Cloudwater Brewery of Manchester has recently announced that they are to no longer brew cask ale, following a number of other fashionable ‘craft’ brewers that have either discontinued or scaled back cask production. Cloudwater’s business model going forward will be 60% bottles/cans and 40% keg. In 2016 their production split was 23% cask, 39% keg and 38% bottles.
The reasons they give for no longer brewing cask is that real ale drinkers demand cheap beer – even when it is brewed with large quantities of quality, expensive ingredients; issues with both publicans and consumers not understanding what is good or bad beer causing demands for refunds on perfectly good beer – for example Cloudwater beers are sometimes served hazy as they are unfined (therefore vegan) plus more labour is involved racking cask beer, collecting empty casks and cleaning them for reuse – bottles, cans and keykegs are all one way containers.
The statement from Cloudwater has led to calls from the usual online beer commentators for CAMRA to change attitudes and educate drinkers. They say it should be about promoting beer quality not members discounts or pubs with cheap ale.
These same commentators are also forecasting that all the other brewers doing anything interesting are likely to follow suit and leave the cask market to simply be a load of boring, cheap brown swill.
Beer writer Pete Brown has waded in to the debate in his Morning Advertiser column, criticising the pub trade for there being too many pubs serving badly kept beer and having staff not properly trained in the art of cask conditioned beer, with him suggesting he avoids drinking real ale in pubs unless he knows they have a good reputation for cask beer.
Of course it is worth noting that breweries such as Cloudwater have limited brewing capacity and have made a success of producing one off beers that are well hyped and attract good prices for bottles plus of course bottles and cans are good for direct sales, which are more profitable. They are also doing well with export sales which one way containers such as bottles, cans and keykegs are good for. You cannot blame them for making decisions that are the best for their business – but it doesn’t mean the same decisions are necessarily right for other breweries around Britain.
Tiny Rebel Brewery has recently also published a blog looking ahead with their plans for 2017 which sees them producing a lot more interesting and experimental beers – with cask being part of the plan. They say cask works best for certain styles of beer with the cask conditioning adding a certain something to the flavour. They are also opening a new bigger brewhouse.
Here in Sheffield we have a long list of breweries based in the City with all but one producing cask beer. Some of them also sell beer in other formats (bottle and/or keg) but generally the cask beer is their biggest output. However not all brewers are aiming at the same market. Some produce simple but well crafted session beers that are good for pubs to have as an affordable house beer. Others produce premium beers that may be hop forward or contain interesting ingredients; some breweries do a combination of the two. Such diversity is necessary to stay in business otherwise the competition would be immense – it is also good for the drinking public too of course.
Not all small breweries wish to go down the road of bottling – if you don’t have your own bottling plant – which is an expensive investment – the choices are hand bottling which is slow, tedious and labour intensive or contracting out which can see excessive wastage of beer as well as expense. Kegging also has its issues.
The observations of the better pubs in the Sheffield area that have a large range of beers and quality cellarmanship by knowledgeable management and staff generally sees a beer range that includes a couple of cheaper house beers – usually a pale/blonde and a brown bitter along with more interesting (and expensive) changing guests, all of which sell well.
It seems the death of real ale is being somewhat exaggerated….