Tag: cask ale

| Beer, CAMRA, Cask ale, Cask report

What Ails Cask Ale? (Part One)

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

For a minute I almost regretted going on holiday. 

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

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

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

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

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

1. Occasions are more occasional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Imagine if were talking about curry…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to from here?

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

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

| Beer, CAMRA, Cask ale

What should CAMRA do now to save cask ale – and itself?

CAMRA members who voted against a motion to extend the remit of the organisation think they did so to preserve cask ale. In reality, they’re killing  it. 

On Saturday, the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) Revitalisation Project reached its conclusion. At the organisation’s AGM, members voted on a range of measures that would modernise the campaign and broaden its scope. All but one of these measures was passed, and there is undoubtedly cause for celebration that the campaign has resolved to promote the benefits of moderate social drinking, show more support for pubs, and think more about inclusivity. But the one proposal that would have really changed everything – that CAMRA should “act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers” – was not passed. 72% of CAMRA members voted for it, but it needed 75% to pass. A small minority of the organisation’s members have prevented the majority from moving it forward.

I’ll concede that this tweet, posted on Saturday night when I heard the news, was a bit melodramatic:

But I stand by the feelings of sadness and dismay that prompted it. I really didn’t anticipate that it would cause so much discussion on Twitter yesterday, with agreement and disagreement both being expressed passionately. The comments of many of those who delighted in the motion’s failure only deepened my feelings that both CAMRA and cask ale are in deep trouble. So I’m going to outline why here, in a lot more than 280 characters.

First, let’s deal with some of the predictable responses and get them out of the way.

 

1.”Real ale is the only beer worth drinking. CAMRA is right to fight for it exclusively because anything else is fizzy industrial piss.”

If you really think this, I have nothing to say to you. You might as well stop reading now. You know nothing about beer. Go and do something else.

 

2. “Duh – the clue is in the name! Its the campaign for REAL ale.”

No, the clue is not in the name. It’s not called the Campaign for Cask Ale. (Although CACA is perhaps a more descriptive acronym for the campaign at the moment.) Cask ale has a precise technical definition. ‘Real ale’ is a marketing and campaigning slogan created by CAMRA when it was already two years old. CAMRA invented the term and decided what it meant, and can change that meaning whenever it chooses. Leaving aside the campaign’s support for cider and perry, its commitment to pubs, and its arm’s-length support for traditional German, Czech and Belgian beer styles (so long as they stay over there) CAMRA already has changed the definition of what it considers to be real ale. It did so when it decided bottle-conditioned beer also counted as real ale, and again more recently when it declared key keg to be real ale. It has the freedom to apply the term ‘real ale’ to anything it wants, because it invented the term, and controls its definition.

 

3. “OK, I do like some other beers, but cask ale is always better so we should stick to campaigning just for that.”

No it’s not. Green King IPA is not a better beer than Westmalle Tripel. Doom Bar is not a better beer than Pilsner Urquell (although ultimately, it comes down to individual taste). British brewers are now making decent lagers and Belgian style beers, among others, that do not have cask conditioning as part of their traditional production or dispense. Is cask special? Absolutely. Does it deserve to be supported and campaigned for? Totally. But you don’t have to pretend it’s always better than anything else in order to support it. If you do, you sound like me and my fellow Barnsley FC supporters, standing on the terraces at Oakwell chanting that our club is by far the greatest team the world has ever seen, when clearly they aren’t.

 

4. “If you love keg beer so much, go and start your own campaign for keg beer.”

This is the most important and complex issue to address, and I’m going to spend the rest of this blog on it.

I suppose it’s easy to assume that the reason people like me want CAMRA to support a wider range of quality beers is that we want the the campaign to help what CAMRA drinkers insist on calling ‘craft keg.’ But for me at least, that’s not the point. And anyway, craft keg os doing just fine without CAMRA’s help. The point is that segmenting the market into cask and keg is no longer the most relevant and useful way of looking at things, if it ever was. There’s the obvious point that what ‘keg’ beer is has changed fundamentally since CAMRA was founded. But it’s about much more than that.

Cask ale’s health has recently gone into severe decline. Over the twelve months to February 2018, and in the twelve months before that, cask volume declined by over 4% each year – that means almost ten per cent of the entire cask market has vanished in the last 24 months.

It’s curious, perhaps, that this decline comes at a time when CAMRA’s membership is increasing. It’s easy to equate CAMRA’s growth with burgeoning interest in cask. Clearly, this is not the case. Cask ale has gone into steep decline as CAMRA’s membership soars. CAMRA does many fine things in support of cask, but the sum total as it stands is not doing enough to protect cask ale. So something has to change.

What I find most alarming is that no one in the cask ale industry wants to ‘fess up that there’s a serious issue here. This is a recipe for disaster, like the middle-aged man who won’t go and get that pain checked out at any the doctor because he’s scared of what he might hear, and anyway it might just go away. Last year. when I wrote about the quality issues around cask in London, I was comprehensively attacked from all corners of the industry, in a number of different publications.  Now, the plight of cask is actively being covered up. From 2007 to 2015, I wrote eight editions of the Cask Report. Every single one of them contained a figure for cask ale’s value and volume performance versus the previous twelve months. The two editions of the report that have come out since I resigned from doing it have not contained this figure – because it’s so bad. The most recent edition of the Report stated that cask had declined by 5% over the last five years, which was in line with the overall beer market. The reason they gave a five-year figure is to disguise the fact that almost all that decline has come in the last two years.

It also disguises the fact that cask, for the first time in a decade, has begun to perform worse than the rest of the beer market.

One of the central arguments of the Cask Report since year one was that while cask ale was in steady decline, it was actually outperforming the rest of the on-trade beer market. This is no longer true. The total on-trade beer market is steadily improving while casks performance worsens.

The other thing that used to be true was that cask was performing way better than keg. It was strongly increasing its share of total ale as people turned away from smoothflow and traditional keg. While that is surely still happening, the arrival of craft keg finally seems to be having an impact on total keg’s performance. For a long time, keg was in seemingly terminal decline. Now, it’s outperforming cask. (Although it would be useful if craft keg could be separated from old keg to get a clearer picture.)

Now, I imagine that to some seasoned casketeers, this chart will represent a battle cry. “See? We were right! Evil keg is making a comeback, we must protect cask at all costs! Keg is or enemy!”

Well, good luck with that. It really was nice knowing you. You know those clickbait headlines that tell you you’ve been brushing you’re teeth wrong your whole life? To a non-cask drinker, that’s what you sound like., only more annoying. And if you want to save cask ale, you need to get more non-cask drinkers to start drinking cask. You can’t do that by going on about how awful keg is. Especially when it’s not true.

Year after year, research for the Cask Report showed us that there were no deep-seated objection to cask, not in significant numbers. any way. The main reason people hadn’t tried it was that they hadn’t been given a reason to. Cask needs to be made relevant to these people in the context of what they’re already drinking: if you like that, you might like this. Craft keg drinkers are a soft target for cask to convert – they’re half way there already, as this piece of research commissioned for Box Steam Brewery (which produces both traditional cask and modern craft beers) shows.

Source: Big beer ballot 2018, Colour and Thing

Most drinkers just want good beer, irrespective of who made it or what it comes in. Most cask ale brewers now brew in other formats as well – cask now only accounts for 74% of SIBA members’ output, which puts CAMRA in the strange position of endorsing some but not all of the beer of the breweries it claims to support. Most cask drinkers also drink other drinks. Back in my advertising days. I had access to a big survey database that asked pretty much anything you could think of. One attitude statement was ‘The only beer worth drinking is real ale.’ I took people who ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement, and split them to see what beer brands they claimed to drink ‘most often’. Top of the list was Stella Artois. Some cask drinkers switch to Guinness if they’re in a pub with nothing good on. Some Stella drinkers have a pint of cask with their dads when they go home to visit. Many drinkers I know make a choice based on style, ABV or brewery before they decide whether they want cask or keg. From both a producer’s and drinker’s perspective, saying you’re only going to support cask and keep it in some isolated bubble actually confuses things rather than helping get the message across.

To engage the occasional or non-cask drinker more often, cask needs to speak to them on their own terms, where they are, and in a way that’s relevant to them. In other words, in order to save cask ale, CAMRA needs to engage with and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers – precisely the thing its most reactionary members have just voted against.

Craft keg is not the enemy. There are many reasons people are walking away from cask. Look at the graphs above – no sector is having a great time here. Pubs are closing, partly because we’re visiting them less often than we used to. We’re drinking less alcohol overall, which is being exacerbated by increasingly blatant lies from the anti-alcohol lobby. Within that shrinking market, we’re drinking more at home than we do out of the home. When we do fancy a drink, we’re increasingly likely to order wine or spirits – both of which are in growth at beer’s expense. And within this scenario, cask is doing worse now than any other beer style because of its appalling quality issues – which need to be saved by training and education as a matter for urgency – and because the price of this premium product has been depressed to such an extent that publicans can sell other beers – which are easier to keep and have less wastage than cask – for a lot more money. The are the main reasons cask is in decline. CAMRA’s leadership do of course recognise all this, and deserve huge credit for working so hard to moderniser the organisation. But while CAMRA members are still spending most of their time fretting about the kind of container beer comes in, they are not tackling these other, far more important issues as urgently as they could. Broaden the remit to good beer, establish cask’s relevance within that broader remit, and champion the bigger picture. You just might turn cask’s fortunes around.

Or you could just sit there and carrying on ranting like these guys, and fade into deserved irrelevance.

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Cask ale is booming as part of the craft beer revolution – new Cask Report launches today

Every year I’m paid to compile the Cask Report on behalf of Cask Matters – a loose affiliation of brewers and industry bodies including SIBA, CAMRA, Cask Marque and most of the leading regional and family brewers in the UK. The eighth report launches today to coincide with the start of Cask Ale Week.

Success makes people nervous, and with some justification. When you’re struggling on your way up, as a business, or as a person or organisation putting forward a point of view, argument or campaign which you hope will change hearts and minds, you know very clearly what you have to do: get your head down and keep plugging away, working steadily towards your goal.

When you succeed, what then? Is your job done? Do you need to redefine your goals? Is it true to say the only way is down? Now you’ve achieved, is someone going to come along and try to take it all away from you?

Until about two or three years ago, the aims of the Cask Report were very clear: persuade publicans and commentators around the beer industry that cask ale was not in terminal decline, that it had a role to play on the pub bar, that it had something to offer drinkers beyond the traditional stereotypes.

Now, the job has changed. There’s little point banging the drum that cask ale is successful. Whether they accept and believe it or not, people have heard this before. The questions now are, how does cask ale deal with success? And given that all the chatter in beer now focuses on craft beer, does this mean cask ale’s days are numbered? What’s the relationship between cask ale and craft beer?

Here are a few summary points from this year’s report that attempt to answer these questions.

1. Cask ale is still thriving
Cask ale volume sales grew by 1.1% in 2013 and 1.4% so far in 2014. If those sound like small figures, bear in mind that total on-trade beer volumes fell last year – cask ale is doing 4.5% better than beer in pubs overall. And when you bear in mind that cask ale is only really available in pubs, and 31 pubs a week are closing, for it to be growing in a declining market is some feat. More people are drinking cask ale and pubs are stocking a wider range of beers. But big volume drinking is declining. More people are drinking a wider variety of beers, but doing so less often as healthier lifestyles become more common.

There are two different estimates of the number of breweries now in the UK, but the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) puts the number at over 1470 – more than at any time since the early 1930s. Three new breweries open every week. And while craft keg is booming – 19% of SIBA’s member breweries claim to be producing some keg beer now – the vast majority of microbrewery beer is cask.

The number of styles being brewed is increasing:

There’s more good beer available now than at any time in living memory.

I’ve also heard a few people say that craft keg is killing off cask ale, that you rarely see cask in good craft beer pubs these days. That’s not reflected in total market figures. The craft keg surge is not enough to stop cask increasing its share of all draught ale versus keg – over the last decade, their relative positions have reversed.

2. Cask ale and craft beer are not the same thing, but neither are they entirely separate – there is a pretty big overlap
It’s increasingly popular in beer geek circles now to say that craft beer is over as a thing – that the only people who use the term are big brewery laggards seeking to cash in on an exploited, used up trend.

You might think this, but there are millions who disagree with you. They might not know what the definition of it is, but according to Mintel six million UK adults think they’ve drunk craft beer in the last year.

We did a survey where we asked cask ale drinkers and publicans serving cask ale the same or similar questions. Craft has pretty widespread awareness and acceptance among both:

They have some pretty definite views on how to describe craft beer even if they don’t know how to define it. Views that craft beer has to contain loads of hops, be served on keg only or be influenced by American styles are only held by a minority. The main characteristics of craft beer, according to the majority of people who drink it, are that it is made by small brewers, or brewed in small batches or limited editions, or is only available in limited places.

We can see that people decisively reject the idea that any cask ale is by definition a craft beer. But the overlap between cask and craft is strong. The top three characteristics here apply just as much to most cask beer as they do to craft keg. Furthermore, the most popular format of craft beer is draught dispense – that’s how 80% of craft beer drinkers have tried it. Cask is still far more widely available than keg, and a lot of drinkers claim to be drinking craft cask beer.

There’s a lot more to say on this, which I’ll expand on in a separate blog post in the next day or two But the message of the Cask Report is clear: most cask ale is craft beer, and (in the UK) most craft beer is cask ale.

3. The pricing of cask ale relative to craft keg beer is dangerously screwed up
There are factors in the production of craft keg beer that mean it is more expensive to make than cask ale. But the current differential between the two is way bigger than this would dictate. Wide variations in the price of craft keg beer reveals that there is a degree of opportunism on the part of some licensees. Example: there are two pubs near me that sell Kernel Pale Ale on keg. It costs £4.80 a pint in one, and £6.50 a pint in the other. (And before the Fair Pinters kick in, neither is tied to a pubco.) On average, data from market analysts CGA Strategy hows that craft keg retails for over £1 a pint more than craft cask.

This automatically positions craft cask as hugely inferior to keg. Whatever your preference, as a blanket statement this simply isn’t true. It’s also worth noting that where the price of craft keg is lower on average – guess what? – pubs sell more of it.

This massive price differential damages the quality perceptions of cask ale. It limits sales of craft keg. And the hyper-inflation of craft keg pricing pushes it dangerously close to being seen as a cynical fad rather than a permanent shift in the market – when the novelty wears off, what reasons will drinkers have to pay £6 a pint instead of £3.80? Craft beer publicans need to think about sacrificing short term profiteering in favour of long term market development. I repeat – yes, there is a justifiable price premium. But it’s currently too wide.

4. Drinkers don’t know how much goes into serving the perfect pint of cask
Drinkers are far less likely to appreciate the relative difficulty of serving cask beer than are publicans.

Drinkers also believe that bar staff receive much less training around keeping and serving cask beer than publicans claim:

On every single aspect of the perfect cask ale serve, publicans claim to be training staff more than drinkers believe.

So are publicans exaggerating the extent they care for cask, or are drinkers unaware of how much hard work goes into it?

It’s probably a bit of both, with the emphasis on the lack of knowledge among drinkers. Higher prices mean people expect a more premium product. If drinkers are educated more about what goes into cask ale they’ll think of it as more special and will drink more of it and potentially be happy to pay more for it.

So education is key to cask’s continued success – but so is good training of bar staff. One interesting point coming from our research is that we also asked what promotional tactics work in selling more cask ale. In answer to that question, 81% of publicans said that personal recommendations by bar staff were the most important way of selling more cask ale. Yet in the graph above, you can see that only 57% of publicans say they encourage their staff to taste cask ales so they know more about them. How can bar staff be expected to recommend ales they know nothing about?

5. Publicans don’t necessarily know their drinkers
We’ve been saying for years now that the old stereotypes of real ale drinkers no longer apply. CAMRA membership has increased from less than 60,000 ten years ago to over 170,000 now. It has nearly trebled. The number of middle-aged beardy men wearing socks and sandals and carrying leather tankards on their belts has not. Cask ale is reaching a broader audience. 15% of all cask ale drinkers tried it for the first time in the last three years. 65% of these new drinkers are aged 18-34. A third of all female alcohol drinkers have tried cask ale. Of these three-quarters say they still drink it at least occasionally.

Whenever we ask drinkers about the old stereotypes, they’re disappearing. But we get a different view when we ask publicans:

If as a publican you don’t think women are into cask ale, or you don’t think it’s for younger drinkers, and if you don’t position it to appeal to them, you’re immediately cutting off more than half your potential audience.

Summary
There’s a lot more in the report, which is free to download from the link above from late this afternoon. But these are the points that stick with me after weeks of writing, editing, summarising and debating.

We are in the middle of a beer revolution in Britain, and cask ale is at its heart. It’s brilliant that the whole craft beer thing is moving the debate about what makes good beer away from packaging format and towards style, flavour, where it comes from and who makes it.

But I had a tweet this morning saying that all this was ‘bollocks’, that craft beer was just keg beer with better PR. And I also hear far too many people automatically excluding the entire cask ale market from any discussion about craft beer. Now that really is bollocks. We should be celebrating what a brilliant time we’re in for good beer in any format, and making sure that these different formats complement each other if we want to ensure their long term success.

Disclosure: The Cask Report is a paying gig for me and I write it on behalf of cask ale brewers and interested bodies. While it always looks for the positive news on cask, it is honest and accurate. I never distort or excessively spin the facts, and I never write anything in it that does not reflect my own personal views. 

| Beer, Cask ale

Why Farage’s foaming pint is a testament to European integration and immigration

Thanks to an amazing Stoke Newington Literary Festival I haven’t had time to blog for about a month, which means I missed my chance to comment on the biggest visibility beer has had in national media for ages. 

What a shame it had to be under such circumstances.

Over the European elections last month, beer geeks across the country gloated at the seemingly daily photoshoots of everyone’s favourite former stockbroker hoisting a pint of cask ale. Because most of the time, Ukip’s leader seemed to opt for a pint of Greene King IPA. I can’t imagine there were too many happy executives in Bury St Edmunds each time Nigel Farage’s froggy face appeared with their distinctive branded glassware.

Of course, it was perfect stage management by this most politically astute and media-savvy party leader. Nothing is more iconic of Britain than a foaming pint of real ale. And Greene King IPA initially seems like the perfect choice. Loathed by the trendy craft beer-drinking liberal London media elite, it was until recently the best-selling cask ale in Britain, the drink of the common man whom Nigel pretends to be. 

But how this pint came to be in Farage’s hands is in fact a brilliant case study of the benefits of immigration and European integration – the very things Farage campaigns against.

Hopped beers first became popular in England in the fifteenth century, when they were imported into East Anglia (Greene King’s home) from Holland and Zeeland. The first recorded imports were for Dutch workers who weren’t great fans of sweet, Old English ale. (While hops were among a range of other flavourings used in beer from at least the 8th century, they start being mentioned with increasing regularity from the early fifteenth century). The tastes of the Dutch soon caught on with the English. Over the next century, immigrants from Holland and Zeeland settled in England and began brewing hopped beer that was so good it was exported back to the continent.

By the seventeenth century there was a thriving hop industry across the Weald of Kent. This was established by refugees from the Low Countries, fleeing religious persecution. Hop farms went on to become a defining feature of Kent – which is part of Farage’s constituency as an MEP – thanks entirely to European immigrants.

Flemish brewers also settled in Southwark. Excluded from the City of London by the powerful trades guilds, they set up business just outside the city walls and soon became celebrated for the quality of their beer. There were of course those who opposed this trend, and some of the protests against these brewers strayed into xenophobia. While the story of Henry VIII banning hops is a myth, their cultivation was banned in Norwich in 1471, in Shrewsbury in 1519 and Leicester in 1523. London’s ale brewers harassed and disparaged the immigrants they felt were coming over here and taking their jobs, which led to a writ being issued to the Sheriffs of London to proclaim that:

“All brewers of beer should continue their art in spite of malevolent attempts made to prevent natives of Holland and Zeeland and others from making beer, on the grounds that is was poisonous and not fit to drink and caused drunkenness, whereas it is a wholesome drink, especially in summer.”

The descendants of these brewers eventually made Southwark one of Europe’s great brewing centres, and hopped beer gradually replaced unhopped sweet English ale. 

While we’re talking about hops, the varieties we have today are another direct result of international cooperation and trade. Hops are creatures of climate, and change their character entirely if grown in a different terroir. While Greene King IPA uses English Challenger and First Gold hops, other Greene King beers use hops grown in Slovenia. Hops such as Styrian Golding and Aurora are the descendants of hops that emigrated there from the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. These delicate plants grow better in the microclimate of the Savinja valley, which is broadly similar to southern England but more stable, protected from damaging winds and storms.

At the same time as English hops were venturing abroad, foreigners were coming to Britain to help improve the quality of our beer. Louis Pasteur’s pioneering work with yeast finally solved the great mystery of how fermentation happened. He introduced the microscope (invented by Dutchmen) to British brewers for the first time, showing Whitbread and others how to analyse and understand the behaviour of yeast. A decade later Emil Hansen – a Dane – successfully isolated the first single cell yeast strains that allow brewers to brew consistent beer. 

These innovations helped create ‘running beer’ in the 1870s. Before we understood how fermentation worked, beer brewed in warm weather would spoil thanks to infection. Old beer styles such as porter and IPA would be brewed only in winter months, and were made strong enough to store and mature in cool cellars. Some of these ‘stock ales’ would then be blended with fresh beer before serving. But once we understood how yeast worked, and how to control it via temperature (using the scale developed by the Swede Anders Celsius, or perhaps the German Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit) we could brew beer all year round and serve it fresh from the cask, without long periods of storage. These ‘running beers’ essentially form the origin of modern cask ale.  

Throughout this entire period – the golden age of brewing science – it was customary for brewers to undertake study tours around the great breweries of Europe to compare notes. While the work of French and Danish brewing scientists with yeast helped lead to the creation of real ale, English pale malt expertise influenced the development of golden pilsner lager. Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg studied at Everard’s Brewery in Burton on Trent. Pilsner was born of a combination of Czech ingredients and German skill. Burton-on-Trent would never have become the home of brewing that gave us IPA if it were not for a previous strong relationship with the Baltic states.

British cask ale is the child of immigration and European integration, like so many of our national icons: the first recorded fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant in 1860. The Great British cuppa comes from India. The designer of the Mini was a Greek immigrant. Buckingham Palace was originally built for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – the German wife of George III. The famous clock and dials of Big Ben were designed by the son of a French draughtsman who fled to England during the Revolution.

And as for Nigel’s favourite brand, Greene King? 

Whether you like Greene Kings beers or not, the business has prospered under the leadership of current MD Rooney Anand, who took the reins in 2005. Rooney was born in Delhi and arrived here as an immigrant with his parents at the age of two.

Sorry Nige – the closer you look, the more you realise that all you hold dear is founded on tolerance and understanding, on the movement of people, ideas and influences around Europe, on Britain welcoming immigrants in, allowing them to shine, and watching as they help define our country with us.

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The Cask Report shows how cask ale helps keep good pubs open

Today sees the launch of the Cask Report, the annual state of the beery nation I write on behalf of a loose consortium of brewers and beer industry bodies.
Every year I think ‘how can we do another one without just getting repetitious?’ and every year we somehow get enough insight and data to give us more understanding of why cask ale is increasing in popularity and why this is good news for publicans (the main target audience for the report). Everything can be downloaded from the Cask Report website, if not now then by the end of the day, but here are the main summary highlights…  

Cask ale is outperforming  the total beer market by 6.8%

Cask declined marginally by 1.1% in 2012, versus a total beer market decline of 7.9%, and the long-term trend remains one of steady improvement. Cask grew in value by 3% (thanks to increasing prices). Cask’s ale’s share of total draught ale has increased to 55%. Cask continues to grow its share of all beer with a 16% share of all on-trade beer. Although cask ale’s performance is flat, that’s much better than the general decline in beer.

Cask ale continues to grow in awareness and interest 

More pubs are stocking more cask ales on the bar. 57% of pubs now stock cask – up from 53% in 2009 – stocking an average 3.8 different brands. 

The growth in range is helped by the 184 new breweries that have opened in the last year

That’s three new breweries a week. We now have 1147 breweries in the UK, the vast majority of which brew cask ale.

Cask ale plays a major part in keeping pubs open 

Cask ale pubs see better results across the whole beer range, and cask drinkers are far more likely to visit the pub, far less likely to say they are doing so less often. Many people say they are going to the
pub less often than they used to, and 47% of the population say they are drinking less alcohol than they did a year ago. (So where are all the binge drink scare stories coming from?) The reasons they give are obvious, but interesting nevertheless. Only a tiny minority cite issues like the smoking ban as the reason for not going to pubs as often. 73% of drinkers say they are drinking more at home because it is cheaper. And the main reasons people are drinking less is that they want to get healthier. This is really important for pubs: if they want to stem the decline, it suggests we need some value alternatives, lower ABV drinks, better (and better value) soft drinks, and healthier food options on menus. Only 20% of cask drinkers (as opposed to 47% of all adults) say they are drinking less, and 25% say they are drinking more. Those who are drinking more are doing so because they perceive improvements in the quality, range and availability of cask. So cask drinkers are bucking the trend of declining pub-goers.

Cask ale has outgrown its traditional base 

It’s now a drink for men and women of all ages. Our research among drinkers shows a big take-up among a wider audience, and most cask ale publicans believe cask is bringing more women and younger drinkers into their pubs. One in five cask ale drinkers tried it for the first time in the last four years – proving cask is attracting new drinkers. 

A major appeal of cask to both drinkers and publicans is its variety

Both publicans and drinkers talk about the huge array of styles and flavours. The optimal cask range is a mix of style, colour, ABV, familiarity and provenance, and should be rotated on an on-going basis. But consumers want guest ales to stay on the bar for longer than licensees currently keep them, and want a core of familiar brands as well as new and different beers. Big and small both have a role to play.

Recent interest in ‘craft beer’ is driving awareness and appreciation of cask

Despite people on both sides of the ‘craft’ debate stirring up conflict on blogs, at events and in the trade press, creating the impression that new-style craft beer and traditional cask ale are threats to each other, most people – at least most who are aware of craft beer – think the two styles go hand-in-hand and have a large overlap. Awareness of ‘craft’ is not as widespread among consumers as it is in the industry. 77% of licensees are aware of craft beer, but only 37% of drinkers (this rises to 47% among cask ale drinkers). Those who are aware of it believe it denotes quality and is worth paying more for, and consider most cask ale to be ‘craft’. It’s a good thing. And it’s a real boost – not a threat – to cask ale.

Pub beer festivals are increasingly popular

33% of cask ale pubs – around 10,000 pubs in total – have run a beer festival in the last
year. This is a major source of trial for new drinkers. 39% of women who drink cask beer, for example, do so at festivals.

Cask ale publicans cannot imagine a future for pubs without cask. 

We carried out some original, independent research among licensees who stock cask. It was brilliant to hear from them about how at the novice end of the spectrum, people who start to learn about cask never having drunk it before quickly develop a genuine personal interest in it and start drinking it themselves. They go on to become passionate advocates for it. Most see it as an essential part of any quality pub’s product mix.

The launch of the report is timed to coincide with and kick off Cask Ale Week, which seems to be getting bigger every year. Go out and drink some cask ale. It’s a good thing.

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Cask ale in volume growth! How to stock the perfect range! Yes, it’s the launch of the Cask Report

Cask ale, real ale, handpulled ale – call it what you will – grew by  1.6% in 2011.  This is the first time cask volume has grown (as opposed to not declining by very much) for twenty years.  Sales in 2012 to date are steady, which is still excellent news given that the total UK beer market – down 3.5% in 2011 – is down again this year.  Cask now has such momentum behind it that it has overtaken keg as the most popular draught ale format.

This all made my launch of this year’s Cask Report last night very pleasant indeed.  When you’re the messenger, it’s nice when no one wants to shoot you.

This is the sixth time I’ve written the Cask Report.  Up to now, it’s been a weighty tome that acts as a snapshot of what’s happening to cask ale, who’s drinking it and why, and a detailed source of information for licensees about how to choose, stock and sell cask ale in a way that will increase pub turnover and profitability.

This year we’ve done it a little differently.  All the advice for licensees is now running as a monthly section of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser called ‘Cask Matters‘.  With greater frequency we can tailor the advice more precisely, examining in detail how cask can contribute to the character and bottom line of the pub in different ways, with case studies, Q&A’s, advice, industry comment and the occasional bit of whimsy from yours truly.  You can download PDFs here.  We should probably do Boxing Day TV ads saying you get a free binder with the first issue and it builds up into a beautiful collection or something.

The market stats are now in a thinner, flimsier Cask Report that gives a much more concise and easily navigable picture of what’s happening to cask ale.  Apart from the basic stats, this year’s report examines in further detail two issues that have emerged as key in the last couple of years:

  • What are the main drivers fo cask ale growth?  Why do drinkers like it?  And what are the barriers to trial among those who have never tried it?
  • What range of cask ales should a landlord stock?
Drivers and barriers
53% of British adults have now tried cask ale.  Among those who have tried it, 84% have gone on to drink it, at least occasionally.  People like cask because of its flavour and variety – microbrewers are now brewing a wide array of different beer styles:
The problem for cask is that 71% people who’ve tried it drink it occasionally or rarely.  Only 13% claim to drink it often or regularly.  Like ‘Guinness drinkers’ who only ever have a pint on Paddy’s Day, an awful lot of cask ale drinkers are people who tend to order a Peroni or Stella, until the rare occasions they go to a beer festival or visit a nice country pub. 
Those who love cask, as well as loving the flavour, tend to have other reasons for drinking it too.  Some like to support a local producer, others a great British tradition. Some like it for its natural ingredients.  Cask ale allows people who know it to support causes or make statements about things they care about.  This gives brewers and pubs a list of things they could say about cask to encourage trial, or get occasional drinkers more interested.
Among those who haven’t tried cask, there are no real barriers – they just haven;t been given a good reason why they should try it:
  

The negative stereotypes about it being warm, flat or an old man’s drink are tiny reasons compared to a simple lack of any reason why they should care.  Again, looking at committed drinkers gives us some good clues as to what those good reasons might be.

Stocking the optimal cask ale range
Talk to a beer blogger and they’ll tell you you should be stocking awesome craft ales from the awesome new wave of microbrewers using awesome New World hops and awesome wood ageing and an awesome lack of finings.  Talk to a regional brewer and they’ll tell you people want to see familiar, tried and trusted brands on the bar.

Both are right.

If I were to open a pub in London tomorrow, London Pride and Doom Bar would be on the bar permanently.  I would then have a seasonal beer from a traditional British family brewer, and three pumps stocking a range of IPAs, milds, porters, stouts, golden ales, all depending on seasonality and availability, the most eclectic and exciting mix I could find.

Most readers of this blog, I would guess, are dismissive of Doom Bar.  So am I. But it sells by the bucketload, and it sells to people who would never buy Magic Rock Human Cannonball.  There are at least 3000 different cask ales in Britain, which is amazing.

But know what?  The top 39 most recognised brands account for half of the total market volume.  Most pubs are stocking too many unfamiliar beers and not enough recognised brands.  Sales go up the more familiar, established brands you have on the bar.

Conversely, it’s eclectic, unfamiliar beers, often brewed by micros, that are driving the current excitement in the cask ale market.  Stock only familiar brands and people will think your range is crashingly dull, and rightly so.

Also – and this is common sense, but you’d be surprised – know your audience.  If you are a self-declared craft beer bar and you know that your clientele consists of people who actively seek out new beers, weigh your range to rotating new and unfamiliar beers.  If you’re a typical high street pub, refresh your range constantly, but always have a few favourites on the bar.

Whoever you are though, it’s good business sense to have both.  75% of cask ale drinkers say a familiar, trusted brand is important when choosing what beer to drink.  And 78% say they like to try new beers from microbreweries.  You may have noticed that adds up to more then a hundred – the same people want both familiarity and novelty – and that’s consistent across every piece fo research we did for the report.

Download.  Digest.  And maybe we can stop arguing – from a commercial point of view at least – about what’s best, big brands or micros?  Both are essential from the point of view of a good pub.

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Dave Wickett, Beer Legend, RIP

Dave Wickett died. Bastard cancer.

This award-winning, iconic Sheffield pub would not have existed without Wickett

Wickett gave cancer more than it bargained for.  When cancer said, “You’ve got six months,” Wickett replied, “Fuck you,” and went off and planned and opened a new brewery, and carried on living life to the full for another two years.

Dave Wickett died, aged 64, on 16th May 2012.

He’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2010.

How’s that for six months?

The much-loved 2004 Champion Beer of Britain would not have existed without Wickett

Beer is a tight-knit community.  If you’re reading this blog, you may well have met Dave Wickett.  If you didn’t, you probably know someone who did. And if you don’t think you did, I promise you you’re more closely connected then you might think. You’re probably no more than two – at a maximum, three – degrees of separation away from one of beer’s singular heroes.

I knew Wickett (everyone just called him Wickett) pretty well.  Not as well as his close friends and colleagues, but pretty well, because I was supposed to be ghosting his autobiography.  To my shame I didn’t get as far with that as I wanted to before he died – not by a long way.  I hope it will eventually reach fruition, but that discussion is for some time later.

Wickett grew up on the outskirts of London in the swinging sixties. He saw England win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 (football was his great passion before beer ever was), and off the back of that, in a somewhat unlikely fashion (the story of his life) ended up in Sheffield – a city he much preferred to the UK’s capital. That, in itself, is a big clue – here was a man who saw things differently.

You’re probably familiar with the story of how CAMRA came to the rescue of British cask ale in the 1970s.  You may be less familiar with what Wickett did.  He never threw himself into committees and mock funerals for closing breweries.  He had little interest in the politics of the organisation.  But he read and absorbed, and used the fledgling Good Beer Guide like a bible. But as a Polytechnic Economics lecturer, he also balanced passion for real ale with objective business nous – which brought him to the same place as his passion.  So he bought a run-down freehouse pub in a derelict area of Sheffield, named it the Fat Cat, and set out a stall consisting of a decent real ale selection and a food menu that always had a veggie option, winning heaps of awards over the next 30 years.

This brewery would probably never have happened without Wickett

In order to make the pub work as he wanted it to, Wickett challenged the declining 1970s real ale brewers to change the way they did business. They had to, if they wanted to supply him – and this new business arrangement would change the fortunes of countless other pubs.

In his lectures, he used real ale as a case study to prove how big business was distorting the ‘principles’ of the free market by using anti-competitive measures to deny choice to the consumer – something even Margaret Thatcher would have objected to – and when the Tories did object, and created a guest beer rule that freed pubs from a 100% brewery tie, Wickett opened his own brewery, Kelham Island in Sheffield. Kelham Island Pale Rider was Champion Beer of Britain in 2004, an early example of the golden ale that has now come to dominate Britain’s cask ale revival.

He’d been busy in the day job too, and had taken on responsibility for an innovative student exchange/placement programme that saw some of his Sheffield business students going to Rochester, New York, to run the first proper English pub in the US – the Old Toad, which helped pioneer cask ale in America.

The brewer on the left was hired for his first job in brewing by Dave Wickett

Wickett was never in it to make a high pile of cash.  He wanted to live a comfortable life doing what he loved.  He often compared himself to J D Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin, who opened his first pub in the same year Wickett did.  Wickett sometimes pondered if he should have gone down a more aggressive, chain-building route, and was often asked why he didn’t do that.  But he was always happy with his choices – he preferred running what he had, and taking on new challenges as and when they interested him.

So while Wetherspoons expanded with a fixed format across hundreds of branches, Wickett decided to open Champs, a sports bar in Sheffield.  Then he decided to invest in and guide the development of a tiny new brewery called Thornbridge.  He hired the two young brewers – one of them being Martin Dickie, who would later go on to co-found Brew Dog. But when Thornbridge wanted to grow at a greater rate, Wickett pulled out amicably, wished them well, and looked for new projects.

Sheffield is the real ale capital of the world thanks to Dave Wickett

After he was diagnosed with cancer, he opened another new brewery, Welbeck Abbey, as part of the School of Artisan Food.  It’s still in its infancy, but as part of a brilliant set-up that teaches people about great food and drink across the board, offering lessons in disciplines such as baking and butchery, with the makers of Stichelton cheese also included as part of the set-up, it’s another innovative operation that will help take serious beer appreciation onto a broader foodie stage.

Meanwhile, back in Sheffield, the ripples of Wickett’s actions were extraordinary.  Wickett wasn’t always an easy taskmaster, and over the years various brewers fell out with him, felt frustrated with his direction, or weren’t good enough to keep their jobs.  The extraordinary thing is that just about everyone who quit or was fired from Kelham Island went on to start a brewery of their own, often less than a couple of miles away.  Kelham is now at the centre of a dense cloud of microbreweries, and Sheffield has more cask ales on tap at any one time than any other city in the world.

Dave Wickett leaves an extraordinary legacy to the beer world.  Not just from his own actions, but from the people he inspired and who have imitated him.  The ripples of his brilliant life and career will continue to influence the beer world for years to come.

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FINAL Video Blog – It’s August. It’s GBBF!

I would say it’s been a long twelve months but it only seems like last week that our motley crew assembled in Nottingham for the first time, to talk to last year’s Champion Beer of Britain one month on from GBBF 2010.

That’s when we began our series of 12 monthly video blogs over the course of the year, financed solely by Peter Amor of Wye Valley Brewery, who wanted to put something back into an industry he felt he’d done rather well out of.

Peter’s brief was strictly to champion British real ale, and to address the lack of pride and attention we have for it.  Regular readers will know I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by partisanship and the creation of false enemies within the beer world, no matter what side it’s on.  Single-minded real ale advocates have long been the worst for this, but craft beer snobs are making efforts to catch them up.

But wherever your own beliefs lie, no one can argue that British real ale, while not entirely unique, is one of the most special, individual, eccentric, flavoursome, well crafted beers in the world.  It is the only style of beer that can pack in a flavour explosion at 3.8% (excepting beers that are so hop-imbalanced they’re undrinkable – and I say that as a hophead).  Belgian and American beers are just as wonderful on their day – but they only seem to start being so at around 5% ABV.

If real ale were French, it would no doubt be iron-clad in appellation controlees and EU Protected Designations of Origin. It would be as famous globally – and as celebrated in its homeland – as Bordeaux wine, French cheeses and foie gras.  It is a peculiarly English trait to be indifferent or even negative about things we’re good at.  I’ve never met a single non-real ale drinker who nevertheless sees our brewing prowess as something to be proud of, and I’ve met many real ale drinkers who believe it is not.

So even though I get frustrated with Old CAMRA diehards and am personally at least as likely to enjoy an American craft beer or German lager as I am a pint of best bitter, I was proud to be asked to co-present these blogs.  We’ve toured the country, seeing a year of beer first hand, trying many excellent ales and meeting people from brewers large and small who love their craft.  Every pub we’ve drunk in has been of outstanding quality.  We’ve hopefully shown that Britain really should be proud of its beer and its pubs.

This final blog is from GBBF 2011 – edited and finished in time for you to watch it and then go along and try both the beers and the atmosphere.  We both use the occasion to make some points we’ve come to feel strongly about on the journey.  And I get to taste some beers that we missed along the way, several of them among my all-time favourite real ales.  We didn’t get chance to get everywhere in the country, and I’ll always regret missing out Yorkshire and, to a slightly lesser extent, Kent and Sussex.  But maybe there will be chance of another series.

Anyway – hope you enjoy the blog:

Thanks to Eggy, Kaz and Dave, to Ian for channeling an exasperated primary school teacher as he tried to direct and produce us, and especially to Mr Amor for the funding, the cantankerousness, and most of all the hats and bow ties.

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July Video Blog: Scotland!

I bloody love Scotland, me.  I lived there for five years while at university, getting a degree and booking bands in the students’ union in St Andrews, going to buy records and get drunk in Edinburgh, going to chill out in the stunning beauty of the Trossachs.

This month I got to reminisce about all this as we attempted to cover the brewing scene of an entire country in about twenty minutes.

Why?

Because this particular series of video blogs is all about cask ale, and from an admittedly low base, cask ale is growing in Scotland at about 30% year on year.  When I was at uni there were three types of beer, all from Tennent’s, all a bit tasteless and horrible, apart from the ones that tasted of burnt sugar and were horrible.  So bad was Scottish beer I switched from being a cask ale drinker to a standard lager drinker.  It took me ten years to recover.

It is very, very different now.  Brew Dog, who we don’t visit here (their Edinburgh bar is all keg, and the man who pays the vlog bills wants to focus on cask) is merely the most visible of Scottish brewers who are currently displaying extraordinary levels of invention and enthusiasm.

In the Guildford Arms in the centre of Edinburgh I find one of my old favourites.  Then we go to Caledonian, where Peter looks round one of the most stunning traditional breweries you will ever see.  Many in Scotland are unhappy about the takeover of Caledonian by Scottish & Newcastle, and more recently Heineken. Not without justification, there was a feeling that things would be bastardised and cheapened.  But I visited before Heineken took over, and now going back again, the unique coppers, the hop room full of whole leaf hops, the open fermenters, the range of beers, are all unchanged.  The only real difference is a massive commitment to health and safety, a more corporate head office presence through boards displaying targets for reducing accidents and so on.  The brewing process and the resulting beers are unchanged.

I have a chat with Steve Crawley, MD of Heineken, in which we discuss whether the brewery’s flagship, Deuchar’s IPA, really is ‘not as good as it used to be’.

And then we’re off to Bridge of Allan, just outside Stirling, where Peter gets a bit tipsy talking to a round table of four brilliant Scottish brewers about the state of brewing in the country: Fergus from Inveralmond, Douglas from Traditional Scottish Ales, Amy from Harviestoun, and Tuggy from Fyne Ales (who I’m currently trying to persuade to adopt me).  I review a Scottish Wit Bier, try to sum up the style of stout in under a minute, and by the end we’re struggling to do a decent outro.  It’s hardly surprising.

Next month – next week in fact – we are filming our final video blog of this series at GBBF.  If you’re there on trade day, come and say hello.  If there’s anyone you think we should be going to talk to, please shout!