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THE STATE OF CASK part 1: How do the Brewers solve a problem like cask?



In what has become one of the most written about subjects amongst beer communicators for a long while I am going to follow on with my own thoughts about cask beer. Yet these ideas are formulated from potential posts I've been writing the odd paragraph about for around 18 months but never managed to construct into something relevant. 

I have much to say on the subject; so much so that rather than making this into one enormous read I've split it into three sections regarding the current trends and effects on cask beer as I see it. 

I start with my first part focusing on the breweries following this week's much discussed announcement. 

 

The Latest Cask Departure


It's Sunday 11th December 2016 and I'm rounding off an afternoon out in Leeds with good friends in Friends of Ham, New Station Street.

Despite a varying range of delightful looking styles and breweries on the bar, most of our group are focused on a 3.9% Cloudwater Pale Ale on cask.

It's fruity and resinous but with a smooth conditioned drinkability that makes it one of the best beers of this strength I've had within the last couple of years and certainly one of the absolute best served via this format. I couldn't wait to drink it again. 

But I won't. Cloudwater Brew Co announced on January 1st 2017 that cask production would cease with many of the varying reasons outlined and explained in this astronomical post. 

The social media reaction was as mixed as could be expected. It was a surprise move to me in fairness. There were certain breweries with which we suspected might suspend cask - just like people have metaphorical money on who will be the next to sell out to the big boys - but for some reason I'd never considered Cloudwater might be the next to stop. With that I realised I had so many different opinions, even emotions, surrounding the announcement. It's big news in our industry but one which shows increasing divides. And the expressed reactions show why those divides exist more than ever. 

Not the First or Last


We've been here before of course with the last significant announcement coming late 2015 when Buxton Brewery - a brewery I regular saw on cask in my most frequented watering holes - announcing the end of its cask production. I was in a pub with one of the Brewers a few weeks after their proclamation and couldn't resist the chance to ask about the decision. I was provided with some approximate percentages of the time the brewery put in to producing cask beer overall and the turnover of their sales it provided: numbers that I would have liked to see Cloudwater include in their transparency. 

I won't give Buxton's exact figures considering I haven't asked permission, but needless to say the difference between the time taken to make cask beer against other vessels versus the turnover received was huge, certainly big enough to justify leaving it alone.  

It leads us into the most inconvenient truth that people consistently want to deny: cask beer is simply a drain on some brewery's resources.

This is business. With Cloudwater's post, one of my first similes was of Marks and Spencer. Here is a company hanging on to its continually loss making clothing line whilst it is subsidised by its profit making food sales. Eventually though, you realise the clothing will never turn itself around. The food continues to grow. Pouring resources into losses makes no sense. It won't be long before the clothing side is either drastically reduced or ceases to be.

Is Brewing Even a Job?


Childish remarks that breweries like Cloudwater make such decisions because they are "only in it for the money" when craft beer is supposedly about "the love of the job, not profit" are just idiocy. Loving your job is great and a privilege too few have but it is still a job where you hope to put food on the table. No matter how much they love making beer they are not a charity. Job satisfaction is not volunteer satisfaction. 

As we are all aware, and as every commentary on the subject has mentioned, people are just not willing to pay the rate for certain cask beer. When a brewery produces a beer in both cask and keg breweries are often forced to sell the beer at the market demand and price point. Cloudwater mention this in their post:- When we started out in 2015, we initially priced all our beer the same per litre, regardless of packaging format” -  which is a very novel idea for a brewery. But, as they quickly found out, publicans are not always willing to pay the same for cask as they are for keg. I know this. I’ve worked with it. 

This problem was nicely backed up the day the news broke by a conversation on the subject I happily listened into whilst in the pub. "You go into these bars now and you see the same beer on cask and on keg. Yet the keg is £1.50 dearer. No wonder they are happy to sell the same beer for more money." They aren't. Let's be clear, breweries are not happy about this. The cask is being undersold because people won't buy it at the fair prices quoted. They will however buy keg for the going rate. That's the market. 

Some breweries have to adapt. I spoke with a Brewer at Northern Monk last year and talked about their cask-only traditional Pale Ale True North. Despite the beer seeming to fit the style and demographic it was made for he told me he wasn't 100% happy with the recipe. But to tweak it just a little to make it as good as say Eternal would make it too expensive for the places it was currently selling into. The beer remains on the roster and as a solid cask beer. But they are restricted in making it better by the very demographic it is aimed at. 

Should that be the attitude of brewers making cask beer; to compromise a product in order to keep wallets happy? Does it need to be tweaked if it is selling? 

I should touch on the childish stance that beer is still a working class drink and people will not want to see increased prices. I’ll speak mostly on that within the next two parts but for now let us be clear: this isn’t about sweeping price rises across the board. Nobody is saying that Sam Smith's Old Brewery Bitter needs to be £5 a pint to keep things fair. This is about the premium products being sold at fair prices. “I don’t want to pay x amount for a pint of cask beer and neither will those in working men’s club.” Idiocy. A complete failure to see any point. These people must go to the supermarkets and only buy the value range whilst thinking “What is the point in them selling more than one type of product? Cheapest option only please.” Sure, why even bother selling premium high quality sausages when you sell Richmond. Good point, well made...

 

AMERICA… this is not what you think it is….  


Oddly, those with negative comments about Cloudwater Brew Co as a whole were not focused on the announcement of switching bottles to cans. Unlike the cask decision, the canning decision is all about capitalism. Cans are selling more. Retailers, publicans and customer’s alike all want cans. Changing the bottling line to a canning one is to tap into that increasing market.

My sympathy stops with Cloudwater with the continued references across a number of posts recently of influences from the American market. This isn’t the American market. Cask beer is an important and quintessential part of the UK beer industry. It isn’t for nostalgic or iconoclastic reasons that we desire it. Our pub culture is different to these consistently heavy-influencing American taprooms. Taking influence from different areas is part of general beer culture but it’s increasingly beginning to feel like copying a different model to try and force market change. (But more on that in part 3.)

Yes all this discussion has been prompted by the decision from Cloudwater but really I should have written this months ago. This isn't about one fish leaving the shoal and joining a smaller school. The impact on the shoal isn't noticeable but the rest of the swimmers should look around and ask why that one fish swam away, just like the one a few days back. Why are we not all swimming together? That, detective, is the right question.

We can expect more announcements like this from breweries (albeit not en masse) in the coming years unless there is a change in, as my good friend Hali @craftqueer succinctly puts it, "the frankly fucking atrocious industry norms that ruin cask." Consumers and those at Point of Sale need much more education before really terrific breweries lose all interest in our greatest dispense method. Good breweries are adapting around the cask bullshit. 

I'll do my best not to blame it on one group that I happen to be a member of tomorrow, but their active members-come-bloggers stance that there isn't a problem with cask is going to make it... interesting. The consumer problem with cask beer coming (hopefully) tomorrow. 

The best reading (thusfar) amongst the many on the Cloudwater decision are this piece from Pete Brissenden and Steve Dunkley at Beer Nouveau's honest number crunching breakdown.  


Comments

Ed said…
Surely they buy cask and keg for the going rate. That's the market.
Beermunster said…
Surely the problem is that the market, particularly for cask, is saturated. Depending on what report you read, there are somewhere between 1300 and 1500 breweries operating in the UK. With supply outstripping demand, the "going rate" is determined by the landlords.

And not all breweries charge the same for their beer. There are some who have decided to charge a premium price, presumably because they think their product is in some way superior. Obviously that is going to reduce the volumes they sell, but that is a commercial decision they have taken.
Mark Johnson said…
Not always the case
Mark Johnson said…
You’ve completely hit the nail on the head with the major problem – that you can’t see why not all cask isn’t the same price and think they must have decided they have a superior product. I use the sausage example again: if you buy one sausage that is mostly recovered meats, rusk and water – then have another sausage that is primarily pork belly+shoulder, herbs and spices would you expect the two to cost the same? Now factor in that the first is made by machine on a vast scale and the second is made by one single butcher by hand. Do you still expect the two to cost the same? Now imagine the first with what little meat it actually contains uses cheap, poorly reared meat – but the second uses meat from an outdoor reared rare breed of pig. Do you still expect the two to cost the same? Yet consumers and publicans do expect them to cost the same. That’s the problem
Anonymous said…
*Mic drop*

Perfect analogy! Sums the issue up perfectly.
Unknown said…
It's not just the ingredients, which a lot of people use to say why some beer is more expensive. To be honest the ingredients don't really make a huge amount of difference. The main one is overheads.
Imagine two sausage makers, one is making pretty decent sausages in an outbuilding on his farm. No rent as he owns the property, no wages to pay as he's doing it in his spare time. And no imagine a small comapny making sausages using all the latest equipment, but still the same recipe as the first. They've got a large rent and business rates to cover, and all the wages and associated insurance, tax and pensions to cover. They've also got to pay back the investment on the loan to buy all that equipment.
Both products hit the market with the same profit margin, but one can be a lot cheaper because they've not got all those extra overheads.
Beermunster said…
I understand that some beers cost more in terms of raw materials to make, but that is not what drives price. The beers that sell for premium prices do so because the brand is well enough known that people will pay more for it.

When I go to a bar, I have no idea what the ingredients of each beer cost. If brewers want to sell beer that is more expensive to make then they need to either build their brand, or else somehow convey that added cost to the consumer. To continue the sausage analogy, that would be done by advertising the fact premium ingredients are used all over the product, so that the consumer understand this costs more to make. I'm not sure how you would do that with beer, but it must be possible.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

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