Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Breaking out of the bubble

There can’t be anything about which so much has been written in the beer blogosphere as “craft keg”, and yet which has made so little impact on the mainstream of the pub trade.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those “all keg is piss” merchants and, as I’ve written here, I can see a role for craft keg in allowing specialist, low-volume beers to be served on draught, and to get some interesting non-mainstream beer into places such as restaurants and music venues that don’t have the facilities or the regular turnover to stock cask.

It has become a common sight in specialist beer bars within the urban beer bubble, and indeed BrewDog’s bars serve nothing else. But, despite the claims of some of its advocates, I simply don’t see how it is going to break out of that bubble and go mainstream in the same way that cask beer has. Any self-respecting pub now has cask, but will the same ever be true of craft keg?

No doubt someone will pipe up that it’s all over the place in London. That may be true – I don’t live in London and never go there, so I can’t really comment. But, in beer terms, as in many other fields, London increasingly marches to the beat of a different drum from the rest of the country, and even there I’d be surprised if it’s anything like ubiquitous in the dining pubs and suburban locals of the outer boroughs.

But, in the generality of pubs, you just don’t see it at all. There’s the odd craft keg tap in one or two beer-focused pubs in Stockport, but in most of the pubs I go in – family brewer tied pubs, pub company pubs, free houses – it’s conspicuous by its absence. I’ve recent been on holiday in the South-West and called in around 15 pubs of various types that either I have never visited before or not done so for a number of years. Plenty of good cask beer, but I can’t recall seeing a single craft keg tap between them.

If it is to make that breakthrough, craft keg needs a distinctive, easily recognisable champion brand, and the obvious one is BrewDog Punk IPA. Last year, I asked whether we’d see Wetherspoons stocking a craft keg beer before the end of 2013. The general verdict was that they probably would, but there’s no sign of it yet, and it looks less likely now than it did a year ago. And, if that did happen, such that we saw a distinctive craft keg ale in thousands of pubs nationwide, no doubt many of the current champions of the style would disown it.

Another problem is that most craft keg beers seem to be in the 5% ABV plus strength band, while in general there has been a distinct move away from stronger beers in the on-trade. Matthew Lawrenson asks here why we never see craft keg session bitter. While it’s perfectly possible to make a craft keg beer of modest strength, and some brewers do, what does that actually offer over a cask beer? Would it not just be a revival of “old keg”, albeit made by a man with an ironic beard in a railway arch? The argument about whether cask or keg is better for everyday supping beers has long since been won by cask.

If this huge breakout from the bubble does happen, it will be very interesting, and it will certainly pose a challenge to many of the CAMRA diehards. But I just don’t think it will.

39 comments:

  1. I've written several times that I don't know anywhere that sells "craft" beer. I still don't, even though my drinking is not confined to one town. I understand craft tends to be considerably dearer than cask beer, and - considering that the success of Wetherspoons is largely based on its lower prices - that would be sufficient to put off those many drinkers who think the normal price of cask is already too high.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very little craft keg in Bristol. There is a BrewDog which obviously sells it and one local brewery, Arbor Ales brews some for its own pubs (all two of them) So that's three pubs then.There might be a couple more. Having said this, I did see some at a small beer festival the other day, but this was in a venue much frequented by the ironically-bearded. (I do not have a beard, ironic or otherwise)
    I seem to remember BrewDog making a limited edition 2% beer called Nanny State but I think it was botted only.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Lord Egbert Nobacon18 September 2013 at 18:27

    The craft beer revolution has failed to take off on a large scale in the UK for a very simple reason - price.

    If niche brewers continue to charge a arm and a leg for what is often experimental beer it will remain the preserve of urban hipsters.

    Simples

    ReplyDelete
  4. It is a niche and will likely stay that way. At one end - the strong one - it has some torque as it allows strong beers sold in small volumes to stay viable for longer. At the other the keg versions taste inferior to cask and they cost more so what is likely to make you pay much more for a poorer beer?

    The real problem with craft keg is that it is neither good enough to make you consciously to choose it actively when a cask version is available ir chesp enough to choose it on price. You don't drink strong beers in volume so it has to be a side line. A niche.

    What's wrong with that?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't think the Crafties will want CAMRA members or even, god help them, typical drinkers buying "their" beer. They'd have to move onto something else.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Adnams pubs now sell craft keg as standard, and, as its at a vaguely reasonable price, it seems to be doing very well.

    There are maybe 5-6 places in Cambridge now that do craft keg compared to zero when I moved here.

    If you included British craft lagers in that it would be even more. I notice All Bar One (hardly cutting edge) are doing a Meantime lager now.

    If spoons are taking a while to get round to it, its because they can't find anyone to supply them cheaply and in sufficient bulk.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Our local Spoons in Tonbridge IS selling craft; both a pale ale and a lager. I must admit, I didn't take a lot of notice, but next time I'm in there, and it's quiet, I'll do a bit of research (might even risk a couple of halves), and report back.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @py0 - do the Adnams village pubs around Southwold do it, assuming they haven't sold them off?

    @Paul Bailey - interesting. If it is to happen, I reckon it will be led by Spoons. I'll be doing a pub crawl around trendy Didsbury on Friday night, including Spoons, so I'll report on how much craft keg I find

    ReplyDelete
  9. I should also have mentioned the Wells Kitchen in Tunbridge Wells, a somewhat trendy restaurant with a bar attached. Haven't been in for over a year now, but on my last visit there was one, poorly kept cask of Larkins perched up on the bar, plus a whole range of "craft" keg taps. (The cynic in me was wondering if this was done deliberately, to show cask in a poor light against the keg stuff!).

    Am due to visit again next month, for a pre-arranged meal with friends, so will see what's on offer now. There is also another "craft" type establishment due to open in the town, but this is reported to be offering cask alongside the craft stuff. Should be interesting.

    I agree with Lord Egbert Nobacon and Tandleman that craft is way over-priced. "The preserve of urban hipsters", just about sums it up!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I agree with Tandleman. I'm not against it, indeed if I saw more of it I might drink some.

    But it's not the next big thing.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I wonder what craft keg Adnams sell as standard in their pubs - could pyo let us know - and is he sure it's in all their pubs? I only ask because he does have some form when it comes to making rather sweeping statements which don't always stand up to close examination. Interesting development if he's right though.

    I'm also wondering what you mean by breaking out of the bubble? If you mean that pubs may have a craft brewed stout instead of Guinness or a craft brewed lager instead of or alongside the other lagers then that's just evolution rather then revolution I think. And if they are sold in Spoons and you have to search for them amongs the other keg stuff I think they will be just looked on as more of the same by the regular Spoons crowd rather than anything special.

    Buxton will be an intersting test bed. Titanic are about to open a pub there and alongside their cask beers I wouldn't be surprised to see their stout on keg. Nothing to frighten the horses there. On the other hand Buxton Brewery's recently opened Tap House is a little bit of Chorlton (or N/4) transplanted to the Peak District - there's a bank of six handpumps and also a bank of eight keg fonts covering the whole Buxton range, all at "craft keg" prices too. Perhaps Buxton has enough ironically bearded inhabitants to make it work. It will be interesting to find out.

    I also think that if there was a breakout it wouldn't disturb the CAMRA diehards unduly as it likely to sit alongside cask rather than displace it. And of course quite a lot of craft keg isn't keg at all but perhaps we'd best not go there.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I agree with Clarkey.

    For beer geeks, beer has a number of defined styles like stout, porter, pale ale etc and subsets like craft, macro, micro

    For me and the rest of the Spoons crowd there are 2 types of beer. Lout and Bitter.

    If it's not lout then it's bitter. Then it's either posh or regular Lout or Bitter. Oh it can also be piss water or nut juice as another subset.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Ah, the heady optimism of 2012. As you say, it actually seems less likely now that we will see craft keg in Spoons. Not for awhile, anyway. I would have expected them to have built up their bottled range first; something they have failed to do.

    Of course, it could have been all so different. It was no secret that Brewdog were courting Mr Martin and last year the shareholders were convinced a marriage was imminent. This year the talk was all about what might have been. Brewdog have gone down anothe path and are partnering with others to build their own empire.

    There mey be no craft keg in Spoons but I think it's interesting that they are flying in American brewers to brew exclusive cask beers for them. An indication of where they see their market?

    ReplyDelete
  14. I must admit I have not been in every single Adnams pub, but I've been in about 5 or 6 and they all sold both Spindrift and Clump Sagin on keg at about 50-80p more than the cask beer and the same price as the German wheatbeers etc. I also did the brewery tour last month and they said this was a new direction they were moving in.

    It makes sense, if you own a host of pubs and an (excellent) brewery, why not monopolise every single pump in every pub, including the keg beer and the cider? They already do their own spirits and import their own wine.

    Greene King have started doing their own lager, Oakham have started doing their own cider, etc etc etc.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I will have to put my body armour on and venture into our Spoons to see if craft keg has reached them yet. It might have been there for months for all I know.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Pop into a Sam Smiths. It's full of craft keg

    But is it still craft keg if it is dirt cheap and drunk by piss head work shy old codgers ranting about immigrants, in a boozer which is tatty rather than faux tatty?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Nothing wrong with Sam Smiths pubs whatsoever, great places, I wish there was one in Cambridge.

    The only thing I would say is that their better beers tend to come in bottles rather than on keg.

    Not sure about the lagers but the stout and the wheatbeer are definitely examples of craft keg.

    ReplyDelete
  18. There are two that I know of, Sam Smiths clubs in Blackpool. Both run down, scruffy and in need of TLC. The problem is Sam Smiths like Robinsons is an acquired taste, (some would say rats piss). After sampling its still pretty awful, it's only the diehard affectionardos, that keep drinking the shyte. Not leaving much profit do do up the decor.

    lfb

    ReplyDelete
  19. I only really know three Sam's pubs, the King William in Bristol and the Boot and the Falcon in Chester. The Chester ones do proper cask (or did when I was last there a couple of years ago) the King William only does (craft?) keg. All dirt cheap and none particularly run down.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I am seeing more 'craft keg'. There seems to be a new bar opening every few months in Leeds with a beer focus (which inevitably now includes craft keg). Outside of the centre, it is breaking into the suburbs, but mainly through new bar openings rather going into existing pubs. Market Town Taverns and the expanding North Bar chains all have nice suburban outlets selling craft keg. Near me, there's a bar/restaurant which isn't a beer destination like North or MTT and it has a reasonable range on (http://www.perfectpint.co.uk/best-real-ale-pubs-UK/11016/Bar-166-and-Bistro).

    There are certainly far more options than there were 3 or 4 years ago in both the centre and the suburbs.

    ReplyDelete
  21. >There are certainly far more options than there were 3 or 4 years ago

    Which is why CAMRA shouldn't be worried as it came into being as a result of lack of choice & poor quality. Non-cask is giving people more choice and AFAIK the quality is good so fits in with CAMRA's original reason d'etre.

    But I agree it will struggle on price alone. That said, it always perplexes me how mass-produced products like Guinness and Peroni manage to command a higher price tag than what is effectively a hand-produced product (most cask). The economics don't stack up.

    Lots of bars popping up in Macclesfield selling both cask & keg and I just see this as a very positive revival of bars.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Interesting comment that craft keg appears in new bars, but not in existing pubs.

    Last night I was on a CAMRA pub crawl around trendy Didsbury, surely a happy hunting ground for craft keg. Didn't spot any beyond Blue Moon and Bath Ales Dark Side Stout.

    ReplyDelete
  23. When I say "lots" I actually mean a handful!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Are there any good keg bitters and milds?

    ReplyDelete
  25. Adnams Spindrift has been around for a while, it was an earlier attempt to convince lager drinkers to swap to a beer that looked a lot like lager even down to the tap design, but had cask origins to try and tempt then into the Adnams range. Never really taken off that much though somebody must drink it as its still available in alot of their pubs, but almost as the default "foreign" lager pump choice, you see it alot in hotels, sports clubs, bars in village halls that kind of thing where choice can be limited.

    whereas the Jack Brand stuff which is this "Craft beer" keg range & also available in bottles, which covers Clump Sagin, Innovation (yeah thats been around for a bit as well but they wanted to relaunch it as part of this new direction Pyos brewery tour mentioned) and they are launching a dry hopped lager as well now as part of it.

    now my experience so far of the Jack Brand availability, is that its in selected venues only, ignoring the Spindrift as I say thats crept into lots of places over the years but I only know 1 pub locally selling the Jack Brand stuff so far, out of 4 or 5 pubs that sell alot of other Adnams stuff.And it was £3.80 for a pint of Clump Sagin, and £4.40 for a pint of Innovation...the Bitter in the same pub is normally £3.00 (which is actually cheap for Adnams thesedays, usually its £3.40 - £3.60), I dont know if the availability of Jack Brand will increase, but from what Ive seen so far Id expect it to be more visible in places like London or that have London connections, than let loose in the wilds of Suffolk, necessarily.

    one thing to note though is Adnams have started making keg versions of their cask ales, primarily to sell to places like Newmarket races, though its somewhat ironically on sale in their "Cask bar", but I dont know if this is unique to Adnams or Suffolk, but Adnams sell alot of wine/champagne/spirits now as well to restaurants/hotels but then struggle to sell any cask beer to them because these places dont have the volume/turnover, whereas keg beer would work perfectly for them and alot of the direction the brewery has been moving towards is about filling those types of gaps, and these are places where "craft keg" would also sit well alongside what else they are offering.

    ReplyDelete
  26. From what Stono says it seems for Adnams it is more a market share thing than a commitment to a new and innovative brewing technique. Or jumping on a bandwagon or trend.

    Any sensible brewer is likely to want to fill in gaps to both their own and free trade accounts.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Many of the family brewers do that, but where do you draw the line between "craft keg" and "old keg"?

    ReplyDelete
  28. old keg is old. craft keg is new.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I think what Mudgie meant is what keg is really spiritually "old keg" even if it's a new beer.

    ReplyDelete
  30. But can you really define "craft" by the spirit in which it is made, rather than the intrinsic characteristics of the beer?

    ReplyDelete
  31. Oh, God knows. To be honest I'm beyond caring. Although this week I'm off to the Borefts Bier Festival and I think we could all agree that these beers are "craft"

    http://www.brouwerijdemolen.nl/index.php/en/beerfestival/brewers-and-beers.html

    ReplyDelete
  32. I thought we all agreed that craft is just a meaningless marketing term. Better to stick to specifics.

    The "craft beer revolution", as far as I'm concerned, simply describes the ongoing proliferation of:

    1) a wider range of cask beers, specifically ones with new world hops or some other non traditional feature.

    2) "premium" UK lagers replacing "world lagers" and macrobrewed crap

    3) stouts or porters on keg not from Ireland

    4) some other style of beer being offered on keg that wasn't previously offered at all. This is most likely to be a new style IPA or a wheat beer, or at more extremes it could be a smoked beer, a sour beer, an imperial stout/IPA.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Difficult to argue with any of that I'd have thought.

    ReplyDelete
  34. It is creeping into the mainstream, albeit slowly. The main things that are holding it back are a) breweries that own their own pub chains will most likely want to brew their own craft options to maximise their profits, and that will take time for them to install their own microbreweries, and b) big pub cos like Punch and Enterprise as far as I am aware do not offer either guest keg options nor a particularly wide range of guest casks.

    The penetration into freehouses seems significantly more advanced than into managed pubs and chains.

    ReplyDelete
  35. For the second time, one was able to compare keg & cask of the same beer together at the Old Hall beer festival in Chinley this weekend. Jaipur was on both cask and keg. The cask was cheaper by about 20p and we carried out an unscientific tasting session with the group. The cask was (once again) felt to have more character and temperature was the main topic of debate. So I still think craft keg is a mid-ground to pull lager drinkers into a wider arena of beers.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Personally, I find cask Jaipur a bit overperfumed and tend to avoid it and go for something a little lighter. On keg it seems to have a much better balance.

    ReplyDelete
  37. I was able to compare cask and keg lout at a spoons this weekend. The cask was cheaper by 50p and we carried out an unscientific tasting session with the group. The cask was (once again) felt to lack that fizzy ice cold loveliness of proper lout. So I still think craft keg is a mid-ground to pull (beardie) ale drinkers into the world of cheap cooking lager.

    ReplyDelete
  38. An update from a reopened pub in a Leeds suburb which is now a brewery tap. For kirkstall brewery. 7 craft keg taps, mixture of local and american beers, 5 casks on, with lots if bottles as well.

    You may still have to know where to find craft keg, but you don't have to go to the city centre any more. In Leeds at least. And kirkstall is hardly renowned in beer geek circles, though they are very good in my opinion. Its a proper pub as well.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Some London Spoons are advertising Craft bottled beers from Brewdog ,Coopers and Goose island they must be craft beers by any definition.cheers john

    ReplyDelete

Comments, especially on older posts, may be subject to prior approval. Bear with me – I may be in the pub.

Please be polite and remember to play the ball, not the man.

Any offensive or blatantly off-topic comments will be deleted.

See this post for some thoughts on my approach to blog comments.