If we go back twenty years to 1990, the draught beer market was (very crudely) divided into “bitter” and “lager” (OK, with a few pockets of mild too). All the lager was keg, whereas the bitter was divided between real and keg. The real ale drinker knew the difference, but most of the bitter drinkers neither knew nor cared. In any case, a lot of real ale, especially in the North-West and the Midlands, was still served by electric pumps so it wasn’t obvious at the point of sale whether or not it was real.
But then Bass in Ireland dreamed up Caffrey’s, a sweet, copper-coloured ale dispensed by the same nitrogen system used for Guinness, which produced a much smoother (some would say almost soapy) and less fizzy beer than traditional kegs. For a brief period, this took the beer market by storm, and other brewers inevitably followed suit with their own version of what were then called “smoothflow” beers. A new market category had been created, which some people started deliberately looking for when they went in pubs.
You hardly see Caffrey’s any more, and the lasting winner has proved to be John Smith’s Extra Smooth, which surely now must be the biggest selling ale brand in the on-trade by some margin. Earlier this year I saw it on the bar of a tied house in Sussex alongside one of the finest “ordinary” bitters in the country, Harvey’s Sussex Best. Despite this, it was still attracting a number of customers.
One of my worst predictions was suggesting that I didn’t think our local independent family brewers would have any truck with smooth, whereas of course it wasn’t too long before they all did. You will now see fonts for both pale and dark versions prominently positioned on the bars of many Holts, Hydes and Robinsons pubs. In hindsight, that particular column was spectacularly wrong in every way.
In 1990, you wouldn’t really get anyone who would describe themselves as “a keg drinker”, but nowadays there are plenty of people who would say their beer of choice was “smooth”. In a sense this change gives cask a clearer profile, with more people choosing it specifically because it is cask rather than just generic “bitter”, but on the other hand it has led to it losing market share and disappearing from a lot of pubs.