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.
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.
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.
Last month I went on amazing press trip to Catalonia. We visited about fifteen breweries in six exhausting days – and I quickly spotted an interesting trend…
I blame Beavertown. While their beers are always excellent, part of their astonishing success surely rests on the brand world created by Creative Director Nick Dwyer. It’s modern yet retro, shocking yet fun, and was, when it first appeared, utterly unlike anything else in the beer market. Beavertown’s packaging set a standard for craft beer that many of the brewery’s contemporaries have risen to, and others have aspired to.
So we got to Catalonia on Friday 16th March, just in time for the Barcelona Beer Festival the following day. I’ve written in the latest issue of Original Gravity about how exciting and inventive the beer scene is over there, and how it’s not just in the centre of Barcelona (which now has over thirty breweries) but throughout the entire region.
We met several brewers at the festival itself, and then spent the next four days travelling around the whole of Catalonia, from the wine region just outside Tarragona in the south, to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the north. I don’t think we tasted a single bad beer, and there were very few average ones. Craft beer culture may be new to Catalonia, but it’s always had a strong gastronomic sensibility that’s democratic rather than exclusive, and craft beer has fitted into that as if it was always meant to be.
We experienced everything from traditional British-style cask bitter, to Belgian-style dubbels and fruit-influenced sours to the inevitable New England-style IPAs. But while the beers themselves were astonishingly diverse in their scope, a consistent pattern in their design quickly emerged.
Sour Skull from Cervesa Marina is a blend of stouts aged in red wine barrels for three years. It’s astoundingly bright and zingy on the palate, with a hint of balsamic vinegar and a lot of wood – you can taste the age. You just want to roll it around your entire mouth and keep it sloshing. The label has a giant, cracked skull rearing over the name.
But Cervesa Marina is pretty found of skulls generally.
They’re not then only ones. NaparBCN is a very classy craft beer bar in the heart of Barcelona. I would love it if there was a bar like this just round the corner from me, but then I’d love it if the buildings around the corner from me were as elegant as those in the centre of Barcelona.
There’s a consistent theme to Napar’s promotional activity.
From Napar, we went to a beer and food pairing dinner at Raco d’en Cesc, which has an astonishing reputation based largely on the talents of its sommelier, the talented Edgar Rodgríguez. As beer dinners go, it will always remain in my memory as one of the very best – both for some of its individual parts (the best egg I’ve ever tasted, my first opportunity to try the legendary Xyauyù barley wine from Baladin) and for the way the whole lot was woven together into a wonderful journey for the palate. If you’re ever in Barcelona, please try to get a reservation there. You won’t regret it.
Towards the end of the meal, we were served veal cheek that had been slow cooked for eighty and a half hours, paired with a Doppelbock:
Doppelgänger, from Cerveza Menduiña, took the richness of the dish as far as it could go, creating a pairing that was sticky, sweet and heavy. The beer label also bravely branches out from the norm, into skulls of other animals.
Up in the Pyrenees, where we were surprised by a sudden heavy snowfall, we saw this theme developed to reflect then local wildlife by CTretze in the small village of La Pobla de Segur. These guys are using beer and food, plus regular live music in their wonderful state-of-the-art brewery and taproom – and animal skulls of course – to try to put their brewery firmly on the tourist trail.
One brewery that’s already making waves in the UK is Cerveses La Pirata. The beers are stunning, particularly the west coast-style Imperial IPAs. These guys really understand hops.
They also understand that if you style yourself around a pirate vibe, skulls become central to your concept. I think that’s why they chose the name.
Not far down the road from La Pirata, we were next welcomed by La Calavera, named after La Calavera Catrina, a key symbol in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations
The name translates as ‘Dapper Skeleton’ or ‘Elegant Skull’, and the guys at the brewery have embraced this theme wholeheartedly, fusing it with other craft beer tropes such as punk (there’s a giant mural of Johnny Rotten on the outside of the building) outrage (past beers include ‘American Motherfucker’ and ‘The Original Piss of Cat’) and simply not giving a shit. Their Medicinal Stout has some of the best packaging I’ve seen in a very long time.
And the theme of “Ooh, I bet the Portman Group wouldn’t like that” is developed quite wonderfully in the secondary packaging.
On our final day, we visited Cervesa del Montseny, one of the oldest and largest breweries in the region. As befits one of the few breweries that sells into supermarkets and is introducing craft beer to new drinkers for the first time, the core range packaging is quite conservative. There are two markets in Catalonia: the beer geeks who are in touch with international trends, and the majority for whom serious beer is a new thing. The brewers seem proudest of their range of Imperial stouts, which are indeed excellent – my favourite is the one aged for eight months in fifty-year-old brandy barrels from southern Spain, which presents laced with marzipan, fruitcake, liquorice and a spiritous warmth. Given that these are the beers for the craft aficionado, for this range, some design concession have been made.
I wish more of these beers were available in the UK. Hopefully, some of them soon will be. Catalonia has, in the space of a few short years, become one of the world’s most exciting and dynamic craft beer regions, taking its brewing cues from all over the world – even if it does take its design cues quite specifically from Tottenham.
CraftBeerSkullWatch will return – if it needs to.
Disclosure: This post was written after a trip organised and paid for by the Catalan Tourist Board. You can find out more about Catalonia’s gastronomic heritage at www.catalunya.com
You may well have seen recent news stories on how craft beer is over, that it’s entered a period of decline. There’s just one problem: this is completely untrue.
Remember the olden days, when these guys were reporting annual volume growth of 55%? How times have changed since, er, 22nd March this year.
“Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”
I stared at the question, cognitive dissonance making me feel momentarily floaty. Was it a trick question? That ‘why do you think this is?’ implied the person asking the question was obviously expecting me to say yes. This was confirmed by a follow up question that asked me to comment on possible reasons why craft beer is “not as popular as it once was.”
The reason I was confused is that it hasn’t happened – not yet. When I got these questions, I’d just delivered the keynote speech to the SIBA conference. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of digging. I’d discovered that craft beer volume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that analysts are predicting continued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that business leaders in the food and beverage industry had named craft beer the most important trend across the whole of food and drink – comfortably ahead of low alcohol drinks, artisan coffee and craft spirits – for the fifth year running. I’d found that seven million British people – equivalent to 14% of the total adult population, or one in four people who drink any alcohol at all – claim to drink craft beer on a regular basis when they’re out in pubs, bars or restaurants. And yet here was a food and drink website believing that craft beer was in decline.
Read these articles, and none of them actually say that craft beer has gone into decline. But a cursory skim of the headline and opening lines of copy, without going into the detail of the claims, could reasonably lead to the impression that craft beer is in decline.
The basis for all these stories is a press release from a market research company called GlobalData, which runs with the title ‘Craft beer fatigue is sending beer and cider consumers in APAC in search of new options.’ Again, that seems pretty definite. The first line of the press release reads, “Alcoholic beverage consumers tend to be novelty seeking, but constant bombardment with craft launches and unusual flavors has led consumers to feel that they are overloaded with choice.” But once again, while a cursory reading of the headline and first few lines of copy would cause any reasonable person to assume craft beer is now in decline, the body of the press release – which is published to promote a new report that costs $1450 to access – doesn’t actually contain any data that supports the idea that craft beer is in decline.
So what does it actually say?
Well, there are certainly some interesting points, even if none of them are exactly news to anyone involved in craft beer.
The main point – the one that seems to be offered in direct support of the headline claims – is that “words such as craft and artisanal are just an excuse to charge extra.” In the Asia-Pacific region – and in North America – 46% of survey respondents agreed with this statement. What none of the UK-based publications who reported the story will tell you is that in Europe, this figure falls to 38% – the lowest of any region in the world. Now, those are, as report author Thomas Vierhile told me in an email, “significant percentages”. But they are still minorities. And as anyone who has been involved in a craft beer discussion on social media or been below the line of a beer story in any national newspaper can attest, it’s hardly new – people have been grumbling about this for years. I first wrote about it for the Morning Advertiser three years ago. At the time, I said that it was a threat to the growth to craft beer, and I still believe it is. But it’s quite a leap to get from there to the claim that people are already walking away from craft beer because of it. This wasn’t true then, and I doubt it’s true now. The research data released by GlobalData’s does not show it to be true, but their press release claims it is.
The press release and summary for the report make two further solid claims. The report states that consumers are becoming more interested in experiences that simple products, citing that 57% of consumers (in Asia Pacific) prefer new experiences to new products. I totally agree, and have done since I worked in advertising twenty years ago, when we said this regularly to our clients. Craft brewers understand this perfectly which is why, instead of building their brands with flashy TV ads (which they couldn’t afford anyway) the most successful craft brewers over the last ten years have built their popularity with experiences and events such as meet the brewer evenings and tap takeovers, limited edition and rare bottle launches, and the growing number and range of beer festivals and other events. The experience economy is a driver of craft beer’s growth – not a threat to it.
Finally, the GlobalData report states that healthier lifestyles and a growing interest in lower alcohol alternatives is a major threat to craft beer. In the Asia Pacific region – it’s not clear why this is the geographic emphasis for a report that did its research globally, unless it could be that this is where the highest figures are – 51% of consumers say health claims influence their choice of alcoholic drinks (hang on – I thought alcoholic drinks weren’t allowed to make any health claims?) and 53% say they plan on cutting down on booze for health reasons. These figures fall to 38% and 37% if you look at the global data, but never mind that. I doubt anyone would disagree that this is a significant trend. That’s why, unless craft brewers start to develop lower strength session beers, explore concepts such as table beer and start to make some decent tasting low/no alcohol beers, they could be heading for a fall. Oh no, hang on – my mistake – these have been some of the most dynamic trends driving craft beer’s development for several years now. Never mind.
So: a level of cynicism about the appropriation of the term ‘craft beer’ to charge higher prices, growing interest in experiences over products, and growing interest in healthier drinks – all of which the craft beer industry has known about and acted upon for years – are being added together by GlobalData to create the claim that drinkers feel ‘overloaded with choice’ and that this has led to a ‘devaluation of the “craft” concept’ which is now ‘sending beer and cider consumers… in search of new options’. This, in turn, has led drinks trade press journalists to state definitively that we are suffering craft beer fatigue, and this in turn has led at least one consumer food and drink publication to ask why craft beer is in decline before eventually running with the headline ‘Is Craft Beer Dying?‘
I hope my answers to the questions I was posed by Munchies helped get that title turned into a question rather than a statement. But still, this is how fake news happens. In researching this piece, Google took me to articles going back several years claiming that the craft boom is over, when hindsight shows it wasn’t. GlobalData was behind a similar flurry of these back in August last year, but they’re not the only culprits. I chose the picture of BrewDog, above, because on the same day Munchies asked if craft beer was dying, the Scottish craft beer pioneer posted results showing 55% volume growth in 2017. Some commentators pointed out that this is lower than in previous years. As if 55% growth in a year is somehow a bit shit.
“We are not necessarily saying that craft beer has gone into decline,” admitted GlobalData’s Thomas Vierhile when I challenged the company over their claims. “But we are saying that the category is edging closer to thin ice as the craft concept becomes stretched, leading more consumers to express skepticism toward the concept.”
I think that’s absolutely fair enough.
He continued, “As popular as craft beer is, it does not appear to be moving the global beer consumption needle and it may not be the savior for the beer industry that some may perceive it to be,” citing the fact that while other categories of alcoholic drinks are growing, the total global beer market is shrinking. This means that either the growth craft beer is experiencing by recruiting new drinkers to beer is not enough to compensate for existing beer drinkers drinking less/switching to other drinks, or that craft is cannibalising mainstream beer, taking volume from the big boys within a declining market.
That’s certainly food for thought, and craft brewers should certainly take note of the report’s genuine findings stated above, if for some reason they weren’t already aware of them. But GlobalData’s press release – which I’m sure Thomas Vierhile didn’t write – categorically states that consumers are suffering craft beer fatigue and are going looking for something else instead. The data presented simply does not show this at all, says nothing about a ‘bombardment of new launches or unusual flavours’, and presents no evidence that consumers are walking away from the category. But these claims have been picked up and repeated, without question.
So why would a company that produces market research reports that cost $1450 a pop want to spread false claims about craft beer? Well I dunno, but who in the beer industry can afford to spend $1450 on a 57-page market report? And what would companies like that feel about craft beer? What would they want to happen to it? I’m just spitballing here, merely speculating to create specious claims. But that does seem to be par for the course these days.
Could this be the lead singer of Wu Gang Chops the Tree?
There’s a common joke in my circle of friends, and I last heard it last night: when someone says or writes a phrase that sounds unusually poetic, unusual or pretentious – I think last night’s was something like “Whirpool volatile preservation” – you can raise a knowing titter by saying something along the lines of “I prefer their earlier stuff” or “Didn’t they headline Friday in the John Peel Tent at Glastonbury in 1997?” It’s not the funniest joke ever, but it always makes me laugh.
Thinking about how and why this works, I realised that the analogy between beer and music is always finding new levels to operate on, and one of them is in naming. “Where do they get those names from?” was a common refrain on John Peel’s radio show in my youth, and it’s a phrase I’m regularly hearing again now as craft brewers struggle to come up with something that sets their latest new launch apart.
So I decided to create a quick quiz. Here are ten names. Some of them are from long-forgotten eighties Indie bands (or perhaps not that forgotten – some of them are still going.). The others are from recent craft brews. Can you tell which is which? See how many you can get right!
1. I, Ludicrous
2. Beard of Zeus
4. Eyeless in Gaza
5. Brood in Obscurity
6. Quiet Release
7. Front 242
8. Strange Advance
9. Age of Chance
10. Whiplash Bone Machine
No cheating – scroll down for answers below!
I’ll be back at the Green Man Festival in August doing my beer and music matching show, where I pair a selection of the 70-odd beers in the main bar tent with the bands playing the festival. Tickets for the festival are on sale now. It’s like Glastonbury used to be before it got huge. I haven’t yet seen the beer list, but am pretty certain Public Service Broadcasting, Anna Calvi, Fleet Foxes and Kelly Lee Owens will all be jostling to get on my playlist.
A picture of a beer that is a craft beer, yesterday.
One of the more curious comments I’ve seen repeated by various people this week in the wake of Dark Star being bought by Fuller’s is the idea that Dark Star is/was not a craft brewer because it is mainly known for producing cask ale. The idea that cask ale is not and can not be craft beer is an intriguing one, and one that I don’t fully understand. So if you subscribe to this point of view, I wonder if you can help me understand it by answering the following questions? Thanks!
1. If a small, independent brewery produces beer across a variety of formats, what percentage of cask ale is it allowed to produce before it no longer counts as a craft brewery?
2. If that brewery produces both keg and cask beers, are its keg beers craft and its cask beers not craft?
3. Where do cans fit into this?
4. Or bottles?
5. If, say, Magic Rock brews a beer called High Wire and puts some of it into cask and some if it into keg, is the cask stuff not craft and the keg stuff craft?
6. If the cask High Wire is not craft but the keg High Wire is craft, how does that work? Does High Wire start off as a craft beer in the brewhouse, and when the cask stuff gets packaged into the cask it stops being craft? Or is it the other way round: High Wire starts off not being craft, but when the keg stuff gets packaged into kegs, that’s when it becomes craft?
7. What is it about the cask process/format that stops it from being craft? Is it the live yeast that requires more skill, care and attention to look after? Is it the container itself, which is more traditional than a pressurised keg? Is it the shape of the cask? Or is it the sound of the word ‘cask’, which doesn’t sound craft enough?
8. If Greene King were to produce a 5.5% west coast-style pale ale using acidulated, Golden Promise, Munich, Vienna malts and Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Citra, Columbus and Magnum hops which gave it mango, lychee and lip-smacking grapefruit flavours that harmonised against a smoothly composed malt base, which develops into a crisply bitter finish, and they called it Why Hire, would that be craft or not? If not, would it help if they packaged some of it in key kegs?
9. If you buy a can of your favourite craft beer on Monday and the brewery gets bought by a corporate brewer on Tuesday, is the can of beer in your fridge still craft or not?
10. If it’s not, when does it stop being craft? When the deal was done? When you found out about the deal? If the deal was done last Friday, before you bought it on Monday, but it wasn’t announced until Tuesday, was your can of beer still craft when you bought it or not? Are you allowed to revise its status retrospectively? If you are, what authority or qualifications do you need to be able to make that call?
I look forward to reading your answers!
A picture of a beer that is not a craft beer, yesterday.