January 17, 2017
With all the talk surrounding cask at the moment, we thought we should state our position.
We were disappointed to see Cloudwater announce that they would cease cask production, as we’re cask drinkers. We love cask ale and hate to see cask of such quality disappear. That said, we totally respect and understand Cloudwater’s decision - everything Paul wrote pointed towards their need to cut cask from their range, but it’s a great loss to the UK beer scene.
The issues with cask production were expanded on by Siren and Beer Nouveau in incredibly frank blog pieces. Margins on cask beer can be very low, and quality is affected at every stage of the logistical chain, so once it leaves the brewery, a brewer is trusting a number of people to handle the beer correctly.
This week, one of the UK’s most prolific beer journalists, three-time British Beer Writer of the Year Pete Brown, opened up about nearly turning his back on cask altogether. Only pubs in which he was sure of the quality of cellarmanship and service would see Brown order a pint of cask ale, after too many bad pints.
Just a year ago, CAMRA started to consider whether the battle had been won, with the so-called craft beer revolution ushering in a new generation of cask brewers. The Revitalisation Project aimed to expand CAMRA’s scope, but recent press would suggest that cask ale still needs campaigning for and a lack of education is forcing people away from it.
Two main problems are highlighted in these pieces - price, and quality.
Firstly, the money side of things. Cask can carry a very low margin for brewers, owing to “the prices landlords traditionally expect to pay for beer, and that some punters traditionally expect to pay on the bar” according to Siren. There’s something to be said here certainly. Modern tastes have shifted towards the big, punchy, New World hops that cost a lot more than European hops. Modern tastes are more complex and wide-ranging. That carries higher costs, which is criticised by some as “overpricing” the beer.
The problem is only compounded by the fact that brewers compete for the right hops. They are not an infinite resource - they are an niche agricultural crop that are highly sought after. That combination can be costly.
Furthermore, “Artificially depressed price expectations of cask, whereby campaigners who insist cask ale is the highest quality beer available, whilst simultaneously demanding that it is cheaper than any other beer on the bar, make it an unattractive prospect economically for brewer whose craft keg and bottled beers sell out instantly.” Pete Brown points out that a proportion of those who are best placed to educate, the campaigners and lovers of cask ale, are sometimes at fault for keeping prices stuck in the past, whilst the product has grown and increased in value.
That’s the key word in this debate. Modern cask ale from craft breweries is more valuable than ever before. 20th Century prices for 21st century beer is simply unsustainable.
Secondly, the quality issue. It’s a big problem, that Pete Brown pinpoints as his main reason for drinking less cask ale. “Cask is the weakest link in the quality chain” say Beer Nouveau. Cask beer is a living, breathing product, that needs proper training to serve correctly. It’s not as easy as kegged or bottled beer. It takes time and thought. Unfortunately, as time is money, some see that as cutting into their profits and correct cellarmanship is neglected.
Like any industry, it’s unreasonable to expect the same level of quality across the board, and you have to seek out the highest standard. Drinkers must choose where to drink based on quality rather than convenience. Pete Brown didn’t write that he’s stopped drinking cask altogether, just that he only drinks it in places he knows to keep cask well.
Isn’t that fair enough?
Keeping cask well doesn’t need to be hard work, but it does take knowledge.
Drinkers must reward good pubs with their custom. That’s the most powerful way that high standards can be praised and poor standards can be punished. The constant search for cheaper beer leads to cheaper beer being produced and landlords spending less time and money on cellars and staff training. High quality cask beer is going to cost more - the same as any product in any industry.
Education is key to maintaining cask ale’s reputation and making it a profitable endeavor. That can’t happen if it’s abandoned by all and if the headlines spell the end of cask ale.
Let’s get down to brass tacks, just for a moment. Sure cask has low margins, but it also benefits from shifting in large volumes. According to the latest Cask Report, 72% of pubs serve cask ale, 82% of them say that cask sales are growing, and 58% of ale sold in pubs is cask. Cask beer is a £1.7billion market in the UK. There is a market there.
We’ve worked hard to ensure our cask range is both high quality and profitable. But it’s not all about the money - we love drinking cask ale. Just as Cloudwater said, we need to play to our strengths to grow as brewers, and our strength is producing great beer no matter the package type.
Cask is just a part of that. We’ll also be releasing a huge range of new keg beers, with some madcap ideas in the pipeline, as well as a new focus on bottled and can beer. We’ve invested heavily in small pack at our new brewery, with both bottling and canning coming in house, so we have more flexibility in what we can package which enables us to get some of our more experimental brews further afield. Different styles suit different packages, and we’re obsessed with trying new styles. Cask is still a huge part of our future.
We love cask and so do our customers. The extra work is worth it, and we’re happy to help any publican with their cellaring. We’re lucky enough to work with a great number of awesome pubs that keep our casks in perfect condition, and their good work is vital to us maintaining our reputation*. They’re vital partners in the industry and we’re always looking for more pubs with a passion for cask to work with. Collaboration and communication from brewhouse to public house is essential in the service of perfect cask ale.
So we’re not just keeping our cask range, we’re expanding it. From four to six, our core cask range features everything from earthy British hopped pales, to massively fruity tropical golden ales.
In addition to that, and the rest of our core range in keg, bottle and can, we’ve got a list as long as our arms of seasonals and specials that will be reappearing this year, across all packages, including countless ideas bouncing around our heads for totally new cask ales that we’ll be releasing over the next 12 months.
We’re looking forward to drinking shed loads of great cask ales at festivals this year, including Manchester Beer Festival later this week. Come and say hi and enjoy a pint with us if you’re there!
*(Special shout outs to Locke & Remedy and Gwaelod y Garth in Cardiff, The Victoria and The Greenbank in Bristol, Swansea’s King Arthur Hotel and The Park Inn, Mumbles, Newport’s own Commercial, Ruperra, Ridgeway, London’s Craft Beer Co.s and Euston Tap - as well as the guys in our own bars of course! There are too many to mention individually, all across the country. Thanks to you all.)