Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A small disturbance in the bubble

There was a lot of excitement in the beer blogosphere yesterday following the news that Manchester’s Cloudwater Brewery was to stop producing cask beer. Given that Cloudwater operate at the extreme end of the spectrum of craft innovation, this wasn’t really of much direct concern to me. Indeed the photo to the right, taken by Martin Taylor in the Magnet in Stockport, is the only occasion I can specifically recall drinking one of their beers, in this case their Bretted Bitter. You see, I’ll try anything. Once.

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.

26 comments:

  1. Erm...I think that was Martin's photo. I took the one of you taking the one of the cat.

    I regret not having echoed your (and others') comments about how nice the Cloudwater chap's blogpost was in the exchange we had. So I'll say it here: yes, it was enlightening and interesting, and you can tell he's quite serious about his business, and golly, very successful at it too.

    The resulting discussions have been interesting, especially questioning whether cask or NewKeg is more expensive to produce, and how tiny new cask micro's can succeed, or theoretically can't.

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    1. Post duly corrected.

      It was laughable how your obviously tongue-in-cheek tweet was taken seriously by some. Some people are amazingly precious about their beer.

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  2. What never seems to be mentioned is that some styles suit cask dispense better than others. I would drink a 'craft' keg IPA for example as the carbonation does work (saying that I still like cask IPA) but much prefer cask for darker beers, session pales and bitters.
    At the same time if breweries like cloudwater, buxton etc are concerned about the quality of cask dispense from the pubs they supply why don't they just supply to certain pubs. The magnet in Stockport (mentioned) had a rare treat of a full supply of buxton cask during Manchester beer week last year and it was all superb.
    In summary why don't these brewers choose the styles that best suit cask and the venues that keep it best and go from there

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    1. Buxton do still supply cask beer to their Tap House (where they can keep a tight rein on quality) and certain other "special events".

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  3. "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."

    Neither do I - no-one is surely saying that cask will *disappear*? More that the widening availability in modern styles we've enjoyed in recent years is being curbed.

    Those of us who enjoy pale n' hoppy cask beers from the newer wave of breweries have a small, as-yet unrealised, cause for concern.

    I love Landlord. I love Harveys. I also thought Cloudwater were making excellent, drinkable cask beer that sat in the tradition of the format but pushed at the boundaries. It's a pity they're dropping it.

    Of note for the industry is simply that many of our best-run, best-capitalised and most innovative brewers are eschewing cask - we should raise an eyebrow even if we don't clutch our pearls.

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    1. Although you could argue that, through most of the lifetime of CAMRA, cask has always primarily been about traditional styles, not innovation.

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    2. Forgive me if I'm being obtuse; what is your point here?

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  4. "You simply can’t sink pints of keg like you can cask."

    Presumably this is why pale, fizzy lager will never be more than a niche interest in the UK or worldwide?

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    1. See this comment by Yvan in which he says that British lagers have a relatively low level of carbonation. Also the low serving temperature retains more of the CO2 in solution, and countries that do quaff rather than sip lager, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, tend to serve it with a big head to knock some of the fizziness out of it.

      Old-fashioned pre-nitro keg was certainly much gassier and burp-inducing than modern lager. In fact, a couple of years ago I remember having a pint of Shipyard in a restaurant and finding it much harder to drink than I would a pint of Carling.

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    2. The fact remains that people all over the world, including in the UK, are happily sinking pints of keg beer, and not finding the gassiness to be a problem. Hell, there are already plenty of keg only pubs in the UK, and at the risk of stereotyping, I don't think that everyone in a keg-only estate pub is there to sip delicately at thirds.

      As it goes, I don't think that the Cloudwater news really has many ramifications outside of the craft beer niche (although I think it's quite significant within that niche, and it's a niche that I personally quite like), but I don't think that cask is inherently invincible.

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    3. As I said above, the gassiness of UK draught lager is markedly less than that of pre-nitro UK keg ales. Very few non-nitro keg ales are now drunk as quaffing beers in the UK.

      I agree that cask isn't invincible, and that people shouldn't be complacent about it. Its biggest Achilles heel is its unreliability, which I'd say has got noticeably worse over the past ten years. But craft keg isn't what would overthrow it.

      Arguably if nitrokeg had been invented when the Big Six still owned most of the pubs, that could have done the job, or at least made massive inroads into cask.

      And I'd say that cask might not have survived in the late 60s if the big brewers had not tried to do *everything* at once - filtration, pasteurisation, artifical carbonation, pressure dispense and axing familiar brands. Many of the tank and bright beers from that era were *almost* as good as cask and not something the average punter would have been remotely bothered about.

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    4. I'm a bit late to this... but do we actually know the "gassiness" of pre-nitro UK keg ales? Sounds like a history research piece for Ed Wray or someone.

      In the scheme of ideal targets for beers from a US "craft beer" perspective the 2.2 vol CO2 lager is fairly low. But it is a lot "fizzier" than cask ale which is generally served just a tad above 1.0 - atmospheric.

      Dave's point holds - most people quaff pints of "fizzy" beer without a worry. (As compared to cask.)

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  5. Syd Differential3 January 2017 at 20:00

    Here's the deal.
    Well-made cask beer,stored correctly and served properly has been with us for centuries and will continue to be for many more.
    Crap,cloudy,warm cask beer won't and those breweries making it deserve to fall by the wayside.
    Craft keg beer is a niche market and will continue to be until the cost of a pint is reduced and the twattiness of their brewers is dialled back.
    However,cooking lager is still the preferred choice of the majority of British drinkers and will remain so for as long as everyone reading this is still alive.
    Sad but true.

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    1. Totally agree with the above comment. All these new-wave trendy breweries will disappear up their own backsides, and good riddance to them in my opinion - same as their hipster outlets and their inflated prices. £2.05 for a pint of Banks`s Mild in my local will do me fine thanks...which, by the way is a working-class boozer, and it flies off the bar !

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    2. I hope your prediction comes true. Are you willing to share the name of the pub?

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    3. Richard, it is The Anvil in Wigan.

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    4. People have been predicting that everyone will have forgotten about the "craft beer fad" in six months time for about the last five years, and it's still not showing any obvious signs of ill health.

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    5. It's never really broken out of its bubble, though. Go in your average sports or dining pub and you'll see precious little sign of it. And how many people actually drink those craft bottles and cans in a Spoons in a provincial town?

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    6. Only because people keep redefining the bubble to include anywhere that craft beer is available! It used to mean "a couple of specialist bars in London, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield", now it seems to mean "most medium-to-large cities, anywhere with a sizeable student population, anywhere with a high concentration of young professionals, all major supermarkets, Wetherspoons (excepting that in "provincial towns" the craft stuff is apparently just there for decoration), anywhere a bit "gastro", and most pubs owned by a regional / family brewery with a craft sub-brand." In the last year or so, I've been to craft-focused places in trendy urban enclaves like Hexham, Peterborough, Berwick and Norwich. I'm not saying that it's taking over from cooking lager as the nation's drink of choice, but to say that it's staying confined to a "bubble" seems increasingly blinkered.

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    7. I'd still like to bet that anything genuinely categorised as "craft" (i.e. not just BBB that says craft on the pumpclip or bottle) currently accounts for less than 2% of the British beer market.

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    8. Sure, it's by no means universal. Some back of an envelope calculations suggest that apart from Brewdog, who are significantly bigger, the larger UK crafties are generally only about the same size as small-to-medium regionals (I think Beavertown, Tiny Rebel, Williams Bros are all about 50,000 hl, so about the same as Robinsons) and there are far fewer of them on that scale. On the other hand, that's significantly bigger than the "three hipsters in a railway arch" setup that people often seem to imagine them as, most of them are still expanding, and to say that they've not broken out of their bubble as it was in, say, 2012 seems borderline daft.

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    9. Do you have a source for that? According to Tiny Rebel's website, their annual brewing capacity, which doesn't necessarily equate to production, is 8,500 hl, which is the kind of figure I would have expected.

      I go in loads of pubs, and with few exceptions the only evidence of "craft" I see are one or two craft keg taps that nobody seems to be drinking, and a handful of bottles in the fridge.

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    10. And, to put things in further perspective, Hawkshead, which is one of the highest-profile new-wave breweries, has just proudly announced that it has passed the 10,000 hl annual production mark. 65% of its production was cask.

      I'd be very surprised if either Beavertown or Williams Bros matched that let alone reaching 50,000 hl.

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    11. Hawkshead are only particularly high profile if you live in the North West, I think. Nationally they aren't that big a thing. I can't remember ever having seen one of their beers anywhere East or South of Manchester.
      For comparison:
      Beavertown: "We can get up to almost 50,000hL (42,600 BBL) on site, which is great, but we’re at capacity." (http://goodbeerhunting.com/blog/2016/9/30/critical-drinking-with-logan-plant-of-beavertown-brewery)
      Williams Bros: "the brewer revealed it is examining how to radically expand the existing 60,000 hectolitre capacity of its Alloa site." (http://www.heraldscotland.com/business/company_news/15000138.Craft_brewer_eyes_massive_expansion/)
      Tiny Rebel: "Our new brewery is located [...] on a 1.5 acre site giving us 30,000 square feet of internal space [...] giving us the capacity to produce 5 million litres of beer annually." (http://www.tinyrebel.co.uk/news/were-moving-to-a-new-brewery/)
      Brewdog, meanwhile are just getting silly: http://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Drinks/Beer/BrewDog-s-annual-report-2016 (can't copy-paste, but they're upgrading their Ellon brewery from 200,000hl to 1,000,000hl)
      Again, I'm not saying that craft beer is ubiquitous - most of these numbers are pretty small compared to Marstons, Greene King or Wells and Young, let alone the big lager producers - but unless it's all going down the drain then there must be a reasonably big demographic, not just a tiny urban clique, that's drinking a fair bit of it. And if you aren't seeing them doing it, I'd guess that's because they're doing it somewhere where you aren't.

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  6. The Chinese don't say that, the origin of the phrase is a misunderstanding by a pre-war British Diplomat that didn't speak Chinese half as well as he thought he did.

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  7. So, er, a new craft brewery that few people outside the enthusiast world have heard of, stops producing a tiny fraction of the cask beer sold in the UK. The end of the world is probably not nigh. In perspective, Fullers brewed nearly 70 times the amount of beer produced by Cloudwater during 2016.

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