, and, yes, almost all sectors have a high-end out of reach to all but the wealthiest or most dedicated followers. It is also possible to access craft beer on a budget with sufficient know-how.
But the fact remains that people on limited incomes are excluded from the full range of the experience, and that will only become more of a problem if those who seek to bump the price of beer upwards are successful.
(Some businesses are tired of scrabbling for profit and see getting customers to pay more as an obvious fix; others regard this as a necessary step towards improving pay and conditions in the brewing and hospitality industries; and yet a third group looks at it as a step towards rebuilding beer’s self-esteem, by reinventing it as a ‘premium product’.)
This is a rare instance of where those who talk about beer might be able to do some good, however, by highlighting an important fact: craft beer (definition 2) is only a small part of beer culture, and perhaps not the best part.
In the past we’ve referred to Schrödinger’s Craft Beer, poking fun at the view that craft beer is simultaneously:
- A niche interest engaging only a handful of people and venues, undeserving of all the attention it gets; and
- A looming existential threat to traditional British beer and pubs which must be stopped!
But we’ve looked into the box and… It’s number one. Craft beer is significant, and still has room to grow, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. Not many people drink craft beer, and even fewer people drink only craft beer. We certainly don’t, interested as we are in the phenomenon, and even the Craftest of the Craft talk breathlessly about, say, Fuller’s ESB, or even bottled Budweiser.
We revisited a previous post on this subject and, on further reflection, would now express the practical solution like this: don’t propagate the idea that price or exclusivity are synonymous with quality, and make an effort to celebrate the affordable.
* * *
Beyond price there’s also the exclusion due to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age… In short, like it or not, beer remains the realm of the middle-aged white man, into which others are expected to integrate rather than being accommodated. And so they don’t bother.
Sexist branding is just one aspect of that – one which continues to throw up constant disappointments, often from unexpected quarters, as people struggle (we think sincerely in many cases) to get their heads around the fact that what was unremarkable in 1998 makes them look bad in 2018, or that ‘banter’ doesn’t translate to those who don’t know you and aren’t in on your jokes.
But progress is being made.
The turning round of Castle Rock’s Elsie Mo was one big step. A prominent target for criticism, the World-War-II themed pump-clip was redesigned as a tribute to women who served in the war rather than a lazy call-back to pin-up porn of the past. Robinson’s, though, seemed unrepentant, and defiant, making a public stance against “political correctness”. Except that this week they too came round to the idea, announcing (albeit clumsily) plans to rebrand their popular golden ale:
The current label was designed in homage to the classic 1940’s Memphis belle style pin up ‘nose art’ of WW2 aircrafts which was so iconic of the era. However, it is no secret that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the backlash against sexual harassment and abuse, Dizzy Blonde has been the focal point of the sexism debate in the beer industry. Despite the fact that Dizzy Blonde is a much-loved brand by many, we don’t have our heads in the sand. It is time to acknowledge that the presentation is not universally accepted by a society that strives for, and celebrates, equality.
Those who want to see change should take heart from this. If it doesn’t speak to a fundamental shift in values it at least reveals the calculations businesses are making, weighing the short term risk of annoying a small group of anti-PC types against the longer-term benefits of attaining broad appeal, and of staying in step with their industry peers.
The kind of smaller brewery whose marketing machines amounts to the head brewer at the kitchen table with a laptop on Sunday night might take longer to change, or perhaps not. We know of at least one publican – by no means grandstandingly ‘woke’ – who has privately told breweries with sexist branding that if they won’t change their designs, their pub won’t sell it, because it embarrasses them to have it on display, and to have make excuses for it, in 2018.
Here, the culture is experiencing growing pains, but will be fitter and stronger at the end of the process.
Five: Pubs are Endangered
The closure of pubs, and struggle of those that survive, is a huge worry for many people, and is something we addressed in the epilogue of 20th Century Pub:
We feel unfashionably optimistic for the pub. It’s survived this long, after all, despite bombs and the Band of Hope, and pubs remain the jewels of our high streets and villages, giving character and life to our towns and estates.
Optimism is a strong word and, of course, we serve it up with a cartload of caveats: perhaps there will be fewer pubs; some particular beloved pubs might be among the casualties; and perhaps the survivors will need to change in ways that make some pub-lovers uncomfortable. But we are certain there will still be pubs, they will still serve beer, and they will continue to be part of the culture in this country.
And, in fact, we expect to see new pubs continue to open. Now, they might not be the kind of pub on which enthusiasts are fixated – vaguely Victorian, just on the border of grubby, with snugs and snob screens – but they will be pubs, like it or not.
We’ve written at length about micropubs, not least devoting an entire chapter of 20th Century Pub to the trend, and so won’t go over it all again. By way of an update, though, the founder of the micropub movement, Martyn Hillier, has apparently reined in his ambitions, lowering his prediction for the eventual number of micropubs from 5,000 to 500. (As quoted in an excellent article by John Porter in the latest edition of CAMRA’S BEER magazine.) This feels about right, allowing for the fact that they can go as easily as they arrive, given that they rely on the energy of individuals, and often on the availability of a particular property on especially generous terms.
There are good and bad micropubs, just like any other kind of pub. The best, among which we’d count our local, The Drapers Arms, feel more like ‘proper pubs’ than many operating in conventional settings. Without pub companies or breweries pressing down on them their owners are able to offer more interesting beer, at competitive prices, and express their own personalities more freely. (For better or worse.) In that context, surrounded by a buzzing crowd, you soon forget that you’re sat in a retail unit. They really do have that ‘beerhouse’ feel.
Then there are brewery taprooms. We have to be frank here: they are not generally to our taste, feeling too sparse, too austerely industrial, to ever replace the warmth of a decent pub. But they are another valid response to the restrictions of pub ownership, and provide yet another option for drinkers who don’t feel at home in traditional boozers for whatever reason.
There are also brewpubs – an idea once thought dead in the water, but now multiplying at a surprising rate. There is Wetherspoon (still growing, albeit at a slower pace) and its imitators, the ‘pubness’ of which can be debated endlessly. And of course, craft beer bars, though outside the biggest cities, it’s harder than ever to tell where they end and micropubs begin.
A type of pub we’re particularly interested in is the new-build out-of-town brewery family dining house. They’re the kind of place beer geeks, even those only mildly afflicted, tend to avoid wherever possible. They rarely have exciting beer being primarily focused on food, and often the only way to reach them is by car. They tend to sit on retail parks or on the outskirts of town surrounded by acres of parking space, perhaps attached to a budget hotel, or serving an estate of brand new private houses. Marginal though they might seem they are by no means insignificant.
“We’ve opened approximately 80 new builds in the past six years”, said Greene King’s press office in an email, while Marston’s told us: “Our new build strategy over the last five years has delivered over 20 new pubs each year across the whole of the UK”. So from just these two firms that is around 200 new pubs in the last six years.
They seem popular, too, despite their apparent remoteness. Those we’ve visited, regardless of when we’ve visited, seem to be permanently busy, whether it’s with football fans in search of big TVs, families out for a Sunday roast, or pensioners having tea and cake on a weekday afternoon.
But are they good pubs? As buildings, they tend to be plain or, worse, tacky in the Prince Charles neo-historical style. They generally lack character, despite the local interest information boards and pointedly local names.
But – but! – the best of them gain a huge amount from really being used, by people out in numbers, having fun at volume.
If the buildings are given chance to wear and weather, and if a little more personality is ever permitted to leak through the branded surface, there’s no reason these couldn’t become as beloved and characterful as any 150-year-old pub.
If there is a threat to the continued existence of the idea of pub it might be the habit of drinking at home. In 1980 on-trade sales represented 87.7 per cent of the market; by 2001 that had fallen to 65.7 per cent; and in 2016 it was a mere 48.4 per cent. (SOURCE: BBPA.) So, in plain terms, we’ve gone from nearly all beer being consumed in pubs to less than half.
This tendency is understandable with a decade long freeze on UK wages, changing models of employment which offer less security, and an overheated housing market. We couldn’t afford to drink in the pub every night, even if our bodies could stand it, and bottled or canned beer at half the price of the pub is simply too tempting to resist.
But, again, we can’t be too gloomy about this: why is there any on-trade at all if the price of booze is the only important factor? Of course it isn’t. People need to meet other people, and they need to spend time somewhere that isn’t home or work. Give them better beer, and more fun places to drink it and, and they will find the money to pay for a good night out.
Pubs are an important part of a healthy beer culture – more so in the UK than in some other parts of the world – but if drinking at home gets people engaged with beer, and pubs can find a way to offer the best beer experiences, then it’s all part of the balance.
Six: Cask is Endangered
In the blog post he wrote in the wake of the Revitalisation vote at the Campaign for Real Ale AGM (more on that here) Pete Brown used the knowledge of the cask beer market gained during his run as editor of the Cask Report to point out some hard facts:
Cask ale’s health has recently gone into severe decline. Over the twelve months to February 2018, and in the twelve months before that, cask volume declined by over 4 per cent each year – that means almost ten per cent of the entire cask market has vanished in the last 24 months… Now, the plight of cask is actively being covered up. From 2007 to 2015, I wrote eight editions of the Cask Report. Every single one of them contained a figure for cask ale’s value and volume performance versus the previous twelve months. The two editions of the report that have come out since I resigned from doing it have not contained this figure – because it’s so bad. The most recent edition of the Report stated that cask had declined by 5 per cent over the last five years, which was in line with the overall beer market. The reason they gave a five-year figure is to disguise the fact that almost all that decline has come in the last two years.
Hard numbers aside, the apparent lack of interest in cask ale among a newer generation of breweries, or at least their lack of desire to slog away at it when it makes them so little money, also tells a story. BrewDog, Camden, Cloudwater and others who have given up producing cask ale might make up only a small part of the total market but they occupy a great deal of the conversation, especially among younger drinkers. Cask, unfortunately, has a PR problem, while keg beer’s publicist deserves a pay rise.
If there are real threats to cask ale, many of those threats are the same as they’ve been for a long time. First, the tendency to the generic driven by monopoly, globalisation and vertical integration. And, secondly, problems with cask itself: the relative complexity of manufacture, distribution and handling; and a lingering image problem.
We don’t believe cask is doomed, but we think it might be time to accept its fate as a niche product, in fewer places but handled better. It survived the storm of the 1960s and 70s, in large part thanks to the Campaign for Real Ale, and has come out of the other side as a product with a certain value, if not universal appeal.
It is fondly, even sentimentally regarded. It is a symbol of British (or at least English) national identity, and as a key component in the personal identities of hundreds of thousands of people: I, Ale Drinker.
In the trade, the presence of cask ale is increasingly an indicator of the character of the venue, signifying Proper Pub status – a cuddly kind of conservatism – casting a warm glow over every other aspect of the business.
For producers it is still a relatively cheap and easy way to enter the market, one step up in seriousness from hand-bottling, but requiring less of a financial commitment than kegging, and the market for cask ale remains relatively more open (if more competitive) than that for kegged products.
There are risks, of course. A niche sounds good but could easily translate to a ghetto. It would be bad news if cask could only be found in one type of pub, in certain parts of the country, tangled up in the tripwires of the supposed culture war.
But, so far, we don’t see much evidence of this in the places we know such as Bristol where the best cask beer crops up in all kinds of pubs – modern and conservative, hip and square, hippy and heavy metal.
There is now more good keg beer than there was 30 years ago but it isn’t a magic solution to the problem of beer quality – bad beer from a keg doesn’t taste any better than bad beer from a cask, and keg requires expertise in handling, too. We can, however, foresee a situation in which pubs which currently have a sad, solitary hand-pump, hardly used, replace it with an unpasteurised, unfiltered keg beer that requires a little less attention, and stays good for a fortnight rather than a few days.
If that happens, cask’s share of the market might fall further yet. Certainly the idea that it will ever again be the default in the UK seems faintly ridiculous. Nonetheless it’s hard to imagine it disappearing in our lifetimes.
If you want to do something to help cask ale’s public image, find opportunities to express the sheer joy that the best of it brings. That can so easily be lost in the gloom that unfortunately hangs about the story.
Conclusion: Tensions & Balance
We’re more convinced than ever that the key to a healthy beer culture is tension as much as, if not more than, cooperation and collaboration.
People seem to need to something to react against if they are to fully express their own identity, and to make their beer or pub uniquely itself.
Tension drives change, as in the case of the uneasy, sometimes boring, often fraught evolution of the Campaign for Real Ale.
Competing forces pulling at full tilt in opposite directions energise the centre, making bitter that little bit better, and craft beer more accessible, both in terms of flavour and profile.
The push and pull prevents pure capitalism having free rein – monopoly, generic beer, zero choice – while also keeping feet on the ground, restraining prices and pushing brewers to cater to popular tastes even if they don’t pander to them.
Perhaps the secret to worrying less is accepting that this turbulence is inevitable and unending. There will never be a time when the dust has settled – when there is no change and nothing to worry about.
The alternative isn’t peace, it is stagnation.
And worrying isn’t necessarily bad. It’s an expression of engagement, a way of caring. Fretting, and expressing that anxiety in the form of a challenge, is part of the system of checks and balances that keeps things bubbling along, and makes beer so fascinating.