Monday, 3 June 2019

Something just gave

Last Autumn, I argued in a post entitled Something’s Got to Give that the steady decline in cask beer volumes would inevitably lead to reductions in availability, which might manifest themselves in sudden and unexpected ways. And it now seems that something has given, with the news that Marston’s are going to withdraw cask from 21 of their 22 managed pubs in Scotland.

The initial reaction to this is some quarters was one of dismay at the reduction in cask availability. Surely Marston’s could have done more to promote it? However, as Britain’s leading cask ale brewer, they’re hardly going to abandon it lightly: it’s not like they’re some trendy craft brewer trying to make a point. It seems clear that, despite their best efforts, they simply can’t achieve the throughput necessary to keep it in good condition and, given this, it has to be regarded as a sensible and pragmatic, if disappointing decision.

These pubs are mostly family dining venues, not urban boozers, and so are probably never going to achieve big beer volumes, especially in view of the cut in the Scottish drink-driving limit. The photo shows the Highland Gate on the outskirts of Stirling, still shown on WhatPub with real ale, which is probably typical.

When CAMRA was formed in the 1970s, real ale had pretty much entirely disappeared from the country, so there was no established tradition of cask drinking. Since then, there has been a substantial increase in availability, and some city-centre pubs do shift a lot of it, but outside the major population centres it has always struggled, and often gives the impression of having been just put on for the tourists.

Good Beer Guide tickers such as Martin Taylor and Simon Everitt have often reported poor cask beer in Scottish entries, which probably wouldn’t get anywhere near inclusion south of the Border. This even extends to Wetherspoon’s branches, and realistically it might make sense for Spoons to do the same in the some of the smaller towns, even though it would undermine their reputation for serving cask in every pub.

I have earlier written about the Cask Crisis, where I made the point that cask needs a certain amount of commitment from a pub’s management to thrive. It can’t just be another tick-box option on the bar at the end of a row of keg taps, only there because you suppose you ought to stock it. Poor, ill-kept, stale beer is cask’s worst enemy. While this decision may seem like a retrograde step, in the longer term it would probably benefit cask if it was removed from marginal outlets which lack either the demand or the enthusiasm to present it at its best.

20 comments:

  1. I can only speak for my adopted home of Shetland but cask is virtually non-existent here. One pub/hotel keeps it and another puts some on in summer, I suspect for the tourists. I have heard cask, even from Scottish breweries, described as "English beer" and even the local craft stuff from the Lerwick Brewery as "yun craft greth". (Greth; Shetlandic for piss) Everyone drinks Tennent's, Carling or Strongbow Dark Fruit (yuk). I imagine the same is the case across swathes of Scotland and outside the big towns and cities, cask is a lost cause.

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  2. Many of these are fairly new builds, and cask has been rarely seen in them to begin with. Not sure if any of them have ever been GBG listed.

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  3. Countries should be true to their traditions. You would not lament the lack of bitter in France, Italy, Germany. You'd neck a wine or lager when over there. When in Scotland enjoy a Buckfast & Irn Bru and appreciate the local culture.

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    1. Ah yes, Buckfast, that well-known traditional Scottish drink from the heart of Devon.

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  4. The Stafford Mudgie4 June 2019 at 10:47

    "When CAMRA was formed in the 1970s, real ale had pretty much entirely disappeared from the country, so there was no established tradition of cask drinking" is very true.
    Mid twentieth century books report that "Air-Pressure is much favoured in Scotland" rather than handpumps.
    By 1979 it was said that "vast areas of Scotland are without cask-conditioned beer", there were probably only a couple of dozen Scottish pubs with handpumps and an EGM pragmatically accepted Air Pressure as Real Ale in Scotland to suggest the best locally rather than nothing at all.

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    1. I used to go to Scotland regularly when I started drinking in the early 80's and my recollection is that handpumps were a rarity from Berwick up, but there was a fair bit of cask on sale from S&N and Drybroughs, Lorimer and Clark, with Belhaven, Arrols and Maclays all available but mostly on air pressure.

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    2. Cask of any form - whether handpumped or air pressure - was thin on the ground in Scotland back then compared with pretty much any area of England & Wales except perhaps for Northumberland.

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie4 June 2019 at 16:15

      It was the prevalence of free houses in Scotland and Wales that caused keg to replace cask.
      It was the prevalence of brewers' tied houses in much of England that helped cask survive.
      The loss of brewers' tied houses since the 1989 Beer Orders has seen cask replaced by keg.

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  5. Whenever I get home to Scotland, next trip coming up in a few weeks, I have to hunt out places that keep cask well. Thankfully the part of Scotland that I go home to is the west Highlands, mainly around the Inverness area, which for some reason - perhaps the presence of lots of hikers and tourists - is not too bad for cask ale. Most of the local breweries have their beer available in both cask and keg, and in the case of Cromarty Brewing would give most English breweries serious competition for the quality of their real ale, whilst making a mockery of the myth that New World hops don't work in cask ale. While I always prefer to have a pint of real ale, I am not a zealot for it, which is just as well as one of the highlights of my drinking on my last trip home was Harviestoun's glorious Bitter & Twisted on keg.

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  6. We neh want filthy English Beer. We want Tennants and Freedom !

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    1. The Srafford Mudgie4 June 2019 at 21:38

      - but Freedom beers are brewed in Staffordshire twelve miles from me.

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    2. Lad's right. If they rolled out Tennents across the UK, it would win hands down. Cask would die.

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    3. Bass Charrington rolled out Tennents across the UK about 40 years ago,it wasn't a great success

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    4. I remember them rolling out Tennents Extra, which was a premium lager, and actually quite decent. It was aailable in quite a few Robinson's pubs. However, it seemed to fall victim to the post-Beer orders shakeup of the industry.

      I don't recall them ever doing a big launch of the standard Tennents Lager south of the border.

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  7. Loads of tourists in Lerwick today. Many drinking the local beer. All in bottles though.

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  8. I made the mistake of writing off the Scots for good politically, and was delighted to be proven wrong. Having been unduly and dismissively pessimistic - and indeed probably quite unfair on them - it gave me pause for thought.

    Maybe there's still a chance they can surprise us when it comes to beer too? Still a little goodness in their cold, bleak tartan hearts, eh?

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    1. There's a big revival in independent "craft" brewing in Scotland, but very often it expresses itself in keg rather than cask. In that respect it's more like that in Ireland than south of the border.

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    2. That's a good point. In Aberdeen this year I switched from an OK Landlord to excellent strong Windswept in bottles, served in proper glasses, a good decision when the Scottish cask is so inconsistent.

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  9. Tennents never being that interested in cask definitely didn't help things, but Belhaven and McEwans used to have a pretty reliable reputation for cask and got it in a lot of proper boozers.

    All those ownership changes didn't help, but it does feel slightly like it was just easier for everyone involved to sell smooth flow than cask and there were enough small breweries around to satisfy demand from the CAMRA crowd and the tourists.

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  10. Spot n again Mudgie...if no one drinks it what's the point? You can't force cask on people and poor turnover = crap beer.
    Britain Beermat

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