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It's Beer, Jim, but not as we know it....

I saw a few days ago that Vocation Brewery are this weekend launching a new collaboration with Hull's Atom Brewery called Strawberries and Cream. The other week I was at the Cloudwater Brewery in Manchester where I had Mango Sour, an amazing beer made with 25% fruit pulp and the colour of, well, mango juice. Like the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise, some of today's most innovative brewers are boldly going where no brewer has gone before. And in some cases, it's beer, Jim, but not as we know it....

And here's a few thoughts.

A few months ago I wrote about the decision of Cloudwater to stop brewing cask beer, citing the cost, limited financial return, and concern over how it is presented to the customer, and would therefore focus on craft/keg instead. 

I also referred to some analysis that had been put together by another brewer which showed that the actual cost of brewing cask versus keg is not much different. What is different though is that whilst the keg of these days still has some life in it, unlike the horrors I remember from the 1970's like Whitbread Tankard, Watneys, and Youngers Tartan, it still exists in a more cocooned environment and it is easier to ensure that what the customer actually drinks is just as the brewer intended, provided that the necessary outlay on the right equipment has been made by the outlet concerned. Cask, meanwhile, as a living entity, demands nurturing and care from the landlord to ensure it reaches the customer in tip-top condition. But that is the art and science of looking after cask beer, something that any landlord or cellarman worth his salt does as a matter of course.

The conundrum is that some of the most interesting beers around today are brewed as keg by some really creative and pioneering brewers. Some of these beers need to be slightly petillant and chilled in order to bring the best out in the flavours and alcohol, which demands more investment from the outlet in equipment to serve it properly. Which means the cost to customer goes up compared to cask. And from this the decision by Cloudwater, and before them, Buxton, Beavertown, and others, does raise questions. 

Putting the beer into a keg means that the customer gets near enough what the beer was like when it was brewed. It lives in a sealed container, like bag-in-the-box wine. It is easier for the pub or bar to keep, and for longer. It is therefore suitable for outlets that don't normally sell cask. Putting into cask demands care and attention at all stages in the process before it gets to the customer, it requires skill from the cellarman, and is more prone to outside factors affecting its quality - temperature, disturbing the barrel, cleaning of lines,etc.

So the fear is that if a pub has got used to beer on keg, it is easier to keep, and the customer likes the product, why persist with cask which demands much more effort? And if the brewery, seeing that keg is the best way to ensure good quality, the pub and customer is happy, and thus their reputation is enhanced, why not just brew keg only, like Brewdog have done very successfully? 

Now I accept that this is a very simplistic view and it isn't a case of either/or, or good/bad. Choice to drink what you want is essential, and for so many people cask is the only way to drink beer, many of the craft beers tend to be high ABV and therefore not to everyone's taste. 
I do love some of these beers which at their best can produce some amazing flavours, but I expressed the concern back then that we might be overlooking what is happening to the cask market.

And so cut to a recent article  by Roger Protz in 'What's Brewing'. With the recent acquisiton by Marstons of the brewing business of Charles Wells (Bombardier,Youngs, McEwans and others), apparently around 37% of cask beer production is now concentrated in 3 companies - Marstons, Greene King, and Molson Coors (who have through some pretty powerful marketing made Sharps Doom Bar the Number 1 cask beer brand in this country in terms of sales). My concern is that if some of the smaller guys are beginning to focus their efforts and innovation on keg rather than cask we risk allowing a key part of our heritage to wither away. At the moment keg is fashionable, appearing in more and more outlets. If it continues to be so then don't think that the big boys won't move in. In fact, it has already happened with Camden Town and Meantime, snapped up by AB Inbev and SAB Miller respectively. Inevitably innovation is much more difficult in a large concern where the need to appeal to as many people as possible is the priority, and whose inherent structures make it harder to be as nimble. So there are potential dangers for keg too.

So, to sum it all up. I applaud the innovation that is going into keg beers, the rise of beers in a can that are actually enjoyable to drink.  Some beers work better in a keg format. But some don't, so we have to keep the development going into cask as well. We need cask to be healthy and thriving, we can't afford to take our eye off the ball. Cask beer at its best is a wonderful thing and as the foundation on what the British brewing tradition is built, needs just as much innovation and development as the currently more on-trend keg beers, otherwise we could be in a situation at some point in the future where we are left with bland, nondescript beers brewed by fewer and fewer independent concerns which will ultimately appeal to no one.

And now some other bits. Earlier this week, we gave a great send off to my mate Harry who I mentioned last time. The humanist service at Park Wood Crematorium in Elland was packed, with the wake taking place at the Commercial/ Railway in Brighouse, one of the friendliest pubs in the area, where friends and family reminisced about Harry with tales of some of his escapades, with several of his jokes getting an airing. It was a lovely do. He would have loved it.

Moving ahead a few weeks, the annual beer festival is taking place at another very friendly pub, the Cross Keys, Siddal, Halifax on the 11th, 12th, and 13th of August. I don't know what beers are on at this stage, but if it is anything like previous ones, it will be a must-attend event with some excellent beers. There is music on, with the excellent Paddy McGuire performing on the Sunday. You are assured a warm welcome from Hugh, Ruth, and Poppy the dog, plus a host of friendly regulars!

And so until the next time, keep on rockin' in the free world....

Cloudwater, boldly going where most brewers have not gone before....


  1. The micro brewers, or craft if you prefer, had a pretty clear hold on the cask ale market and sales growth were double didgit. Then came craft beer, music to the large brewers ears, as they had largely given up with cask, but now the craft brewers were pushing keg beer it provided a fantastic opportunity for the big boys to get back into the market place with 'craft' beers. Plus they already had all the equipment required including canning lines. So the small beer market is in a mire with static sales or evening slowing sales of cask as everything I read is about how good keg beer is and are dissing cask beer. We need to get cask beer back on the front foot as the mainstay of the true craft beer revolution (mangos optional).


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