This post was originally written as a rather lengthy comment on James Beeson’s Beeson on Beer site. It was in response to James’s take on Cloudwater Brewery’s decision to discontinue cask beer.
Now the matter of what some see as a pivotal moment in the modern brewing world, but the more down to earth amongst us see as little more than a storm in a tea cup (beer glass?), has been done to death by several noted bloggers and beer writers. There has been much navel gazing, pontificating and head scratching, which at times bordered on the absurd. I threw in my own four penneth worth, which appeared to upset a few people who disagreed with me trying to put the whole thing into perspective, so I’ve little else that I wish to add on that particular issue.
My comment over at James’s place was primarily in response to his suggestion; one which was also raised by Matthew Curtis at Total Ales, that cask beer is seriously under-priced. The argument is that cask beer is a premium product and should be treated, and priced, accordingly. A retail value of £4 + a pint was mooted, with comparisons being made with many craft beers which hit the £5 or even £6 bracket!
Both James and Matthew, along with several others, view this as the answer to a maiden’s prayer; whereas I see it as both unworkable and something which will price cask beer out of many pubs. My response should also be viewed against claims that CAMRA are partly to blame for the under-pricing of cask beer; something I will set out to dismiss as a fallacy, even though I agree with several of the other things being said about the Campaign in relation to this.
Before we get started, I am a CAMRA member, of over 40 years standing, so I was around not long after the start of the Campaign, back in the “bad old days”. This was when so-called “real ale” was hard to come by; certainly in some parts of the country, but by no means all. 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 other sense of the word, and are beers I am quite happy to drink.
There is no need here to go over again how CAMRA was successful in saving cask-ale from extinction and how the Campaign spurned what became a tidal wave of new brewery start-ups, as well as sparking a huge and still growing fascination with beer in all its many styles. This interest in beer turned in to a global phenomenon, and there are now few places on the planet where it is not possible to find decent beer.
Having largely achieved its aims, CAMRA rather lost its way. This was despite a huge increase in membership which some would argue, was partly down to its decision to jump into bed with major pub chain, Wetherspoon’s and offer 50p a pint discount vouchers, as part of the membership package.
Despite a much vaunted “revitalisation project”, aimed at establishing a new direction for CAMRA and attempting to inject new life, nothing much has changed. The project’s findings have been published, although they are yet to be debated and scrutinised by the membership, but at first glance they appear to be little more than just tinkering around the edges. It increasingly looks as though the Campaign has lost a golden opportunity to reinvent itself, and we are left with a typical British “fudge”, but we will have to see how things pan out –a bit like “Brexit” really!
I mentioned the JDW vouchers earlier, and many have questioned CAMRA’s rather too cosy relationship with the pub chain. There have been accusations of poor cellar-practices at some Wetherspoon’s outlets, but as someone who rarely uses his Spoon’s discount vouchers, I may not be the best person to comment on this. I do think though, it is 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, and here it was pointed out 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 protagonists went on to argue that for historic reasons, CAMRA was keen for the price of a pint of cask to remain low; forgetting, or rather not knowing, the historical reasons why cask was cheaper than “keg” in the first place.
Back in the transition period of the late 1960’s – early 1970’s cask-ale was still pretty much the norm in most pubs. It had been the way draught beers had been packaged, conditioned and dispensed for decades, and the introduction of keg beers would, if anything, ensure that cask remained the cheaper option.
Keg beer requires 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. Someone had to pay for this; and that someone was the drinker, but it didn’t end there. The fact that keg beers received heavy promotion, often in the form of expensive TV advertising, meant additional costs which were also passed on to the consumer.
At first people were often 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 sometimes still is; they were dull, incredibly bland and totally devoid of character. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking that most heavily-promoted keg beers hadn’t been anywhere near a barley field or a hop-garden!
The major brewers loved them for their consistency and profitability, particularly given that cheaper and often inferior ingredients were used in their production. Also by being filtered and often pasteurised, they were stable, with a much longer shelf-life once broached, and there was normally very little wastage.
Fast-forward four decades and we now have keg beers which are brewed from some of the finest quality ingredients available, by brewers dedicated to their craft, leading to some truly excellent beers appearing in 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, but unfortunately there are also some pretty dreadful beers being turned out as well.
Brewers of poor, or indifferent cask beer, get around this 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 several 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 the £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 carefully crafted 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 trying to tell someone that because cask is a “premium” product, you have to pay more for it; especially when that someone is on a limited budget, or is a pensioner or a worker on a low income, because it just won’t wash.
By insisting on charging substantially more for cask, because of the extra handling it receives, or because of allegedly superior ingredients, smacks of elitism in a manner akin to wine-snobbery. I fully accept that those brewers who do brew decent cask, and there are many of them around, deserve to be properly financially compensated for their efforts, and certain brewers may be able to get away with this. However, when other factors like wholesalers and the distribution chain in general are thrown into the equation, margins begin to get squeezed at other points, so if anything there are pressures on brewers to reduce prices rather than raise them.
For example, I don’t know how many people noticed that Enterprise Inns are pressing SIBA for a reduction of £3 per firkin for beers supplied by its members to Enterprise pubs. This come on top of a £5 a firkin reduction already “negotiated” back in November.
When large pub companies can apply this much clout, what chance is there of small “boutique” craft brewers getting a fair and honest price for their products? Talk therefore of charging a “premium” price for cask definitely remains as pie in the sky; as does talk of “educating the drinker about the value in paying more for his carefully-crafted pint”.
I can see that suggestion going down really well at the Dog & Pheasant. Goodnight!