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 what retailers can do with cask beer
Part 1 can be read here
Part 2 - here
Away from the town centre, under the subway that tunnels beneath Huddersfield’s ring-road and opposite odd circular brick towers, lays a pub that's interior seems born from an odd Jim Henson and Terry Pratchett collaboration.
The walls are aligned with witches, puppets, nudes and odd creature busts possibly slain from Far Uberwald. Yet the truly remarkable foreign spectacle here lies on the current blackboards and the bar itself.
An old fashioned two room establishment- with separate door to each room at the entrance - the Grove, Huddersfield is still quintessentially a British pub. But the rectangular bar, with serving capability in each room, holds a choice of up to 19 cask beers and 15 keg beers at any one time (as seen on the above image taken on Friday 6th January) as well as a huge array of bottles in the fridges and cellar. It has been providing one of the biggest selections I've ever happened upon in this country for as long as I've been legally around to drink and beyond. It knows its capabilities, its limiations and, most importantly, its sustainability.
How can this be?
The Good Beer Guide days of Cask
The problem with cask beer is that it has an excuse. It often isn't very good. Certainly in suburbia, away from the city centre blog focused area, cask beer is to be approached with cautiousness at all times. There's a rather probable chance that it isn't going to be exactly servable and that you're going to drink it anyway.
It comes into one of those endearing and characteristically British acceptance terms of anything slightly better than diabolical will do. Cask beer has, over the years, normalised statements such as "I bobbed in x pub on the corner at the weekend. It's got four casks on. They weren't that bad actually."
They weren't that bad. This is acceptable. This is cause for celebration. This became the norm. This is a way to form a new local, receive a Pub of the Season award and put money behind the bar. The pub has managed to make a Theakston's XB or a Wychwood Dog's Bollocks taste slightly better than regurgitated bog water so it will do.
It's the perfect excuse for those wanting to leave the cask game to use. The Point of Sale of many cask beers is poor and the brewer has no control over that. Rather than have their product sold in sub-standard condition on the market breweries are just removing the possibility of it going wrong altogether.
The problem in correlation to the likes of Cloudwater Brew Co and Buxton Brewery giving up cask is that I do not believe their beer was entering pubs who would treat their product poorly. Pubs and bars that wanted these breweries represented on their bars generally have some passion and commitment to serving the beer in its best form. Whilst it’s not always perfect, they are far from the suburban brewery-tied establishments frequently encountered and struggling to nail the taste of Jenning's Cumberland Ale.
It’s your fault, landlord..
Still, that isn't to say it will be perfect every time which shows that more knowledge on the treatment and serving of cask is required somewhere.
First, there can be no stubbornness shown from whoever is in charge. When I mentioned in passing to the manager of my local that a well-established cask "craft" beer had been a little hit and miss on its last three appearances on the bar, she was mortified. She didn't blame the brewery, like I was doing, and instead assumed it was a cellaring problem. Cue an inquest and further training for those in the cellar to be sure that the problem wasn't their end. There was no defiance that they were blameless even though I never suggested it.
Second comes understanding of the behaviour of different beers, which may require input from the brewer. I mentioned in Part Two about the Exchange Extraction Stalybridge Buffet Bar implements when tapping and venting Timothy Taylor's Landlord. Aside from this, the beer is racked and rested for a day longer. There's something to do with different pegs being used I'm not entirely clear on myself, yet the point is they serve Landlord perfectly because they know the beer well. Surely then, there are plenty of other casks that need that extra day or just a little extra TLC at cellar stage. Is it for the brewer's to give a little more knowledge and input on the behaviour of their beers before they are presented?
This was never about your lust to get hammered on the cheap.
Most recent discussions on cask have been filled with opinionated nonsense and hot-air (you're one to talk, Mark.) But if we learnt anything from 2016, you don't need opinions based on facts or to listen to any sense of reason to drum up a following. You can have a wild thought formed on single minded stubborness and still stand firmly by it, whilst the world burns around you. Hey, isn't that the stance people have seen from a famous beer organisation for a while?
That is why this sort of promotion of cheap drinks is both confusing and meaningless.
Of course people will probably point out Old Mudgie's fondness for hectoring. He is one of those very necessary bloggers I seem to either strongly agree with or strongly disagree with at about a 50/50 split. The problem is this focus that people on tight budgets can still get cheap pints and that’s how it should be, as the blogger that took the picture has also firmly stood by. That’s fine. That in no way has a place in any part of the discussion that has been occurring the past week. This isn’t about whether people can still get multi-national shit in shit dives for pocket money. This is about breweries that spend £65 producing a quality cask of beer being able to sell that beer for more than £65.
For what it’s worth, the place pictured is in Ashton-Under-Lyne; a place and town I know well. I do not consider myself to be exaggerating or being offensive when I say that if you are happy to drink dirt at Oliver’s Bar in Ashton to save pennies then you are LITERALLY happy to drink canal water under a bridge with escaped prisoners. All to save pence..This has no place in this discussion.
Controlling the Price
Whilst discussion of fairness of cost has made up much of the past week's discussion, the division in opinion has struggled to think of a way to compromise on the situation. It is entirely unreasonable to plant your feet and say you will never pay above a certain amount for a pint of beer. It is just as unreasonable to announce that from now on all beer will be at least £4.60 a pint and expect people to be happy with the leap.
If beer is going to be priced based on its cost – as it would be in any market - then the onus must move to the pubs to decide the next course of action. That isn't impossible. As a retailer you have control here.
When my local was informed of an increase in the cost of Magic Rock Brewing's casks the original outcry from those doing the purchasing was negative. "They've priced themselves out of this pub" was the general line and the chances of seeing one of my favourite breweries on the bar again seemed over.
But as the anger subsided and, most importantly, the purchaser changed, the attitude to this situation changed. They wanted Magic Rock cask on the bar as much as the punters and I. A strategy would have to be put in place
The solution was to compromise on price. Magic Rock was suddenly coming in at £4.00 a pint - a price that most regulars would baulk at. So when other guest beers were coming in at a potential £2.80 a pint, the pub would subsidise and put these at £3.00 flat a pint with no notice at all. Two casks priced here allowed Magic Rock to be reduced to £3.60 a pint; a much more reasonable sounding offer psychologically. It was still expensive for this pub but closer to the top end price most will pay in this place.
Per beer the pub was making the exact same profit margin. As the price was only increased slightly on newer beers they were not ripping the customer off. There isn't an argument of other drinkers subsidising expensive beers. Others aren’t privy to whether pubs are regularly slapping a bit of extra profit on any pint they sell anyway.
This was about a pub altering a pricing system so that it can still offer its custom the same quality beers it is used to whilst dealing with price increases. I see this as a decent future compromise. There will always be beers available at the lower price so why can’t both live side by side on the bar?
The polymath pub
The problem with the current British beer scene is that people are trying to change its identity – right at a time when it deserves to retain its own. We are not the music scene of the year 2000, when Richard Blackwood was trying to become a rapper at a time when Nas was writing Stillmatic and Dre had dropped 2001. A time when Brits never “broke” America because our music was so poor comparatively. Now we dominate the Grammys and others are envious because we have our own identity and quality.
Cloudwater Brew Co have had one too many trips stateside that have resulted in a lust for the other side of the ocean. It started off as influence and is ending with Being John Malkovich.
I enjoy other beer cultures as much as the next drinker, When I’m in Belgium, receiving table service in a stone-walled waterside bar, it feels like being in Belgium. I am aware I am soaking up and enjoying a different drinking culture. Heck, that is what I wanted from my trip in the first place. When I come home I want an English pub. If somebody has a pub development idea based on a simple influence they've seen abroad then that’s fine - but it doesn't mean an entire change in drinking culture,
Rather than people justifying British business changes based on what they’ve seen on the American market, I suggest everybody takes a trip to Huddersfield and spends an evening in The Grove. Peruse the board there. Soak in the British pub atmosphere. Question how they manage to keep 19 ever changing cask beers in perfect condition. Ask how they manage it when so many pubs can’t get one or two right. Take your influence from there and bring that back with you; a pub in a Yorkshire town that has been successfully selling every type of beer served in every form for years, with only talk of more expansion to come. A pub where cask and keg sit perfectly together and are heralded together. It can work. It does work. So before you poo-poo keg or give up cask altogether, take your influence from the successful places around you.
The future of British beer culture is the responsibility of the producer, the retailer and the consumer. We don’t want a widening divide between two very stubborn sides. I’ll sit on this fence forever believing I can bring everybody together. If the future is about comprmise and understanding then don’t be the person without those virtues.
But it’s only beer after all...
But it’s only beer after all...