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THE STATE OF CASK part 2: The Cask Consumers

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. 

Today I look at the problem with consumer's and the immunity of one Timothy Taylor's Landlord.

Part 1 can be read here.

On the first Saturday morning of June 2016 I travelled to Stockport Beer Festival with my Aunt Marie and Uncle David; famously more traditional beer drinkers. They enjoy a day out in Stockport as, coming from Dewsbury way, they don’t actually see much beer from my side of the Pennines, including such SK stalwarts as Robinsons.

Walking through the beer on each side of the concourse they pointed to two barrels from Cloudwater Brew Co. “Ooh look David – they’ve got that Cloudwater. We’ve heard they’re great.” I was a little surprised knowing the usual take these two have on such breweries but I was pleased all the same. The lovely US Light and Session IPA I believe were the two on offer at the time.

An hour later when they went to purchase these beers they were confronted with a small helpful sign: “Naturally Hazy.” The choice was made. “That means its crap. That means they don’t know what they’re doing.” And the beer was never tried. Never tasted. Never given a chance.

No wonder Cloudwater left the cask game.


The Pro-Cask Stereotype

My Aunt and Uncle come under an encompassing cloud used by those to disparage people who have a rather more considered and traditional view on what cask ale should be. People call them CAMRA in a derogatory sense. That is why CAMRA so often gets the blame inadvertently. The thing is my Aunt and Uncle aren’t members of CAMRA – they both left by choice after being members of it for years. They just fit a certain stereotype.

That stereotype is of a cask-only drinker who doesn't like heavily citrus and bitter hops or beers over around the 4.8% mark (unless it is a special occasion) and whose beers must be more transparent than water before being even considered for consumption. (Add in a constant need to top up every nanometre of a pint glass for extra asshole effect.)  So for intents and purposes I will call those stereotypes pro-cask drinkers in this blog. CAMRA has many progressive members – I’m a member after all. Local heroes such as Tandleman and John Clarke have near legendary status around the Manchester and Stockport areas and have championed beers of all styles and nationalities - proving irrefutably that CAMRA is certainly not always of the pro-cask drinker stereotype. 

However, loyalty to a campaign they are proud to support should not detract from the problems within. 

A lot of the feedback on social media and blogs (relating to Cloudwater's announcement to cease cask) that focused around price came from the pro-cask drinkers. The crowd of the: 

"I don't want to pay more than £3.20 for a pint." 

"That shit is for hipsters." 

"Why doesn't all beer cost the same?" 

"Beer is for working class people only. Working class people don't like nice things. They're happy with their lot. Leave them alone." 

We’ve all seen large increases in the price of a pint over the past ten years. But much of this has been down to taxes and the dreaded beer duty. How many times do we have to say that pints are not increasing with increase in prices of ingredients, rents, wages, utilities etc. The “I don’t want to pay more than x amount for my pint” contingent seem to think that those mentioning fairness WANT to pay more. But we don’t, just like we don't want to pay increased prices in train tickets, fuel, groceries etc... Inflation means trains are getting worse but my ticket is costing more. Cask beer is getting better but I'm not paying more.

Yet beer is the luxury that deserves no profit, according to voices from the past week. The idea that breweries should be willing to earn a living from cask beer has been completely crushed. Pro-cask drinkers have made us fully aware that there is a limit to how much they should pay for a pint and how much beer should cost to the publican. For some, all beer should even cost the same. Step forward the pro-cask favourite. 

The Immunity of Timothy Taylor's Landlord 

Landlord (or Timmy's at is most often ordered as) is, to me, under the same umbrella as Black Sheep Ale and Doom Bar. Its reach as a cask regular perhaps doesn't stretch as far south though. It is the redoubtable, dependable and ultimately dull safe bet for a Northern bar to display. It is a permanent resident in my two favourite pubs: Stalybridge Buffet Bar and The Grove, Huddersfield - where I personally never drink it but it remains the bestseller. 

In my local, Landlord is required to be on permanently (for various reasons.) It's also £3.35 a pint making it much more expensive than the majority of beers sold under 5.5% (that range from £2.60 - £3.20 mostly.)  Landlord is also the only cask beer that is never available for CAMRA discount here, by request of Timothy Taylor's themselves. Though really it is already being sold on the absolute cusp and should be priced at around £3.80 at least.* 

The reason Landlord is so expensive is simply because it is expensive. It costs more than 35% more than the cask Beer Nouveau used in their recent number breakdown post. It costs more than beer from certain breweries that my local would not normally get in due to pricing. It costs much more than the one-man-band local breweries working hard to keep their heads above water despite Timothy Taylor's large operation and regular outlay. 

It’s even notoriously more difficult to keep, tapping through exchange extraction leading to many in cellars to receive what is affectionately known as a “Taylor’s Bath” whilst trying to vent. 

Basically, those pro-cask drinkers should dislike Timothy Taylor's and their horrendous pricing structure.

Despite all this, Timothy Taylor's Landlord is the prime choice and crown jewel for so many of the pro-cask drinkers that visit my local, whether regularly or fleetingly. It doesn't matter that it costs a little more "because it's Landlord." 

In other words, the Pro-Cask drinkers WILL pay for beer they see as superior.

So how does that fit into their Cloudwater stance that they don't want to pay premium prices for beer?  Does that mean they are willing to pay for the beer they actually want? ISN’T THIS WHAT THE FUCKING REST OF US HAVE BEEN ARGUING ALL WEEK LONG?

"It'll give me gout that." 

I wonder sometimes if older beer drinkers are suffering a generational hangover from the Great Manchester Beer Epidemic. The poster at the top of the page is from a 1900 brewery announcement from Gartside's of Ashton-Under-Lyne - just three miles from Stalybridge. At the turn of that century, contaminated malted barley was causing beer to be unwittingly brewed with high levels of arsenic, poisoning many consumers. Are cases like this in any way linked to the maddening idea that cloudy beer will kill is all? 

Many of my favourite North-West breweries – Beer Nouveau, Torrside, Cloudwater – don’t use finings and their beers can be naturally hazy. With good cellaring, many of these beers may clear on their own anyway but they are listed as unfined for the times they don't completely. That doesn't stop the negative comments, returns to the bar, confusion and, occasionally, adding of personal finings to a cask. 

In my local, it sometimes takes me stood in my place at the bar to assure both customer and bar staff that the beer is completely fine and served as intended. The problem is that neither is sure. Whilst the staff need more personal training, the customer will often not listen to a naturally hazy declaration.

We need more education. And where does that come from for those Pro-Cask drinkers? Do we look to CAMRA to run a few What's Brewing articles confirming that not all haze is bad haze? Do we ask Cask Marque to provide some useful information in correct cellarmanship? When both punters and staff are unsure whether a beer is even supposed to be hazy, how do we go about fixing that to make sure everybody enjoys the beer? Do breweries need to do more than just write "Unfined" on the pumpclip?

 The Easy Target

Which brings me nicely to CAMRA and the words I've needed to write for months. CAMRA who I give money to every 12 months. CAMRA who have become so often the scapegoats but have done little to stop themselves being so. CAMRA - the champions of great cask beer and even greater pubs. 

I cannot discuss this much maligned organisation without finally telling of the rank stories I hear within my own branch. 

I used to be one of those that held much stock by the annual release of the Good Beer Guide, flicking through the pages to see what places locally - and in other places I've lived - had made the cut.

Before this year, I refused to believe the rumours of underhand tactics resulting in CAMRA awards and Good Beer Guide entries going to surprising recipients. I've become aware now though that both are considered under more than questionable criteria. The pub with undoubtedly the best cask beer and choice in my current home town has been omitted from this year's Good Beer Guide after an argument with a rambling CAMRA group about discount. At the same time they continue to champion the pub down the road that I've never drank a properly poured pint in. Some have been undrinkable. But it does do discount and really cheap pints between 12-5 weekdays, as well as - as rumour would have it - special discounts to members. Cue a few seasonal awards and a mention in nearly every edition of Opening Times. Does that sound surprising to most that criticise them? I would love a member of my local branch to explain, with Cloudwater-esque transparency, the reasons behind these decisions? 

And I've heard plenty of other tales from other branches. This needs questioning now before everybody turns their back on CAMRA. I want them to have a roll and a function but I can't see past these stories anymore.

We look to CAMRA as the almost governing body when it comes to cask beer. We are not blaming CAMRA for Cloudwater’s decision – or any other brewer’s – to leave cask beer. The two aren’t linked. But those of us that enjoy cask beer automatically look for them to have more of an opinion than “I won’t miss them” or “It was too bloody expensive anyway.”

I've not spoken or even voted on the Revitalisation Project because it is entirely pointless. Whether good beer can only come from cask was a debate for 2009. Whilst CAMRA are focusing on what isn't cask beer, they are neglecting supporting what makes good cask beer. They have become a FIFA - a body that has turned something fun into political disarray and illegalities. There is no doubt that an increasingly poor image of cask beer starts with them. 

The New Wave and the Dinosaurs.

After a recent Twitter rant, a head brewer I admire asked me why I bother with those Facebook Forums that make me seethe reading them. But I need to see and understand where the new beer drinkers in 2017 head's are at. I need to try and understand current trends; not least why so many seem to hate cask beer. I mean, they really hate it. Show them a shiny can of Magic Rock Brewery's Inhaler and they'll suck your arm dry, but suggest it's even better on cask and they'll phone the local care home to collect you.

They need education too. New wave beer is full of know-it-all-know-fuck-alls like the type you'd encounter on building sites. Frankly I'd argue that Diacetyl is ahead of the likes of Dank and Juicebomb as 2016's beer buzz word. It's only used in correct context about 1 in 10 times. It seems every kid beer drinker has heard of Diacetyl but seemingly thinks it just means "slightly off flavour" or "Beer I don't like."

They don't think they like cask beer because they never liked beer before. Previously there was no segue. You either liked cold fizzy flavourless keg or warm flat can-be-tasty cask. Now there is a flavoursome middle ground that is easy to transcend to if you were always in the former. If the latter crowd look defiant, unwelcomingly and sad with their rationing book out then they'll continue to strop around like teenagers.

It’s the assumption that it’s twiggy or not appropriate for hop-forward beers. There are newer drinkers who parallel the Pro-Cask drinkers. “I don’t touch cask me. Rubbish stuff. A third of that keg there please.”Whilst one side is still struggling to be convinced about keg beer, another divide is widening. Often these Pro-Keg drinkers are those who are used to the higher prices paid for keg so don't hunt or crave cheaper beer. If they continue to turn away from cask then so may the breweries.


My Nanna used to buy the most tremendous garlic sausages from her local butchers. Tea at hers was always some over-stewed meat with over-stewed vegetables and a side plate of garlic sausages. And it was utterly delicious. Arguably, she was the sort of person who would never have welcomed the flavour of garlic into her kitchen. But she couldn't get enough of these butcher delights, cooked on a low heat for hours.

What I wouldn't give for those sausages now.

It isn't that she knew best, my Nan, but she obviously knew where to get quality. She might have been older but she knew. She might have thought she was anti-garlic but when presented with it in this form she knew it was good. The sausages were pretty inexpensive.

If she were still here now my Nan would be struggling to get those same ones. The problem now would be the market. My Nan would either be facing a weakening older crowd just happy with a pack of Richmond for a fry-up at similar cost. Or she'd be facing an Artisan, branded sausage company with a fancy name that claim to have reinvented the pork sausage and taken down the government at the same time. My Nan would have to convince us all that those garlic sausages from the butchers at the end of the road were the best - and she'd have to do it all before the butchers closed for good and there was no return.
On that bright Saturday afternoon on the terraces of Stockport County football club, my Uncle found a drink he absolutely loved in Robinson's Bonjeuros. It wasn't one I could enjoy but for him it was just what he'd travelled to Stockport for. I had my Cloudwater US Light, not knowing it would be the last time I'd have it in cask form. The future of the cask beer he enjoys seems secure; for me it may be different

*Readers across the country might not see the significance of these prices so I must elaborate. In much of the more rural North-West anything over £3.20 is considered shocking. Every 5p from there on is like a small income. £3.35 a pint IS considered expensive for a 4.3% cask ale where we come from I assure you.


Martyn Cornell said…
Excellent set of posts, and only one small quibble - it's segue. Segway is a type of two-wheeled electric transporter.
Ed said…
The arsenic poisoning was from contaminated sugar:
John Clarke said…
Thanks for the name check. I must say my own branch's GBG selections are driven by beer quality and not petty squabbles. As I edit it I'm a little bit mystified by this pub that allegedly get a mention in nearly every issue of Opening Times - a little exaggeration for effect there perhaps? Although I must admit that I can't be arsed to go and check.

I assume you've seen this

- must say I think this is a rather more considered response than some of the stuff above - especially perhaps why Cloudwater have abandoned cask which resonates a bit more that your perhaps simplistic conclusion above.
Anonymous said…
I too no longer look to the GBG as some guarantor of a quality pub/pint. Too many times have I seen excellent pubs overlooked when those selected would never get my money.

I also tried being an activist once. My voice was ignored, I was treated like a child and ignored. I got bored of the bullshit and resigned.

As far as that beer divide goes:3 years ago I was handing out leaflets for the Independent Salford Beer Festival out at IMBC to some younger drinkers and spent half an hour trying to explain (after I had to assure them that it WAS an indy festival) why CAMRA wasn't all bad. That divide exists. And if CAMRA is to remain relevant, it needs to reach out to those drinkers.

Currently, it isn't. And that saddens me.

Nice post Mark. J.
Anonymous said…
I just wish I could get those sausages!
John Clarke said…
I think the thing about Landlord is that it is an established brand with what is perceived as a hallmark of quality. The same goes for other beers that wholesale and retail at a premium (Jaipur for example). The same goes for Marble - I know one or two people who claim that the Marble Arch is expensive but still go back because the brewery has a quality cachet for its beers. I think it's called brand building - it won't happen overnight and for it to work you need certain beers to hang it on. Perhaps the lack of a core range was another Achilles heel for Cloudwater cask.
DaveS said…
I think you're spot on on price - the issue isn't that all beer is too cheap, it's that if you think that some beer is particularly great then you should be happy to pay a bit more for it.

On the other hand, people going on about "discount culture" and so on effectively are complaining that all beer is too cheap, not just beer that they perceive to be better. So I can see how people might get the wrong end of the stick.
John Clarke said…
There are always some pubs that should be in the GBG but aren't - it's all down to allocations. However the GBG is about to have a root and branch review so perhaps something will change. Anyway not everyone shares your slightly jaded view of the GBG:

By the way the branch that ignored you - would be the same one that turned down the chance to host or help with your beer festival?
John Clarke said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Clarke said…
The "discount culture" isn't a retail issue though but a wholesale problem - and, despite what I've seen a couple of people suggest, this must be down to supply and demand. No brewery has to sell to Spoons and those pubs which gouge prices from brewers do it because they can - and I think that in many instances that rock bottom wholesale price doesn't feed through to the price at the bar. I think at the end of the day this is a problem for the industry to sort out rather than the consumer - how that will happen (apart from a mass extinction of breweries) I really don't know.

At the risk of repeating it, this post hits many nails on the head:
DaveS said…
It's a good post, but I think it misses the point (at length) on the subject of price. This:
"What I can’t do is make cask beer in precisely the way I want to. Not, that is, unless I can persuade a substantial number of punters that [...] this is important enough to make it worth paying more for my beer. But that’s a really hard sell; mostly punters (and publicans) are liable to take the view that beer is beer[...]"
is exactly the thing that people are complaining about - if people have a marked preference for a particular beer or brewery - as a fair number of people seem to with Cloudwater or Buxton - then they should presumably think it's worth paying more for it. But there's arguably a culture evolved that baulks at paying "over the odds" for a pint no matter how good you think it is. Unless it's Landlord.

Your point about brand-building might be more on point, here - possibly the issue for Cloudwater and Buxton is that while I might think they're amazing and well worth paying a bit of a premium for, someone less nerdy than me might well see either of them as being just another new brewery to take a chance on (or not...)
John Clarke said…
Buxton does have one or two beers that have some traction (Axe Edge for instance) but of course they have almost stopped cask (and are a company with a well established export market - I think comfortably over 50% of their beer goes to export). Having thought about this some more I can't help wondering whether in the medium term the lack of a core range might prove an Achilles Heel for Cloudwater themselves and not just their cask beers.
Mark Johnson said…
I did read that post. Excellent stuff. I like to think I talk about Cloudwater more in part 1. The one here is just a throwaway comment as I've already talked about the subject. I wasn't suggesting they stopped because of people like my uncle.

The pub mentioned does get a fair few mentions in the mag, including in the latest issue I’ve read (though I do miss the odd issue.) There’s a chance I’m thinking more of branch newsletters rather than Opening Times for monthly mentions now I think about it ... but I don’t have the issues to bother checking. (It’d be worth mentioning here that I don’t live in Stalybridge like most people assume I do.)

I agree with your sentiment about brand building. But I stand by my point that I’ve seen a lot of (what I’m calling) pro-cask people claim they won’t pay x amount when I see every day in the pub that this isn’t the case
Unknown said…
The problem with the whole "some branches do it right" argument re. GBG is that the GBG does not tell us which branches they are ;)

So on travelling the UK you're playing a sort of CAMRA-branch-roulette. My early experiences of the GBG were pretty similar to most anti-GBG anecdotes I hear. It just isn't all that valuable a resource for folk seeking a "good beer". It turns out a combo of social media & Google yields much better results.
Unknown said…
(That should really have been a reply to John Clarke's other post above.)
Unknown said…
Cloudwater cask sold well at a good price. ("Good" compared to other brands. And we're talking me, a niche supplier, not half-a-dozen-pallet regionals.) In the £90-£100 ex-VAT range for 4.0%-4.5% ABV. Which is similar territory for Landlord in my area. I could have taken cask more often than Cloudwater had any available. (Bearing in mind I'm buying by wholesale pallet load prices and I've no idea what the local direct cask market was like for them... based on Beer Nouvea selling 5.6% stuff for £75 it sounds pretty bad.)

Landlord is a strong brand... "if we put Landlord on it'll sell out in a day". But the thing is the same was happening for Cloudwater cask in many places. They may not have a "core range" - but there were "core styles": pale, session IPA, bitter. (Then again on the "strong brand" subject Wherry is a strong brand here too, sells like hotcakes, and is cheap to buy...)

But I guess, overall, the point from Cloudwater was that with the choice between cask and keg the keg just makes the greater business sense. I also sell more £££ of Cloudwater in bottle and keg than in cask, and even if more cask were available I doubt it'd have beaten my keg sales.

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