Good Beer Hunting

Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking — State of the Burton Union

CAMRA-bashing is something of a sport these days. As the 188,000-strong consumer group races toward its 50th birthday, the Campaign for Real Ale is routinely criticized for its lack of diversity, relevance, and expertise by people not even born when it was founded. Digital spaces are awash with insults and eye-rolling emojis, but the actions its founders and members took during the last three decades of campaigning saved Real Ale from ignominy. They kept the heart of British pubs beating through the invasion of mass-market Lager and decades of brewery consolidation.

Artwork by Cooper Fosczc

Artwork by Cooper Fosczc

The remarkable influence of CAMRA is not restricted to UK shores, either. The first craft brewers in the United States were—often without exception—inspired by British recipes. Anchor’s Fritz Maytag was inspired by a trip to Timothy Taylor’s, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada took the England pale ale as his base for his flagship beer, and Brooklyn’s Steve Hindy learned to brew with British envoys during his days as a war reporter in the Middle East. Ensuring brewing diversity through the 1970s and ‘80s meant CAMRA helped seed the U.S. craft beer movement. And how has modern beer culture repaid those champions of UK cask beer? It’s damn near killed it off.

After years of growth, buoyed by a new-found love of flavor-forward brews, UK cask beer is in decline. According to the latest Cask Report, an annual research paper that keeps tabs on the market, in 2016 cask shrunk by 3.8%, while the craft beer sector as a whole grew by 18.8%. Even more damning is the fact that cask has shrunk by 5% over the last six years, mirroring the time scale of the British craft beer boom. More than 800 breweries have opened since 2012, and yet Real Ale volume is stagnating. A new generation of British brewers has turned its back on cask beer, as new headline grabbing breweries such as Verdant, DEYA, and Left Handed Giant set their businesses up around kegs and cans.

The image of cask beer in the UK is viewed through rose-tinted glasses by its supporters. But take off those shades and you’ll see the reasons for its gradual decline are as numerous as they are compelling.

The best pint I ever had was a cask beer. It was an ESB, served by handpull at the Old Fountain in Old Street, London. This somewhat-dingy-yet-soulful pub has been run by the same family since the 1960s, even as the area gentrified at lightning speed to become the “Silicon Roundabout.” Huge development projects have sprung up around it, and the second-generation owner was offered more than £4M ($5.2M) to move out and make room for flats. He refused, instead adding craft-focused keg lines to cater to his new clientele while keeping his cask lines intact.

The ESB in question blurred these two lines—it had a rich caramel body and gentle carbonation, but it used Conan yeast and New Zealand hops to add deep stone fruit juiciness and a citrus finish. It was proof of the tired cliché recited by British beer writers everywhere—no keg beer can touch a perfect cask beer. It is the oven-warm bread of brewing, with an addictive, wholesome freshness unique to beer that has finished conditioning just hours ago.

The ESB was made by Cloudwater, who months later wrote a blog post declaring they would cease brewing cask beer immediately. In a long, startlingly honest article, founder Paul Jones wrote that “cask beer has backed itself into a corner that risks becoming unattractive to modern breweries.” This was an uncharacteristic understatement from Jones. For me, the cask beer market is broken.

The great irony in cask beer is that while its champions herald it as greatest form of beer on earth, many demand that it cost a third less than its keg equivalent, in turn forcing the pub, distributor, and brewer to take smaller cash margins. While consumers suppress pricing, the crowded marketplace is full of breweries racing to the bottom just to get listings. Many sell a nine-gallon firkin of 4% Golden Ale for around £60 ($78.70), while it is common practice to offer retro deals or buy-three-get-one-free offers. Oh, and let’s not forget your CAMRA discount at the bar.

More than 800 breweries have opened since 2012, and yet Real Ale volume is stagnating. A new generation of British brewers has turned its back on cask beer.

To put that in perspective, a cask of Cloudwater ESB would have cost more than £60 to make. Jones tried to sell his beer at the same margin he did his kegs (it was the same beer, after all), but his customers weren’t buying it. If they were going to spend £95 ($123) on a barrel of beer, it was going to be a modern, exciting keg beer that they could easily sell at £5.50 ($7) a pint. If CAMRA is serious about cask growth, it has to make the market sustainable for the innovators who will bring it to a new generation. Either the price of cask goes up, or beer duty has to go down. Obviously, the latter would be preferable, but given the new temperance movement, there’s little appetite for brewery tax breaks.

Of course, if the price of cask beer were to rise, the quality would have to as well. As many reputable writers have said before, finding well-kept cask is increasingly difficult—choosing one over another feels like a lottery. Timing is everything with cask beer. You have to buy it as fresh as possible, vent it for the time the brewer suggests, have a palate that can check its progress, and ensure you have a spare, clean line good to go when it is ready. Once fully conditioned, the shelf life on a cask is, at best, three days, and that’s only when stored consistently between 10ºC and 12ºC. Shockingly few pub cellars can pull that off.

Breaking any of these rules can result in either a very dull, sweet, and flat pint (served too early) or, even worse, a vinegary, oxidized mess (served too late). And it’s all down to the publican. For a brewer, selling cask beer means placing their reputation in the hands of the person who serves it. Too often, that trust is misplaced.

Cask beer has become a relic—one to be seen, enjoyed, and photographed like a thatched cottage or a red telephone box.

Perhaps the greatest step CAMRA could take toward restoring growth in cask beer would be to invest in training and equipment for pubs that show loyalty to cask and price it fairly. For some reason, this call for quality brewing falls on deaf ears at CAMRA, who this week lamented how expensive pints have become. The party line of championing cask above all else appears to include the millions of cheap, dull, vinegary pints poured across the UK each year. Some of them even at their own festivals.

Starting today, CAMRA hosts the 41st Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) at Kensington Olympia. Other than growing in scale, not much has changed in nearly half a century. I could go on about the fact that the attendees are mostly the same people (Fall outside the demographic of white, male, and over 40? You’ll likely end up on the poster for next year!), but I will stick to the beer.

At GBBF, only overseas breweries are allowed to bring anything other than Real Ale, cider, or perry. Despite its billing as The Ultimate Beer Festival, the message is clear—this a Real Ale festival. With more than 400 breweries and 900 cask beers, the odds dictate that there are some truly delicious beers on tap, but also hundreds of pale imitations. The overwhelming sense I get is that, rather than championing the diversity of cask, it merely shows how repetitive it can be. Clearly, I am not alone in this feeling. In 2016, most U.S. casks sold out during the trade session. As a result, the American bar remained closed until the public session in 2017.

Every beer business writer from here to Vietnam is talking about “premiumization,” but equally important is variation. Even outside the ticking culture of the beer bubble, drinkers are less brand loyal than they have ever been, switching to follow trends, great design, and freshness. While CAMRA draws the divide between good cask versus evil keg, new drinkers are simply on the hunt for the freshest, most delicious beer—regardless of format. Brewers are the same. Despite the low margins and cellaring issues, thousands of them produce both cask and keg and love them equally. CAMRA’s divisive rhetoric is unhelpful to them, and shows a huge disconnect with the people it's representing.

CAMRA’s divisive rhetoric is unhelpful, and shows a huge disconnect with the people it’s representing.

Rather than define themselves against keg as they had to in the 20th century, CAMRA needs to show the similarities. The best thing that can happen to Real Ale is for it to be associated with the craft beer revolution—to be referred to in the same breath as the modern keg beers coming out of those 800 young breweries. The fact that the second best brewery in the world abandoned cask is a huge blow to its reputation.

The effect of this can be seen in cask’s reputation around the world, too. To most, it's seen as a curiosity, a quirk of the Brits. Many drinkers dismiss it as flat and warm (quality raises its ugly head even among those who have never tried it), while beer lovers long for traditional styles like Mild, ESB, London Porter. Cask beer has become a relic—one to be seen, enjoyed, and photographed like a thatched cottage or a red telephone box. But anyone who sees it that way is missing out on the vital, exciting side of our brewing scene.

CAMRA, meanwhile, is missing out on the opportunity to show that side. Their campaigns should highlight the incredible beers produced by the likes of Moor, Burning Sky, Great Heck, St Austell and more—breweries that take the traditional format and combine it with new-world flavors. This would bring in a young and influential audience previously uncatered to by CAMRA and many of its festivals.

As long as we treat cask beer as a part of our heritage rather than our future, it will remain a fading postcard memory. But if we could guarantee quality cask, served at a sustainable price and marketed towards modern minds and palates, we could bring it into this brave new beer world. Which would make sense, considering it's a world cask beer helped create.