In a troubled market, the East London brewer announces it has doubled its cask ale sales. How? By doing the things everyone knows need doing.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my long-standing involvement in the Cask Report. For the last few years, the picture has been grim. Cask – once the best performer in a declining beer market (i.e. it was in decline, but at a far slower rate than any other beer) – is now falling far faster than any other beer, with double-digit year-on-year decline.
Pundits often point to the fact that cask is unreliable, and with the rise of craft beer, drinkers can now choose flavourful, interesting beer that – even if you believe is not quite as good as cask at its best – is certainly far, far better than cask at its worst. Pubs often don’t keep cask well because it requires more work, and what’s the point of that when it offers the lowest margin of any beer on the bar?
The arguments go round and round, the same every year, as cask ale sales continue to dwindle.
So what a delight this morning to hear from Five Points that they have DOUBLED their cask ale sales year-on-year.
In 2018, cask accounted for 20% of Five Points’ beer sales. In 2019, this grew to 26%. In the context of an undisclosed expansion in production over that time, cask is taking a bigger slice of a substantially bigger cake – according to the company, an increase of 325,000 pints versus the previous year.
Well, as one of the darlings of the craft beer scene, whenever Five Points have gone to festivals, cask has always been part of their offer. Their core range are all available on cask as well as keg.
Then last year, they introduced a new beer, available only on cask. As the craft beer world goes crazy for novelty, this beer was a best bitter – possibly the least fashionable style craft geeks can imagine.
And it went crazy.
I first realised they were onto something at last August’s Great British Beer Festival, when they had two versions of Five Points Best – one brewed with Fuggles hops, one with Goldings.
They sourced these ‘boring’, ‘twiggy’ British hops directly from Hukin Hops in Kent, a fourth-generation hop farm where the fourth generation is bringing fresh ideas to an ancient trade. And guess what? If you treat these classic British hops with the same care and attention as American hops, they’re just as good – who would have thought? Different, yes, subtler, absolutely, but not boring. And definitely not twiggy.
In terms of presentation, cask and keg sit alongside each other in the company’s portfolio, with the same enthusiasm around each. Five Points sell their cask beers to local pubs with a reputation for keeping cask well. This year, they’re introducing cask training for the publicans that stock their beers, financial incentives for new pubs to start stocking them, and a Cask Ambassador in their sales team to help pubs maintain quality.
This is what good cask ale look like. And the thing is, it’s all there in the Cask Report, every year, that this is what you need to do to make a success of cask.
I’m not saying that Five Points is the only brewery making a success of cask ale – talking to publicans across the country who are passionate about cask when I was doing research for last year’s report, their stories were so positive I almost started to doubt the official figures on cask’s plight.
But Five Points are at the absolute heart of London’s craft beer scene. They don’t need to invest in cask; they do it because they want to. Today’s announcement about sales figures is not just significant because of the extent it bucks the prevailing trend. It chimes strongly with me because it proves what we’ve been saying in the Cask Report for years:
One, there’s no massive prejudice against cask, you just have to give people a reason to try it, to make it relevant to them.
Two, cask belongs inside the broader scope of craft beer, not in opposition to it.
And three, there’s no mystery to making a success of cask. All you need to do is give enough of a shit about it.
Also, Best Bitter goes astonishingly well with the pizzas at the Pembury Tavern. See you there next month.
I got invited to a birthday party in Burton-on-Trent that was quite unlike any other – a mass tasting of six legendary beers known as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
On 16th December 1869, Ratcliff Ale was mashed in at Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton in Burton-on-Trent to celebrate the birth of a son to the Ratcliff family. It was a fairly common tradition in brewing families for such beers to be brewed ready for when these scions reached their majority at the age of 21. The story I heard was that young Master Ratcliff never made it that far, so the beer was never opened.
On 16th December 2019, I’m in Burton to drink some Ratcliff Ale on its 150th birthday, along with five other variations on these beers designed for ageing, know to connoisseurs and collectors as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
Bass fan and Burton beer historian Ian Webster, ably assisted by passionate fellow Burtonian beer collector Gary Summerfield, wanted to commemorate Ratclliff Ale’s anniversary, and put an appeal around Burton. Burton responded, with people donating scores of bottles – a total of 75 beers are opened for tonight’s audience of 100 or so people. This is an incredible act given that some of these bottles trade on EBay for £300 or more. I thought I knew these beers well, but I’m astonished to find there are pint bottles and quart bottles, with the occasional ultra-rare magnum.
The way these strong ales were made was to boil the wort for twelve hours, reducing the liquid to create a very high concentration of fermentable sugars. This led to an alcohol content of around 12% ABV which, aided by heavy hopping rates, vastly reduced the chances of microbial spoilage as they aged, according to Burton Brewer and Chairman of the National Brewery Heritage Trust, Dr Harry White. Harry explains the difference between the effects of microbiological spoilage – infection that means the beer goes ‘off’ – and the effects of ageing, which is all about oxidation.
Oxidation as ‘a complex series of interactions’ that begin with whatever oxygen is left in the bottle when it is sealed. There’s always some, and a bottle-conditioned beer needs it to start its slow, secondary fermentation. The yeast mops up the oxygen during this process, but then, when there’s nothing left for it to eat, it dies. When beer is a few years old it can taste stale, papery, or wet doggy. But there’s not a straight line into old age and decrepitude – other reactions continue to happen, and various different aspects of the beer come and go in a process John Keeling, when he was head brewer at Fuller’s, likened to sine waves, during vertical tastings of Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Those tastings were truly memorable – but even the most venerable Vintage Ale – from 1997 – is fifteen years younger than the most youthful Bass Corker, which is…
Prince’s Ale, 1982
Starting with the youngest first, the idea is you get some kind of progression. This 37-year-old, brewed to commemorate the birth of Prince William, tastes more like a three-year-old barley wine. There’s chocolate and caramel on the nose, some fruity notes reminiscent of ruby port, and no hint of papery oxidation at all. It tastes different rather than old, with a hint of meaty umami character, some acidity, but mainly a warming, welcoming fusion of malt character, alcohol and microflora.
Princess Ale, 1978
This has a much paler caramel colour than its younger sibling. It’s much lighter on the nose, toffeeish, with hints of spice and incense. On the palate it’s lighter again, with a bitterness that’s curiously tannic rather than hoppy. Overall, it tastes old and woody – not as engaging as the beer four years younger, but just as drinkable. Maybe it’s something to do with Princess Anne having mashed the beer in, given that she doesn’t like beer.
Jubilee Strong Ale, 1977
This is much darker again, chocolate-coloured. There’s a little tartness on the nose, which reminds me of Rodenbach, and a bit of smokiness. On the palate, it’s sweet, sour and bitter – I swear there’s still a bit of hop character to it – and something that is not directly derived from hops, barley, Burton water OR Bass ale yeast.
I’m on a tasting panel with Roger Protz and a selection of former Burton Brewers. My old friend Steve Wellington – another former brewer and the man who recreated A 19th century Burton IPA for the voyage to India I recounted in Hops & Glory – is in the audience. Steve once told me that when you taste aged beers, you get a different reaction from professional brewers than you do if you assemble a broader panel of taste experts – and so it proves with this beer. The brewers up here speak of mild infection, of something getting into the bottle that shouldn’t be there. Whereas I’m thinking that Brettanomyces means ‘British fungus’, so named because it was originally associated not with Belgian sours, but vatted strong British ales. This beer reminds me that Rodenbach – one of the finest sour beers in the world – took its original inspiration from none other than Greene King.
Prince’s Ale, 1929
Why was there a jump of fifty years between this beer and the previous (or rather, subsequent) one? I don’t know. The war was an obvious factor, but why was there not one for the Queen’s coronation? I can vaguely remember her Silver Jubilee and the incredible wave of patriotism that came with it. It was also around the same time that a large stash of the 1902 Kings Ale was discovered in Bass’s cellars, so maybe that inspired the idea for the start of the second wave of corkers that ran from 1977 to 1982.
But now we’re on to the end of the first wave, mashed in by Edward, Prince of Wales, who went on to become king for a few months before abdicating to marry an American divorcee. It had the shortest brew length of all the corkers, and is therefore the rarest. Apparently, it was still on sale in 1945, for £5 a bottle. or over £200 today – one for people who moan about ‘modern over-priced craft beers’ to think about.
Well, if I had a spare £200, I’d pay that for a bottle today. The nose is of dried fruit – dates, prunes, figs and currants – with a hint of church incense again. The fruity character is intense, combining the complex sweetness of dried fruit with the sourness of overripe fruit. Then there’s an umami meatiness that some of my colleagues on the panel describe as marmite.
I’m not so sure.
There’s a moment of panic whenever you’re trying to taste something with the aim of identifying that taste and communicating it to others. It’s the moment when your taste buds and olfactory bulb all flash with sensation and send blind signals deep into your cerebral cortex, and your brain seeks to contextualise what you’re experiencing versus your established knowledge and memory. When you’re primed to expect a particular flavour – when you know what you’re drinking and what it’s meant to taste like, or when someone asks you to look out for a particular flavour note – the brain usually identifies it straight away, or thinks it does. ‘Marmite’ is a common flavour note for aged beers, and if you know this, you can detect it and tick it off – flavour successfully identified. But if you didn’t know this, I’m not sure Marmite is what you’d pull out here. I’m conscious that I’ve already used it as a flavour note myself, but Marmite is a shortcut, an easy port of call, similar to when we categorise and tick off the complexity of lambic beers with the term ‘horse blanket’. It often stops us from probing further. This is spicier yet subtler than Marmite, the meatiness just one component of something broader.
King’s Ale, 1902
The danger with the Bass corkers is you can never be quite sure how well the contents stand up. If the wax seal around cork has broken, it’s probably not worth it, as the beer will have been assaulted by oxygen over the years. So you look for the wax seal – but how do you know it wasn’t broken, and then resealed by someone decades later? When it comes to the Kings Ale, brewed by Lord Bass’s mate Edward VII, there’s an easy way to tell: the original bottlings came with a lead seal, and that’s what we’ve opened tonight.
I opened a bottle of Kings Ale in 2009, to celebrate winning Beer Writer of the Year for the first time. There’s a blurry video of it on YouTube somewhere. My bottle didn’t have a lead seal. It poured with the look and consistency of gravy and tasted like of cork, marmite – for real this time – and death.
Tonight’s is… better than that. There’s a big waft of balsamic vinegar on the nose, and a surprisingly yeasty element. Umami here is not marmite, but porcini mushrooms. There’s chocolate, acidity and fruit on the palate. It tastes like an older, raggedier version of the Prince’s Ale, which makes sense. But still, it’s far from unpleasant.
Ratcliff Ale, 1869
These bottles were originally sealed with red wax, so if your wax is black – like one of mine at home is – that means the contents may not be good. This one smells really clean, and pours bright and clear, like Madeira. The now-familiar incense is there, and it smells like Christmas cake. There’s bitterness and acidity, coffee and spice, alcohol heat, Madeira wine, and elements I simply don’t have the vocabulary for. It tastes like nothing else.
By the end, I’m surprised how much I’m feeling the effects of drinking a flight of 12% ABV beers. I’ve often heard that the alcohol decays and loses its potency in beers like this. My intense desire for sleep, and the spidery handwriting in my notebook, suggest otherwise.
I’ve tasted beers that are alive and vibrant, and I’ve had beers that taste dead and decayed. The beers we’ve tasted tonight are somewhere between, having visited both poles before embarking on their own, unique journeys. There’s far more here than the effects of oxygen-driven ageing: these beers are complex processes. Tate two different bottles of the same beer, and their character can be quite different. It reminds me of the ‘generative music’ experiments created by Brian Eno, where a few simple elements are fed into a randomising system to create something that is ever changing, never quite repeating. Here, tiny differences in the microflora in each bottle can lead to ever-widening variations over time, magnified by the conditions in which each individual bottle matures – temperature, humidity, whether it’s stored upright or on its side, and so on.
Will there be more Bass corkers? Could there be? Well, the Queen’s Ale for Brenda’s 50th Jubilee was bottled in 500ml with a crown cap, but is still well worth seeking out. Apart from that, around ten years ago, Steve Wellington invited me to brew a new batch of Bass No.1 Barley Wine – the original recipe for Ratcliff Ale. We loaded an incredible amount of malt into the mash tun and left it for its 12-hour boil. A curry and a few hours’ sleep later, we were back in the brewery and running off a thick, dark wort that looked and smelled amazing. A few weeks later, Steve, almost tearful, informed me that it had been so long since the Bass yeast had had to contend with such a mighty wort, it simply hadn’t been up to the task. Fermentation hadn’t taken place, and the batch had had to be poured away.
And that’s not the only problem.
In the complex world of corporate beer trademarks and ownership, the archive of Bass recipes is now owned by a different company from the people who own the Bass brand. Anheuser Busch-Inbev continue to commit many travesties with Bass, but ABI has more than one face and more than one set of opinions. Mike Siegel of Goose Island is genuinely passionate about recreating old beers from the past, as evidenced by his recent collaboration with Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice, the wonderful Obidiah Poundage. Mike recently asked Molson Coors – owners of the Bass archive – if he could gain access to old Bass recipes with a view to reviving something akin to these legendary corkers, and was given a pretty categoric and final refusal.
Earlier tonight, Harry White made a heartfelt plea to the audience for the archives to be used much more.
Come on guys, it’s Christmas – let’s join the dots. And could whoever currently owns the famous Bass yeast get it to some kind of yeast gym in the New Year?
The print format of our beer magazine is taking a break. But it’s only a temporary one…
When Daniel Neilson created Original Gravity at the end of 2014, his vision was for a different kind of beer magazine, one that was like ‘your slightly more knowledgeable best mate, full of interesting, readable stories that appealed to both beer novice and expert’. It has always been singled out for the design by Adam McNaught-Davies (lindoneast.co.uk).
Pulling together a quality print magazine that consistently lives up to expectations is a lot of work — too much for one person. So at the start of 2017, Daniel brought on board award-winning beer writers Adrian Tierney Jones and Pete Brown, as editor and editor-at-large respectively. As a team of three, we raised our ambitions even further, with a lofty mission of attempting to become ‘the New Yorker of beer’. Big goals should always be out of reach — you have to try much harder to reach them, and we think we made some big strides, introducing fresh and incredibly talented voices to beer who had real human, engaging, often moving stories to tell.
OG is distributed to quality bars and pubs and is free to pick up. Every penny of production costs has to be met by advertising. We pay the writers we commission and hopefully, there may even be some profit left to split between the three of us. Achieving the required amount of ad revenue has been getting increasingly difficult. We don’t press the ‘Go’ button until we know there’s a surplus. Original Gravity #23 was due to drop in September, but it didn’t hit that surplus.
For the moment then, the UK print edition of Original Gravity is temporarily on hold (the Canadian edition launches in Alberta as well as Ontario next year). We still believe the model works, but we need to take time out and rethink it in the UK. In the meantime, we’ll be publishing original content on originalgravitymag.com, including commentary on issues in beer that we feel we want to talk about (as well as continuing with occasional Original Gravity Live events). At the moment there is no budget for new writers, so it will be Pete Brown and Adrian Tierney-Jones who will be putting in the words, which means that the message of OG that has been there from the start — independent, asymmetrical, unconventional — will still be heard.
A big thank you to all the advertisers, distributors, stockists, writers and readers who have supported us so far. We’re not giving up. And we’ll let you know as soon as OG is ready to return to print.
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.
“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 on 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.
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 tonka beans, is like a spicy Black Forest gateau, and I can’t decide whether it’s a perfect beer to go with dessert or dessert in its own right.
Nemesis is a Doppelbock aged in Madeira barrels, a collaboration with Orbit brewing, and it’s a revelation. As a lager, Doppelbock is obviously lighter in body 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 beer of 15.2% ABV, but it’s cleaner and lighter. The chocolate and vanilla characteristics 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, or 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 Goose Island 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 is uncompromised and, almost without exception, stunning.
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 a great deal of fun making this 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 release 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:
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… not quite. 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 an anchor in something truly special. 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 an already complex beer – 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 now also owned by AB-Inbev.
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):
Nottingham (Thu 13th June only)
Edinburgh (w/c 17th June only)
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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 absolutely 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 how 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. It’s the pubs that matter. 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 the 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. But the received wisdom among the upper echelons of the business was that the families of Fullers and Turners who still occupy board positions wouldn’t want to face the ignominy of turning up at their boxes at Twickenham, Lords, Glyndebourne or wherever and having 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. London 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 this 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.
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.
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 theGood 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?
When trying to categorise beer, it may be time to drop subtle distinctions – because there are signs the beer drinker already has.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.