ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Chucking my two cents on the 'cask in crisis' bandwagon

For a relatively small and not long established brewer, Cloudwater have certainly got peoples attention. Since announcing at the start of the year that they are to cease all cask ale production, everyone and their maiden aunt has had something to say on the matter.

Cloudwater are somewhat highly regarded, particularly around their Manchester base and among 'craftier' drinkers and while I haven't had the opportunity to try all that many of their offerings, those that I have tried have always been consistently drinkable - one of them sneaked into my top five beers of 2016.

Rightly or wrongly, the debate has expanded to encompass the broader questions around the future of cask beer:



- What happens if more and more good breweries like Cloudwater follow suit and stop doing cask?
- Is the expectation of a lower price point for cask slowly killing it off?
- Are we heading towards a situation where only bland, mainstream and cheap to produce beers will be cask conditioned?
- Has the improved quality of keg products (coupled with its established consistency and profitability) rendered cask obsolete as a day-to-day product?
- Does CAMRA and certain subsets of its members do more harm than good?

It would be easy to dismiss it all on the basis of something like 'craft drinkers who like Cloudwater don't care about cask, and old CAMRA fuddy-duddies who drink cask only want boring brown regional twigjuice and don't care about Cloudwater.'

But clearly this sort of generalisation isn't true and the extent of the coverage of Cloudwater's decision and what it may or may not mean shows just how much people do care about this sort of thing:

  • Beer Compurgation has penned a lengthy, three part essay exploring these questions and more. Well worth taking the time to read.
  • Martyn Cornell sees the development as indicative of a bleak future for CAMRA and a damning unspoken indictment of cellar management.
  • Dave Bailey of Hardknott considers the commercial ramifications and - not for the first time - does a bit of soul-searching around whether he should still bother brewing cask beer.
  • Tandleman tries to see the situation from Cloudwater's point of view, while warning of greater long-term implications; and
  • Mudgie, ever the lovable contrarian, plays down everything, after all, the real villain here is the smoking ban...

Fairly obviously, there are no easy answers here.

A few thoughts

OK, I'm essentially a pro-Capitalist Libertarian. I don't blame anybody running a business for wanting to maximise profits and expand as far as they can. That said, I'd like to think that most smaller businesses have at least some sort of conscience and ideology behind their existence, particularly when it's something that matters to me, like good beer.

I just like drinking excellent beer
I am, however, increasingly worried that producing cask beer doesn't seem to necessarily be at the heart of the 'good beer' ideology any longer. There are certainly brewers out there thinking 'we can brew awesome beer and it doesn't matter if none of it is cask', or possibly even 'we can brew awesome beer' without the c-word even registering in their thought process.

Some commentators assume, probably correctly, that this comes from looking to emulate the successes of the US craft brewing industry where cask has only ever been a novelty sideshow. "If we import big hop flavours, experimental styles and insane ABVs then we import a de facto keg- and can-centric production agenda."

But this clearly needn't be the case - over the last few years we've seen lots of beers that embody everything great about American craft beer, but in cask form. Cask can be a big part of your underlying ideology if you really want it to be.

The cost issue is a strange one. Despite years of CAMRA essentially arguing that cask is superior to keg (a philosophy which, everything else being equal, I happen to agree with) there is some fundamental reason why punters are willing to pay more, sometimes quite a lot more, for a keg beer over a cask beer. Even a cask beer in excellent condition.

Cask needs to be sold within a more restricted timescale, else it goes off. Sometimes it's pretty much 'off' from the moment it goes on, and some argue that this 'gamble' - whether you get a good pint or a bad one, and indeed whether an entire firkin might end up going down the sink - is factored into the lower cost.

This all comes back to quality and cellermanship. If cask beer was always kept and served well, perceptions would change over time, people would be prepared, surely, to pay a little more for it, and there would be less wastage. Yes it would take a bit of hard work, maybe even a bit of work in the marketing suite as well as the cellar, but surely it would be worth it, no?

'Craft' should not be about easy answers and revenue maximisation but about, well, actual craft. Well kept cask ale should be the absolute pinnacle of craft beer because there is more craft involved. Am I the only person that sees this?!?

Cloudwater dropping cask may not be an existential threat to the continued production of cask beer, but it is a reduction in choice. If every similarly good brewer follows suit, we'll be left with a situation where the only draught real ales available will be the boring, mainstream, cheap-to-produce national brands.

Eventually the choice will be between cask beer and good beer. And if that happens, I'll be mostly drinking keg beer, which isn't something I really want.

So this is where CAMRA needs to step up to the plate. It's not complicated. Just start campaigning for real ale again. If you can put pressure on a government to cut duty, you can fucking well put pressure on pubcos to train their staff to look after cask beer properly. If you can host the biggest beer festival in the world, you can encourage all brewers to showcase their finest, most exciting beers in cask form and give them the promotion they deserve. And start fighting back against some of the horrendous misinformation out there (instead of pumping out your own!)

There is so much skill and innovation out there that if CAMRA, brewers and pub management all pulled in the same direction we have the potential to create a cask utopia, or something close to it at least.

But if the right people don't have the same passion for cask that I do, it's heading not for death but for purgatory, which is worse.

2 comments:

  1. I'm fairly optimistic about this. There are now around 1,700 breweries in the UK, most of them small enough for their ethos to reflect the principles and aspirations of one or two individuals. That being so, they are bound to have different priorities: some will favour keg beer, some cask.
    I don't know what kick-started the American craft beer movement (unless it was sheer desperation at the paucity of commercially available products) but the new wave of breweries in this country (after decades of decline) followed firmly in the wake of the real ale revival of the 70s, hence cask ale was usually at the forefront of their thinking. That said, I realise there are people coming into brewing now who have no memory of the Glorious Revolution, still less of the dreadful keg beers of the 60s and 70s. Nonetheless, they are entering a market which is currently vibrant and full of choice and they will set their own priorities. I trust some of them will consider the superior palate and mouthfeel of cask ale worth striving for, despite its limited shelf life and vulnerability to poor cellarmanship.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This should be called, 'Cocks in crisis'.

    ReplyDelete

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