Cloudwater, CAMRA and the culture of cask beer

Spoiler alert: I love cask beer. To me, there is no greater pleasure in life than the first sip of a properly conditioned, well kept, cask beer, served at the right temperature. You can imagine my disappointment, therefore, when Cloudwater, one of the most exciting new breweries to emerge in the UK in the last two years, announced last night that they intend to cease production of cask beer entirely in 2017, joining the likes of Buxton, Beavertown and Brewdog in turning their backs on Britain’s most famous dispense method. But why exactly are breweries like Cloudwater choosing to abandon cask beer, and what threat does this pose for the future of that particular segment of the market?

In a nutshell, Cloudwater are stopping cask production for two simple reasons: Money and reputation. The margin of profitability on cask beer is too small, and poor cellarmanship can lead to an end-product that simply does not meet the high standards that Cloudwater are seeking for in all their beers. Breweries can spend hours upon hours honing their craft and improving their skills, only for the final product to be spoilt by being served at the incorrect temperature, or left on the bar well past its best.

For a long time, I’ve always been baffled by exactly why cask beer is so much cheaper than keg. From spending over two and a half years working in the industry, it is perfectly clear that cask beer requires far more care, time and attention to detail to get right, both from the brewers themselves, and the publicans who serve it. Combine this with the fact that cask beer should be drunk within five days or so of going on the bar, and its almost impossible to see why exactly it is that cask beers are regularly a pound or so cheaper than their keg counterparts.

Part of the reason for this is, of course, historical. When the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA), was launched in the 1970s, one of the main ways in which they sought to promote cask beer was by offering it up as a cheaper alternative to mainstream kegged products at the time. The organisation still supports Wetherspoons, a chain notorious for its bad cellar-care and poorly conditioned beers, by offering members vouchers for 50p off cask beer or cider in their pubs. The sad reality is that for many CAMRA drinkers, the dispense method and price has become more important than the quality of the beer itself, and as a result cask beer is now fundamentally undervalued in the market, with many punters simply refusing to pay the price that well-kept quality beer deserves.

That’s not to say, however, that all of the blame for the devaluation of cask beer lies squarely at CAMRA’s door. There are also plenty of breweries who are happy to peddle shit cask beer to pubs and consumers that just want crappy beer at a cheap price. But there does appear to be a distinct lack of willingness, particularly amongst older, more traditional drinkers, to pay the £4+ a pint price that premium, properly kept cask beer deserves, and hence breweries have no choice but to accept lower margins in that segment of the market.

For breweries such as Cloudwater, this means selling their cask beer at a far lower price than ought to be the case, especially when the added time and costs associated with handling, racking, collecting casks is factored in. With more effort for far less reward, it’s difficult to see why any brewery in the UK continues to package beer in cask at all.

I think that there is a real danger of complacency in the UK market with regards to cask beer. Not only are many breweries turning away from the dispense method, but many pubs, particularly in London, also seem to think its no longer worth their while. CAMRA think that the battle has already been won and – if the non-event that was their new Revitalisation Project is anything to go by – they cannot be relied upon to take the steps needed to save the it.

To make cask beer attractive to both breweries and punters again, two things need to happen. Firstly, the price has to go up. The end-price of the product has to reflect the time and money involved in producing it. Secondly, the quality needs to be far greater that what we are currently seeing in some pubs at present. Is it any wonder that young people are put off cask beer when it is often served warm, flat, through dirty lines or just downright infected?

CAMRA could and should have a vital educational role to play here, as should breweries, industry leaders and writers. Tell that dickhead mouthing off in the pub exactly why the pint of bitter is 20p more expensive than it used to be. Send that warm/flat pint of porter back to the bartender and ask to speak to the manager. Educate and inform people about the extra time and effort that goes into the production and maintenance of cask beer, and why it deserves to be respected and treasured.

I’m bitterly disappointed to see a pioneering brewery like Cloudwater turning their backs on cask beer. I think that as well as being a unique and fantastic British tradition, cask beer is one of the most difficult skills to master and represents the very pinnacle of brewing. When it is served correctly and given the love and care it deserves, I rarely find myself wanting to drink anything else. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and looking at that particular segment of the market at this moment in time, I can totally understand why Cloudwater are choosing to stop making it.

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3 thoughts on “Cloudwater, CAMRA and the culture of cask beer

  1. Hi James

    An interesting piece, and obviously written from the heart. I’ve already commented on a least two other Cloudwater related posts, and whilst I agree with much of what you say, there are other points I disagree with.

    To set the record straight, I too am a CAMRA member, and have been so for the past 40+ years. I was therefore around in the “bad old days”, when so-called “real ale” was hard to come by; in some parts of the country, at least. Before going any further, I prefer the industry term “cask-conditioned” beer rather than “real ale”, especially as there are many fine beers around which, whilst not meeting CAMRA’s rather dogmatic definition, are “real” in every sense of the word, and are beers I am quite happy to drink.

    CAMRA lost its way quite a few years ago, and from what I see coming out of the “revitalisation project”, nothing much has changed. By just tinkering around the edges, the Campaign has lost a golden opportunity to reinvent itself, but when things are left for committees to decide, this is often what happens.

    I am not sure I totally agree with your statement about Wetherspoon’s cellar-practices, but as someone who rarely uses his JDW 50p discount vouchers, I may not be the best judge here. I do think though, it is high time for CAMRA, which is a supposedly independent consumer organisation, to cut its ties with Wetherspoon’s, in order to leave itself totally free from accusations of bias or, indeed, cronyism.

    The subject of Spoons leads on nicely to the thorny issue of pricing. It is true that when CAMRA started its campaigning, back in the 1970’s, cask-conditioned beer was normally cheaper than the heavily promoted “keg beers” which the Big Brewers were pushing at the time. The reasons for this can be summarised by the fact that cask-ale was the norm in most pubs; as this had been the way draught beers had been packaged, conditioned and dispensed for decades.

    Keg, on the other hand, needed additional equipment, in the form of in-line chillers, gas dispense systems (including CO2 cylinders and associated regulators), plus fancy illuminated boxes on the bar, in order to serve it. The fact that keg beers received heavy promotion, often in the form of expensive TV advertising, meant someone had to pay for this; and that someone was the drinker.

    This may well have worked at first, as people often were prepared to pay extra for the consistency which keg beers brought with them; but unfortunately that consistency came at a price, and as someone unlucky enough to have drunk the likes of Courage Tavern, Whitbread Tankard, Watney’s Red and Younger’s Tartan, I can vouch for the fact they were consistently AWFUL!

    They weren’t flat, oxidised or even vinegary, as badly-kept cask ale could be, and unfortunately often still is; they were just bland, totally devoid of character and you could be forgiven for thinking that they hadn’t been anywhere near a barley field or a hop-garden. They were consistent alright, and highly profitable for the brewers, given that cheaper and often inferior ingredients were used in their production, and by being filtered and often pasteurised, they were also stable, with a much longer shelf-life once broached. In addition there was normally very little waste.

    Fast-forward four decades and we now have keg beers which are brewed from some of the finest quality ingredients, by brewers dedicated to their craft, meaning there are some truly excellent beers on the market. Unfortunately this is an area CAMRA has totally failed to recognise, and this is my main bone of contention with the organisation. I am sure many other beer lovers feel the same way.

    It is also true to say, of course, that there are many breweries turning out cask ales with the same dedication, and the same careful selection of ingredients, and there are some equally fine cask ales out there.

    Unfortunately there are also some pretty dreadful beers being turned out as well, and this also applies to more than a few so-called “craft beer” brewers. Brewers of poor, or indifferent cask beer, get away with it by charging rock-bottom prices, and it seems that there are pubs fully prepared to compromise in quality, so long as the price is right.

    It is equally true there are many drinkers content to drink such swill, because it suits their pockets, but is raising the price of cask beer, as you and several other writers have suggested, the answer?

    My thinking is that it would require a massive sea change in the way both the brewing industry and consumers think about beer, and in the current financial climate that’s just not going to happen. Peoples’ disposable incomes are usually finite, and whilst in the longer term some might be prepared to pay a little extra, it’s unlikely to be that £4+ premium that many commentators are demanding.

    Now let’s say that some drinkers are prepared to pay more; especially when they’re getting a beer brewed from the finest floor-malted barely, and bittered with the finest aroma hops money can buy. If the beer is cask, WHO will guarantee that this lovingly created dream pint will not be screwed up by careless handling, sloppy cellar practices, dirty lines (this applies equally to keg beers btw), or by being left on sale when it is obviously past its best.

    The simple answer is that with cask beer you CANNOT guarantee this, and this was, still is and always will be the Achilles heel with so-called “real ale”.

    So good luck with trying to convince “the dickhead mouthing off in the pub exactly why the pint of bitter is 20p more expensive than it used to be”, when it still tastes stale, or even vinegary; and good luck trying to tell someone on a limited budget, such as a pensioner or person on a low income, that cask is a “premium” product, so you have to pay more for it.

    Thanks for reading this far. Next time we meet up, perhaps we could continue the discussion over a pint or two; cask or craft-keg – I’m happy with either!

    Like

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