Thursday, 23 September 2021

Interesting times for cask ale

There’s been quite a bit of worry recently about the future of cask ale – or real ale, as many prefer to call it. Cask’s share of the beer market has declined in recent years and then it took another big hit from the Covid-19 lockdowns. That’s because almost all cask ale is sold via pubs, and they were closed. 

Wild Card's hazy cask Pale
Cask also faces other challenges though. Many drinkers expect it to cost less than keg craft beers, for example, even though it can be just as expensive to produce and typically requires more care in the pub to get it conditioned and to serve it just right. 

Even before the pandemic, some brewers had been talking about the need to increase the price of a cask pint to restore a bit of profit margin. Others had largely or wholly moved to keg as it was the only way they saw to make a decent return – and of course the pandemic-driven move to selling bottles and cans, instead of draught beers, has accelerated that shift. 

Similarly, the uncertainty involved in the post-lockdown reopening of pubs seems to have encouraged many to reduce the number of cask pumps in use – and some to drop cask altogether. Pub visitor numbers are both down and unreliable, by all accounts, so I can see it’s a risk – after all, once you tap a cask, it needs to sell within days, whereas a keg can stay good for weeks. 

The paradox is that demand for cask doesn’t seem to have fallen as much as the more pessimistic brewers had feared or expected. Twice recently, I’ve spoken with London-area brewers who say their cask sales are up, in part because others have dropped out of the business. 

'Small pack' at Brockley
The first was Wild Card which now has its own pub, The Tavern on the Hill, near the brewery in Walthamstow. As well as several of Wild Card’s keg beers, this popular local has two of its cask ales on handpump, usually the simply-named Pale and Best. In fact, these two beers were created for the pub – many of the regulars are cask drinkers, so when the brewery took the pub over, it either had to buy cask ale in from elsewhere or brew some itself! 

Wild Card co-founder William Harris said that although the majority of each 20hl cask brew is sold via The Tavern on the Hill, “people really want cask from us, partly because a lot of firms have pulled out from it. Mostly it’s cask-led pubs looking for suppliers, and it’s mainly a London issue – outside London there’s still plenty of cask around.” 

And then on a visit to Hither Green, near Lewisham, I discovered that Brockley Brewery was also nearby. In the brewery taproom I was surprised to find that as the (inevitable, these days) cans on sale, they had four cask ales on draught, all dispensed by gravity from casks in the coldstore, and to learn that Brockley's production is now around 50% cask. The story was similar – it’s picked up cask sales volume from other breweries who have dropped out of the business. 

Is all of this good news or bad? I’m not really sure, but I do find it interesting – as in the apocryphal ‘curse’, “May you live in interesting times.” 

Friday, 10 September 2021

Tasting chocolate instead of beer? It's an Olympian task!

Honey liqueur
Honey dissolved in whisky? Sure, why not!
There’s not been too many big food and drinks fairs in the last 18 months, so the trip over to London Olympia this week for the Speciality & Fine Food Fair was welcome on many levels. One of the first things that struck me was the sheer diversity of the food and drink exhibitors, and the next was how much commonality there was within that. I spotted several offering different sorts of monthly meal kits, for example, plus a number offering assorted honeys and honey derivatives. 

Plant-based products were another grouping, including vegan ice lollies, and of course lots of snack brands – crisps and the like. A drinks quarter offered any number of craft gins and rums, modern whiskys and liqueurs, hard seltzers and so on – even a mobile gin distillery, though for flavouring pre-made spirit rather than distilling it afresh. What there wasn’t much of, as far as I could see, was beer. 

Mmm, chocolate...
So I decided to become a chocolate blogger for the afternoon – there were a lot of chocolatiers out there! And it seemed like each had its gimmick: there was single-estate chocolate, volcanic island chocolate, illustrated chocolate, chocolate so fresh it has to be kept chilled, and lots more. See my Twitter for more photos and details…

At last though I found a few beers. First was Fungtn, which is pronounced Function but with a nod to ‘funghi’ because, as well as being alcohol and gluten-free, it has mushrooms in it… They’re not just any old funghi either, they’re “adaptogenic functional mushrooms” as used in traditional eastern medicine. Oh-ho. There wasn’t time on site for more than a sip to confirm that yes, they’re good lo-no brews, but fuller reviews of Chaga dark lager, Lion’s Mane IPA and Reishi Citra beer will follow.

And then just as the show was wrapping up, I discovered PR Dutch Drinks who distribute in the UK for 20-odd craft breweries from I think you can guess where. They include the likes of Uiltje, Poesiat en Kater, Kompaan, Emelisse, De Molen and Brouwerij t’ IJ (and yes, I know that not all of those are independent now). 

Mobile gin still
OK, who doesn't fancy owning a mobile still?
Of course, while chatting with the company’s Eric Bestebreur I had to ask whether his imports had been affected by the widely-reported border disruptions. “Normally our deliveries took four days from leaving the brewery, but our first shipment after Brexit took seven weeks,” he said. He added that it’s now down to three to four weeks, but that the real problem is not so much the product being delayed – although I do notice a fair few “sold out” messages on their website – it’s financial. 

This is partly the extra cost of transport and of having valuable goods in limbo for weeks on end, but it’s also payment terms: being on 30-day terms with your supplier is not much use if the goods take 30 days to arrive! “We’ve had to change the definition of delivery,” he says. 

I hope to catch up with Eric again at some point – he also runs The Bolton, a pub in nearby Earls Court with a specialist Dutch & Belgian beer bar upstairs called Proeflokaal Rembrandt. (I notice this is also where you can pick up your Dutch Drinks orders, and avoid delivery fees.) 

Just coming back to Olympia after more than a year was startling too, as almost the whole area now seems to be a building site. At the eastern end, the Grand Hall and National Hall are still there – they are Grade II listed buildings – but they’re shrouded and fenced-off, and even inside the lobby it was almost impossible to hear yourself think due to what sounded like a pneumatic drill just behind a wooden partition. 

Meanwhile at the western end of the site, pretty much everything has been demolished. It turns out that most of Olympia is being rebuilt, with lots of new office space (just in time for the work-from-home and hybrid-working revolution, hah!), two hotels, new public spaces, a 1,575-seat theatre, and an exhibition hall with a 3,500-seat live music arena on top of it. Completion is due in 2024.