Friday, 1 December 2017

Cask Wars: Revenge of the Kegï

The toxic legacy of the long-vanquished Kegï hangs over a beer-galaxy struggling to rebuild from the Cask Wars of the 70s. Now, a small band of Craft Warriors seeks to re-unify the divided houses of the Beerati, but the entrenched Stickinnamuds still hold out for the Empire and the Old Order…


It’s ironic, really: the country that saved real ale and cask conditioning for the world is now the one that risks losing it – and all because of an artificial divide that was defined 40 years ago, to serve the needs of a very different time.

That was one of the messages that came out of a seminar held in London a few weeks ago to mark the release of the 2017 edition of the Cask Report, which surveys both drinkers and vendors on the state of the beer business. A key element in this year’s report is the rebranding of cask as also being craft – something that’s a no-brainer in most other countries, where the presence of a handpump enhances a beer-bar’s craft credentials, rather than distracting from them.

To listen to Cask Report author Paul Nunny, of the quality checking group Caskmarque, cask is a bellwether – or perhaps a canary – for the whole pub industry. He cited statistics showing that consumers as a whole see handpulls as marking out ‘a proper pub’, and that cask drinkers are more likely to move pubs if the ale quality isn’t up to snuff.

“Cask drinkers matter because 42% of them go to the pub weekly or more, they are more loyal to their local, they spend more – £1030 a year, 30% more than average, and they are often the ones recommending the pub [to the rest of their party],” Nunny added.

In the seminar, several speakers expressed amazement that anyone might think cask ale wasn’t already part of the craft spectrum. Clearly they’re not CAMRA members – even those of us that are quite happy with a cask=craft definition are well aware of the “keg is always evil” diehards.

“The first key step is to stop being distracted by definitions – cask has to move forward under the banner of craft beer, which it is,” commented James Coyle, the managing director of Innis & Gunn which recently added cask to its keg and bottle line-up. “The trend in America is pulling back from highly-hopped beers towards more sessionable beers. They’re not concerned about the definition of cask, for example craft brewer Shipyard also brews Old Thumper.”

I guess part of the problem is that cask and craft are orthogonal terms. Even if you believe craft is more than just a meaningless marketing term – and many will argue it’s on a par with other empty words such as Premium or Traditional – it refers to a completely different set of properties. Cask ale can be made by hand or in an automated industrial-scale brewhouse, while craft can mean traditional and anti-industrial, or modern and challenging.

The trouble is, we’re stuck with both.