The 40pc leap in capacity at the Doom Bar brewery and the 2014/5 Cask Report

One of the items of news that may have shot by you recently is that Molson Coors is pumping enough money into the Cornish economy to boost capacity at Sharp’s brewery to a potential 350,000 barrels a year of Doom Bar ale, a 40% expansion. There is no guarantee it will be able to shift that amount of what is already the UK’s biggest-selling cask ale, of course. But if it did, that would mean Doom Bar had become a brand one tenth the size of Carling lager. That might not sound much, but blimey, there’s not been a cask ale brand with that kind of clout in the market for decades.

It would be fascinating to know what all those drinkers of more than a million pints of Doom Bar a week  think the beer actually is: do they believe they are drinking “craft beer”? Do they know it actually comes from one of the biggest brewers in the country?

It’s also an interesting question as to whether any other cask ale brand, even with the weight of Molson Coors behind it, could ever have contemplated looking at potential sales that recall the heyday of Draught Bass, even in an era when cask ale drinkers may be entitled to feel more optimistic than they have been able to be for almost two decades. Has Doom Bar’s popularity any connection with it coming from the village of Rock, described by the Daily Telegraph as “the Kensington of Cornwall”, populated during the summer by affluent teenagers staying at their friends’ multi-million-pound holiday homes, and surrounded by expensive Michelin-starred restaurants owned by big-name chefs? Plenty of Rock’s affluent young visitors will be drinking in the Mariners, the pub owned jointly by Sharp’s and the celebrity chef Nathan Outlaw, and Doom Bar is likely to be the tipple for many. Does that at all put a halo on the beer that helps it rise to sales levels effectively unheard of for a single cask beer brand?

Cruikshank's draymen

Draymen, by George Cruikshank. Note the chequers on the doorpost, an indicator of a public house.

Well, probably not, but it is certainly the case that you are indeed much more likely to find the young and affluent drinkers who flock to Rock to meet mates (and mate) drinking cask ale than you would have even ten years ago. As the latest Cask Report revealed, a third of all 18-34 year-olds have tried cask. And it’s not that they have tried it and walked away back to Carling or Peroni vowing “never again” – of all those who have ever tried real ale, 86% still drink it to some extent. Nor is it just young men trying out real ale. A third of all female alcohol drinkers have tried cask – and, again, 75% of women who have tried cask still drink it.

Sadly, this fact seems not to have penetrated deeply into the trade. Even among licensees who stock cask ale, two out of five think women don’t like cask ale. Male cask ale drinkers are considerably more liberated: four out of five think women DO, indeed, enjoy a handpulled pint.

I’m pulling these plums from the 2014/5 Cask Report (on which Pete Brown has done his usual terrific job) because they tend to be overlooked in the rush to plaster up the headline items, like the call to raise the price of cask ale to bring it more in line with the prices being charged for craft keg beers.

It is not, in fact, a new phenomenon that cask ale, one of the glories of Britain, at its best a sublime celebration of the marriage of malt and hops, is sold too cheaply. In the early 1970s, Carlsberg draught lager in London cost 18p a pint, while cask ale was 13p a pint or so: a 28% price differential. By 1984 the difference was less but cask ale, at 72p, was still cheaper than lager, at 81p. Today cask ale is only is around 6%, or 20p, cheaper than draught lager. But if draught lager can no longer command the massive premium it once did, “craft keg” is being sold for premiums vastly superior to anything the early Carlsberg marketeers ever dreamed of. The same drink has been spotted in the same North London “craft beer bar” for £3.50 from a cask and £5 from a keg. Not all craft keg is that expensive: the average in the UK now is £4.04 a pint, although some, particularly if it has been imported from the United States and it’s up at the top end of the abv range for a draught beer, say 9% and above, will be in excess of £7 a pint. But that is against an average price for a pint of cask ale of just £3.19.

So why did lager – and before it the original keg beer, such as Red Barrel and Double Diamond, your fathers and grandfathers rushed to buy, and after it the “craft keg” beers on offer from such highly regarded brewers as Meantime, Camden Town, BrewDog and Lovibond – command a premium? Part of it was and is image, or course. But much of it was the promise of consistency. Drinkers really will happily pay more if they know they’re not being invited to gamble their £3.19 on the possibility of a pint of cloudy vinegar – and then have to argue with bar staff who will try to tell them: “It’s real ale, it’s meant to taste like that.”

Watney's Red Barrel

Worth a premium over cask ale?

To quote from another segment of the Cask Report: “Premium bottled ale is almost twice as expensive in the off-trade as premium lager, and yet sales are growing faster, despite a wider growth of interest in budget and value brands. People are prepared to pay more for interesting, flavourful beer, and expect to do so.” Well, quite. But the point about bottled beer is that it’s almost 100% reliable. If it’s tasty and interesting as well – that’s worth paying extra for. The report declares: “The current price differential between cask ale and ‘craft keg’ beer damages both the image of the former and the sales of the latter.” But it’s hard to see how the high prices being charged for craft keg are damaging its sales: pubs and bars are pretty good at charging what the market will bear, and the market, particularly in London, seems happy to bear £4.50 and upwards a pint and more for the perceived benefits of craft keg, those benefits being (a) flavour and interest without (b) any risk of your pint being undrinkable. The problem is not that craft keg is too dear, but that cask ale is too unreliable, and what damages the image of cask ale is not its perceived cheapness but its perceived risk. Lower the risk, and pubs will be able to charge for cask ale what they are currently charging for craft keg – more, indeed, since it’s almost always, all other things being equal, a superior product.

Fortunately the trade recognises this, and the excellent work being done by Cask Marque in raising the standards of cask ale at the point of delivery is now being expanded upon with the launch of the Cask Matters website. Already, the second most looked-at item on the site is a video on looking after cask beer in the cellar from Peter Eells, head brewer at the Yorkshire brewery Timothy Taylor’s. There looks to be a mass of other help and information on the site, from offers of free online training on looking after cask ale to a CD called “A Bar Person’s Guide to Real Beer” to links to Beer Academy courses to downloadable comprehensive what-to-do lists on everything from line cleaning to glass care. As Pete Brown said at the launch of the latest Cask Report, when he brought out the first one in 2007, his job was to try to convince the industry that cask ale wasn’t dead. Today cask beer is sitting in the middle of what Brown correctly called a beer revolution, with three times the number of breweries in operation now than were operating at the Millennium. But if pubs are really going to benefit from that, they need to tackle the issue of poor quality. Hopefully, initiatives such as Cask Matters are giving them the tools they need to do that.

Unfortunately, one’s hopes are undermined in the section of the Cask Report that covers drinkers’ perceptions of how much training bar staff get in cask ale, compared to how much training licensees said they gave their staff. Edited highlight: Publicans think their staff get a lot of training in looking after and serving cask ale; drinkers don’t.

Cruickshank's barman

Barman and cusrtomer, by George Cruikshank. Did the barman receive training in serving cask ale?

Nine out of ten licensees said staff get training in what to look for in a good or bad pint. Less than half of cask ale drinkers believe this to be the case. Two thirds of licensees say staff get training in how to look after cask ale in the cellar, with half saying staff get a lot more training in cask ale than with other kinds of drinks. Again, less than half of cask ale drinkers believe this happens. Four out of ten cask ale drinkers, indeed, believe bar staff get hardly any training in cask ale, while only one in 16 licensees say training is that poor. Two thirds of licensees say staff get training in different styles of cask ale. Barely one third of cask ale drinkers believe this happens. The report says: “There are only two ways to explain the difference in perceptions of training … either publicans are deceiving us (and perhaps themselves) on how much they care for cask, or drinkers don’t realise how much care and attention goes in to presenting the perfect pint.” Actually, there’s a third, and one that seems to me to be easily the most likely – that drinkers see little evidence their side of the bar of all the training publicans say goes on, because they’re getting too many poor pints, served to them by bar staff who aren’t knowledgeable about the product. The fear has to be that landlords will persist in thinking their staff (and they) know all about cask ale and don’t need the help of Cask Maters, while the evidence from the customers’ side of the bar continues to be that they don’t.

There are plenty of other important findings in the report. For example, landlords and drinkers are still in disagreement over how often the line-up of beers on the bar-top should be changed, with drinkers much more conservative than the trade. The report repeated the findings from last year, that among all drinkers who have ever tried real ale, 56% want to see a selection that changes every month, and only 20% want a selection that changes every week, while 15% want to see the same beers on the bar all the time. Publicans, however, believe they should be rotating guest beers once a week.

The report also found that the cliched image of cask ale drinkers is commoner among licensees than among cask ale drinkers themselves: Two in five publicans actually stocking cask ale still think that most cask ale drinkers are middle-aged men with beards and sandals. Only one in five of male cask ale drinkers think that.

Drinkers and publicans also disagree about what promotional activities work for particular beers: 81% of cask ale publicans back staff recommendations, against just 58% of cask ale drinkers, while 51% of drinkers are attracted by seeing brands at local beer festivals, while only 24% of landlords think this effective, and 28% of drinkers like seeing food matching suggestions on menus, while only 10% of landlords go for this. Nobody likes beer mats: just 5% of drinkers and 9% of landlords think they are an effective promotion.

Another interesting difference in perceptions is that among cask-stocking publicans, 74% think serving beer in the right branded glasswear is “quite important” or “very important”. Only 53% of cask ale drinkers feel the same, while 47% couldn’t give a stuff. Half the number of drinkers, just one in five, think branded glasswear “very important” compared to publicans who feel the same.

On the often heated subject of the definition of “craft beer”, among both cask ale drinkers and publicans stocking cask ale, six out of ten say it means “beer from a small brewer”, and half of each thought craft beer had to be “a beer you don’t find in many places”. Only one in five of cask ale drinkers thought it meant “very hoppy, American-style ales”, against a third of cask ale-stocking landlords, and just one in 20 cask ale drinkers and one in 13 cask ale-stocking landlords thought it meant “any cask ale”. Whatever the definition, while cask ale has a 16% market share of total on-trade beer, “craft beer” in other, formats (keg, bottle, can) scores only 2%.

The report is also interesting in what it reveals about attitudes to the Campaign for Real Ale. Among cask ale drinkers, 6% said they were Camra members: all of 37% of cask ale-selling publicans carry a Camra membership card. Only 2% of cask drinkers said they didn’t like Camra, against 5% of cask ale-selling landlords. Almost half – 47% – of cask ale drinkers said that while not members, they admired what the organisation did, against 36% of cask-selling licensees who felt the same. Nearly as many cask beer drinkers, however, 45%, said they had not strong feelings one way or the other about Camra, a feeling shared with almost a quarter, 23%, of landlords. If even among cask ale drinkers, 47% are indifferent to Camra or opposed to it, you have to wonder about the organisation’s claims to be “the leading voice of beer drinkers in the UK”.

Devenish Golden AleJust finally, there is also a fascinating survey in the reoport of the range of beers brewed by members of SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers, which covers around half of all the 1,500 or so brewers in the UK. Almost all – 97% –  brew a “golden ale”, although there’s no indication as to whether this is a Summer Lightning-style golden bitter, or a more West Coast American Pale Ale. Around nine out of 10 – 89% – brew a “traditional” bitter, three out of five (60%) a strong bitter or IPA (although, again, it would be useful to know how many of these are American IPAs). Less than a quarter (23%) sell a traditional mild (boo!) and only one in five (20%) a strong mild or old ale. Fewer than one in ten (9%) make a strong ale or barley wine, which surprises me, and even fewer, just one in 20 (5%) brew a stout or porter. One in five (19%) make something they call a “speciality beer”, which presumably covers a very wide category of sins. In all, SIBA members make 4,000 regular cask ales and another 5,800 seasonals and one-offs every year, which the report suggests means when non-SIBA members are added in, means almost 19,000 different cask beers every year. A ticker would have to be drinking 16 beers a day, every day, just to cover all SIBA members’ seasonals and one-offs …

This blog is (mostly) an amalgamation of two pieces that originally appeared on the Propel Info website.

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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Beer writers wax their lyricals

Two thousand pounds is about eight times the current going rate for a 1,500-word article on beer in most of the journals I ever get commissioned by, and twice as much as the top prize in the BGBW Beer Writer of the Year competition. So the news that two grand had been slapped down as the carrot in the first ever Bombardier Beer prize for writing on “the joys and jolliness of beer”, a piece of up to 1,500 words on the subject of beer’s role in society, and as a social lubricant, saw a field full of many of the country’s best writers about beer leap to their keyboards. I know this because, now the winner has been announced, several well-known beer bloggers have bravely put their own losing entries up on their blogs.

You can read the man who ran off with the £2,000 cheque, Milton Crawford, here, Adrian Tierney-Jones’s entry is here, for Zak Avery’s take on the subject click here and Mark Dredge’s entry can be read here. After that it’s instructive to read Pete Brown, one of the competition’s judges, on the experience of reading more than 40 essays all singing Ale-elluia – click here. And my own losing entry is right here. Continue reading

‘… shoulder aside the prostitutes …’

Since it appears that at least three fellow zythobloggers have named this site their favourite beer blog in end-of-year roundups, I feel obliged to hand out a few end-of-year gongs myself. So here we are:

Best pub or bar of 2009 No contest – the Harvester, Electra Street, Abu Dhabi, the absolute Everest of rough bars, the Mariana Trench of low dives. Once you have found your way round the back of the otherwise respectable Sands Hotel and down the stairs past a threateningly besuited bouncer of indeterminate ethnic origin but about as wide as he is tall, you then have to clamp on your oxygen mask and fit infrared goggles to negotiate through the crush, gloom and roiling cigarette smoke to the bar, shoulder aside the prostitutes from unpronounceable Central Asian republics blocking your passage, who will be stroking your arm and asking if you’d like to do the same to them*, and shout your order at a bored Filipino barman over the racket from an over-amplified trio of Slavic blondes backed by two disappointed and dissipated long-haired Americans in their late 30s on sax and organ and a drummer from Wolverhampton who once had a trial with an Oasis tribute band: except it won’t matter what you order anyway, because all the beer is utterly undrinkable shite, particularly the Smithwicks, a crime against humanity for which every brewer at St James’s Gate should be tortured to death, slowly, and the John Smith’s Smooth, which, remarkably, manages to taste as if it has never even been on the same planet as malt and hops; and you’d be far better to copy the locals, all of whom look as if they derive the majority of their income from smuggling Niger yellowcake in fast motorboats across the Gulf to Iran in exchange for raw Afghani opium, who sit at their own personal table with their own personal bottle of whisky in front of them, surrounded by twitchy tooled-up bodyguards. Marvellous. Unfortunately I was recently informed that the Harvester had lost its drinks licence (some little Health and Safety problem with brown envelopes not being stuffed full enough, probably, such behaviour, if you’re a bar owner, likely to be injurious to your health and threatening to your continued safety), and the place was now practically empty, except for a few sad and silent ladies in most un-Emirati dress clustered at the bar, apparently unable to find their way to the Tourist Club area further east where the rest of their flock had migrated.

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A (literally) cool pint glass

The pint glass is normally a triumph of function over form, being, too often, an extremely ugly container for a very fine product. However, I recently acquired a couple of what are, in two senses, pretty cool beer glasses: the shape is quite attractive, and the double-walled construction means that the liquid inside is much less likely to be warmed up by your hand as you hold your beer.

I don’t know if the “Steady Temp double-walled beer glass” is sold in the UK – I acquired mine in the Land of Sand, and the only web sites I’ve found selling them are in the US. They’re not cheap, and they appear quite fragile, which suggests no pub or bar is ever likely to buy them, although “customer comments” on the Amazon.com site suggest they are tougher than they look. (They’re also 500ml, rather than an Imperial pint, so British pubs couldn’t legally use them anyway, of course.)

However, they do genuinely perform far better than a standard thin-walled glass in keeping your beer cool, and aesthetically they score a good seven or eight as well, against the minus 15 of the traditional Nonik.

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Michael Hardman MBE – Mighty Beer Enthusiast

Congratulations to Michael Hardman, one of the four founding members of Camra, appointed an MBE (that’s Member of the Order of the British Empire for my overseas readers) in the New Year’s Honours List “for services to the Campaign for Real Ale and the brewing industry”.

Since Michael has probably done more, in his way, to promote the cause of good beer in Britain than almost anyone else alive or dead, and yet remains remarkably little known even in the UK, an MBE is the least recognition he could get from his country for 37 years of service to the national drink, with Camra, with Young & Co as the London brewer’s long-serving PR man and, until very recently, as PR man for Siba, the independent small brewers’ organisation in the UK. An MBE is what they give you for being school lollipop lady*.

Without the pioneering efforts of Michael Hardman, first chairman of Camra, first editor of What’s Brewing, Camra’s newspaper, editor of the Good Beer Guide from its second edition in 1975, when it became a proper, professional effort, to 1977, there would probably, today, be fewer than half a dozen small breweries in Britain making cask ale, less than a thousand pubs selling it, and there certainly wouldn’t be the 550 or more new breweries in the UK that drinkers can currently enjoy, all direct beneficiaries of the good beer movement that Michael Hardman helped push-start.

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