Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Taking the rough with the smooth


There was a lot of discussion in the beer blogosphere the other week about innovation in the beer market. Surely one of the biggest innovations of recent years, albeit one not to the taste of cask ale fans, is the establishment of smooth beers as a distinct market category in their own right.

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.

12 comments:

  1. Many hotels, clubs and restaurants have no desire to stock cask ale and stock only keg products. The provision of keg products by regional brewers allows many establishments to stock the local beer, when otherwise they would only have the national brand.

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  2. Hi,I started off as a lager man as I think most men do,then it was guiness,now I always look for a real ale,you never know what your going to get,sometimes i`m dissapointed and only once was the beer undrinkable.....

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  3. I'm not quite sure what your point is here, but it's interesting non the less. Why do some "bitter" drinkers prefer nitro keg? Perhaps it's the certainty of a consistent product.

    In your '97 piece there are a couple of interesting points. Jennings Smooth is popular in some areas. In fact in a local town near here I was warned off the Jennings cask bitter last year by a regular in one pub. There was in fact nothing wrong with it. I'm not sure that Jennings is any different in size than the local breweries you mention.

    Also you suggested that "Small independent brewers have limited resources, and they would be much better advised to concentrate on what they do best" - from a technical point of view putting beer into keg is no great challenge. I've done it, it's dead simple and the results are good from the beginning of the keg to the end, even if the container takes a while to sell.

    I'd prefer to see locally produced keg beers in places that don't feel they can serve cask rather than seeing John Smiths.

    Most importantly, and something that a lot of people don't understand, keg beer does not have to be overly fizzy.

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  4. Obviously if you're struggling to get the point I haven't made it all that well - but what I'm saying is that a significant subset of drinkers will now make a point of choosing "smooth" as a generic style, whereas 20 years ago they wouldn't choose "keg". Possibly things were different around 1970 when national keg brands like Watneys Red and Double Diamond were heavily promoted.

    In some tied pubs belonging to brewers like Jennings, the presence of smooth bitter, and the fact that it may be the choice of many of the regular drinkers, may make it difficult to maintain cask ale quality. A handful of Robinsons pubs are now smooth only.

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  5. I'm quite happy to allow you to question that it's in fact my stupidity rather than your ability to make the point.

    Anyway, the question might be has cask overall dropped in volume? I don't think it has. Some pubs turn their back on cask and others open up to it.

    Heavily promoted beers are always, sadly, going to win the day. "smooth" is a hook people can hang their hat on when faced with daunting choices.

    I can't help feeling, the more things change the more they stay the same.

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  6. The trap here is thinking that your own taste is discerning and people with other tastes must by default be less discerning than yourself. Is it possible that some people, having tried a wide range of availible beers, have chosen a product not because they are lazy or stupid or less discerning but because they like it?

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  7. Cookie, that's exactly what I was saying in this post.

    I am merely observing the rise of Smooth as a distinct category - if people prefer to drink it that is their choice.

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  8. Anyway, the question might be has cask overall dropped in volume? I don't think it has. Some pubs turn their back on cask and others open up to it.

    No, overall I would say the number of cask outlets has greatly diminished since the mid-90s. In many parts of the industrial North it has fallen by well over 50%. The decline tends to be concentrated in the more down-market parts of pub company estates. For example, in about 1995, Castle Street in Edgeley, Stockport had 7 pubs, all of which sold real ale. Now, one has closed, another seems likely to go the same way, and only 2 of the 6 remaining have real ale. Most pubs in Runcorn had real ale – now, apart from Wetherspoons, it's a beer desert.

    And, of course, the overall size of the on-trade beer market has substantially declined too.

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  9. Fair play, Mudgie, it was more an answer to wooley thinking it all the fault of averts. Adverts may encourage you to try somehting, but you only continue if you like it.

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  10. I think a lot of regular drinkers prefer the taste of smooth beers; certainly a favourite cask beerf mine, John Smiths Cask, is something of an acquired taste, even when decent volumes mean a decent pint.

    I only started drinking cask in my thirties, moving rapidly from Caffreys to cask. I did try Caffreys in the Boot near Kings Cross recently and it still had appeal !

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  11. Martin, Cambridge16 December 2009 at 22:41

    Sorry Anonymous-haters - Last post was mine

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  12. Just a small historical correction: It wasn't Bass Ireland that invented smooth, it was Bass UK, who then decided that the best way to market the stuff was to give it a fake Oirish heritage by calling it "Caffrey's" after the former owner of the Ulster brewery in Belfast and having (some of) it brewed in Northern Ireland.

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