Sunday, 18 March 2018

It’s not about cask vs keg, it’s about the beer

We need a more nuanced approach to "cask vs keg", an end to the keg rip-offs, and a wider recognition that in beer packaging, limiting your options is generally a bad idea... 

One of the things I learnt, talking to brewers at both the final London Drinker last week and Craft Beer Rising before that, is that some continue to talk down cask ale. Somewhat sadly, for a cask-focused festival, even one of the prize-winning brewers at London Drinker confessed to me that his brewery is doing less cask. What was perhaps more interesting was that his reasons were more nuanced. Rather than the wild generalisation we’ve heard before that "Cask is too cheap", his argument was that cask is too cheap for many of the beers he wants to make.

Because the thing is, cask is not too cheap, nor is it impossible to build a viable business model on it. For many of the brewers I’ve discussed it with, the reverse is true: cask can be the cheapest way into the market. Pubs already have the necessary hand-pumps and are well-used now to the idea of guest and seasonal beers, cask deliveries and collections can help maintain customer relationships, and you have those less tangible promotional benefits of tradition, ‘LocAle’ and ‘NaturAle’.

Sure, it needs investment in infrastructure – a cask-washer, for instance, and the casks themselves, while reusable, are not cheap – but so does keg, and that’s typically more expensive. And yes, Keykegs (and cans, for that matter) are recyclable, but aren’t we supposed to be reducing the use of one-way plastics and making more use of reusable containers?

The real pricing problem is more subtle, and it’s to do with how popularity and availability affects expectations of price. You can make cask ale pretty cheaply indeed, if what you’re making is relatively lightly-hopped brown bitter, using mostly English hops. What you can’t do is make a full flavoured and hop-forward craft beer at the same price, not least because the ingredients are so much more expensive. Prices I’ve heard for modern New World hop varieties can be three to four times those of English hops, for example, and something like a New England IPA uses way more hops than a Bitter does. 

Then again, the same is true of keg beer – the average Eurolager or German industrial Pils is also cheap to produce, compared to the properly-flavoursome craft equivalents. (Bigger production volumes help here too, of course.)

So, expecting to pay £3-ish for cask real ale is reasonable, as long as what you want is subtle, flavoursome bitter, an English mild or pale ale, maybe a decent Porter. And to be quite honest these are the beers that can be utterly sublime in cask when well-kept, but can equally well be one-dimensional when kegged.

On the other hand, expecting a Double IPA, a triple-hopped American Pale, or a Belgian Quadrupel of any decent quality for £3-ish in cask or keg is just taking the proverbial. And in many (though not all) cases, such high-powered beers will benefit from the lift that an appropriate degree of extra carbonation in keg can bring.

So no craft brewer should be talking cask down like it’s something that’s holding them back, or moaning that it’s "too cheap". If you can cost-justify the recipe at £3/pint, casking it can both show your skill and produce a better end-product. On the other hand, if the recipe won’t be viable at £3/pint, then by all means keg it at £5/pint.

But don’t pretend there is any inherent extra value for the consumer in kegging. Sure, there is value for the bar – they get a product that can stay on sale longer, which enables them to charge more while they wait for it to sell, instead of pricing it to sell promptly. That might be OK for slow-selling niche beers, but charging £1 more for the keg version of a cask beer is merely an ecologically damaging rip-off.

And no one should disparage ‘twiggy brown bitter’. Some drinkers prefer subtlety, properly done, to in-yer-face flavour. And many of us like both, depending on our mood, our budget, the occasion or venue, or whatever. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Chop and change at Craft Beer Rising

At last year’s Craft Beer Rising, and in the run up to this year’s edition of the show, most of the conversations I had with brewers and others in the trade centred around how it had become largely a trade and show-off event. No one expected to sell anywhere near enough beer to recoup the costs of being there – a serious four-figure sum for most of them – so they were there to promote their brands, network with others in the business, discuss work opportunities, and so on. Or in several cases, they were not going to be there, because they didn't feel the need for those things.

As Pete Hughes, head brewer for the Brewhouse & Kitchen group, told me last year, “We’re here to build awareness and to participate, we don’t think of this as a money-making event. If you’re already at maximum [production] capacity you’re here for fun or to make contacts.” Sure enough, when I met Pete this year he was enjoying the event, but just as a trade visitor, leaving the awareness-generation to those in more of it.

Bellfield, a newer brewer
And what a lot of them there were – from small first-time exhibitors, through local brewers trying to break into Craft or out of their local region, to well-known brands ensuring that they stay that way.

Which makes it a little surprising that the organisers had apparently reined back the availability of tickets for the trade session – or they had done in the run-up, anyhow. When I turned up with all my paperwork ready as instructed*, no one actually looked at it and there were no queues or checks beyond a spoken “Got an invitation, yeah? Alright.” Upstairs, the halls were surprisingly quiet, so perhaps they overdid the restrictions!

My initial aim was to work out where the talks were being held later that afternoon, as I wanted to attend Goose Island’s class on beer & cheese pairing. This gave me a destination for a leisurely meander route through the halls, spotting sights of interest along the way.

One of the first was Mad Squirrel, a name I already knew as the crafty brand of Hemel Hempstead’s Red Squirrel Brewing – except that it turns out that the craft side has staged a takeover and the whole brewery now operates under the Mad name, with keg the majority of production.  (They still brew their cask ales though, which have quite a loyal following around the Herts/Bucks area.)

Operations and marketing manager Tim confirmed what many people have suspected: with the craft revolution and the number of new brewers competing for space on the bar, it’s not enough just to brew great beer any more. “Competition is massive for the free trade,” he said. “Branding is increasingly the thing. We wanted to do more hop-forward and contemporary beers, but the branding was holding back sales – buyers were looking at our Double IPA and saying, ‘you’re not going to be good at that.’”

On the other hand, Tim also highlighted a welcome result of all this, which is the return to vertical integration, where the brewer is also the retailer. Mad Squirrel now has five outlets around the Chilterns (including the brewery tap), which Tim characterises as half bottleshop, half bar. Indeed, where five years ago Red Squirrel employed seven staff, the company now has around 50, two thirds of them on the retail side.

I tasted two of the Mad Squirrel beers on tap. Kodiak was very pleasant, but odd – described as a American Brown but more of a dark amber, and hoppy like an American Pale, with little of the malty toastiness one tends to expect in a brown ale.  The other, Ascension, was a gorgeous Farmhouse Ale, strong in the Belgian Saison vein at 6%, and richly hoppy thanks to an unusual extra dose of hops in the mash, alongside the usual boil hops and dry-hopping. Sort of a Saison/New England IPA hybrid.

Further along, I spotted Edinburgh’s Bellfield Brewery, which is one of several gluten-free brewers that have emerged lately. Having spoken to a number of others in this area recently, including Autumn Brewing Co who I met at PubShow18, I will write more about gluten-free beer soon.

Next to catch my eye was the Marston’s nano-brewery DE14, which is where the brewers from the big Burton brewery get to experiment and try out new ideas – and also where they host local homebrew clubs and the like. The latter is where Morgan Silk, their lovely New England IPA, came from – it is named after its creator and was originally his response to a challenge set to the homebrewers to create a beer using breakfast cereal – I’m told his prototype had Special K in it! That had to be swapped for equivalent base ingredients for rebrewing on DE14’s two-barrel brewkit, but the result remains juicy, creamy and spicy-fruity.

Most DE14 brews aren’t widely sold – they might go into the brewery taproom, a few local bars, and local beer festivals, say. But at CBR I also got to see cans of the first two DE14 brews to graduate to full commercial production: End Point, described as ‘a modern take on the historic Burton IPA’, and Flight Suit, which is a pale ale with both Mandarina Bavaria hops and orange peel for added citrusness. Needless to say, these are brewed on the main brewery, which can brew up to 500 barrels at a time with a minimum run of 60 barrels (hence the desire for a smaller experimental brewkit).

This was about when I spotted the talks room – more on that later!

*With no press registration offered for the trade session, I had originally decided I wouldn’t be going this year. However, I was chatting with Hannah, one of Goose Island’s UK PR team, about their plans for the event. She knew of a writer who had a ticket via Goose Island but couldn’t now attend, so at the last minute I was able to substitute for him – thanks Hannah, and thanks Goose Island! Sad to say though, the restrictions on trade ticketing were such that even Hannah and her colleagues couldn’t attend, despite their work on promoting the event. Most strange.