Everyone seems to have had a reaction to Paul at Cloudwater’s blog summarising their experience of 2016. What Paul has written is, as ever, open, honest, self-assured and almost impossibly veracious.
Amongst some fairly amazing growth figures the thing that really blew me away was that in ‘22 months… we’ve brewed 240 gyles using 145 different recipes and 24 different yeast strains’. I can’t think of another brewery in the land that has been that experimental, particularly in their use of yeast strains. Back when I first worked in a commercial brewery there was abject terror at the concept of keeping more than just one house strain in the brewery.
The big news of course in the blog is that Cloudwater are to discontinue the production of cask beer in 2017. There has been a trend that started with Brewdog’s typically swaggering, contentious withdrawl from the market in 2011 (they, in true Brewdog style have now single handedly ‘reinvented’ cask and serve ‘live’ Dead Pony Club in their bars). Buxton, Camden and Beavertown have all since followed suit. Magic Rock’s cask beers have seen a considerable hike in pricing this year after they re-appraised their margins on cask beer too.
Paul cites a few reasons why their cessation of packaging beer in casks is happening but firstly and foremost, the crux of the matter seems to be price tolerance. Beer in the cask market is currently very much undervalued. As a perfect illustration of this, where I live down in East Kent there has been a ‘Micropub revolution’. For those not in the know, the micropub is the brainchild of Martyn Hillier who owns and runs the very brilliant Butcher’s Arms in Herne village. He developed a model that exploits the 2003 Licensing Act as an easier way to repurpose a small shop into a licensed premises for on and off trade with limited opening hours. Usually micropubs have three or sometimes four casks on, depending how busy they are. No bar, but either a stillage or cellar room dispensing cask via gravity. No music. No TV. No lager. Sometimes cider. Food, if available is a bit of cheese or maybe a local pork pie. Micropubs because of their small size become friendly, chatty, informal third spaces of the highest degree. You can’t have a private conversation in one and they are all the better for it. My problem with them is often the beer selection. Because of their stripped out nature and low overheads, micropubs are expected to make cask beer cheaper than perhaps a normal pub might. £3 to £3.50 seem to be about the going rate round here as opposed to £3.50 to £4.20 in most of the traditional pubs nearby.
The trouble stems from the fact that none of the Micros want to be more expensive than each other so pricing is informally locked down. This means that to make a decent GP the owner is forced to pay less for the beer. Pricing certainly hasn’t changed in the six or seven years I’ve been drinking in them. In a bigger pub you have other items like keg, bottles, softs, minerals, tea and coffee where you might balance your overall GP figure, but not in a micropub. The owner will buy one cask of beer at the £70-80 mark from someone decent and usually local like Gadds, Darkstar, Burning Sky or Harveys and then two or three casks of dross from further afield that is cheap on the AVS or Flying Firkin list. Shite like Titanic, Skinners and Cottage all get regular rotation on the stillage. I’ve heard anecdotes of £45 casks of beer and buy one, get the cheaper cask free, with free national delivery. I’ve no idea how the breweries selling that beer make any money doing that, maybe they don’t. This does nothing to expand or rejuvenate the market or to challenge new drinkers to try something new. The same old boring, badly made beer ad nauseam. Though I have singled out micropubs here for the sake of my argument, it is true of the whole cask beer segment, it is seen as a cheaper drink by almost all drinkers.
This lack of willing or ability perhaps of publicans to pay what the beer is worth squeezes the margins that the brewery make so than can still service the market. As a brewery in this situation, you have three options, either you suck it up, reduce the cost of ingredients and make an inferior product or you make something else that makes a better margin. This article illustrates how some of the mid-tier breweries making cask beer are feeling the squeeze too, though I’m of limited sympathy for them. If they dared to innovate and embrace the market that is evolving rather than trying to fight it they might have an easier ride.
A few people have chimed in on Twitter, giving Cloudwater a tough time for placing emphasis on their efforts towards making a profit. These people need to understand profit is not a dirty word. Profit is what secures growth, allows you to pay and train your staff fairly and offer them a secure future, innovate and make the company the best it can possibly be. Profit is not a dirty word and having an aspiration towards it isn’t wrong.
Paul also mentions that the beers he and his staff are excited about making are not the ‘traditional beer, albeit with a modern twist’ cask beers they have made, but ‘our (keg) SIPAs, IPLs, Grisettes’ are. From the off Cloudwater have been all about evolution, reinvention and seasonality. This might be their ‘Kid A’ moment, but I’m sure we’ll love them all the more for it, they are growing up and finding out who they are and what they want to be. If it means more of their excellent kegged and small pack beer, I’ll be a happy man.
The final bit of the puzzle is the issue of quality. It is much, much easier for a brewery to get the beer to punters in the condition it was meant to in either keg or small pack. Pouring cask conditioned beer properly isn’t as hard as some make out but, it is harder than the (mostly) plug and play nature of kegged beer. I can totally understand a brewery wanting to reign in the amount of variables in the way their beer is kept to protect their brand. Cloudwater are also huge advocates of refrigerating their beer in transport, storage and in people’s cellars. I’d add to Paul’s trends for 2017 that stock that is refrigerated from brewery to glass will start to be talked about and, put into practice.
We all need to remember though this is a bit of a storm in a teacup really. Cloudwater, as they stand are not a big brewery. By my calculations, we are looking at 3000 less casks a year across a market that consumes well in excess of 9,000,000 casks a year. Hardly something to get our knickers in a twist over. To quote Paul again but back in 2014, it is now ‘up British brewers get on with making tomorrow’s beers and free themselves from yesterday’s constraints’.