Wednesday 25 September 2013

The real craft keg success story

Last Friday the local branch of CAMRA did a pub crawl of the affluent South Manchester suburb of Didsbury. Given its “yuppie” character I thought I would see how many craft keg beers I could spot. However, I didn’t see any apart from Blue Moon (which positions itself as “craft”, but many wouldn’t accept was) and Bath Ales Dark Side Stout, presumably as a substitute for Guinness. As an aside, out of ten people in the party, it was noteworthy that, at 54, I was the youngest.

However, it was interesting that, in at least three pubs, I saw taps for Aspall cider, something that ten years ago would have been unknown. Back then, the only keg ciders you would see in pubs were those produced by the major national producers, Strongbow and Blackthorn, and possibly a few remnants of Woodpecker and Gayemer’s Olde English.

However, since then there has been a dramatic increase in choice, and not just in trendy or upmarket pubs. Wetherspoon’s now offer either Thatcher’s Gold or Stowford Press, produced by Weston’s. Aspall, as mentioned above, is often seen in the more aspirational type of establishment, and I recently spotted Sheppy’s Oakwood alongside it. On my visit to the West Country there were plenty of taps for Cornish Orchards, and even a few for Cornish Rattler with its distinctive and rather cartoon-like snake’s head handle. A photo in Doghouse magazine shows a pub with a tap for Robinson’s Flagon cider, which I have also spotted elsewhere in the Welsh Marches. It’s quite a dramatic change in the marketplace that has largely gone unremarked.

Now, some purists may argue that these products aren’t really “craft”, that they are fairly undemanding, mainstream ciders that just happen to be made by independent regional producers. But, in the US sense, that is how “craft” is defined, and you’re not really going to find many customers with a product that tastes as though it will take the enamel off your teeth. They key point is that these are independently-made ciders that are selling to the ordinary man and woman in the pub, not to self-conscious aficionados.

In the coming years I can see much the same happening for lager, as pubs increasingly go for products from small British independent brewers rather than jaded licence-brewed international brands. But much less so for ales, as cask already offers the innovation and distinctiveness that the more discerning customer looks for. And it has to be said that most British craft lagers are fairly middle-of-the-road in flavour and not extreme or cutting-edge.


  1. Astute observations.

    Pondering what we saw of 'biere artisanal' in France last week, Boak and I concluded that, if 'craft beer' in kegs has a chance of going mainstream in the UK, it's as part of a broader offer, rather than entire pubs suddenly 'going craft'. That is, pubs will say: 'Here are our two real ales, our cheap lager, our premium lager, our draught cider, and this one on the end is our craft beer.'

    Also agree that 'craft lager' -- mainstream and accessible, smart branding, good story to tell about localism and provenance -- will probably go mainstream before, say, kegged US-style IPA. To some extent, Meantime are already doing this, cropping up in some odd places. Camden are the one we've got our money on, but they need to get a bit bigger to really break out of London and go beyond the 'craft beer scene'.

  2. There was also one pub in Didsbury selling Estrella Damm, which isn't "craft" but broadly appeals to that kind of market.

    I've spotted Schiehallion, Cotswold Lager, Moravka and Leodis in a few places, and I suppose in a sense you could regard St Austell getting Korev in free houses is a kind of craft lager.

    I considered trying some when I was down there recently but in the end never got round to it.

  3. Think we got a press release saying Korev was now their second biggest seller after Tribute, and it's not cheap in pubs, either!

  4. You have to wonder about consumers. Human ingenuity and market economics has gifted us with cheap lout at 40p a can and still some people insist on paying more for grog with flavour from vendors they trust to make it out of proper ingredients. Makes you weep. Makes you wanna shake some sense into them and say "listen, if you super chill it you can't taste that it's made of corn syrup and toe nail clippings. It gets you just as pissed and costs buttons. Get some fosters down thee, lad"


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