Cask ale ‘is unique to the pub’? Don’t bet on that

Beer Is Best Autumn nightsI’m as keen to big-up the attractions of the pub as anybody. But there was a big pull-out quote in the latest Cask Ale Report from a cask ale-selling publican in Bristol that “there is no future for a pub without cask ales. It’s the only thing in the pub not being taken by the supermarket trade.” For the day job these days I often write opinion pieces on the state of the pub and beer market, and here’s what I said last Friday on that particular claim: don’t bet on it. Because if anyone thinks cask ale will always remain the pub’s great usp, another think has already driven into your car park.

Despite the Cask Ale Report proclaiming (p5, column 2) that cask “is only available in pubs”, cask ale is in the British supermarket right now, albeit in the distinctively top-end Whole Foods Market, which is to Asda or Aldi what the American Bar at the Savoy is to a corner boozer in Balham. A number of the chain’s outlets in Britain sell draught beers and ciders to take away in “flagons” with resealable porcelain lids. The chain has even entered the UK on-trade: three months ago, the big Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street was home to a week-long pop-up pub organised by Craft Beer Rising, which featured beers from Hogs Back and Otley Brewing, among others.

Whole Foods Market’s American origins made it open to the idea of a pop-up pub, since at least some of its stores in the US already have bars inside where you can settle down for a glass of draught beer. I first came across the idea of an off-licence (to use a British term) with a bar inside serving draught beers in Sonoma, California, nearly 20 years ago, and thought it an excellent idea. Try a brewer’s beers, and if you like them, buy a few bottles to take home.

That never caught on in the UK, for a range of reasons: licensing laws, drink-driving laws, the nature of British pub culture, the lack of space in most off-licences to install a bar and the other necessary facilities, and the conservatism of the British drinks trade. But today on the Venn diagram showing the drinks retailing market, the circles showing the on and off-licence sectors are slowly beginning to overlap. Many craft beer bars now have tall fridges on the customers’ side where they can take out bottles to drink there or go home with. Where I live in leafy West London, there are two off-licences nearby, Noble Wines in Hampton Hill and the Real Ale Shop in Twickenham, that each sell beer straight from the cask for customers to take home, an idea that has been around for decades, but which finally seems to be flying. I’m not aware yet of an off-licence with a bar, either regular or pop-up, in Britain yet. But it can only be a short while before they start to appear.

Meanwhile, if you’re calling in to your local offie to buy four pints of draught ale to take away, of course, you’re likely to pick up a bottle or six of beers for later in the week as well, and some wine, too, while you’re there. Don’t think Sainsbury’s and Tesco and even Waitrose haven’t noticed that phenomenon, don’t worry about people having a reason not to visit their own off-licence sections and aren’t wondering whether they can capture some of that take-away draught market themselves. We could, in what would be a hugely ironic move, see some of the pubs that have been converted into supermarkets selling cask ale again, albeit to take-away customers, rather than ones who hang around drinking.

Of course, the argument will still be that cask ale you take away even in a sealed container is not going to be as good as a pint freshly poured in a pub. The take-home beer loses carbonation, and starts to stale – though not, in my experience, as quickly as you might think. And it can still be a much better pint than is found in too many pubs. This is both a threat and, like all threats, an opportunity for pubs and brewers alike. Brewers, if they aren’t already, need to consider how they will cope with the inevitable request from supermarket chains for assistance in setting up take-away draught beer operations. Pubs need to consider how they are going to compete with an increase in the number of off-licences selling cask ale, by offering an easy take-home option themselves and/or by pushing hard on the superiority of the pub pint. And the authors of the Cask Ale Report need to include a look at the take-away cask ale scene in the next report.

A few fascinating cherries from the 2014 Cask Report

Cask ale reportThe seventh edition of Pete Brown’s yearly investigation into the state of cask ale in Britain, the Cask Report, came out this afternoon in time for Cask Ale Week, and as usual it’s full of fascinating cherries of information. Here’s a selection of random titbits you might miss in other stories about it:

● The report found that while cask ale drinkers wanted choice, licensees were changing their cask beer ranges quicker than drinkers liked or wanted. One in three cask ale drinkers thought a guest ale should be on the bar for at least a month, against only one in 12 licensees who would keep a guest ale on that long. Conversely, half of all licensees thought a guest ale should be on the bar a week or less, against barely one in five drinkers.

● Nearly one in five cask ale drinkers only tried it for the first time in the past four years.

● More than 10,000 pubs held beer festivals during 2012 – that’s getting on for one in six of all pubs, and one third of all pubs that serve real ale.

● Almost two thirds of licensees (63 per cent) who sell cask ale say cask ale is starting to attract younger drinkers into their pubs, and 61 per cent say cask ale is attracting women customers.

● One in five (20 per cent) of cask drinkers are aged under 35, only fractionally lower than the percentage under 35 for beer drinkers as a whole (21 per cent).

● Among people who have tried cask ale, the number who say it is their main drink has gone up by two thirds in the past year, from 6 per cent to 10 per cent.

● Two thirds of men have tried cask ale, and one third of women. Nearly six out of 10 – 58 per cent – tried it when they were under 25. When non-cask drinkers were asked what would make them try cask ale for the first time, 55 per cent said “nothing”, though 25 per cent said “free samples”. Not one person answered “stylish glassware”.

● On average, cask ale pubs stock 3.8 brands.

● Of all those who have tried cask ale, 90 per cent had heard of stout, although only 68 per cent had tried it. The most popular style was bitter, with 75 per cent having tried it out of 88 per cent who had heard of it. Only 72 per cent had heard of IPA – fewer than had heard of mild (75 per cent), though the same number had tried both drinks, 56 per cent. Half of cask ale drinkers had heard of Golden Ale, and 32 per cent had drunk it.

● Golden ale is the fastest growing cask ale style in the country, more than doubling its share of the market since 2008 and gaining 6,000 new stockists in the past year alone.

● Willingness to try new beers drops with age: on average, 18to 24 year-olds are likely to choose a beer they have never seen before 24 per cent of the time. This falls to just 10 per cent of the time for those aged 55 or over.

● “Craft beer” as a term is much better known in the trade than outside it: while 77 per cent of cask ale stockists have heard the term “craft beer”, only 37 per cent of all pub-goers are aware of “craft beer” as a concept, and 47 per cent of cask ale drinkers.

● Established cask ale brands from regional brewers are considered to be ‘craft’ by drinkers as much as if not more than newer breweries and imported beers.

So who are the big beery twitterers?

Beer-drinking twitterbirdJamie Oliver, the thick-tongued TV chef and hugely successful restaurant entrepreneur (and son of an Essex pub landlord), has 3.3 million followers on Twitter. Which is, you’ll not be shocked to hear, about 2,600 times more Twitter followers than I have. Indeed, it’s quite possibly more followers, my very rough survey suggests, than all the tweeters about beer in the world, (including brewers, bloggers, beer writers, pubs and bars and ordinary drinkers who tweet occasionally about the drink), have  together, in one big overlapping and multiple-counted pile.

But how many “regular” beer tweeters are there? And how many followers do the most popular ones have? Here’s my entirely unscientific and probably definitely unreliable take on the beery tweeting scene.

In addition, there’s a poll for you to fill in, just to try to get an idea of the overlap between people who read beer blogs (or at least, people who read this beer blog) and people who follow tweets about beer on Twitter.

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Real Camra versus the revisionals

Is this newspaper report about ructions on Tyneside the start of civil war in the Campaign for Real Ale between “Real Camra”, those who hold to the original verities, that all keg beer is bad, and “Revisional Camra”, a younger set who argue that the campaign needs to accept “craft” keg?

I very sincerely hope not: Britain needs a “beer drinkers’ union”, and whatever criticisms anyone might have, Camra is and is likely to remain the best organisation to represent the concerned beer consumer that we have.

But the division in the Tyneside and Northumberland Camra branch reported on by the local Sunday Sun newspaper under the headline “Beer war erupts” does seem to have taken place along a faultline that I predicted 18 months ago, when I suggested that if Camra did not take care

it is going to become increasingly irrelevant to the real concerns and desires of keen younger drinkers unfettered by a too-rigid application of the tenets of the Founding Fathers. Instead it will become a beery equivalent of the Royal British Legion, the only active members those at or approaching bus pass age.

The problem is that any Camra member younger than 40 wasn’t born when the Campaign began, cannot remember what all those beers that so revolted the Founding Fathers, such as Whitbread Trophy and Courage Tavern, were like (and they were, truly, very poor indeed), and they simply will not accept the mantra “all keg is bad” if it clashes with their own current experiences.

Those experiences, I suggest, are that some modern “craft” keg can be very good indeed, and certainly much better than badly kept cask. And if you try to tell them that it’s irrelevant whether or not they enjoy a particular beer, if it’s not served from an unpressurised cask it must automatically be cast into the outer darkness, they will regard you as an unreconstructed old beardy who is stuck back in the days when “internet” is where you tried to put a football.

I’m not in any place to pass judgment on the argument between the Tyneside and Northumberland Camra old guard and the youth squad, since I know only what little I have been able to gather from the Sunday Sun article, a comment piece from the local Journal newspaper’s website and from links provided by Tandleman on his blog. The battle seems to encompass a number of different issues, including proposals for a new website, and the choice of beers and ciders at the branch beer festival, as well as “craft” keg, and it has ended up with two different websites running under the “Canny Bevvy” label used for the branch’s newsletter, one (the “official” site) dot-co-uk and the other (the “revisional” site) dot-com.

But I suspect the statement on the website run by the “revisional” wing of the branch sums up what a lot of Camra members under 35 feel:

Beer and cider should be most of all about having fun, experiencing new things and if you can, supporting local producers and pubs. We don’t mind if a landlord wants to use more modern technology to keep their beer in tip top shape, or if there’s another fruit flavour in our cider. We don’t even mind if a brewery wants to have their beers served from a keg. After all, surely it should be up to the person who creates something how they think it’s best to drink it, and for pub-goers to decide if they like it?

You can argue all night about whether that’s the best position to take in modern Britain to safeguard great beer. All I will say is that it’s an argument Camra is going to be increasingly hearing from its younger members, who have tasted and liked craft keg beers. What happened in Tyneside and Northumberland branch when the “revisional” wing put forward that argument, according to the “revisional” website, is that

the “beards” started shouting things about “mutiny” and “bringing the campaign into disrepute” and a great deal about why they didn’t want to change.

which might, some may suggest, be the surest way to drive away the new young enthusiasts Camra needs to keep it going as the Founding Fathers pass through their sixties and head towards their seventies.

Cooking with Stella – no, no, come back …

George Reisch: hugely enthusiastic

Where I come from, if you suggested cooking with Stella Artois, you’d be comprehensively jeered, by both the many fans of what is probably the fourth or fifth best-selling beer in Britain, for being a pretentious twat, and by Stella’s many haters, for promoting a mega-lager seen as, at best, bland and pointless. But where I am right now is Hong Kong. Here, the entire concept of cooking with beer is still so novel, so unheard-of, so likely to send Cantonese eyebrows rocketing up Cantonese foreheads, that any attempt to promote beer cuisine has to be supported, no matter what brew is involved.

That’s why I was at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley, to watch George Reisch, fifth-generation brewer and “director of brewmaster outreach” for Anheuser-Busch InBev, preach on the joys of beer and food, and beer IN food, to an audience of Hong Kong bar owners, restaurateurs, food bloggers, magazine and newspaper journalists. Plus me, ostensibly representing the South China Morning Post, and bemusing the Hong Kong food blogging community, who had never met a beer blogger before, nor knew such a beast existed.

A-B InBev might be the Evil Empire to some, but its products are big sellers in Hong Kong. In particular Hoegaarden is hugely popular with Chinese beer drinkers, especially women. I was in a bar called the News Room in Quarry Bay drinking something pale, American and very hoppy a couple of weeks back, and of the seven nearest tables to me, six were occupied solely by Hoegaarden drinkers, all Chinese, male and female. (Of course, the theatre of the big glasses helps, but primarily they like the taste: spicy, not over-bitter.)

Stella is also in almost every bar in Hong Kong that is likely to attract expat customers, for sale to homesick Britons who react well to a familiar face met far away. If you are going to push the idea of beer with food, and beer in food, to people totally unused to the possibilities of such a pairing, it’s much better to do it (I think, and so, obviously does A-B Inbev) using beers they are familiar with. Since Hong Kong restaurateurs and bar people and beer drinkers know Hoegaarden and Stella very well, then Hoegaarden and Stella are good beers with which to introduce the concept of beery cuisine to them.

And George Reisch is a great guy to do the introducing: American beer enthusiasts know him well; he’s a judge at the Great American Beer Festival, among other high-profile activities in the North American beer world. It’s immediately clear he is hugely enthusiastic about beer and all its possibilities, which makes me like him at once. Brewing is obviously in the family DNA: his great-great grandfather founded Reisch’s brewery in Springfield, Illinois, closed 1966, and his son is currently learning the trade while working for Spaten (an A-B Inbev subsidiary) in Munich.

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What it means now it’s Miller Time at Meantime

Alastair Hook, left, and Nick Miller

The news that Meantime Brewing Company has appointed Nick Miller, former managing director at SAB Miller UK’s operating company, Miller Brands, as its new chief executive is the most significant event in the UK brewing industry this year.

(Incidentally, I love the iconography of the photo of Nick and Alastair Hook, Meantime’s founder and brewmaster: “We’re not suits, but we’re still serious working dudes who love beer …”)

Don’t, please, lazily assume this means SAB Miller will be acquiring Meantime, the way Molson Coors bought Sharp’s back in February. Meantime is a company with ambitions: it has already announced that it wants to increase production fourfold at its new brewery in Greenwich, south-east London from 25,000 hectolitres a year to 100,000hl in the next five years – that’s a little over 60,000 barrels a year, UK, for the non-metric, about as much as a medium-sized family brewer such as Hall and Woodhouse produces.

If you brew it, they won’t necessarily come, though: hence the appointment of Mr Miller. He is, as far as I can find out, the first real sales and marketing heavyweight ever to join a UK craft brewer. He had 20 years of experience in sales, strategic projects and marketing with Coors UK (formerly Bass), where he was director of sales, before he joined Miller Brands as sales director in 2005. His new employer boasted then that Miller had “a history of consistently delivering improved customer relations, sales and profit”, and he rose to be MD at Miller Brands in 2008.

He certainly seems to know how to sell beer, even in a recession. For example, Miller Brands saw UK sales of Peroni rise 29 per cent in the 12 months to the end of April, 2010. And if you think: “Peroni – pfff”, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that UK sales of the Italian lager are equal to more than 300,000 barrels a year, about as much as Fuller, Smith & Turner’s entire output. It’s the number one “world beer” brand in the UK on-trade and number two in the off-trade.

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Beer bloggers want you to drink keg, says Camra chairman

Excuse my intemperate language, but I’ve just been reading some total lying crap by the chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale about beer bloggers. Apparently we’re the “bloggerati” (eh?), and we’re “only interested in new things”, and for beer bloggers, Camra’s “40 years of achievement means nothing, as the best beer they have ever had is the next.”

Unfunny Valentine

What utter bilge. Colin Valentine’s presumably not a stupid person, but he’s evidently never heard of the Straw Man fallacy– or maybe he has, but he thinks his audience is too stupid to spot it. The Straw Man fallacy involves setting up a totally distorted and easily demolished version of your opponent’s proposition, demolishing the distorted version without tackling any of the points in the real proposition, and finishing with a smug grin and – if your audience has failed to see the deceit – a standing ovation.

What has rattled Colin’s cage so badly that he felt the need at the Camra AGM to attack with lies and distortions a group of people that includes not a few Camra members who have given, over decades, a great deal to the campaign and to the promotion of proper, tasty beer? Apparently it’s because some members of the “bloggerati” (a name chosen, presumably, to make us sound like a shadowy secret organisation up to some Dan Brown-ish plottery) have been “making calls for Camra to embrace craft beer”.

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So what beers does a seven-star hotel serve?


The Burj Al Arab – the second-tallest hotel in the world, and deliberately designed to be an architectural icon in the same world-class league as the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House – is a spectacular place to take afternoon tea. The arrogant, curving exterior, more than a thousand feet tall, demands that you admit you’ve never seen any building like it. The blingtastic interior is a triumph of money over taste, with 20-feet-high aquaria in the lobby, gold leaf on almost every surface, fancy fountains and waterfalls. Book a table in the Skyview Bar, 27 floors up, just below the helipad, about half an hour before sunset. To the east you’ll see out of the ceiling-to-floor windows the Burj Khalifa, half a mile high from tip to sandal-sole, flare orange-gold as it catches the descending sun’s rays. Look west, and the Palm Jumeirah, a three-mile-wide collection of artificial islands covered in expensive homes and more expensive hotels, is gunmetal dark against the gleaming deep turquoise of the early evening Arabian Gulf.

Afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab

The Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, calls itself a “seven-star hotel”, though official designations only go up to five stars. Its labours in attempting to give guests a seven-star experience include having the names of everyone who books afternoon tea (at £70 a head – though to be fair this is only a little more than the Ritz in London charges for the same experience, and a much poorer view) mapped to a specific table, and that map then memorised by the staff, so that even the smiling Filipina who comes to top up your Darjeeling will address you by name. The food was, as it should be, excellent: the slice of pastry-wrapped salmon served before the sandwiches and pastries came up on a Burj Al Arab-shaped cakestand was perhaps the most perfectly cooked fish I have eaten, whipped from the chef’s domain and arriving on my plate at exactly the correct second. I have rarely enjoyed teatime food more: as both a gastronomic experience and hotel theatre, it gave value for every dirham.

But as you politely refuse the last proffered chocolate, lest you do a Mr Creosote, there is the opportunity to finish with a flourish: how about a beer at the bar itself, as the sun’s final gleam disappears from the darkening sky somewhere out over Qatar? The chance to sip something foaming and hoppy on a barstool 660 feet above the sea probably won’t return for a long time. What acme of the brewer’s art does the Burj Al Arab offer its seven-star customers? Continue reading

Maybe they should have kept to ‘revitalisation’. And dropped the ‘ale’

The biggest mistake that Camra made, I fear, was to change its name in 1973 from the original “Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale” to “Campaign for Real Ale”. The second-biggest mistake was to have ever used the word “ale”, rather than “beer”, in its title.

Am I serious? Surely coining the phrase “real ale” was a superb marketing tactic, enabling the campaign to put across its message simply and effectively: that it supported traditionally brewed and served British beer against the tide of over-carbonated keg ales and lagers that threatened to destroy this country’s drinking heritage. Would an organisation with similar aims, to stop cask beer disappearing, but called, I dunno, “Anti-Big Brewers Alliance” or “Confederation Of British Beer Lovers and Experts” have risen to become what the National Consumer Council declared as early as 1976 to be “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”?

Maybe. But as the campaign approaches its 40th anniversary next year, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that its name, and the mind-set that name creates, makes Camra today part of the problems facing beer in Britain, as much as it may still be part of the solution.

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