Wednesday 14 May 2014

Local provenance or distant novelty?

At the Brewer's Dozen launch, I got to spend some time talking with Sarah Barton, the boss of the eponymous Brewsters Brewery and Derek's brewing partner on the new beer – and serendipitiously also with a fellow guest, Dave Bailey, head brewer at Hardknott. We chatted about 'the state of brewing' and of course the cask/keg debate.

“We're doing craft keg as well now,” Sarah said, adding that it wasn't so much to reach venues that have keg lines but can't handle cask ale – it was more of a style issue, whether that was beer styles or drinkers' styles.

“It's partly for the beers it suits – for example we have a Helles lager now – and partly to appeal to people who for whatever reason won't go for cask ale,” she explained.

Yet for all the fashionable interest in craft keg, cask ale remains her focus. “Cask is very exciting at the moment,” she said. “It's moving away from a fuddy-duddy image, and local provenance is taking over.”

I wondered if this tied in with what I'd seen in other markets, most notably Germany, where local provenance is sometimes the main thing that differentiates a brewpub's identikit Pils from its macrobrewed rivals.

She said that a big thing here in the UK is that it applies to top quality crafted ales as well. “We used to do a lot of swaps with other breweries in other parts of the country, so we could offer a bigger choice,” she said. “But now people are saying we don't want other beers, we want yours.”

Talking to Dave, however, it seems that local provenance has its limits – and that they are mostly price-based. “The local beer market in Cumbria is incredibly price-sensitive,” he said. “There's probably people knocking 40% off our list prices, whereas we can sell to London for list price.”

OK, that's partly the big city desire for novelty, plus a slightly fuller purse, but is there more to it that that? After all, London has plenty of local breweries now – as does pretty much every other city in the country – and there are London pubs which specialise in London ales. Maybe it's that some breweries have a 'local' image and others don't. Thoughts, anyone?

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