Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Cloudwater abandons cask ale

Keykeg or Red Barrel??

When I first read about Cloudwater abandoning production of cask ale to concentrate on keg and cans I was initially disappointed, but my second reaction was a quick realisation that I didn't know they actually produced any cask ale. I've only ever tasted one bottle of Cloudwater beer, a DIPA and I've never had any on draught, cask or keg. Given my lack of exposure to their beers I'm in no position to judge any of their products but I'm pretty sure they make great beer judging by the wealth of positive opinion they generate.

So why am I concerned about their withdrawal from the cask beer market? Well I suppose I'm worried this might be the thin end of the wedge, if a shiny, modern, cutting edge outfit like Cloudwater consider cask ale to be commercially unviable where does that leave the rest of Britain's micros? I can't see a sudden demise of cask but until recently it would be inconceivable for a British brewery to have a reputation for making high quality beer while not producing any cask ales. When I started drinking in the mid 80's cask ale was my craft beer. I was in a small minority in preferring draught Bass to Carlsberg or Stella, but for discerning drinkers today there is a much greater choice of quality beers, within which cask ale forms just one component.

As a cask fan my worry is the cask ale market could get squeezed from two directions, by craft brewers like Cloudwater, Beavertown and Buxton offering high value niche keg brands on one side and, potentially, a larger brewer switching an established cask brand to keykeg to create a value offering to a larger market. Traditional CAMRA stalwarts tend to dismiss all non cask draught beers as keg piss but modern keg isn't red barrel, it offers the commercial advantages of old style keg bitter but with the added attraction of being a higher quality product for which consumers are willing to pay a higher price. Cask is commercially vulnerable which is why it nearly disappeared in the 70's. It has a short shelf life and requires careful skilled handling. The difference between now and 40 years ago is that modern alternatives are not necessarily inferior products. There should be plenty of room in the market for all sorts of styles and dispense methods but a problem arises when the commercial pressures generated by a combination of (comparatively) low retail prices, higher handling costs and an intrinsically more fragile product make cask ale less attractive to newer breweries, with higher overheads and reduced economies of scale, compared to more established producers. Put simply, the likes of Cloudwater may want to produce cask ale but business reality makes it economically hard to do so, which in itself gives them a further incentive to prioritise keg over cask.

Beer Brexit

The second reason given by Cloudwater for pulling out of cask production was the issue of maintaining quality. Namely that once their beer had left the brewery it's quality was reliant on the pub or bar storing and serving it correctly and poor cellar management was unfairly diminishing their reputation. Although this is undoubtedly an issue I don't think that is a sufficient reason to stop brewing cask beer. Surely, if you have a great product then address the poor cellar management and if necessary only supply establishments where good practice is the norm. Anyway pubs which consistently serve poor quality ale due to their own deficiencies won't be serving beer for too long - will they? Well actually that may not be strictly true, Cloudwater's other gripe was that their unfined naturally hazy beer was getting rejected by consumers while poorer quality (but clear) brews were drunk without complaint. Consumer choices are largely governed by preconceived expectations, and for traditional cask ale drinkers that means beer must be clear. Of course this works both ways, craft beer afficionados will happily knock back the latest keg offering from their favourite brewery while ignoring alternative cask options safe in the knowledge that (to them) most cask ale is poor. This polarisation of opinion among discerning beer drinkers is a concern, especially if younger people turn away from cask in favour of keg. Most modern craft beer bars (as opposed to traditional cask oriented pubs) have more keg lines than cask so keg is already achieving a higher profile in this (admitted small) sector of the market. My concern is that if a younger generation of discerning beer drinkers and more new breweries are choosing keg over cask this will have a detrimental effect on the future of real ale.  

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