Friday 29 March 2024

Killing cask to save it?

The continued debate around the subject of Fresh Ale has thrown up a rather muddled article from Annabel Smith entitled Could ‘Fresh Ale’ be cask’s saviour?. I would have expected more clarity of thought from someone who is an accredited beer sommelier. The basic proposition is fallacious, as Fresh Ale by definition is not cask ale, and so there is no way it could save it.

The question might be better posed as “Could Fresh Ale be traditional ale’s saviour?”, but loyalty to cask is likely to prove a major stumbling block. Fifty years ago, drinkers tended to give their allegiance to a particular brand of beer, and whether it was real or keg was a secondary consideration. But, over the years, they have increasingly come to identify with cask as a category. If cask Landlord wasn’t available, they would switch to cask London Pride in preference to keg Landlord, even if that existed. Most of the biggest-selling brands of cask ale are either unavailable in keg form, or only found in tiny volumes, so it isn’t a case of having the choice anyway. The only keg premium bitter I can think of is Sam Smith’s India Ale, and that isn’t in most of their pubs.

That, of course, is why the makers of Fresh Ale want to dispense it through handpumps, as drinkers, even if they appreciate that it isn’t actually genuine cask, will subconsciously view it as something “cask-like”, which they would not do if the identical beer was dispensed through a keg-style tap.

In recent years, there has been a growth in “craft keg”, and many beer enthusiasts who once would have pretty rigidly stuck to cask are prepared to dabble in the category. However, it generally confines itself to niche styles and very strong beers, and rarely treads on the toes of traditional ale. You don’t see many craft keg Best Bitters. I’d also guess that there isn’t much overlap between the craft keg-curious and volume consumers of Doom Bar and Abbot. Keg IPAs such as Punk IPA and Neck Oil have gained fairly wide distribution, but again they tend to be regarded as a category in themselves rather than a subset of “ale.”

Ms Smith repeats the oft-heard cliché that keeping cask ale is difficult, and describes it as “a bloody nightmare”. But that is a gross exaggeration. Yes, it does take some more work than keg beers, but there’s no rocket science about it , just the conscientious application of straightforward procedures. If there’s a demand for it, looking after cask is part and parcel of the business of running a pub.

She also makes a strange assertion that cask is often a mandatory “must-stock” that is enforced on the operator and ends up being a “millstone” round a business’s neck. If pub owners are genuinely forcing pubs to stock cask when there’s no demand for it, that sounds like a poor business practice. If you are a pub manager, then it’s part of your job to sell what the pubco tells you to sell, so there’s no room for complaint, although a good owner will take account of what sells and what doesn’t.

If you’re a tenant or lessee, then you have much more discretion. Maybe it is part of the agreement that you are expected to stock certain brands, but again the owner should recognise that some beers aren’t suited to the pub. And if you work for an independent family brewer, stocking cask comes with the territory. I wonder if she can provide any concrete examples of unwilling licensees who feel they have been forced to stock cask.

The argument about low volumes is also often exaggerated. More and more brewers are now supplying cask ale in 4½ gallon pins, with Greene King just having invested in a large batch of them. Selling twelve pints a day of a given beer really isn’t all that much. But there will be pubs where the nature of the trade is such that there just isn’t much demand for cask, and in cases like that it will surely be better to drop it entirely rather than having a single pump of stale Doom Bar. If the volumes are that low, then any loss will be minimal.

There are plenty of pubs that manage perfectly well without stocking cask, but they tend to be either working-class locals or trendy high street bars. Others, though, even if they don’t actually shift much of it, see it as a key part of their overall offer. A high-end rural dining pub would look rather strange if it didn’t offer any cask. Plus, once you drop cask, you lose any exposure from CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide and WhatPub online pub guide. CAMRA’s influence on pub choice may not be all that great, but a little bad word of mouth can go a long way, and a few complaints about the lack of cask on a site like TripAdvisor will get a lot of views from potential customers. And if you swapped cask for Fresh Ale on a fake handpump, that would not be overlooked.

There is a case to be made for “better keg”, and I’ve argued in the past that CAMRA tends to be too dogmatic in dividing the beer world into black and white, with no shades of grey. All keg beers are not the same, and I would expect Fresh Ale to be a big improvement on the likes of John Smith’s Extra Smooth. I’ll certainly give it a try if I ever come across it. There are examples of pubs with limited or erratic trade where it would be a better alternative to either stale cask or classic keg.

But, for the reasons I set out earlier, the strong consumer loyalty to cask as a category means that Fresh Ale will struggle to gain acceptance, and using fake handpumps to sell it is blatantly misleading and will get it off to a bad start. And, if it does gain popularity, the risk is that it will be extended beyond marginal cases to pubs where the licensee just can’t be bothered with cask, or to extend the range on offer even though the overall turnover is entirely adequate for a smaller number of cask beers.

Sunday 10 March 2024

Not so fresh

Last year, Otter Brewery launched a concept called Fresh Ale, which was described as “beers that are said to straddle the lager, cask ale and craft beer categories”. The stated intention was to produce beers suitable for outlets without sufficient turnover for cask, but there was inevitably going to be some risk of scope creep. Otter claim to have enjoyed some success with this, although as I live well outside their trading area I haven’t personally seen any evidence of it.

However, Carlsberg-Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) have now announced a launch of Fresh Ale on a much larger scale covering their Wainwright Gold, Wainwright Amber and Hobgoblin brands. Vice-President of Marketing John Clements was at pains to point out that it isn’t a cask ale, and isn’t being marketed such, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is going to significantly blur the distinction.

Draught beer is often simplistically regarded as being split between “cask” and “keg”, but in fact the distinction is better expressed as “cask” vs “brewery-conditioned” – beers that undergo a secondary fermentation after leaving the brewery, versus those that are stabilised before being despatched.

In the 1970s, 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. This is much less so now, but all non-cask beers certainly aren’t uniform, and many keykeg craft beers are unpasteurised and have a much softer level of carbonation than classic kegs. Fresh Ale undoubtedly falls into the brewery-conditioned category, as Clements admits.

We looked at how we could take the issue of shelf life away and how we could do the secondary fermentation in the brewery so it becomes brewery-conditioned ale. A pub can get this beer after we have filtered the yeast out yet it remains unpasteurised so consumers get the same kind of experience as cask but, for the retailer, it lasts 14 days rather than three. By no means are we claiming this to be cask beer or that it is to replace cask because we are one of Britain’s biggest cask brewers.
There’s nothing wrong that as such, and brewery-conditioned beers of various kinds happily coexist alongside cask in pretty much every pub that stocks it. But the big problem is that the intention is to dispense it through handpumps.
He added the term “cask” is not being used when it comes to the marketing of Fresh Ale, but did say the idea is to create the same look and mouthfeel. Meanwhile, along with a longer shelf life than cask ale, it also preserves the hand-pull ritual that delivers a theatre of serve so a bartender would draw a pint on a hand-pull.
The handpump has become a very clear and unmistakable indicator of real ale. If you see a handpump, that what you’d expect to get. Back in the 70s and 80s, there were a scattering of pubs that dispensed keg beers through handpumps in an attempt to mislead customers that they were real ale. CAMRA always strongly deprecated this policy and, while not illegal as such, has a long-standing policy that any pub serving non cask-conditioned beers through handpumps would not be eligible for Good Beer Guide entry or receiving any kind of award. The practice seems to have pretty much disappeared now, and I can’t say I’ve seen any examples for many years.

However, as Fresh Ale is, by CMBC’s own admission, brewery-conditioned, exactly the same is going to apply here. They could of course dispense it through a tap as with keg beers, which would eliminate the problem, but that would presumably deter most potential customers from drinking it. That in itself is a recognition that presenting it on a handpump is misleading.

In recent years, the rise of craft keg has made many enthusiasts more willing to consider beers that do not come from a handpump. However, craft keg tends to be reserved for the more experimental end of the market, and it is virtually unknown to see it applied to traditional British styles. The overlap between regular drinkers of craft keg, and regular drinkers of cask Wainwright and Hobgoblin, is probably very small.

The argument that it is only going to be supplied to low-turnover outlets comes across as distinctly disingenuous. Cask ale is now widely supplied in 36-pint pins, and CMBC’s competitors Greene King have recently invested in a large stock of these. Maybe CMBC should consider following suit. But if you can’t shift twelve pints a day of a particular beer, then it seems pretty pointless having it on draught in the first place. And CAMRA now officially turns a blind eye to the use of cask breathers, which have the potential to extent the shelf-life of cask beer. However, this comment reveals the true agenda:

CMBC added this innovation not only reduces waste and enhances profitability but also simplifies storage and upkeep, bypassing the need for specialised cleaning and conditioning. On pricing to pubs, Clements said it is slightly above current cask ales costs but it works out to be very similar after allowance for sediment and usual wastage in casks.
So it makes life easier for licensees even in situations where the turnover would make cask entirely viable. It’s just “more convenient”. It could be the thin end of the wedge for the wholesale removal of cask from pubs.

CMBC have every right to launch such a product, and it may well be considerably more palatable than the like of John Smith’s Extra Smooth. However, it is not a cask beer and they should not be leading drinkers to think it is, or something very like cask, through the style of presentation. If they chose to use free-flow taps and presented it as “nicer keg”, then it may have merited no more than a shrug of the shoulders. But by serving it on handpump they risk significant kickback. This isn’t just CAMRA being pedantic – the link between handpumps and cask is universally accepted in the industry, and indeed acknowledgment of this is implicit in CMBC’s approach. Everyone who drinks cask beer recognises the connection.

It’s worth pointing out that CMBC is a separate organisation from the Marston’s Pub Company, and is only minority owned by Marston’s. So it doesn’t automatically follow that Marston’s pubs will adopt this, although there must be a strong chance that they will.

Friday 8 March 2024

Better than a poke in the eye

This week’s Budget provided a crumb of comfort to drinkers in that the freeze on alcohol duties was extended from August this year to January 2025. This was given a cautious welcome by industry figures, as stated in the linked report.
Chief executive St Austell Brewery, Kevin Georgel, welcomed the decision to extend the freeze in beer duty but added it “will not see costs cut for our sector”.
In the same report, CAMRA chairman Nik Antona “welcomed the freeze in alcohol duty, as it would help to ‘mitigate an additional hike in costs’ to be passed on to pubs and pub-goers.”

However, this led to a strange wave of denialism in some quarters that alcohol duty had anything to do with the pub trade, such as this example from Ed Bedington, the editor of the Morning Advertiser, which I quickly slapped down.

Obviously, a freeze does not leave anyone better off, but neither does it make anyone worse off, which was a very real possibility if duty rates were increased in line with inflation. Clearly pubs are subject to many other cost pressures, but to dismiss the level of alcohol duties as irrelevant is ridiculous.

This was topped by the bizarre assertion that beer duty was paid by brewers and thus had nothing to do with pubs. In a very narrow sense this is true, but plainly it increases the cost of their product, which is then passed on to pubs and ultimately to drinkers. If the price increases, it may reduce the demand, and pubs may meet resistance if they try to pass on the full impact to their customers. It must be said that some people seem to have a very warped perception of the economics of the pub industry.

Compare this to twelve years ago, when CAMRA mounted a vociferous and ultimately successful campaign to scrap the hated Alcohol Duty Escalator, which raised duties every year by 2% above the rate of inflation - see the image at the top of this post. They even organised a mass lobby of Parliament to protest against it. Clearly then they saw it as a vital issue. And they are currently campaigning to widen the duty differential between draught and packaged beer from 10% to 20%. From the report I linked to above,

In response to the chancellor’s announcement, the Campaign for Real Ale chairman Nik Antona described the Budget as a “missed opportunity” to support the Great British pub by cutting tax on draught beer and cider... He said: “Making duty on draught beer and cider significantly lower would promote drinking in the regulated setting of a community local and help small and independent producers who sell mainly into pubs and taprooms to compete against the global brewing giants and the likes of supermarket alcohol. CAMRA will continue to campaign for the Treasury and all political parties to back our sensible ask of making tax on pints in pubs 20% lower than the general duty rate.”
Perhaps they shouldn’t bother.

Irrespective of any impact on pubs, there is a strong philosophical case in general for cutting alcohol duties. We have some of the highest levels in Europe, and the only places that are anywhere close are Ireland and some of the Scandinavian countries. All the other major European countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy have much lower duty levels. This places an unfair burden on consumers and makes life more difficult for producers of all kinds of alcoholic drinks. Kevin Georgel of St Austell Brewery pointed out on in the linked article that British beer duty was twelve times higher than that in Germany, and called for the government to set out a roadmap to bring current duty down to the European average.

Don’t hold your breath, though. But, in the current climate, even freezing duty is a whole lot better than the alternative.

Saturday 2 March 2024


In the early 2000s, I visited Brussels several times on business trips. I was struck by how all of the well-known Belgian beers had their own specific design of glass – Duvel, Chimay, Orval and even Kwak which needed a little wooden support to stop the glass falling over. It was a very distinctive and characterful part of the drinking experience.

At the time, this was virtually unknown in this country, but over the succeeding twenty-odd years branded glasses have become increasingly common here. At first it was simply standard designs with a brand logo, such as the well-known John Smith’s Extra Smooth tulip, but it then evolved into each brand having its own characteristic and unique form. The Stella chalice, as shown, was one of the first to become commonplace.

Now, Guinness and pretty much every leading lager brand have their own individual glass design. This obviously helps to promote the brand, and leads to drinkers having a sense of ownership and feeling they are making a statement about what they are drinking. On the other hand, it could be argued that it helps people distinguish what are essentially pretty samey beers.

One obvious problem is that branded glasses are much more likely to be stolen than plain ones, particularly ones of a highly distinctive form such as the Leffe chalices now seen in Wetherspoon’s. However, my understanding is that they tend to be provided either free or at a substantial discount by brewers, so they may not be too concerned about their promotional material ending up in people’s houses.

Personally, I have to say I’m not a fan of stemmed pint glasses, which to me come across as unwieldy. That includes many leading brands such as Stella, San Miguel and Cruzcampo. I also find gold-rimmed glasses a touch “icky”. And getting a beer in the wrong branded glass is surely much worse than getting one in a plain glass.

This tweet illustrates the pitfalls of serving beer in the wrong glassware. Surely in this case, even a plain stemmed glass (which Wetherspoon’s have large stocks of) would have been better than an unmarked conical.

As I mentioned in my post about guest ales, the lack of branded glasses arguably puts cask at something of a disadvantage. Plenty of beers do have their own glasses but, like the Bass one, they tend to be just standard designs with the appropriate logo on it. Some brewers such as Robinson’s have generic branded glasses for their own pubs, and Lees have introduced the distinctive “grip” glass for their cask ales, although personally I’m not a fan. And, by definition, ever-changing guest ales are not going to come with a branded glass. Some pubs do make up for this by having a stock of glasses with their own logo.

I recently ran a Twitter poll on this which produced some remarkably symmetrical results. Half of respondents thought that a branded glass did enhance their experience of drinking at least to some extent, while another half felt it made no difference or was actively offputting. I suspect, given the nature of my followers, the sample was heavily biased towards people who mainly drink cask.

Branded glasses are certainly here to stay, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that to some degree they do give pub drinking more of a sense of occasion. Plus a good-looking pint in its own glass might tempt others to try it. So, even when it is on as a permanent beer, this is something where cask possibly does lose out when it is competing for attention with other beers.