I think we're at a really exciting time in beer appreciation.
The Cask Report shows cask ale holding steady in a difficult market. That's good news, although as has been mentioned elsewhere on the blogs, it's hardly call for celebration. It's not bad news, but neither is it good news. It's just news.
At this point, I'd love to write something like "cask ale is one of the UK's greatest gastronomic triumphs", but the problem is, that's only right some of the time. Cask is a form of dispense, it's not a style of beer, so to say that cask ale is holding its own in the market is talking about the success of a mode of dispense. Sure, with a great beer inside, a cask of ale is about as good as beer can get. But there is a lot of plain old boring cask ale about too. And no, I'm not one those people who has drunk too many American IPAs and suffered lupulin threshold shift. I still love ordinary brown beer - and there are good and bad ones of those too.
So how about talking about microbreweries? Again, this really just talks about volumes of production, without any reference to style or quality of the beer. There are good and bad micros just as there are good and bad macros. Sure, you can say you'd rather give your money to a small independent brewery than a large multinational, but again that's not really talking about the beer - it's about business ethics.
And what of craft beer? In the foreword to the latest Beer Advocate magazine, the Alstrom brothers started to describe their uneasiness about the word 'craft' as a designation of something good - essentially the same argument as above about microbreweries, but micros in the UK have a clear delineation along production volume vs. taxation lines.
Many people trumpet the rise in cask's market share as the victory of real ale over lager. Again, this is a bit lopsided, as lager is only a shorthand for industrial beer in this country. But of course, lager isn't really a description of a style, it's a description of a production process. If I was being cynical, I'd say that the victory of a mode of dispense over a brewing process is a low point in the history of beer appreciation in this country.
And bubbling away underneath all of this is the fact that volumes of beer overall are decreasing in the on-trade, and steadily rising in the off-trade. I think that volumes are presently about equal, but the streams are about to cross (sorry, poor analogy to use when talking about beer consumption). And in the off-trade, premium bottled ale growth continues to outstrip every other beer sector. Well, apart from the volumes of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale imported into the UK, which have doubled every year for the last three years, and seem set to continue in that vein. Who will write The Bottle Report, I wonder [*twirls moustache, waggles eyebrows suggestively*]
Sierra Nevada are really the holy grail of good beer. In SN Pale Ale, they found that holy grail, a crossover classic with both geek and mass-market appeal. They went from brewing it in converted dairy tanks to brewing it in an industrial production facility, without ever once compromising on quality or flavour.
So, to summarise: Nobody wants to drink bad beer. A cask of beer can only, at best, be as good as what the brewer puts in at the brewery, and can often be sub-optimal. It's easy to confuse dispense and process with what you are drinking. Craft and micro are no longer synonyms for quality, if indeed they ever were. Small volume production beers can be bad, and large volume production beers can be good. It's complicated, isn't it, this beer appreciation lark?
As I said at the start, I think we're at a really exciting time in beer appreciation. But there is still a lot of work to do.