Tag: cask ale

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Theme Park Britain is missing a vital ingredient

I find myself in Stratford-upon-Avon, covering the European Brewing Convention’s Environmental Sustainability Symposium for the Brewers’ Guardian. I’ll spare you the details of the controversy surrounding the re-use of spent grains, and the latest revelations on the optimisation of CIP-cleaning of open machine surfaces by surface modification, but being in one of Britain’s tourist meccas really has brought home a point we discussed often in our steering committee meetings on the Intelligent Choice Report over the summer.

People come around the world to Stratford to mainline Shakespeare. It’s everywhere you look: his birthplace, the theatres, the Othello Bar and Restaurant – I was half-expecting the Indian restaurant in town to be branded King Lear’s Curry House (motto: ‘blow winds and crack your cheeks’). Like any theme park anywhere, Stratford is a mix of faux-ancient and depressingly modern. Almost every building is mock-Tudor, which would be fine, but the effect is undermined somewhat when every single shop front is a national or global chain: Pizza Hut, WHSmiths, Costa Coffee, Pizza Express – all with steep gabled roofs, black beams and white walls. It’s a dispiriting place.

But the thing is, people come here for more than the works of Bill himself: as far as I know he never wrote ‘authentic-looking wattle and daub or ordinary red brick work? That is the question’. Stratford is a hopeful homage not just to Shakespeare but to his time, a chance to step into a plastic history, and for many tourists, it works.

So you’re a hotel that caters mainly to American tourists seeking a sanitised verison of sixteenth century England. You’ve got the exterior looking like it did in Bill’s day. You’ve got the prints of characters from the main plays adorning your walls inside. You’ve probably got badly-punned dishes on the menu named as tributes to the same characters. All this goes down brilliantly with Hiram and Blanche from Des Moines. But they’ve come all this way to sample a taste of Ye Olde England, and here they are in the centre of it, and what do you offer them to drink? That’s right: Stella, Becks or Budweiser.

This is what we noted in the Intelligent Choice Report: cask ale is outperforming every other ale or lager. Cask Marque’s real ale trail regional guides are stocked by tourist offices nationwide, and they can’t re-stock them fast enough. Surveys among tourists show that ‘traditional British beer’ is near the top of the list of things they want to try when they visit the country. And hotels in general steadfastly refuse to stock it. WHY? I’ve never been one to bleat on about how we should treat cask ale almost as a charity case – we should drink it because, well, because we should, because it’s traditional, all that stuff – but I’m all for anything that gives me a better choice of beers when I’m out and about – I’m selfish like that. And this is simply a case of commercial opportunity. My hotel has a shit beer selection. If it stocked a decent range of well-kept cask ales I’m sure it could easily sell them at four quid a pint if they wanted to.

It’s not just Stratford – touristy pubs in London almost have to be tortured by water-boarding before they will admit to stocking cask ale alongside the usual global lager brands.

People travel to foreign countries because they want to see, hear, taste something different. Britain’s cask ale culture is unique in the world, and when you ask tourists, they think it’s pretty cool. But we act like we’re ashamed of it, like we don’t want to know.

I know it’s not very British to be proud of something we do really well, but could we please at least make available something tourists come here looking for and are prepared to pay good money for?

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Can you afford to ignore cask ale? (That’s a rhetorical question by the way)

The other big thing apart from the book is the Intelligent Choice report, which was launched last night in the stunning Counting House, a Fuller’s pub and former bank (maybe we’ll be seeing a lot more of those!)

The report is the brainchild of the Why Handpull group, formed of the main regional brewers, in association with the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), CAMRA and Cask Marque, the body that promotes cask ale quality in pubs. They commissioned me to write the first one last year and, happily, asked me to do it again this year.

I’ve slagged CAMRA in the past and I used to advertise lager, so I have no particular political axe to grind about cask ale – I think that’s one of the reasons they chose me to write it. I hate it when people can’t decide whether a beer is any good or not until they know whether it’s cask conditioned. So while the report is positive, it’s objective. I’m not saying everybody should drink cask ale because I want them to, I’m saying pubs should stock it mainly because it is a proven driver of profit and footfall at a time when pubs need all the help they can get.

This year’s report shows that, far from the terminal decline many mistakenly believe cask ale to be in, it’s actually performing better than any other ale or lager category. It’s still in volume decline but only just, whereas premium lager is shedding volume faster than Fern Britton in a gastric band.

This couldn’t be happening if cask ale was only drunk by old blokes and beardy wierdies. Those people do exist (though every time I see an old man on his own in a pub these days, he’s drinking Carlsberg or Carling), but most cask drinkers are affluent, upmarket, discerning individuals in their forties and fifties. What’s really interesting is a growign number of occasional drinkers are in their late twenties and early thirties – younger on average than beer drinkers generally.

But 65% of the UK population have never tried cask ale, Britain’s national drink. That’s nonsense – imagine if 65% of French people had never tasted wine. And the remarkable thing is that when people do try it, 40% if them start drinking it regularly. There’s huge potential for growth here.

The report website went live yesterday and is at http://www.caskalereport.com/. You can see a summary of key findings on the site and you cand download PDFs of last year’s and this year’s report. I’m available for interviews and comment if you’re a journalist and you’re interested in covering it. If you’re a journalist and you’re not interested in covering it, why the hell not?

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Official: pubs are better than Ant and Dec

It’s true. Pubs are nearly as good as the Queen. But not as good as fish and chips. But then… what about fish and chips IN A PUB? Being eaten BY the Queen? How good would THAT be?
What am I talking about?

A Cornish Pasty, yesterday. Better than real ale. Not as good as pubs.

A new survey of 7,000 people conducted by Holiday Inn asked people in the UK what they loved most about Britain. And despite relentless bad publicity, misinformation, the smoking ban, soaring beer duty and cheaper-than-water beer in supermarkets, “old-fashioned British pubs” came in at NUMBER THREE, behind Her Maj in second place, and fish and chips in pole position. This means that the great British pub is officially cooler than:

  • The Beatles
  • Manchester United (yeah, I know – we hardly needed telling that)
  • James Bond
  • Steven Fry
  • Er… the NHS

So why is the pub struggling so much? Well, there’s a clue in the way this story was reported in The Express, which refers to the pub as a “nostalgic symbol of a bygone Britain”. Pubs are fine when seen in the same light as red telephone boxes and cream teas, it’s just the modern pub we don’t like.Except we do.Fashions in the on-trade are cyclical, and the very best pubs today are redicovering the joys of the traditional English pub – its decor, its menu, its range of cask ales – and presenting them in a way that’s appealing and contemporary rather than retro. This survey is proof that people respond to that. Incidentally, real ale made the list at number 40. Not as cool as Routemaster buses, Glastonbury or Cornish pasties. But way more loved than Pimms, David Bowie, the E-type Jag, Prince Harry, and – oh, sweet joy – the bride of Satan herself, Margaret Thatcher. Erm, Morris Dancers just sneak in at number 50.

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Meet the UK’s newest champion of cask ale

Alright, so I’m generally quite liberal in my views towards beer appreciation and resistant of beer snobbery, but this has given me pause. In fact I think I might have to run a little poll, because it’s got me flummoxed.

The country’s biggest tabloid is going into the beer business. Market research organisation Mintel reported last week that the plan is to launch a lager under the page three ‘brand’ -interesting to see what the Portman Group and every other alcohol regulatory body will have to say about that one, given that it is strictly forbidden to link beer and sex these days – and a cask ale under The Sun brand.

On the one hand, I despise Rupert Murdoch and all his works. I never pay any money to anything to do with News International if I can at all help it. On the other, you can’t help but think this will benefit the market as a whole.

Why is The Sun launching a cask ale as well as a lager? It can only be because they think it’s worth their while doing so. It ties in with the fact that premium cask ale is now consistently outperforming the rest of a dire beer market.

And The Sun has phenomenal power to change people’s opinions. At the very least, it puts beer on the media agenda more firmly than it has been for ages. We currently have the worst decline in beer volumes for nearly thirty years. Surely this can only help. It is bound to upset purists who drink ale partly in order to show how different they are from the stereotypical Sun-reading, white van-driving lager lout, but how much of that is really about the age-old pastime of pouring scorn on working class men?

Will it be shit beer because most things The Sun does tend to be lowest common denominator? Or given that what they do, they do well (Sun journalism is actually very skilful), will they produce something that’s accessible, but decent quality?

Good or bad, it’s going to be interesting.