Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Craft Will Eat Itself

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.


  1. As posted on Hardknott Dave's blog, although obviously it's produced by Marstons, doesn't this Premium Bottled Ale Report to some extent replicate the Cask Report for its own sector? And isn't Sierra Nevada Pale ale a sub-species of PBA anyway?

  2. I agree with every point you made there.

  3. While there isn't, never has been, and shouldn't be, an automatic correlation between craft beer and good beer there is, I think, something to be said for talking-up the good micros over the good macros. At least if you're a supporter of choice and diversity in your local beer.

    It's the breweries that don't have the national or international distribution, or the mass-media advertising, and who make good beer, that I'll always go out of my way to highlight wherever I can.

  4. If you knock up "The Bottle Report", fella, I'll throw in a "lout report"

  5. There is always a danger of confusing small with quality. It is in the interest of small producers to conflate their production with the word "quality" so that the two become synonymous in the consumer's mind. It is profitable too.It is often not so, hence me (and sensible others)having a mental black list of micro brewers.

    No matter how encouraging it is to see drinkers trading up from industrial beers,I'm not so sure that the PBA market is either here or there in terms of either objective or subjective quality, as opposed to production quality, which will almost certainly be high. Those that drink PBAs are by and large drinking brands rather than looking for individual brewers of interesting beers, as borne out by the Marston's report. Presumably that is why the big bottled brands sell so well, whereas their cask equivalents, where they exist are nowhere near the top of any beer geek's table, but are the top of everyone else's.

    I am not so sure that beer appreciation is that difficult, but what is difficult is reading the runes of an industry that is divided, unfocussed and on the whole, unimaginative.

  6. I'll also pick out your point about SNPA and applaud. It's very true, and one beer that sometimes gets overlooked in the clamour for the 'next big thing'. And TBN's last comment is EXACTLY why TGS exists.

  7. I don't have any figures, but I would have thought that the overall cask ale market was dominated by well-known brands such as Pedigree, London Pride, Old Speckled Hen etc, although maybe not to the same degree as the bottled ale market.

  8. Mudgie - I agree. That's what I said, but they aren't the top choice of most "connoisseurs".

  9. I must confess that I've not been keeping up with blog reading lately, so I didn't see that Hardknott Dave had written something very similar to this.

    Curmudgeon - how that report passed me by, I'll never know.

    Stu - thanks

    Beer ut - you're right of course, although there's probably a reverse economy of scale involved in being a good micro, in that you don't need to distribute widely in order to sell all that you produce. And I guess if you're good, than people tend to champion you anyway.

    Cookie - a kind offer, thanks

    Tandleman - Pete Brown gave a nice little address to the room of industry bigwigs last year when he picked up his writer of the year award. I paraphrase from memory, but he pretty much said what your final paragraph says, adding that given the challenging climate at present, everyone should be pulling together to do their best for beer as a whole.

  10. Thanks for this, Zak, it's a really good and perceptive commentary, and I'm tempted to say you should be as cynical as you like! As I said in my own piece on GBBF a couple of months back, the muddy thinking around cask = good in Britain has just about been sustained over the years because in practice the vast majority of good quality, distinctive British beers were cask beers. It's ironic that if that cosy but misleading conflation is now under threat, it's partly due to the influence on a new generation of British brewers from countries which were originally themselves influenced by the real ale movement in the UK.

    At the same time I can't help but be mildly heartened by the headline figures in Pete's report, since in practical terms the cask market still does seem to be the foundation of quality brewing in this country.

  11. Give me big mac, premium bottled ale to go?

  12. Des - that's a fair summation. I've been fairly vocal myself on the practice of casking those big American IPAs just so they can be served at GBBF. In my opinion, they need a bit of chilling and carbonic bite to lift them from being fruity soups, something the brewer no doubt had in mind when he brewed them for keg dispense.

    Ed - I spent far too long for a suitable image of the Poppies to accompany this.

  13. Hear hear.

    One reason for encouraging craft beer over macro-brewers, even not-so-good craft, is in order to improve diversity. Just like the rainforests diversity is essential to survival, even if it doesn't seem it in the short-term.

    Good point about people buying brands Tandleman.

    PS. Beer blogger folk, can we lose some of the acronyms please?!

  14. Interesting to read Tandleman's small=quality equation. I'm as guilty as anybody as gunning for the 'cool indies' - its like a lo-fi band that nobody else has heard of.
    I was going to subhead this post 'All the way hype' but you have to draw the line somewhere..

  15. What is a connoisseur, how does one become such a thing?

    If it means I have to turn down a visit to a pub for fear they might not have the right beer on, in the right dispense, then I may reconsider my interest


  16. Interesting...
    So I am the odd one out!
    The vast majority of beer I now drink is brewed in my garage (the Garage beer report?)
    A lot of what is on the average Supermarket shelves has long since got boring, though Booths buck that trend mostly with range.
    I'm not a particularly a big Pub-goer but I do enjoy a good Pub with a selection of Cask Ales.
    I would hardly ever consider buying a beer dispensed from anything other than a Beer Engine as this mostly keeps me away from drinking some Industrial-Mass-Market-beer 'which is' Followed-by-sheep-due-to-its-commonality-and-ease-of-supply!

    There, that doesn't really mean much ;)

    Totally agree with the Good beer - Bad beer thing... still possible to make money selling crap beer, whoever makes it.

  17. lupulin threshold shift

    Love it!

  18. Mark RAR - I can't live without the odd TLA (three letter acronym)

    pdtnc - to be fair, you are a brewer though, aren't you?! I'm surprised that you would never consider anything but cask - there's plenty of boring and mass-produced cask out there, although in your neck of the woods, also a lot of pubs selling great cask too.

  19. Maybe I'm limiting myself too much....

  20. Zak - haha, I see what you did there!

    On a serious note my day job consists of PPC, SEO, ECRM, CPC, CTR, CVR, ECVR, CCVR, QS, AOV, ROAS, PPU. I know how confusing that is to people who don't do digital marketing and I have a feeling that the average beer drinker reading blogs ain't gonna feel too welcome when confronted with GBBF, PBA, IPA, TBN, TGS, SNPA...

    blah blah boring hypocritical rant over (or BBBHRO if you prefer, LOL).

  21. Chris K - I don't know how you become a connoisseur, but I think I may know how you become a "connoisseur". (-;


Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.