Cloudwater have gained a very good reputation both for the quality of their beers and having their business head screwed on properly. The blogpost in which they announced their decision is a model of clarity and also unusually open and honest about their production and sales figures and their business plans. I certainly wouldn’t criticise them for making the decision that seems best for their business. However, concerns have been expressed that this may presage a more general reduction of the role of cask in the beer market.
I have to say I’m not really convinced. We’ve been here before with BrewDog and Buxton and, in terms of the overall market, Cloudwater are very much a niche player. The substantial price premium currently enjoyed by keg beers over cask counts against it for a start. And there’s also the fact that non-nitro keg is simply a lot more hard work to drink in quantity than cask because of its gassiness. This was always presented as a major plus point for real ale in the early days of CAMRA, and I’d say is broadly true. You simply can’t sink pints of keg like you can cask. I just can’t see all those pints of London Pride, Wainwright and Doom Bar being quaffed in pubs up and down the country going over to keg, or anything like it.
However, where beer is sipped rather than quaffed, there does seem to be something of a trend. I’ve heard reports of new beer-focused bars opening in London with no cask and, round here, the admittedly very small Bottle Heaton Moor doesn’t have it either. In a way this makes sense, as cask by definition needs a certain amount of volume to maintain quality, and low-volume specialist beers are arguably more suited to keg anyway for this reason. But the link between cask and unusual, innovative and cutting-edge beers is becoming ever weaker.
At the same time, cask is under attack from the bottom end as it increasingly struggles in working-class boozers, so it could be said to be caught in a pincer movement. I’m very wary of making predictions for the future – who, for example, saw the Heineken/Punch deal coming? And I really don’t see that this marks the beginning of a mega-trend. But I could be wrong, and only time will tell. As the Chinese say, may you live in interesting times.