Category: Beer

| Anheuser-Busch, Beer, Craft Beer, Goose Island, London, US Craft Beer

Goose Island Bourbon County 2019

Last night I was invited to an exclusive beer launch. Exclusivity around beer – some beer, sometimes – is no bad thing. But that doesn’t mean you need to be an arse about it.

Nice. I’ll have a pint, thanks.

“Sorry mate, there’s a private party tonight, the bar’s closed.”

If you’re the poor bastard charged with being on the door with a clipboard, there are two ways you could handle your role.

One, you could say hello to anyone approaching the door and ask, “Are you here for the Bourbon County event?” If they say no, you could explain the bar is closed. If they say yes, you could then ask for their name and, if it’s there, tick it off the list. This is what happens at most events I go to.

The other way is to look at the person approaching the door, make a snap judgement, assume that this is a person who couldn’t possibly have been invited to this kind of party, and bar them entry, your voice making a rare downward turn at the end of the sentence, the word ‘closed’ being definite, with no hint of a question about it.

There’s no way this guy thinks I might actually be on the list on his clipboard – he’s making that very clear. Maybe it’s my body shape. Maybe it’s what I’m wearing. But I suspect it’s my age: I now look less like a craft beer drinker than a craft beer drinker’s dad who’s turned up with their lift home. (If you’re truly wondering whether something is fashionable or not, just observe whether ageism has crept into the scene yet.) Whatever it is, when the account exec from the PR agency was given his piece of paper on what to expect from an exclusive beer launch, I clearly wasn’t it.

Happily after being made to feel like shit on the door, things improve rapidly.

Inside Goose Island Shoreditch, I’m immediately welcomed with a glass of smoked porter that the resident brewer, Andrew Walton, has created for the season. He likes dark beers. So do I. I wish more people did: it seems we can only have dark beers these days if they’re absolutely massive and/or incredibly complicated. But on days like this, when it’s already darkening outside and the roads and pavements shine blackly, it’s nice to have at least one drinkable choice that’s a little darker than a pale ale.

And dark beers are the order of the night tonight. The invite-only crowd is here for the 2019 launch of Goose Island Bourbon County. In a scene full of hyped beers that people queue for and then trade, with no small amount of instagramming and YouTubing, this is one of the hypiest. And with good reason.

Goose Island was a pioneer of whisky barrel-aged beers. First brewed in 1992 to celebrate the 1000th batch of Goose Island beer, it was aged in Bourbon barrels. Kentucky is south-east of Chicago, a mere four-hour drive from the brewery. As Bourbon barrels are used for the character of freshly charred oak, they can only be used once by whisk(e)y makers. Back in the nineties, any brewer wanting to use them to age beer had a ready supply. If you’re wondering whether Goose Island truly was a pioneer, when they first entered Bourbon County into the Great American Beer Festival in 1995, it was disqualified because it didn’t fit any of the style guidelines at the time.

Since then, the brewers have learned more about the process and played around with the different barrels available to them. Andrew Walton declares it to be ‘The most important beer Goose Island make.’ He tells us how Chicago’s baking summers and sub-zero winters are perfect for the ageing process, making the wood expand and contract, so the beer really gets into the wood, and the wood gets into the beer.

One of Goose Islands’ massive barrel ageing rooms in Chicago, taken 2014

The sense of anticipation builds as Andrew leads a tutored tasting, beginning with two more dark beers he’s brewed here in the Shoreditch brewpub. The first, a stout brewed with sour cherries and tonic beans, is like a spicy Black Forest gateau, and I can’t decide whether it’s a perfect beer to go within dessert or dessert in its own right.

That bottle came straight home.

Nemesis is a Doppelbock aged in Madeira barrels, a collaboration with Orbit brewing, and it’s a revelation. Doppelbock is obviously lighter than a stout or porter and you might think it wouldn’t take the characteristics of ageing as well, but it’s buttery, rummy, juicy and fruity, with a huge amount of madeira character.

Finally, we get two vintages of Bourbon County: the new 2019, and last year’s 2018. Both were aged for a year in Bourbon barrels, but this year they played around with the mix: a combination of Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace. The 2018 has a huge dose of marmite on the nose. It’s a familiar ageing trait, but it’s here by the bucketload. Then you get a bunch of flavours that all go together, and I realise for the first time that each one is a special treat to the people who love it: Bourbon, chocolate and tobacco, all sitting there together, the taste of a gentleman’s club or, more appealingly, the lounge of an upscale Scottish Highlands hotel. Standing around a waist height table in the brewpub, the beer screams for a big leather Chesterfield for full enjoyment.

The 2019 expression is very different. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever said this about a 15.2% beer, but it’s cleaner and lighter. The chocolate and vanilla characters are much more straightforward. It’s neither better nor worse than 2018, just intriguingly different. If you haven’t had the 2018 first, it’s a beer to finish the night on, especially if you haven’t had much else beforehand. It’s almost impossible to imagine having one of these to yourself, sir drinking it in less than an hour if you do.

Anheuser Busch-Inbev have done a great deal wrong since they took over Goose Island in 2011. It feels like they don’t have a clue what to do with it. Once an absolute craft beer pioneer – Goose Island IPA is the beer I used to introduce countless people to craft beer a decade or so ago – it now feels like it’s lost its way and been eclipsed by its rivals. People always say this about beers that get taken over, and they’re not always right, but GK IPA is definitely not the same beer it used to be. New launches such as ‘Goose Midway’ seem to be aimed squarely at the mainstream lager drinker while offering no real reason why they should choose it over Foster’s or Stella. The abbreviation to ‘Goose’ smells of the kids at school who say ‘my name is Steve but people call me The Space Cowboy’ when only Steve himself does.

But they’ve got a couple of things absolutely right, and they’ve done that mainly by not interfering with something that was working well. The barrel-aged programme – which includes Belgian-style fruit beers aged in wine barrels as well as the whisky barrel-aged stuff – produces beer after beer that are uncompromised and , almost without exception, stunning.

Fruit cake.

Mike Siegel, head of the barrel programme, is largely left to his own devices, as evidenced by the recent launch of Obidiah Poundage, a three-way collaboration between Goose Island, beer historian Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice. These people had. great deal of fun making these beer, at Goose Island’s expense – and also to Goose Island’s benefit.

The only real change that’s happened to the annual Bourbon County released is that there’s now more hype around it. The scarcity value of the beer has increased massively – given that I’m so old I look to some people like I shouldn’t be here tonight, I can remember simply going down to Utobeer on Borough Market and buying a four pack. I did wonder at one point if I was imagining this, but I found the evidence at the back of my cellar:

Not sure what year this was…

Sadly the bottles are long gone.

The only intervention ABI seem to have made around Bourbon County is to put some PR agency thinking behind it. And I have to say, I think they’ve done the right thing here. Do I wish Bourbon County was cheaper and more widely available, like it used to be? Well, I don’t think so. I wish I had some more of it in my cellar, but that’s different. It’s good that a beer that is so innovative, that takes over a year to make, that’s stronger than most wines, should have a halo of mystique around it. There are literally thousands of different beers on sale in the UK right now. We don’t need all of them to be affordable and accessible. The existence of a few like this gives the beer scene a bit of a halo. And when Andrew says ‘This is my favourite beer to introduce non-beer drinkers to,” – yes, this 15% monster with huge dollops of wood and Bourbon character pressing in on already complex, malty beer, rather than the IPA – it’s clearly doing something for beer as a whole.

If you feel like treating yourself or a loved one, you can buy Bourbon County from Beer Hawk, seeing how it’s also owned by AB-Inbev.


| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Uncategorised

Calling publicans and bar staff – we need your for cask ale research!

It’s time for the Cask Report again – and if you work in a pub, I need to know what you REALLY think about cask ale…

Over the next couple of weeks I’m conducting focus groups with people who work in pubs to find out what you think of cask ale on both a professional and personal level.

If you’re interested in taking part, I need you to travel to a central city location and give us about 90 minutes of your time, for which I can pay you £30.

The point is to be honest. All responses will be anonymised and nobody’s name will get back to their employer. I need to hear what you really think, not what you know you are supposed to say or what you might think I want to hear.

I need to make up quotas of people with different attitudes, and spread my research evenly across different locations.

So if you’re interested, please copy and paste the info below, fill in the answers to what suits you and either leave it as a comment below this post or send it to me privately via my contact form here. I need all parts answered in order to build up a balanced set of groups. I’ll then let you know if I need you asap – it depends on how many responses I get in each place/category.

Thanks in advance for your help!

1. I am in or prepared to travel to ((highlight or delete as applicable):

  • Bristol
  • Leeds
  • London
  • Nottingham (Thu 13th June only)
  • Edinburgh (w/c 17th June only)
  • Newcastle

2. I could be available at the following dates and times (highlight or delete as applicable):

  • Tues 28th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Weds 29th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Thurs 30th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Fri 31st May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Thurs 13th June (Notts only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Fri 14th June 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Tuesday 18th June (Edinburgh only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Wednesday 19th June (Edinburgh only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm

3. Which of the following best describes your relationship with/attitude to cask ale? (highlight or delete as applicable):

  • “It’s a major part of the business in the pub I work in – it’s something we’re known for and I’m proud of how we keep and serve it.”
  • “We stock cask, but it’s not really a core part of our core business and I’m not particularly engaged with it.”
  • “The place I work doesn’t really do cask ale and I’m not really bothered about it.”

4. I am (highlight or delete as applicable):

  • A freehold licensee
  • A leased/tenanted licensee
  • A pub manager
  • A shift manager
  • A member of bar staff

| Beer, Brewing, Budweiser Budvar, Cantillon, Lager, Miracle Brew, Water, Yeast

Three Examples of Why Some Good Beers Cost More

One of the biggest frustrations for brewers is when people who self-identify as lovers of good beer insist that it should always, without exception, be inexpensive. Is it fair to condemn this inverse snobbery? Or could the industry and beer communicators be doing a better job of explaining and justifying the high price tags attached to some beers?

The ‘special’ shelf in my cellar.

Notwithstanding the steady descent of Twitter generally into a platform for people to get furious over trivia and hurl abuse at people they don’t know, there’s been a spat going on over the last few days between a couple of contrarians and a bunch of beer people over the ‘outrageous’ price of a beer someone mentioned.

I immediately intervened on the side of the industry people defending and justifying the expense of some beers, tweeting:

“I find it amazing every time someone who claims to love beer asserts that beer can never be worth more than what you pay for the average pint. I’ve never heard a wine lover declare that Chateau Lafite, for example, should cost the same as Blossom Hill.”

I steadfastly believe in the validity of this comparison. But looking at the sheer ignorance of the people we were debating with, two things occurred to me. One, yes, it’s probably not worth bothering engaging with people who for some reason have chosen to spend their precious time on this planet arguing with people they don’t know about subjects on which they are entirely ignorant. But two, the frequency with which this particular attitude surfaces suggests that perhaps we’re at fault too. It’s not just on social media: in pubs and bars, when there’s some strong, rare beer being sold in thirds or halves only, there’s always someone who works out the cost of a pint (even though you can’t buy a pint) and decries how outrageous it is. Sometimes it even makes national news. And yet, we never see stories about what a rip-off it is that a pub wine list has a house white at 13.5% ABV for £14 and another wine at £65 that’s also £13.5% ABV. Even those (perhaps especially those) who are ignorant about wine are quite happy to accept that some wines are intrinsically worth more than others. If asked to explain why, they might invent an answer, but they would probably be more likely to come up with an explanation that sounds plausible to their ears rather than crying foul on pricing.

That such people are unable to do the same for beer surely says more about them than it does beer, but we can’t let them shoulder all the blame. Some of the replies to these people have been impatient, perhaps even condescending, and I thought: why would we assume people would have this knowledge when, unless they’re avid readers around beer or visitors of breweries, no one has told them?

So, in a blog post that won’t make a blind bit of difference to the professional contrarians whose only motivation is winding people up on Twitter to afford the illusion that their sad little lives mean something, here are three examples, offered with the best intentions, to explain why some beers cost more than others. These are not the only three – but they’re the three that came to my mind first.

1. Some beers have more stuff in them than other beers.

Here’s an interesting stat: in North America, craft brewers account for around ten per cent of total beer volume brewed. But craft brewers buy 25 per cent of all the hops grown in America. That means on average, craft brewers put two and a half times as many hops into their beers as mainstream commercial breweries. That means the cost of the hops going into each pint is at least two and a half times higher. (Possibly more when economies of scale and sizes of contracts are taken into account.) If you don’t like hoppy beer, or don’t want to pay a premium for it, that’s your choice. But surely the financial logic is undeniable. And that’s before you take into account the extra expense of ensuring a very hoppy beer remains chilled from the point of packaging to the point it’s bought by the drinker, to preserve the freshness of the hops.

2. Some beers take longer to make than other beers

There are various examples of this, but let’s look at lager. The word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’, and it’s generally accepted that a good quality lager should be lagered, or conditioned, at low temperatures for at least four weeks. This is because the yeast throws out various flavour compounds as it’s fermenting and conditioning. But left long enough, the yeast will then reabsorb these compounds, leaving a fresh, clean beer that’s crisp and refreshing but still has flavour and character. Not only does the lagering process tie up your capital for weeks because you can’t sell the beer you’ve just bought all the ingredients for and paid someone to make, it needs to be stored at cool temperatures – around two degrees Celsius. Keeping huge rooms full of tanks at that temperature consistently costs a serous amount of money. Budweiser Budvar lagers its beers in this way for at least ninety days. Some mainstream commercial brands go from brewing to packaging in 72 hours. If asked, they’ll tell you that modern technology has removed the need for lagering time. But taste a properly lagered lager alongside one that’s been made in a few days, and you might be sceptical about this.

3. Some beers use rare or special ingredients or processes

Lambic and geueze beers were at the centre of the recent Twitter spat. There are many, means reasons why these beers are expensive compared to a mainstream lager, but I want to focus on just one.

Instead of adding laboratory-cultured yeasts to start the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, lambic brewers rely on the natural yeasts in the air around them. It’s not quite the same thing as sourdough versus regular bread, but it’s close enough for comparison. The air around us is filled with a swirling cocktail of microflora, and its composition changes depending on where you are. There are certain parts of Belgium where this airborne biome produces great results in beer: other parts, not so much. So beers in this style are tied to particular places. But the cocktail doesn’t just change depending on where you go; it changes depending on the time of year, too. In warmer months, the party gets a little crowded, and as well as the ‘good’ yeasts you want in your beer, there are lots of uglier critters floating around that will spoil the beer and made it undrinkable. This means lambic producers can only brew during certain months of the year. The traditional season runs from October to April, when the average temperature is between -8 degrees Celsius and +8 degrees Celsius. But global warming means this window is now narrowing: the unseasonal warm weather we’re having now is catastrophic for lambic brewers. At Cantillon, the world’s most famous lambic brewery, the limited brewing window has contracted from 165 days in the early 1900s to about 140 days today. Within that period, sudden spikes mean a beer has to get poured away. This is a small, family business – the beer you brew over 140 days – once it’s been stored for three years, matured and blended – has to support people’s livelihoods for the whole year round. Prices have to rise, or the company will go out of business.

I’m not denying that there are opportunistic brewers and retailers who are cashing in on the craft beer boom to sell beers at artificially inflated prices because there are people who are willing to pay them. But I offer these three stories as examples that not all beers are the same. Brewing is an extraordinarily complex process and the ingredients of beer are each complex in their own way.

As with anything you buy in the supermarket, there are cheap versions and expensive versions – if all you can afford is an Iceland spag bol at £1 for an individual portion, it would be wrong to judge. But surely you’d appreciate that a scratch-cooked version using better quality tomatoes and beef is going to taste better? Brewers face similar decisions to you. If you’re not interested or not able to afford the better quality stuff, fine. But it’s simply inverse snobbery to criticise those who would rather splash out.

If anyone is interested in learning more about beer’s complex and wonderful supply chain, and the incredible lengths growers, breeders and scientists go to help brewers produce great beer, try Miracle Brew:

You’ll never see beer in the same way again. I know I didn’t.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Fuller's, London, The Business End

Fuller Love: The Beery Heart and the Head for Business

Fuller’s is selling its beer portfolio to Asahi. The commercial logic of this is undeniable. The issue is, many of us place sentimentality above commercial logic. 

And Vintage Ale. And Dark Star, And Cornish Orchards.

As someone who (a) loves beer and (b) also aspires to being seen as a level-headed commentator with a degree of insight into the market, whenever something like this happens I have two reactions: the emotional and the analytical. Sometimes they match up with each other. Other times they don’t.

So let’s get the emotional reaction out of the way first: when I saw Asahi trending on my Twitter timeline on Friday morning, and then clicked on it to see what it was about, I was fucking gutted. People asked me for my reaction on Twitter. The editor of Imbibe phoned me to see if I had a comment on it. An email thread of beer writers asking if anyone knew before the announcement or had any hot take on it spiralled through my inbox. And I had no words at all. I felt a bit stupid. The thing was, I didn’t understand it. 

I don’t want to sound too melodramatic: it wasn’t like a bereavement or anything. It was more like, imagine you have two mates. One of them is a bit lairy and is often asked to keep it down in the pub. The other one is quiet and thoughtful and one of the sweetest people you know. And one day, someone says, “Hey, there was a ruckus in the pub last night. The police were called and your mate was arrested.” 

“I’m not surprised. He probably had it coming,” you reply. “You know what he’s like.”

“No, not him,” the person says. “Your other mate! The quiet, nice one.” 

The offence is the same. But it feels worse because of who did it. Fuller’s don’t owe me anything, nor do they have any obligation to anyone else. But I had an idea in my head of the kind of company they are – entirely of my own creation – and just like it was for many people when Beavertown did their deal with Heineken, that idea now seems tarnished. Like I said, it’s an emotional reaction. It’s pointless trying to pick it apart, analyse it or argue with it – it’s just how I feel.

Now, given a day or two’s thinking time, here’s the rational reaction: one, it was probably as inevitable as it was surprising. And two, it’ll probably be OK.

Why was it inevitable? Because it’s part of the pattern. A few years ago, I was invited to be part of a panel for a Q&A session at a Greene King management awayday. There was me, and a bunch of serial entrepreneurs, City analysts and financial people. I was asked to speak first. I was doing the Cask Report at the time, and I spoke about how cask ale was looking good and that meant Greene King were in a good place if they stuck with it. And everyone else on the panel said, “Why are you talking about beer? It’s irrelevant. This is a property company, a retail company. That’s where all the money is. The brewery is just a distraction.”

If you’re only looking at the money side of things, this is inarguable. In the early nineties, when the Beer Orders mandated that breweries could no longer own thousands of pubs, every one of the ‘Big Six’ brewery conglomerates that had dominated British brewing since the sixties eventually decided to sell off the beer and hang on to the pubs (which is why we’re in the extraordinary position of not one of the top ten beer brands in the UK – one of the world’s greatest brewing countries – being owned by a British company.)

Beer is in long-term decline and brewing is a low-margin business. Pubs are property, and property is worth a lot of money. Pubs also sell a lot more than beer – as a sector, they now make more money from food than drink. If you had to choose to give up one or the other, only the most sentimental of brewing companies would choose to stick with beer. 

Of course, Fuller’s were not forced to choose between one or the other. They’re well below the limit for the maximum number of pubs a brewer can own. And yet they decided to dispose of the brewing business anyway. 

From what I can understand from off-the-record chats, very few people in the business had any inkling of this happening. Not only were they not told, they were always under the impression that the board at Fuller’s were indeed very sentimentally attached to the brewing business. Ever since Young’s sold its brewing operations and shut its brewery in Wandsworth in 2006, there has been speculation that Fuller’s would – or even must – do the same. The received wisdom among the upper echelons of the business was that the families of Fullers and Turners who still occupy many board positions wouldn’t want to face the ignominy of turning up at their boxes at Twickenham, Lords, Glyndebourne or wherever and have to introduce themselves as ‘shopkeepers’ rather than brewers. I guess they’ve swallowed their (London) Pride on that score. 

I’m writing this blog post in a newly opened Fuller’s pub. Like every Fuller’s pub that’s been opened or refurbished in the last few years, it’s magnificent. We hear a great deal about pub closures, and while Fuller’s have long received praise for their brewing prowess and approach, they’ve not received enough credit for the care, attention and confidence they show in the pub sector. £250m, minus costs and yachts, houses or whatever else the beneficiaries might buy, remains a significant chunk of money to invest in pubs. Those pubs will all still stock Fuller’s beers, as Asahi will be their main beer supplier.

From Asahi’s point of view, this sale sees them building up a very respectable portfolio of western beer brands now. I have to admit that as a drinker, the prospect of Fuller’s, Dark Star, Meantime and Pilsner Urquell, plus Cornish Orchards cider, all on the same team, is an enticing one. Martyn Cornell also raises the sharp observation that this is a foreign lager brewer making a massive vote of confidence in British cask ale. Fuller’s flagship beer, London Pride, has been suffering sustained decline, squeezed between the big multinationals’ marketing power and the rise of craft beer. Pride and the rest of the Fuller’s portfolio now belong to a company with much deeper pockets. 

And the point many of us miss is that these big companies have a global outlook. You have a well-respected traditional British beer called LONDON PRIDE that now has access to huge distribution in big, beer-hungry, and often massively Anglophile markets in Central Europe and Asia. People often ask me why the hell Carlsberg bought a toxic brand (within the UK beer bubble) called London Fields. Same reason. 

Many who, like me, remain sad about the deal despite this commercial logic, try to put their fears into rational terms by suggesting that a multinational lager brewer might screw up their beloved beers. I genuinely don’t think will happen. Asahi has absolutely no experience in cask ale. They wouldn’t risk blowing their £250m investment by trying to change what they don’t understand. They’ll leave Fuller’s and Dark Star well alone to do what they know how to do best, merely providing them with more production capacity and wider distribution, and a shitload more health and safety notices around the workplace. That’s what they did with Meantime. And after a couple of false starts, they’ve actually handled Pilsner Urquell pretty well. 

I’m almost talking myself into cheering this sale rather than mourning it. But I can’t quite get there. It’s not just the keyboard warriors who want to keep craft beer pure even as they sit in comfortable corporate jobs drawing salaries from big multinationals who are sad about this sale. Brooklyn Brewmaster Garret Oliver told me that, “Fuller’s, more than any other brewery, is responsible for my becoming a brewer.” Last year I interviewed John Hall, founder of Goose Island, when he came to Fuller’s to brew a collaborative beer to celebrate that company’s 30th anniversary. On business trips to Europe, he used to detour via London simply so he could drink London Pride at the Star Tavern, a Fuller’s pub in Belgravia. When he finally changed out of his business suit and into brewer’s overalls, he brewed Honker’s ale to try to emulate his favourite beer. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale began life as an attempt to imitate Fuller’s ESB. ESB itself is now a category, a bona fide beer style brewed all over the world and judged in international competitions, when it was once simply the name of a tasty, strong beer in the Fuller’s portfolio. 

Fuller’s was the brewery that inspired the breweries that inspired the modern craft beer boom. Arguably no other brewery in the world is as responsible for shaping craft beer. These individual stories of inspiration – and there are many more – cannot be measured on a balance sheet. But they create value nonetheless.

Asahi are not evil and they’re not going to screw up these beers. Fuller’s are not sellouts who deserve to be shunned by beer ideologues. And yet we’ve still lost something. We’ve lost some of beer’s romance and heritage. We’ve lost a sense of stability and continuity. We’ve lost a bit of magic. Yes, I’m being sentimental. But even the most hard-nosed businessman should be wary of scorning or dismissing such sentimentality. Because it’s the basis of loyalty – no, devotion – a fierce passion for some beers and breweries that few if any other products can summon among their core customers. 

My warning to Asahi would be to respect this irrational devotion and sentimentality and to honour the beers and the brewery that created it. I suspect they will do a fairly decent job of that, because the business they just bought depends on them doing so. But it still won’t quite be the same.

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Craft Beer

What Ails Cask Ale? Part 3 of 3

Finishing off my analysis of the research I undertook for this year’s Cask Report, having looked at consumer and market dynamics, here are some thoughts about cask and the trade.

Photo: Frances Brace for Cask Report 1014

As part of my research for the Cask Report, in August I conducted a survey among publicans who stock cask ale. The results made curious reading, and took a bit of time to work out, but in terms of solving the issues cask faces in the trade, the answers are pretty simple. 

If you ask people to fill in a survey about cask ale, those who like cask are more likely to respond than those who don’t, so it would be wrong to draw any conclusion about the total market from our respondents – a significant majority said cask was becoming more important to their business, which clearly doesn’t tally with cask’s steep overall decline. What it does tell us though – and we have to be mindful of this – is that behind the overall decline, there’s a group of pubs that are genuinely prospering from cask – more on that later.

Taking those who say cask is becoming less important toothier business than it was, more of these pubs blame the rise of craft beer than any other factor. In their own words, craft in formats other than cask is what drinkers are demanding, because it is ‘interesting’, ‘varied’ and ‘colder’. A few also say that, for them, craft is more profitable and more consistent. 

But craft isn’t the only thing pulling drinkers away from cask. Many publicans cite the growth of craft spirits as a significant factor too. Some say the pubco tie stops them from getting the ales their drinkers demand, and importantly, a fair few say they can’t compete with local pubs where cask has become a speciality. 

It must be noted that for some pubs, the growth of craft beer more generally, irrespective of format, is helping cask ale. Among those who say cask is becoming more important to their business, by far the most common reason is growing consumer demand. Interest in beer styles and the growth of small, local breweries is driving demand for cask in places that do it well. 

When it comes to issues around quality, it’s very clear that messages around cellarmanship, perfect serve, training and engaging with drinkers are getting through. The problem is whether publicans and bar staff are acting on this information or not. Ask them if they’re aware of training, if they find it useful, if they know how long a cask needs to be on stillage before serving, how long it should remain on sale once tapped, and what to do if a drinker brings back a dodgy pint, and they know all the correct answers. The trouble is, compare these answers to market data, and publicans who say they sell a beer for three days are actually selling it for seven. Pubs that say they’re training their staff are not. And pubs that say they replace a dodgy pint without question are in reality shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘It’s cask, it’s meant to be like that.’

Why would publicans choose not to treat cask correctly when they know how to? I can only speculate, but I think it’s obvious, and have discussed it with other people in the industry who have reached the same conclusion. It’s tough running a pub. You’re working at least a sixty-hour week, probably more, and you just can’t get to everything you want to do, or should do. So that little bit of extra work on cask doesn’t get done.

John Keeling, recently retired from Fuller’s, thinks there’s one issue at the heart of all this: margin. “If you make less off a pint of cask ale than anything else, it’s going to come bottom of your list,” he told me. Keeling believes cask’s low margin compared to any other drink on the bar is why it doesn’t receive enough marketing investment, enough training, enough care and attention generally. 

This was echoed in my research. Some publicans even said they used craft beer and expensive spirits to subsidise the lack of profit from cask, just so they can keep cask on either out of love or for the reputation of the pub, such as maintaining a place in the Good Beer Guide.

There are of course exceptions to this. On my questionnaire, before we got onto the business side of things, I asked respondents how they felt about cask themselves. Now – I split the data by size of pub, by whether it was freehold, leased, tenanted or managed, whether or not it had Cask Marque accreditation, and there was little variation in the data. The one difference that was significant was when I compared publicans who said they personally adored cask and drank it themselves to everyone else. These were the guys for whom cask ale was making money, who put in the extra time, who trained their staff properly.

That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The people for whom cask is a vocation rather than just part of the job are those who have the greatest investment in cask being perfect. 

You see this playing out in other pubs. Some of those who said they struggle with cask cited the presence of a nearby cask ale shrine or micropub as the main reason. If you’re a typical boozer, you can’t compete with cask aficionados on range or quality. I have no solid data to back this up, but I suspect we’re starting to see cask drinking gravitate towards pubs that have a particular specialism in cask. If there’s one of those in the middle of a town, we’ll start to see cask disappear from other pubs near it.

So if we want cask to succeed, from a trade point of view, there are two options.

Firstly, if you’re a cask pub and you’re not that into it yourself, hire someone who is, to be a ‘cask champion’. Pay them a little extra for their knowledge and passion. Give them the leeway they need to indulge their passion. There are plenty of people like this out there, and cask is still recruiting new acolytes.

Secondly, if cask is to have a long-term future as a mainstream drink rather than a specialist niche, it needs a better margin, either from an increase in price or a reduction in duty. If pubs are making more from cask, they’ll look after it better. If breweries are making more on cask, they’ll invest more in promotion and marketing, and in quality control and technical support for the pubs they sell it to. Sort these issues out, and all the issues we previously addressed on the consumer side will start to fade.

So there we have it: seemingly simple on the surface, how to save cask ale for the nation in two easy steps. Let’s wait and see how that turns out, shall we?

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Craft Beer

The Market for Flavourful Beer

When trying to categorise beer, it may be time to drop subtle distinctions – because there are signs the beer drinker already has. 

Cask? Craft? Both??
(photo credit: James Beeson)

I’ve always argued that traditional cask ale is craft beer. Many of these who founded the first wave of American craft breweries think so too. 

In this long-running argument, opponents of my view may concede that some cask ale is craft beer, but not the stuff that’s bland, or ‘twiggy’. To which I reply that if the actual quality or flavour appeal of the beer has anything to do with it, there are scores of modern craft breweries turning out bland or downright horrible stuff too.

The real reason many craft fans struggle with cask is best summarised by the slide below, which I’ve used several times before. 

Cask is a traditional part of British heritage, whereas craft is modern, trendy and American. Despite the protestations of craft beer die-hards that it’s all about the integrity of the product, they’re as image-led as anyone – it’s just that the image is communicated via different channels. 

But as well as the chart above – which was based on extensive research among drinkers of both cask and craft in other formats – there’s growing evidence that the broad mainstream of drinkers see at least a partial overlap between craft and cask, perhaps even more than that. 

When compiling research for the Cask Report, I missed one or two fascinating nuggets contained in Marston’s On-Trade Beer Report. Check this out:

Drinkers who say they understand what craft beer is and claim to drink it were asked to name a craft beer brand. A majority of them – 55% – named a beer the researchers felt was a ‘traditional ale’. Tellingly, the report’s authors say that 45% ‘correctly’ named a brand they deem to be craft – implying that those who named a traditional brand were incorrect in doing so. 

Perhaps you agree. Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Blimey, over half of people who think they’re drinking craft beer don’t even know what it is.’ Maybe to you this is a sign of how bigger brewers have co-opted the term ‘craft’ and made it meaningless. Maybe you just think these people aren’t as knowledgeable about beer as you are. Or maybe – just maybe – they’re right and you’re wrong. 

Craft has gone mainstream. That means it no longer belongs solely to the bloggers, geeks, brewers and experts. And that means we don’t get to have the final say on what is and isn’t craft. When people say craft has become a meaningless marketing term, they need to clarify that it has become meaningless to them. When 13 million UK adults say they enjoy drinking craft beer, it takes some pretty extraordinary arrogance to say that they’re all wrong – that what they’re drinking is not craft, or that craft actually doesn’t mean anything. 

If you want to carry on those debates, that’s up to you – but please do it somewhere else out of my earshot. I’ve been having this argument for eight years now and it’s boring. 

My reason for bringing up this consumer perception that craft and cask are pretty similar, if not the same, is that I think it’s increasingly useful to view the market in this way. Because if a majority of drinkers think they’re the same thing, people analysing the market should probably do so too. If you look at them as the same from a data point of view, it’s pretty interesting.  

If you add together the on-trade volume sales of cask ale and craft beer in other formats, you see that in September 2014, they accounted for 18.9% of all beer sold in the on-trade. Now that’s already quite impressive. But by September 2018, that joint figure had increased to 23.5%. If we call this ‘the market for more interesting or flavourful beer than the mainstream’, it’s on course to account for one in four pints drunk across the entire on-trade.

This is important for a whole bunch of reasons:

  1. You can no longer call it a niche: craft and cask together are bigger than the entire premium lager category, which accounts for 22% of the on-trade. 
  2. Craft is not just cannibalising cask: yes, cask is in decline and many publicans cite the growth of craft in other formats as the main reason, but the growth of craft is many times bigger than the decline in cask. Craft is bringing new people into this ‘interesting beer’ segment.
  3. Mainstreaming might help everyone. There’s some understandable paranoia that big players muscling in might snatch the market away from ‘true’ craft brewers. But there’s that hackneyed phrase, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ When big players come in, they have the budgets to do proper marketing. They have the reach to get to places smaller players can’t. They familiarise a much bigger audience with the whole concept of craft beer. At least some of the people they bring in are going to move on to ‘true’ craft brands as they learn more. This is exactly what happened when Magner’s created the cider boom of the 2000s. There were small, artisanal cinder makers who loathed the brand, but still thanked it for their very existence because even they saw the benefit of new people coming into a market that had been in seemingly terminal decline. 

So from now on I’m going to be talking about ‘the market for interesting beer, across all formats’. It just needs a catchier, more accurate name. How about ‘craft’?

n.b. Thank you to Heineken’s Andy Wingate for supplying me with the CGA data that confirmed my hunch.

| Beer, IPA, Marketing

Bass Ale is back. I wish I were more delighted.

A new press release about the rejuvenation of Britain’s most famous ever beer brand causes more problems than it solves. 

Oh, you shouldn’t have! No, really. 

I don’t go out of my way to drip withering scorn on Anheuser Busch-InBev, but they always seem to be able to trigger me when they announce the launch of a new beer. A few years ago I did a conference presentation on how (and how not) to do innovation, and when I illustrated this with numerous examples of rubbish launches, it started to look like a vendetta against the world’s biggest brewery. It wasn’t meant to be. They just gave me more instances of all that was wrong with marketing hype, more consistently, than any other brewer.

And so we come to last week’s announcement that Bass Ale is returning to the UK, and a launch which is pretty much a perfect case study in corporate bullshit being sprayed over something the corporation in question neither knows nor cares about.

A bit of background: Bass found fame in the early 19th century as the quintessential IPA (when IPAs tended just to be called ‘pale ales’.) Brewed in Burton on Trent, it superseded Allsopp’s, the town’s original big hitter in India, and went on to become the first ever global beer brand. Its distinctive red triangle was famous all across the British Empire and beyond, and became the UK’s first ever registered trademark, narrowly missing out to German brand Krupp’s in being the world’s first, in any product category. Bass was so admired that less talented, less scrupulous brewers would simply copy the label and pass off their own beers as Bass, necessitating the move.

By the mid-twentieth century the allure of IPA had faded, but Bass was still one of the biggest and most famous beer brands in the UK when a period of rapid consolidation began among breweries. The second wave of this consolidation in the late 1990s saw Inbev acquire Bass – by then a massive conglomerate still based in Burton on Trent – only to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. They ended up having to sell most of Bass (the company) to what is now Molson Coors, but confusingly held on to Bass (the beer) and proceeded to largely ignore it in the UK for the next twenty years. When approached and asked if they didn’t want it, AB-InBev replied they would sell UK licensing rights (inaccurately reported as being for an outright sale of the brand) for £15 million – essentially a massive middle finger extended to anyone who thought the world’s most legendary beer deserved better than the neglect they were showing it.

So now, instead of selling or ignoring it, AB-InBev is apparently relaunching it. I should be happy about this. I don’t think I am. With reference to this article, here’s why.

1.The headline: AB-InBev announce they are ‘bringing back’ Bass ale to the UK on-trade.

No it isn’t, because Bass Ale never left the UK on-trade, despite appearances. It’s been brewed under licence by Marston’s for years. It’s simply been given no support by its owners. Where you occasionally found it, it wasn’t bad – if it had been treated right. So the headline is factually inaccurate, and merely draws attention to the fact that if it ever felt like Bass had disappeared from the UK, this was entirely AB-InBev’s fault.

2. The picture: ‘Imported Pale Ale’.

The same visual used at the top of this blog has accompanied every story about this launch in the UK drinks trade press, so it is obviously the image that was sent out by AB-InBev themselves with the release (or at least, I’m assuming it is – for some reason, they no longer send me their press releases directly. Can’t think why.) The reason they won’t sell Bass to anyone else is that even though they may not care about it in the UK, it makes a lot of money for them as an exported beer to markets such as the US and Japan. The image accompanying the story about relaunching Bass in the UK clearly shows a bottle of Bass saying that it is ‘imported’. So either:

(a) They’re planning on brewing UK Bass abroad, for some unfathomable reason, or

(b) They’re going to dishonestly sell beer brewed in Britain as a beer imported to the UK, for reasons, again, that I cannot possibly fathom, or

(c) They couldn’t even be bothered to find an image of what UK Bass will look like to accompany the announcement of its relaunch. If it’s launching in December as stated, the new label – if there is a different one – will have been signed off months ago. But they couldn’t even be arsed to find a reference to it.

3. AB-InBev is launching Bass is to ‘reinvigorate’ and ‘reignite’ the UK’s premium ale category. 

The sheer, Trumpish arrogance of it. The UK’s premium ale category is doing just fine, thanks. The astonishing growth of craft beer means that nearly one in four pints in the UK on-trade is now cask ale or craft beer in other formats. Even when you take craft out, ‘premium’ ale is doing way better than ‘standard’. BBPA data shows ‘premium ale’ is more or less steady in volume terms in the on-trade. But here comes AB-InBev to the rescue of a category they haven’t cared about since they arrived in this country. The category doesn’t need ‘reigniting’! Its already on fire. Which is of course the real reason they’re now relaunching Bass after all this time, to exploit a healthy category rather than altruistically reigniting a struggling one. 

The press release also reminds us that AB-InBev owns Stella Artois and Budweiser. Without disclosing the actual figures, the Marston’s On-Trade Beer Report shows that in the on-trade, Stella Artois is in single digit decline, Budweiser is in double-digit decline, and so is Stella 4%. Maybe ‘re-ignite’ your core brands first, eh guys?

4. ‘The beer will be made at AB-InBev’s brewery in Samlesbury, Lancashire.’ 

Because in a market where provenance, tradition and heritage are some of the key drivers, who gives toss where an iconic beer is brewed, am I right? Bass pale ale made Burton-on-Trent the most famous ale brewing town in the world. Across the planet today, pale ale brewers still ‘Burtonise’ their water to give it the unique mineral profile that made Bass so famous. Bass is being brewed right now under license in Burton, by Marston’s. But yeah, let’s relaunch this premium, iconic brand that’s indelibly associated with the world’s most beer town by making it in a factory in another county. While we’re at it, let’s make Cornish pasties in Croatia, Roquefort cheese in Slough, and vintage champagne in Barnsley. Because it doesn’t matter.

5. ‘Bass was the world’s first pale ale.’/’Bass is a pale ale pioneer’.

Oh fuck off. I’m sorry (I’m trying to rein in the bad language and anger on this blog and sounds more professional) but fuck the fuck off. Even the most cursory reading of the history of pale ale/IPA shows this simply isn’t true. Bass was not even Burton-on-Trent’s first pale ale, let alone the world’s. Readily available records of ‘pale ale’ go back at least 160 years before Bass was even founded.  Allsopp’s were sending pale ale from Burton to India for almost a decade before Bass got in on the act.  There are only two possibilities here: either AB-InBev haven’t even been bothered to read about the history of the brand they’re relaunching, or they are knowingly lying. The problem in this press release – as in any other by this company – is their clear display that all this stuff is just marketing copy to them, to be used in the moment as they see fit, whether it’s accurate or not.

6. ‘We can’t wait to reintroduce shoppers to this historic brand.’

Bear in mind that this is a story specifically about reintroducing Bass to pubs. They could have said ‘pub-goers’, ‘people’, drinkers’, even that lazy catch-all ‘consumers’ – given that beer is actually consumed – but they choose to describe punters at the bar in a pub as ‘shoppers’ instead. To my mind, this suggests that’s all AB-InBev see people as – entities that shop. All that matters is that you buy the beer and hand over your money. But even my assumption is true, it’s still a weird thing to say out loud. No one else describes pub-goers as ‘shoppers’ – it just sounds wrong. It makes it sound like you don’t understand what a pub is. A halfway competent PR might have said, “You know what? This may be typical of the eerily robotic language we use internally, but maybe we should change it to something that sounds more normal and human if we’re speaking publicly.”

They didn’t.

7. “5.1%” 

I don’t mind that Bass ale is 5.1% ABV. That sounds good, in line with what the style should be. What I do mind is that this is the only detail they see fit to mention about the beer itself. We get stuff about its illustrious history (which AB-InBev had nothing to do with.) We get stuff about its success as an export beer. But true to form for the world’s largest brewery which in fact cares nothing whatsoever about beer, there are no details at all about what ‘shoppers’ can expect if they drink Bass pale ale as opposed to just buying it. Is it brewed to a traditional Bass recipe? Given the focus is on bottles, will it be bottle-conditioned or not? What hops are in it? Will it differ at all from the existing cask version? Is it brewed with traditional British barley or has it been re-worked? FOR GOD’S SAKE WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE? These are the things that people who are truly interested in the premium ale category care about. They seem not to have occurred to the company that thinks it is going to ‘reinvigorate’ that category.

I hope the relaunched Bass ale is a phenomenal beer. I truly do. I’ve probably written more about this brand than any other beer. In the history of food and drink, it is comparable to champagne or cognac in its significance. If it tastes great, I will buy it (can’t imagine there’ll be samples in the post) and I will publicly say that it tastes great. But when the most interesting thing they can say in the press release is that a beer with the same name (I doubt it’s actually the same beer) went down with the Titanic, I only get a sinking feeling.

*Update, 19th November*

I asked AB-InBev on Twitter about the ‘imported’ claim in point 2, above, and they had the courtesy to reply.

It turns out that the bottle featured here is the right bottle, and that AB-InBev do in fact plan on selling Bass dishonestly in the UK as an ‘imported beer’. Their exact response was ‘The name is a nod to its international popularity and to differentiate it from other Bass ales in the UK.’

As I pointed out in response, it’s great that they want to talk to British drinkers about the success of a British-brewed beer overseas. But the correct word to use here would be ‘exported’ – the precise opposite of the word they intend to use on the bottle. The fact that they are also selling the beer in the US-format 355ml bottle instead of the standard UK measures of 330ml or 500ml also leads me to conclude that this is a deliberate and knowing attempt to mislead British drinkers into thinking Bass Ale is an imported beer. That’s why I have now reported this to the Trading Standards Authority.

| Beer, CAMRA, Cask ale, Cask report

What Ails Cask Ale? Part Two

After talking last week about some general attitudes and behaviours around cask ale, this week I’m focusing in on the sense I got from research about some specific issues around how cask is presented to the consumer. 

Everyone has their own opinions about cask. The main reason we do research is to test those opinions for conformation bias – do you see what you want to see? Is your opinion the same as that of most people? In my experience, most research is a mixture of confirming things you thought, because they’re bleedin’ obvious, and throwing up a few surprises that may seem counter-intuitive but make sense when explained. 

Here’s what I found out via a mix of eight focus groups in four locations around the country, and quantitative research with just over a thousand people in the sample. 

1. Quality

People in the industry – and drinkers – have long known that the variability of cask ale can be an issue. A few years ago, when cask was resurgent, it got stocked in more pubs, and the typical cask pub started stocking more lines. Cask went into pubs that didn’t really know how to keep it, and too much cask was stocked for the throughput of the pub. Quality suffered because the beer stayed on the bar too long, which meant people drank less of it, which meant it stayed on longer, and there you go. 

This is still an issue, and the scale of it is not fully apparent. Anyone who has taken a dodgy pint back to the bar will have been told at some point, “Well no one else has complained.” That’s because most drinkers don’t feel confident enough to complain. A YouGov survey for the Cask Report showed only 34% of people say something when they get a dodgy pint. They’re more likely simply to leave it, and not come back to the pub, or at least to avoid cask from then on. 

I used the focus groups to explore why this happens. Apart from the obvious reason that conflict over a bad pint creates the opposite atmosphere and emotions than those you went to the pub to experience, quality is closely linked to awareness and knowledge of cask. 

It’s another vicious circle: cask is recessive on the bar. People really don’t notice it that much. Because it’s recessive, they’ve never really learned much about it, and don’t feel any urge to change that. And because they don’t know much about it, when they do occasionally drink it and don’t enjoy the taste, they have no idea whether they simply don’t like it, or if there’s something wrong with it. Therefore, they just leave it and don’t say anything. As someone who has often taken back stale, vinegary, infected, or unintentionally cloudy pints only to be told, “It’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that,” I can sympathise.

Every focus group summed it up by saying “Even my mate who drinks loads of cask says it can be variable. You know where you are with other drinks.  Best to stick with what you know.” Now people are generally going to the pub less often than they used to, the stakes are higher. You don’t just shrug off a bad pint any more. You expect better. So even people who don’t like lager that much will order it instead of cask if they’re not confident about how it’s going to taste.

2. Temperature

People like drinks to be cooler these days. I even see craft beer geeks chilling down Imperial stouts. I’ve always been a believer in the principle that telling someone they’re eating or drinking something in the wrong way is not a brilliant business building strategy. If that’s how they prefer it, they’re not wrong; they just have different tastes. 

I asked my research sample what temperature cask ale should be served at if they were to drink more of it. I tried to help them have some clarity by stating in the question that room temperature was around 20 degrees, while lager was served at 2 to 4 degrees. 64% of them said they would prefer it to be colder than the current recommended cellar temperature of 11-13 degrees: 30% said it should be the same temperature as lager; 34% said it should be between 5 and 10 degrees celsius. When we split the sample down, and look just at people who say cask is the beer they drink more often than any other style – real cask aficionados – 56% say they would like it to be served cooler than cellar temperature, with only 29% saying they prefer to at the correct cellar temperature. 

You might expect this to be skewed by younger drinkers, but its consistent all the way up, in every age band until you get to people in their mid-fifties and older. Even among 55-64 year-olds, who show a warmer preference than everybody else, more would prefer it to be cooler than prefer it at current cellar temperatures. 

Now you can say – as some on social media already have – that these people are ‘wrong’ if you like. Good luck with that. I also appreciate that serving cask colder is not without it’s problems. But the research is clear: if you want more people to drink cask more often, you need to offer at least one option that’s cooler than cellar temperature. 

Clearly, Sharp’s have already discovered this on their own. It’s going to be interesting to see how Doom Bar Extra Chilled performs. 

Moreover, Cask Marque ran a cellar audit at the same time as I was doing my research, and discovered that 64% of pubs audited were selling cask ale warmer than 11-13 degrees. That makes for grim symmetry: 64% of drinkers want it cooler than cellar temperature; 64% of pubs are selling it warmer than cellar temperature. Suddenly, double-digit year-on-year decline starts to make sense.

*There is one significant caveat: all this research took place during the July heatwave. Surely this will have exacerbated both the drinkers’ desire for cold pints and the pubs’ difficulty in keeping beer cellar-cool. I’m hoping we can run the research again in December to compare. My hunch is that the figures won’t be as extreme, but the trend will still be evident.* 

3. Price

When brewers talk of stopping or deprioritising cask, they tend to talk about issues around guaranteeing the quality of their beers in the pub, and the struggle to get a decent margin from cask compared to beer in other formats. 

For historical reasons, cask ale tends to be the cheapest pint on the bar. This delights large sections of CAMRA and some ale drinkers, but makes it much harder for brewers and publicans to make a decent return on stocking cask.

In his commentary on the Cask Report, Matthew Curtis rightly pointed out that pricing wasn’t really discussed in the report. It is an omission, but it’s one I think I can understand. The Cask Report is an industry publication, backed by CAMRA and many other industry bodies. CAMRA, rightly or wrongly, campaigns for cask prices to be kept low, and the rest of the industry is eternally involved in campaigning agains rises in beer duty and, in some quarters but by no means all, opposing measures such as Minimum Unit Pricing. Let’s just say I can imagine the difficulties involved in getting all those bodies to agree to a message that says cask ale is underpriced relative to other drinks. I can also see the potential for some embarrassing PR if someone were to fashion a story about the beer industry publicly saying beer should be more expensive. 

So I get it. But as an independent writer, I don’t have the same difficulties – I can just express a personal opinion and people are free to either agree or disagree with it. 

I asked drinkers how much they thought cask cost compared to other beers on the bar. In focus groups, no one really new. In the quantitative research, roughly a third said it was priced cheaper than standard lager, a third about the same, and a third said it was more expensive. In other words, an entirely random split – drinkers have no idea what a pint of cask costs relative to other drinks. 

Again, I’m not really surprised when I think about it. We either buy in rounds and have no idea what drinks cost relative to each other unless we look at the receipt, or we buy one pint at a time, and you’d only really notice the price difference if you were switching between cask and mainstream lager, and even then you’d have to be paying particular attention. 

But there was a second part to my research question. I asked people how much a pint of cask was compared to standard lager: cheaper, the same or more expensive. But I also asked if drinkers – whatever price they thought it was – thought it should be priced like that relative to standard lager.

Now, bear in mind that no one is going to complain that their pint isn’t costing them enough money. But among those who said cask was cheaper than standard lager, 45% of them – almost half – said it was wrong that cask was cheaper, that it should be more expensive than standard lager. Among those who thought cask ale was more expensive, only 28% said that it was ‘wrong’, and that it should be cheaper. 72% of people who currently believe cask ale is more expensive than standard lager think that it should be. But it isn’t. It’s cheaper. 

We have to be careful how we interpret this. People are NOT telling us here that they want to pay more for their beer. What they are saying is they don’t now how much it costs, and that it would be fine for most if cask were in fact more expensive than standard lager. 

A separate piece of research, conducted for the 2017 Cask Report by YouGov, asked drinkers “How likely, if at all, would you be to pay more for a pint of cask ale or ‘real ale’ that has been well looked after?” 67% said they would be either ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to pay more. 

Price is a thorny topic to get to the bottom of. As a cash-strapped drinker, of course I don’t want the price of beer to go up. But as an adviser to brewers and pubs, I’d say there’s a lot more potential margin in cask if you want it – and if the quality is good. 

That’s it for this post. I have two more lined up: one on the relationship between cask and craft, and the final one on attitudes towards cask in the trade rather than among drinkers. I hope it’s useful, particularly for brewers and publicans. 

| Beer, CAMRA, Cask ale, Cask report

What Ails Cask Ale? (Part One)

The latest edition of the Cask Report has prompted quite the debate around the plight and possible future of cask. I didn’t write the Report this year (well, only bits of it) but I did do the research behind it. With a head full of stats, here’s my take. 

For a minute I almost regretted going on holiday. 

I didn’t have much choice though: between late July and the start of September, I read a mountain of documents, recruited and moderated eight focus groups, designed and ran three separate online surveys, crunched the data from them all, and pulled the results of all this together into six separate documents running to hundreds of PowerPoint slides. It was essentially a three-month research project condensed into six weeks, all done at the same time as finishing off the final draft of my new book and keeping up with regular writing commitments. People have commented that I look tired in the video at the bottom of this post. No shit. 

This was by far the most comprehensive programme of original research ever conducted for the Cask Report, and while I was recovering in the Andalusian hills, the report’s release created quite a stir. It’s got people talking seriously about cask, which means it’s done its job. There’s already been a lot of commentary on the report’s findings and implications – Martyn Cornell gave a good summary, and today Matthew Curtis follows up and explores some issues that got less coverage in the report. If I hadn’t been on holiday, I’d have got my oar in first, but like I said…

The top line is, cask ale is in double-digit year-on-year decline. For the last couple of years – after I stopped writing it – the Cask Report tried to draw a veil over this worrying decline. This year, wisely, the Cask Matters steering committee decided this approach was no longer wise or helpful, and tasked the report with identifying the reasons for cask’s decline and trying to devise some actions to halt and ultimately reverse it. For this first time, Matt Eley edited a team of different writers rather than a single author – another positive move forward – and I did the background research.

I wrote the first nine editions of the Cask Report, from 2007 to 2015. During that time the outlook for cask was relatively positive. So what had changed? My going-in point was this: If we were to look at both macro and market trends and see that cask was no longer relevant to what beer drinkers want, there would be a case for saying cask has had its day and it is futile to resist that. But in a market that’s being driven by demands for flavour, novelty, a breadth of styles, local and small scale production, and an interest in tradition and quality, (craft in other words) then cask is on paper as relevant as it has ever been. That means something has gone badly wrong with how cask is being presented to the drinker.

The finished report could only summarise the most important headlines from the research I did. Companies that subscribe to the Cask Matters group  will have access to all the documents later this week. In the meantime, without weighing in with too many personal opinions on what we should and shouldn’t do about cask, I wanted to share some insights – some of which are touched on in the report, others that aren’t.

1. Occasions are more occasional

The number of people who claim to drink cask ale is actually going up, even as sales are in freefall. But most cask drinkers – about 60% of them – say they drink it every now and then, or hardly ever. They drink it in pubs, and they’re going to pubs less often than they used to. They might drink it on holiday, or when they go home and go out for a drink with mum and dad, or when the cask lover in the group is buying his or her round. But it’s not part of their core repertoire of drinks.

Also, that core repertoire of drinks is growing wider all the time. When I did focus groups ten, fifteen years ago, the typical ale drinker might say, “I usually drink lager, have an ale every now and then, or maybe a Guinness.” Now they’re just as likely to order a cocktail or a craft gin, or even a coffee depending on where they are and what the occasion is.

2. ‘You’ve been talking about cask ale wrong all your life!’

Remember how the lack of a precise technical definition is one of the criticisms often levelled at craft beer? Here’s CAMRA’s official definition of cask ale:

In the early 1970s CAMRA coined the term ‘real ale’ for traditional draught cask beers to distinguish them from processed and highly carbonated beers being promoted by big brewers.

CAMRA defines real ale as beer that is produced and stored in the traditional way and ferments in the dispense container to produce a reduction in gravity. It is also dispensed by a system that does not apply any gas or gas mixture to the beer other than by the traditional Scottish air pressure system.

I presented this, along with three other definitions, to focus groups consisting of people who said they occasionally drink cask ale. The reactions ranged from hilarity, to concern, to bemusement to complete and utter apathy. (Before I read this, even I hadn’t heard of the ‘traditional Scottish air pressure system’ before. Needless to say, no one in my Edinburgh groups had heard of it either.) Talk to the average punter, and a reduction in gravity has something to do with space travel. They’re not being funny – it’s thirty years now since ‘gravity’ was replaced by ABV as a measure of alcohol on drinks packaging. People felt this definition was more about what cask ale isn’t than what it is. Other definitions that talked about live yeast in the cask put off more people than it interested.

The average ale drinker is not interested in technical definitions (which must be why 13 million Brits seem perfectly happy to call themselves craft beer drinkers even without such a definition.)

After talking through the various definitions, I explained what cask ale is in my own words. If you were to read the transcripts from the groups, the reaction to this was very positive. “Yeah, that’s interesting.” ‘I never knew that.” “I might give it a try now.” But this is why you have to be careful with focus groups. There were long pauses between these statements. The people saying them were slumped in their chairs, looking bored or staring off into space. Their body language was saying “I really couldn’t give a shit.” I challenged them on this and asked whether they meant what they were saying, and they replied that while all this stuff about live beer in the cellar was fairly interesting, it wasn’t relevant to how they choose what to drink, and would make no real difference to how likely they are to choose cask. All they want to know is if they’ll enjoy drinking it. What difference does all this make to the taste?

3. Imagine if were talking about curry…

I got a thousand people on an app called OnePulse to describe cask ale in a few words, and then I put those words together into a cloud:

Here’s what the cloud looks like if you just take those who really like cask:

And here it is for people who have never tried it:

When I explored these further in the focus groups, it emerged that the biggest barriers to trying cask are the perceptions that it is strong, bitter and dark, none of which is necessarily true. ‘Don’t know’, as always, is a big issue – people simply don’t have the knowledge about cask, and don’t see any reason to change that. 

Cask is an ‘old man’s drink’, traditional,  but widely perceived as good quality. In groups, people said that cask ale should be served in big, dimpled mugs. It should be poured from wooden handpulls. It should look old-fashioned. There should be a group of old codgers standing around the pumps drinking it. None of these attributes make my respondents any more likely to drink cask more often, but that’s not the point – to them, this is all part of the background ambience of what a proper pub should be.

I likened it to an Indian restaurant. Imagine you weren’t that fond of spicy food and only ever ate a korma. But you went to an Indian restaurant and there was no vindaloo, no madras, nothing spicy at all on the menu. You’d probably think, “Hang on, this isn’t a proper curry house,” even though you had no intention of ordering a spicy dish. 

Cask is an institution. It’s part of the fabric of a ‘proper pub’. That in itself counts for something. But it doesn’t really help[ stop the decline.

Where to from here?

This hopefully gives a sense of the general mood and attitude around cask. In Part Two, some time later this week, I’ll dig into the thorny issues of quality, temperature and pricing.  

In the meantime, here’s the video of tired, pre-holiday me summarising some of these findings for the report’s launch.