I was woken yesterday by a tweet from a branch member to advise me that Manchester's Cloudwater Brewery was to cease brewing cask beer. Now my first thoughts were "Oh. Not sure I like that", but reading Paul Jones piece about why they came to this conclusion, I started to see the simple truth, varnished though it was by the usual red herrings about low prices, bloody CAMRA and poor cellarmanship. "We took the decision to make more money from the same production and had to really, as we don't make a profit currently". My paraphrase, but who can blame them then? Certainly not me. A brewery has to make money and when you have limited capacity and bills to pay, using tank space for a low margin products when you can small package and keg beers for the same effort and make lots more money on them - then you can see the point - while not necessarily agreeing with some of the supporting "evidence."
Matt Curtis and Ed Ray (and maybe others) have given their thoughts on this and you can take your pick which one you go along with. Matt takes the view that it is mostly down to low prices commanded by cask beer in the trade and a more questionable claim that cloudy cask beer produced by Cloudwater is also a factor. (For my part most cask I have had from Cloudwater has been perfectly clear, but opacity is a divisive factor that inhibits some modern producers of cask beer. There is a resistance to non clear cask beer - rightly in my view - so only one point deducted there.) Matt's other point about pricing and discounting is true and he blames drinkers for this. I am not so sure that this stands up to scrutiny though, as discounting is driven by the sheer number of cask brewers - nearly 2000 - competing in a diminishing pool and having the advantage of progressive beer duty. Publicans often buy on price alone and if the beer is no good, then there are plenty more to choose from. I'd contend that the punter is the victim of this discounting, not the source of it. Prices are dictated by what the pubs charge in a competitive market. The customer has little say at all and often has to endure some bloody awful beers.
Ed points out a couple of things in Paul's statement that he disagrees with. Firstly on price of cask beer and secondly on the notion that somehow it is CAMRA's fault. This idea that CAMRA demands cheap beer is a pernicious one, but it simply isn't true. Many CAMRA members, like many other people are price concious and why shouldn't they be if living on a fixed income in retirement as many do? But it isn't some kind of edict from CAMRA Central and anyway, CAMRA members have much less influence on the trade that many imply. Ed concludes "let's face it, this side of libertarian communism you can't get away from the need to make money." Can't argue with that any more than "if you haven't got the money, you can't buy expensive beer." (My quote not Ed's).
I have a couple of points of my own to make. Firstly the business model set up by the brewery has not proved robust enough to sustain the brewery going forward. After a couple of years it has had to be reviewed and changed. 23% of Cloudwater's capacity is cask beer, falling from 45% in their first year. Already it is clear that the switch away from cask though isn't to keg, but small package - cans in this case. Keg production will remain roughly the same, so cask is being replaced by the most profitable part of brewing. Shrewd move if you can sell it.
Another point I'd mention is that while the Americanisation of some of the modern British Brewing sector has brought many benefits, it has also introduced to some extent, overheads and risks. It is expensive to tie up strong beer in wood. It is expensive to have a team of brewers playing around with recipes, it is expensive to spend time on collaborations, tap takeovers, Meet the Brewer and messing about with other brewing pals. Constant "innovation" is costly too. Maybe these aren't luxuries or nice to haves in that niche, but it certainly carries risk and relies on gaining a place in the market amongst other breweries doing the same thing. It also relies on the willingness of the public to pay for these things in higher prices. There is still in the UK a narrow appetite for fancy and limited beer releases as Paul bemoans in his piece. Maybe we'll never queue for hours in the UK for such delights? The UK isn't the US - and sometimes that has to be remembered.
So to sum up, Cloudwater want to leave a low return, thankless cask market for a fun, innovative and much more profitable sector of brewing. A less "All things to all men approach". We shouldn't moan or blame them. For them it is clearly the right decision. Even if some of the supporting arguments, aren't 100% persuasive, the money one is. Fortunately there are plenty of smashing cask breweries to replace them. Of the 2000 breweries in the UK, I'd guess 95% brew cask beer. It is business that's all and the gap will be filled imperceptibly. It isn't the end of cask conditioned beer, or even the beginning of the end. The way you make money from cask is to distribute fairly locally, keep a tight grip of costs, gain a good reputation and stick to your knitting. Plenty know that and will succeed.
Paul Jones says "Cask beer should take pride of place in every bar and pub". He is right and equally he has every right to say - though he doesn't, "but sadly, it won't be our cask beer." He isn't announcing the death knell of cask beer. He is just doing the right thing for his business, that's all. Nothing wrong with that.
If my maths is right then Cloudwater sold on average 56 nines of cask beer a week. Not a huge figure and slack that will easily be taken up.
There are however lessons to be learned, the main one being that in some cases, the most highly thought of modern breweries won't produce cask. Maybe they just can't in the kind of world they inhabit. Maybe they just don't get it due to American influence?
I'll also add that both Ed and Matt make valid cases. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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