Wednesday, 10 October 2018

A perfect storm?

Well we've had quite a spate of light-hearted, travel-related posts, highlighting idyllic parts of the British countryside, with just the odd snippet or two about pubs and beer, but with the holidays behind us now and the nights drawing in, it's time to get a lot more serious.  So where better to start than with an issue which is already having repercussions for a type of beer which is claimed to be the "pinnacle of the brewer's art".

I am talking of course, about cask-conditioned ale; the style of beer which is unique to Britain. With sales seemingly in decline, there are dark rumblings about the future of this unique style of beer, and with no real consensus as to what to do about it, let alone how to save it. the future is not looking good.

It can't have escaped the attention of those who care about beer that the recently published Cask Report (an annual review of the state of the cask-ale market), has highlighted a 6% fall in sales of cask.

Several prominent beer writers have picked up on this including Martyn Cornell (Zythophile), Pub Curmudgeon, Ben Nunn (Bon Viveur), and Tandleman and all have written posts on what may have caused this dramatic decline in casks' fortunes, and have put forward various suggestions as to how to turn this situation round.

Martyn Cornell asks the question, "Why after nearly 50 years after the birth of CAMRA, can't he get a decent pint in most pubs?". He suggests appointing "cask ale champions" to ensure quality standards are met, and also believes Cask Marque should implement accurate record keeping, so publicans can demonstrate just how long a particular cask has been on sale. Finally he wants to get the message across about the problems associated with stocking too many cask ales, as this is contributing to the quality problems which is one of the prime reasons for the drop in sales.

Pub Curmudgeon suggests that because hand pulls allow customers to instantly recognise cask beer, they also give them the chance to instantly reject it as well. His proposal is to mix up the cask with the keg, by putting it on the "T bar".

Benjamin Nunn asks the question, "Is cask ale going the way of vinyl?", and if so, would it not be better if it was promoted as a "niche" product? Whilst this could see cask disappearing from many main-stream pubs, it would at least ensure its survival in specialist outlets, which know how to keep the beer properly.

Tandleman conducted his own research into cask quality, by trying several pubs in an area he doesn't usually drink in. In the four pubs he visited, there was only one pint he'd describe as very good. This, coupled with regular visits to London, where he often comes across poor quality beer, reinforces his view that cask has a problem.

And this is where I come in, as Tandleman's findings closely mirror what I experienced during our recent trip to Norfolkand Yorkshire. It is becoming abundantly clear to many people that ordering a pint of cask ale has become something of a lottery; and an expensive lottery at that, given the price of a pint today.

If further proof were needed, take a look at Retired Martin's blog where Martin is reporting much the same in the many pubs he visits up and down the country. What makes this situation even worse, and potentially explosive, is the news that most of the pubs Martin visits are Good Beer Guide entries!

From where I see things, quality has always been the Achilles Heel of cask ale, and whilst its short comings can be mitigated by quick turnover and proper cellarmanship, the fact that cask-conditioned beer is reliant on being cared for by someone apart from the brewer, is asking for trouble.

So with cask sales seemingly in terminal decline, you may well ask what has been CAMRA's response to this news? Well if the October edition of  "What's Brewing", the Campaign's monthly newspaper is anything to go by, not a lot. CAMRA at present is pre-occupied with its campaign to save the nation's pubs.

In a way, I can see where CAMRA is coming from, as there is no future for cask (Real Ale) without pubs to stock and serve it. But equally, if CAMRA continues to ignore the quality issue inherent with cask ale, drinkers in pubs which the Campaign has managed to save, will continue to avoid it, and will switch to something more consistent and reliable.

CAMRA appears then to be caught in a cleft stick, but one would have thought that the drink which is the group's main raison d'être is worth fighting for. My membership of CAMRA stretches back over 40 years, during which I have witnessed various highs, as well as lows in the Campaign's fortunes, but I feel that the group has a real fight on its hands to try and rescue cask ale from oblivion, and the trouble is it doesn't seem to realise the problem exists.

There is a perfect storm heading cask ale's way, as the genre comes under pressure from all sides, but what makes things worse is the situation is being masked by the seemingly unstoppable rise in the number of new breweries coming on tap. With over 2.000 breweries in the UK, no neighbourhood is far from a brewery, so from CAMRA's viewpoint, everything in the garden is rosy.

With all these breweries fighting for space on the bar, and many CAMRA members on the look out for a new beer to "tick" or a new brewery to scoop, the temptation, when it comes to Good Beer Guide selection time,  is to pick pubs offering a wide selection of real ales, whist turning a blind eye to the obvious quality problems ensuing from stocking too many ales. This issue has been around for a long time, and whilst some branches are now belatedly addressing it, they are still the exception rather than the rule.

I'm not sure what is the best way of saving cask ale, because no matter what innovations are put in, its quality is ultimately linked to the person or persons who handle it in the pub cellar or serve it at the bar. Keg, or "container " beers, which are the default  option in virtually all areas of the world, apart from Britain, get round this problem because they are kept in, and dispensed, from a sealed containers. They therefore  receive virtually no exposure to oxygen and, more importantly, spoilage organisms which might be present in the air.

A couple of months ago, whilst I was visiting the United States for Beer Bloggers Conference in Virginia, I had several conversations about cask-conditioned ale with  some of the delegates. The universal response was that Americans just don't get "cask", with the reasons most often cited being it is flat and served too warm. During my travels I only came across two or three bars stocking cask, and wisely I wasn't foolish enough to try any of it.

Now I'm not advocating an abandonment of cask, in favour of keg, but perhaps the future of "real ale" does lie more in specialist outlets, which cater for that specific niche. Whilst this may have been Ben Viveur's perception of where the market is heading, and was where the comparison with vinyl came about, Ben was quite adamant that wasn't the destination he wanted to see for cask.

I too don't want to see cask disappear from mainstream pubs, but on the other hand, if the style is struggling to sell amongst a myriad of global lager brands, I would rather that the pubs concerned knock it on the head. In some cases "no cask is better than bad cask" - now where have we heard that sort of argument, before ?


Russtovich said...

"the style of beer which is unique to Britain."

Pretty much true that. I've only had cask beer over here once. A brewpub in Nanaimo apparently puts on one cask every Friday afternoon in the summer around 3pm. When it's gone, that's it till the next Friday.

"it would at least ensure its survival in specialist outlets, which know how to keep the beer properly."

That might not be a bad idea (but that's just one opinion from someone basically unfamiliar with the situation).

And with that I'll stop the usual cut-n-paste I do.

I have no solution to offer. Like you though, I do find it a tad ironic that CAMRA, who advocate real ale, print an annual guide to 'good beer' that seems to be more about the pub than the beer in it.

And that's all I have for now. I'm making the rounds of my 'regular bloggers' after being away all weekend and then dealing with some issues once we returned home. I'll look at the Bridlington post before the weekend is over. :)


PS - "the future is not looking good."


Etu said...

Yes, Paul, it's ironic, that your so-called patriotic, tattoo-headed ukip voter would generally never been seen dead, drinking that most English of things, a pint of cask ale.

Nah, give him his Stella, and watch him go off down the road, pulling imaginary toilet chains, alternately, with his left and right arms...

Matthew said...

Capitalise what, Russ ?

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Russ, unless the brew-pub you refer to has got some form of cellar cooling in place, summer is not the best time of year to be stocking and serving cask ale; particularly to an unfamiliar customer base.

As for the CAMRA GBG, it did actually start out as a guide to outlets serving real ale. Quality, as a criteria for entry came along a little later. I admit it wasn’t long before it morphed into a Good Pub Guide, but now, with the rise of micro-pubs and brewery taprooms, it’s back to a Good BEER Guide again.

Etu, I’m not too bothered about the Stella-drinking lager louts; it’s those drinkers who seem to be deserting cask in their droves that I’m far more concerned about. These people aren’t likely to be deserting real ale on a whim, but if they’re experiencing inconsistencies and major quality issues, their behaviour is perfectly understandable.

Finally, seeing as you mentioned the Kippers, it’s interesting that the pint held by Farage, in those carefully posed photos, is invariably a badged glass for John Smiths Extra Smooth. Clearly a man with no taste, as well as only half a brain!

retiredmartin said...

Totally agree with that Paul. If pubs can't keep it, or sell quickly enough, they should drop it.

I've just read our local branch magazine describe the beers in a village gastropub as "warm" but then quickly add "but still very good". I guarantee the average diner trying their cask (e.g. my wife) won't see warm beer like that, and will wonder why they haven't got Punk IPA or Gamma Ray on.

Russtovich said...


Last sentence, second paragraph. 'the' isn't capitalised. :)

Etu said...

I've seen at least one of the clown with a GK IPA, fair being fair.

retiredmartin said...

In defence of CAMRA and the Beer Guide, I can highlight many pubs with poor beer that I've written about on my own blogs that were "dropped" from the next Beer Guide. Two successive entries in Watford and a very well-known historic Cambridge boozer, for entry. I think most CAMRA members can tell dull/poor beer and wouldn't put their local in the Guide just because the Landlord is a mate.

Folk are deserting cask. My wife is a culprit, so am I. But less folk are drinking regularly throughout the week, both at the younger and older ends of the market, and Prosecco/fruity cider/coffee have attacked the middle.

Meanwhile, cask enthusiasts focus on their specialist real ale pubs, which are sometimes micros.

Etu said...

I wonder to what extent the simple, age-old phenomenon of fashion has its effect?

I mean, who'd have thought, that we would have seen the pretty rank hairstyles of the 1950s return for men, but paired with the risible beards of the 1970s, for instance?

Things Baby-Boomer are not that popular with the young generally, understandably, but maybe things will change back, once we have all turned up our toes?

It's probably beyond forecasting, however.

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, I would be with you and Mrs RM on the Brew Dog or the Beavertown, if the beer was warm; although how it can be described as “still very good” is beyond me.

By and large, I agree with you that local branches are conscientious when it comes to selecting pubs for the GBG; although I’m not convinced that CAMRA nationally are totally on message. My own branch have pulled several prominent “beer exhibition” type pubs in the past, because of the invariable poor quality beer. This hasn’t always gone down well with the licensees concerned, and there have been “cross words” directed at the branch committee – even though all decisions for inclusion are taken at an open meeting, where all members are welcome.

Part of the trouble is the long lead times between inspection, selection and final publication of the guide, which can often be 8 - 9 months. In this day of digital printing, CAMRA surely ought to be able to reduce these times – dropping the ever expanding Breweries Section would help for a start.

I agree that fewer people are going to the pub during the week, and that those who do are often coffee/Prosecco drinkers. Even more reason to cut down on the number of casks on sale.

Mr Cholmondeley-Warner said...

Not sure about the "concentrating it in specialist alehouses" argument. If they continue to offer a multi-beer range, they'll still run up against the turnover problem. I've been in several CAMRA favourite "alehouses" where the beer early doors on Tuesday has been crap. And plenty of pubs fancy themselves as ale specialists when they don't remotely have the sales to sustain it.

Much better to have fewer lines in the same number of pubs. But that's not going to happen, is it?

Paul Bailey said...

So what you’re saying Mr Cholmondeley-Warner, is that we’re reaching the tipping point, and that cask ale is on the slippery slope to extinction.

Bradshaw's Ghost said...

"Yes, Paul, it's ironic, that your so-called patriotic, tattoo-headed ukip voter would generally never been seen dead, drinking that most English of things, a pint of cask ale.

Nah, give him his Stella, and watch him go off down the road, pulling imaginary toilet chains, alternately, with his left and right arms..."

Always good to see such respect and tolerance for differing political views on here.

Arsenal Fan 36s Greatest Tribute Act said...

Ghostie old chap.

I enjoyed the commenter’s point and colourful description.

If we saw pro-EU and Labour voters with the red flag, EU flag etc. Tattooed on their heads as we do BNP and the rest then I’m sure he’d give it similar treatment. We don’t though, do we?