Thursday 22 June 2023

Out of condition

Over the weekend, several people pointed out on Twitter that Marston’s appeared to have discontinued bottle-conditioning their flagship Pedigree Ale. The company have now confirmed this, saying “the decision had been taken in light of declining demand for bottle-conditioned beer”. There was some predictable harrumphing over this, but it’s hardly the end of a long-standing tradition, given that they only started doing it in 2016.

At the time, I have to say I thought this was a rather odd decision. I wrote back in 2016 about how I felt, for a number of reasons, that CAMRA was wrong to draw an equivalence between bottle- and cask-conditioned beers. At least for everyday quaffing beers, bottle-conditioning in practice adds very little while introducing an extra element of complexity in storage and serving and something of a lottery of how it will turn out, as Seeing the Lizards, who has worked in the retail trade, pointed out:

Although the purists may not like it, it’s a fact of life that most buyers of Premium Bottled Ales tend to avoid ones that are bottle-conditioned, so it is a sensible business decision from Marston’s. Few consumers are going to do something out of principle if it gives them no discernible benefit.

Over the years, a number of other brewers have taken the same course including, for example, Hop Back Summer Lightning. Most bottle-conditioned beers now seem to have disappeared from the major supermarkets, including Fuller’s 1845 and Bengal Lancer, Worthington White Shield and Young’s Special London Ale, and the only ones I still see regularly are Shepherd Neame 1698 and St Austell Proper Job.

As I said in the conclusion to my post,

Yes, at the end of the day, bottle-conditioning, if done well, does add something to a beer. Bottle-conditioned beers can be regarded as the crème de la crème. But, because of the practical difficulties involved, and the fact that the process adds very little to lower-strength quaffing beers, it is best reserved for higher-strength specialities.

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Black Sheep of the family

In April of this year, eyebrows were raised by the news that Black Sheep Brewery was looking for either a buyer or new investors. This was a poster child of the real ale revolution, set up by Paul Theakston when his family firm was sold to Scottish & Newcastle, and appearing to the outside world to be a sound and well-regarded operation.

All became clear when the company entered administration in early May, news that did come as a severe shock. Sighs of relief were breathed later in the month when it was announced that it had been acquired by London-based investment company Breal Capital, thus ensuring the future of the brewery and preserving 150 jobs.

Somehow this all seemed a bit too convenient, and it must be remembered that the company’s shareholders and creditors – including HMRC – ended up losing all their money, while their lenders suffered a severe haircut. One very significant loss was that of the CAMRA Members’ Investment Club (CMIC), who at the last valuation held shares valued at £395,000, accounting for 2.39% of their whole fund and 13.57% of Black Sheep’s issued capital. As someone with a small holding in CMIC I have suffered a personal loss of a couple of hundred pounds.

I recently came across this blog by a disgruntled investor in Black Sheep who points out a long sequence of management failures and poor decisions. I have no knowledge of this beyond what has been publicly reported, but if even half of this is true it is extremely damning. In particular he points out that in 2016 Paul Theakston rejected an offer from Marston’s of £4 per share, whereas shortly before the company entered administration the price was only around £1.20. (Although, given Marston’s subsequent history, it’s unlikely that the brewery would have survived until now). He also suggests that, given their substantial holding, CMIC should have taken a more active role in monitoring the company’s fortunes.

The directors blamed difficult trading conditions caused by Covid lockdowns and the “cost of living crisis” for the company’s failure. Yes, times were hard, but many other companies have survived without coming anywhere close to the brink. In most business failures, not just in the brewing sector, what brings companies down is not so much poor trading as excessive borrowing that leaves them dangerously exposed.

In such situations there are no magic solutions, and it is often a case of being caught between a rock and a hard place and having to make hard choices. The business and the jobs have been saved, but the investors and creditors have been hung out to try. And you do have to wonder whether “pre-pack” administrations of this kind are in practice a kind of get out of jail free card for incompetent or reckless directors.

Saturday 3 June 2023

Getting fresh

Otter Brewery have recently launched a new category of beer called Fresh Ale which has attracted a fair amount of media attention. They are described as “beers that are said to straddle the lager, cask ale and craft beer categories”. The article goes on to say that “fresh ales are initially brewed as cask ales, but instead of being filled into casks they are gently carbonated before being put into kegs”. The objective is to provide a longer-lasting product that will replicate some of the experience of drinking cask without exposing drinkers to the quality lottery that sadly is all to prevalent nowadays. Tandleman has also recently written about the concept here.

However, an obvious issue is that they will inevitably be judged as being just another type of keg beer. Back in the 1970s, beer tended to be categorised in terms of style and brand, and there were many different ways of serving it as well as real ale, such as bright beer, tank beer and top-pressure beer as well as the archetypal keg, all of which had their own characteristics.

But, as CAMRA sought to promote the uniqueness of real ale (or cask as we now seem to have to call it) it presented it as a category that stood apart from all other beers. If it wasn’t cask, it was keg. This is despite the fact that keg beers today are certainly not all the same – a nitrokeg is very different from a classic carbonated one, and many keykeg craft beers have a much softer level of carbonation. Fresh Ale, whatever its merits, will simply be seen as one more type of keg. Serving it through a handpump, as the illustration suggests, will be condemned as misleading.

We are often told that “everyone’s a repertoire drinker now”, as there’s certainly some truth in this. Fewer and fewer drinkers exclusively confine their drinking to one category as they may have done a few decades ago. However, many of those who account for most of the sales volume of cask are people who, while they may not drink it exclusively, do predominantly choose it and show quite a lot of loyalty to the category. If they do venture into other areas, it will be for things that stand well apart, such as Guinness, premium lagers or strong craft kegs. They won’t be tempted by something that isn’t cask, but is fairly similar, and if that’s all that’s on offer they may not be too enthusiastic.

At a time of declining volumes, this loyal customer base provides something of a cushion for cask, but it can cut both ways. There’s no denying that cask is currently fighting a rearguard action, and its main problem is inconsistent and often downright poor quality which makes drinkers reluctant to trust it. This comment on Twitter is typical of several I have seen, and he describes himself as a “cask evangelist” in his bio:

It’s not the sole reason, but the core of the problem is slow turnover and over-extended ranges, something that remains very much an elephant in the room that the industry as a whole is reluctant to confront. Sometimes even one beer can be one too many. It often used to be said in CAMRA circles that if a pub didn’t have the turnover for cask it should stop selling it, but the pubs that took them up on that then found themselves cast out in the cold.

Ironically, it’s the pubs with the lowest and most fluctuating turnover of cask, often in rural areas, that are most likely to continue stocking it. They tend to have an older and more traditionalist customer base who would be resistant to the idea of drinking keg beer. By dropping cask, they would exclude themselves from the Good Beer Guide and any other guides produced by CAMRA and place themselves in a second-tier category on WhatPub.

Yes, other pub guides are available, such as the Good Pub Guide, but even they would tend to comment negatively on the absence of cask. And many casual customers, on entering a pub with no handpumps on the bar, would immediately turn round and go out again. For some people, even if they don’t drink cask themselves, the presence of handoumps on the bar selling ales from local breweries is a reassuring part of the atmosphere along with horse brasses and old local photos.

So pubs soldier on with cask, even in the full knowledge that they’re often not presenting it at its best. Except in areas well off the tourist track, you would be hard-pressed to find any rural pubs in England and Wales that don’t at least nominally stock cask.

Something like Fresh Ale would provide a sensible solution for low-turnover pubs like that, allowing them to consistently provide a pretty decent pint, rather than occasionally offering up a really good one, but more often serving up warm slop or vinegar. But the continued loyalty to the concept of cask means that they would be ostracised if they chose to go down that path.