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.