A new threat to real ale – or a storm in a Schooner?

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….



About Andy Cullen

Andy has been actively involved in CAMRA since the early 2000s after being recruited to sit on a National Younger Members Task Group. Since then he has held roles on the branch committee including Secretary, Membership Secretary, Magazine Editor, Chair and now Social Secretary. Andy has also been involved with the Steel City Beer & Cider Festival almost every year since becoming active in the branch.

1 comment

  1. There are many troubling inferences in this article. There is a superficial air of complacency, but I feel that there may more to this content than meets the eye.

    There are many aspects of Cloudwater’s reasoning for going keg that could have been ripped apart but I understand the author not bothering to do that as it’s all been said before, especially back in the 1960/1970s when the need for CAMRA evolved. And although it is, of course, true that one cannot blame Cloudwater for doing what’s ‘best for their business’, it is a trend we should be wary of just as fellow drinkers had to be 50 years ago.

    However, there are new issues raised in the article that could do with more critical comment. One is highlighted in the phrase ‘quality, expensive ingredients’ and others are in the suggestion customers don’t understand hazy beer, and worst of all want ‘cheap’ beer!

    I am sure that all reputable brewers use good quality malt and hops. It is not helpful to discussion to suggests the moderner brewers are doing anything novel my using ‘quality’ ingredients. Yes, moderner brewers are using more expensive hops and other ingredients to satisfy their delight in experimentation (and some customers’ interest). But this is purely a business positioning choice the brewery is making, and consumers will either pay the premium price or they won’t depending on whether they feel the product is worth it. The author’s phrasing of…’a range that includes a couple of cheaper house beers – usually a pale/blond and a brown bitter along with more interesting (and expensive) guest beers’…describes a way of looking at beer that does not really do credit to a CAMRA representative. Cheap is a very emotive word. And the use of the word ‘interesting’ is in itself interesting. The beers the author describes as cheap can provide exactly what the drinker wants just as much as can an ‘interesting’ beers, and to some do so much more consistently. The use of words is very important in creating impressions and so wording in this article gives grounds for concern.

    Finally, the issue of unfined beers, their haziness and their suitability for vegans is another minefield. It is wrong to promote the idea that unfined beers have to be hazy and that fined beers have to be unsuitable to vegans (although I’m sure most are). This is an area where I can already see a lot of misinformation coming from brewers to put ideas in consumers’ heads and it would be good if CAMRA helped clear things up a little!

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