In recent times, we have seen a few breweries taking the decision to stop producing beer in cask format, Brewdog, Cloudwater, Buxton to name but a few. Whilst I like bottled and keg beer, this is a worrying trend for sure.
You may ask why brewers are making this choice when cask conditioned beer is so popular and with the proliferation of microbreweries? The more insightful view might be that younger drinkers like the new experimental keg beers with hipster style branding.
The more cynical of you may think that brewers are simply charging the earth for what they call ‘craft keg’ After all, we have all seen a 5% keg beer priced up at over £5/£6 a pint. Could it be that simple? I don’t think so as there are many factors to consider in product placement and pricing and these are a just but a few:
Cask v Keg – a traditional cask beer was by its very nature a British product, full of English ingredients, with hops predominantly from Herefordshire, Kent and Worcestershire. The yeast came from old stock via Fullers, Thwaites & Whitbread or Nottingham ale yeast. Beer had developed into a small range of styles that were all very traditional like Pale Ales, Golden Ales, Dark Bitters, Stouts and Porters and English IPA’s.
The last 6 years or so has seen an explosion of new brewers experimenting with styles and ingredients, developing new hybrid styles and using all sorts of ingredients from across the globe. This has lead, and to a certain extent, driven the market for these new exciting beers which has meant a price differential between old and new.
Brewing with English hop varieties such as Fuggles would cost as little as £4 per kilo, these taste grassy and herbal, which is ok if that’s what you want to drink but demand shows us that people like the new flavours associated with American or New Zealand hops with powerful flavoured varieties such as Mosaic, Citra, Centennial, Simcoe and Nelson Sauvin providing citrus, grapefruit, mango, lychee, pear and passionfruit flavours. These hops cost upwards of £30 a kilo.
The amount of time it also takes to create such intensely flavoursome beer also impacts on cost. An American style IPA will probably be dry hopped in a conditioning tank to add extra flavour and aroma. The finished beer may well take another 3 weeks to produce.
So, I guess a 30L key keg of beer would probably cost 40% more per litre than its cask version and that is where the disparity of understanding comes in.
It now seems common place to charge a higher amount for keg versus cask. Even if the brewer has spent a small fortune on ingredients, branding and marketing cask beer is viewed as the cheaper option and it appears that both the trade and consumers are only prepared to support cask as long as it comes in at a good price. Which of course would mean that us brewers will have to react and return to brewing traditional ales with little in the way of enticement.
None of this is helped by the myriad of brewers underselling their product in a very competitive over stocked market place. They won’t last but they will do lasting damage to the industry.
So, what is the future? It appears a little unstable now and I know several brewers who have either scaled back their operations or have shut the doors and mothballed the kit until easier times are back.
As there appears to be no end in sight to the tied house model, Punch Taverns selling their estate to Heineken won’t improve the situation, we can only hope more small brewers get their own outlets and keep making beers that appeal to a growing cask ale consumer base.
Cheap bottles in the supermarkets also help drive footfall away from pubs and is another reason CAMRA should carry on championing the pub and cask ale.
Pubs also need to ‘get it right’ Good cellar management and trained bar staff are key to the customer experience. As Pete Brown eluded to in his recent comments about poor quality cask ale in some pubs. Although I think he’s simply going in the wrong pubs!
Pete Roberts Founder & Brewer at Exit 33 Brewing