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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In Britain: Cask Ale v. Craft

Last night, I was at Boulder Beer for a book event, and I had an interesting chat with brewmaster David Zuckerman. He'd recently been to England and was startled by the amount of American-style ale he found. (Quick and dirty definition: stronger, many more hops.) Like me, he loves a 3.8% bitter, and was concerned that these beers are slowly being put out to pasture in favor of what the English call "craft beer." These are makers of what looks a lot like the standard American taplist, including non-English styles (which Americans love) like saisons, strong stouts, wild ales, and full-flavor lagers. They sell these, controversially, in bottles and kegs, like Americans do; there's even a term of art called the "craft keg" which has been the subject of heated debate.  All of this has injected a huge amount of excitement into the British beer market, and beer geeks in the cities regard old-school cask like something grandpa drank. So, if you're like David and me and enjoy grandpa's old cask bitter, is this cause for worry?

By happy coincidence, London writer Pete Brown just announced the release of the latest Cask Ale Report. The story it tells is more complex than you might imagine, but it leaves me feeling hopeful. The most important piece of context in understanding British beer is recognizing that the vast, vast majority of it is mass market lager. Ales were supplanted a generation ago in their native country, and most Brits drink the same crap the rest of us do. So instead of thinking of things in terms of craft versus cask, it's worth considering ales versus lagers. Craft and cask have a lot more in common with each other than either has in common with Stella Artois and Carlsberg. According to the report, cask accounts for just 17% of sales in pubs, and if you add keg ale into the mix, it goes up to between 25-30%.

The fascinating part of the report illustrates that the lines between craft and cask aren't actually as clean as we imagine. Pete Brown:
Cask ale and craft beer are not the same - and neither are they totally separate. There's a significant overlap between the two.

Avoiding the torture of trying to DEFINE craft beer, it's possible to look at beers on a beer by beer, style by style basis and say 'that one is definitely craft' and 'that one definitely isn't'. Among everyone obsessed with trying to define craft, it;s hard to imagine anyone arguing that, say, Magic Rock High Wire is not a craft beer, or that John Smith's Smoothflow is craft beer. So by looking at the market one brand at a time, analysts CGA Strategy have compiled (an admittedly subjective) list based on ingredients, beer styles and brewers so that craft can be measured even if it can't be defined. With me? Good. On that basis, we can show that:

  • Craft beer has grown by 533% in five years and now accounts for 8% of total on-trade ale
  • Cask ale is by far the biggest format of craft beer
Much as in the US, this nebulous category of "craft brewing" has been great for the beer industry. It's appealed to young people, brought a new population to beer, and helped create all those downstream positives like fests, good beer pubs, and interest among chefs and good restaurants. If you look at a company like Fuller's, you see how craft has help transform their line of beers, giving them a chance to dabble in styles the old cask fans would never have appreciated. And that in turn has helped goose sales for traditional cask breweries willing to expand their horizon.

The other thing you're seeing is cask, the dispense-system, being appropriated by craft breweries as a platform for other types of beer. Until a decade ago, "cask ale" wasn't a term that pointed only to a method of brewing and dispense, but styles. Cask meant the same five styles of beer that have been brewed for generations. Pete didn't make predictions about the future, but his report hints at evolving trends. Here in the US, we've already seen that the term "craft" is rapidly losing any meaning. If ales continue to claw back market share from mass market lagers in Britain, I suspect the distinction between craft and keg will also lose any meaning. You'll have good beer, sometimes served on keg and sometimes served on cask. And then you'll have generic mass market lagers.

Beer has been evolving since the Sumarians first made it 8,000 years ago, and it is in a moment of rapid change. Sometimes that means beloved beer styles fall by the wayside. (RIP jopenbier!) Maybe mild ale will be a casualty as British palates look for stronger, more flavor-forward ales. But I suspect there will always be a market for sessionable cask ales in English pubs.


  1. I've never understood the zero sum approach commentators often take with situations like this. "X is getting popular, therefore Y must be about to become extinct." It's nonsense. When you see how much pub territory the big breweries like Marston's and Greene King have there's no way their bread-and-butter beers are going to die out.

    Is it because David deliberately went to, or was directed to, the more interesting outlets that this perception arose?

  2. The situation in the UK by the 1970s was probably not much different from the US at that time. CAMRA formed to protect Real Ale. The US, years later, started the so-called craft beer movement. That a US brewer finds "American" style beer in London is not a great surprise nor is it a very accurate observation.

    For example, I was at the Old Brewery a few years ago with a friend. We sat with the brewer. The brewer said he had a new beer made with American hops. My friend, trying to be funny, said that I liked American hops (I don't). The brewer brought me a glass and to my great surprise, I liked the beer.

    I liked the beer because the hops were not the sole ingredient, but used in moderation with malt. Perhaps you would disagree, but an American-style beer to me means that the hops are front and centre and the star player. This beer was well-balanced and not overly hoppy to my taste. On paper, though, I could understand how an American might call it American style.

    Secondly, a successful beer segment is too often defined as "makes a lot of money." Craft beer, in my experience costs much more per glass than traditional beer. At least, that's how it works in Amsterdam and other European cities.

  3. "the vast, vast majority of it is mass market lager. Ales were supplanted a generation ago in their native country"

    That's overstating it. In the ontrade ales have never gone below 30%-ish of beer, even if much of that was keg ale (most of which is industrial rather than cutesy "crafty" beer). That includes a lot of restaurants, bars, clubs etc which only have keg (and almost all of it lager), I'd guess most *pubs* are closer to 50:50, I know plenty which are 60:40 or more ale:lager. And cask is now up to over half of ontrade ale, and increasing. I'd suggest the death of ale in the UK has been exaggerated.

    That's not to say everything in the garden is rosy - arguably the biggest "problem" is in the mass-market off-trade where there's not a lot of ale left from the big boys, but that's more to do with their mismanagement than anything else. The ongoing tragedy of InBev's destruction of Bass is a rant for another day, but also compare their destruction of Boddington's which had thrived under Whitbread ownership in the 90s. Boddies was the biggest-selling ale in the offtrade in the 90s and should have been well-placed to take advantage of the trend towards less bitter, golden beers in the Noughties - but then the Belgians bought them and wrecked them. I'd file that under a supply problem than a demand problem - many of the people who used to drink Boddies have moved on to German/Czech pilsners because a) they're closer in weight/bitterness to Boddies than InBev's remaining mass-market bitters and b) the latter are almost undrinkable these days, since the Belgian accountants got to them.

    "beer geeks in the cities regard old-school cask like something grandpa drank"

    Not quite true - for most the heritage is recognised and appreciated, whilst at the same time people will try new things and they tend to get talked about more. And tourists will often get directed to places like the Euston Tap just to show what is going on at the cutting edge, without it being representative of what's happening in London, let alone the rest of the country. There's an element of truth in it, but it's not the whole story. It's a commonplace to say that London is now a different country from the rest of the UK, but I think the biggest single mistake that visitors from across the pond make of the UK is not understanding quite how heterogenous the UK is compared to the US. It varies enormously, and at quite a small scale. The most obvious distinction is in accent - an accent comes about by a group of people not talking to their neighbours for a few centuries, but eg if you go 50 miles from Manchester to Liverpool to North Wales, you'll meet three completely different accents, and different cultures to match.

    The history of regional brewers reflecting local tastes and shaping them in turn means beer culture can get peculiarly localised. As an example, I know a pub on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border that invited its two local CAMRA branches to a joint social and you could tell them apart just from what they drank. The East Cheshire guys (influenced by Robinsons and Boddies) all drank pale/golden ales, the North Staffs guys all went for something darker - and yet they're just a few miles apart.

  4. Sure there's a lot going on, but the traditional styles still represent the core of what most (not all) breweries offer. You also have to remember the sheer number of breweries in the UK - on a per capita basis we have 2.5 breweries for every one in the US. The West Coast may be the centre of US brewing, but the UK has around 60% more breweries than CA+OR+WA with around 30% more population (I know the numbers in both cases are a bit fluid, but it's that kind of range). So it's OK if we have a few Kernels doing 7% New World beers in East London - there's many more brewing pretty traditional English beer for their core range. Sure, London is a bit more "keg-crafty" than the rest of the UK, but there's some good reasons for that. Part of is that there's more money around so people can afford exotica, and part of it is having a decent public transport system that works past midnight. The stigmatisation of drink driving has been a big driver of pub closures in recent years - the recent tweak to Scottish drink driving rules has cut pub sales there by around 10%, a big deal given typical pub margins are less than that. In many places outside London there's little public transport late at night and folk are more price sensitive. You also have to remember that British beer is taxed by alcohol content rather than by simple volume - and there's a big step up at 7.5%. I know a wonderful strong mild at 4.8% that partly for tax reasons costs around US$5.40 compared to $4.65 for a session ale (both cask, in the same pub) - and I know that makes the difference for a lot of the regulars not choosing to drink it. Going up to 6-7% (let alone >7.5%) would see it heading up over $6/pint or more, which people in that area just wouldn't pay.

    So the biggest protector of weak beer is the UK tax system. :-) It is stimulating a lot of innovation though, particularly in lower-alcohol takes on the New World fruitbomb theme, such as Dark Star's 3.8% Hophead and Weetwood's 3.6% Southern Cross. I'd also refer you to the last six years of the Champion Beer of Britain, which are split exactly between 2 session beers <4%, 2 bests <5% and two heavies >6%.

  5. You seem very much invested in being the authority on UK beer, AC, and I'm more than willing to admit that I am not the best authority. Still, a lot of your "facts" are opinion and unsupported, and some of your facts are bent just to support a bias. Like mentioning West Coast brewery figures, when California lags on a per-capita basis. Were you to mention only Oregon and WA, that stat would fall apart. I don't actually give two figs about these figures, but it's interesting that you would go to the trouble to rig them. Dunno why you should care, either.