Saturday, 11 August 2018

The death of keg

Once more we've been treated to someone with a vested interest saying cask beer should cost more. It may be because I spend too much time on the internet but nothing in the article seemed new. It goes through the usual craftie critique of cask beer and comes to the usual conclusion: it should be more like craft keg beer. Or bottle or can, the author doesn't attempt to define "craft beer" in any way, but I think it's safe to assume cask beer is excluded.

As is often the case in beer writing opinion is dressed up as analysis, with the dubious use of a statistic or two to give a fig leaf of credibility. Which is exactly what I'm going to do now.

We're told that:
"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."
But we're not told that keg beer sales have declined 25% over the last six years, a strange oversight as the figure comes from the same article. The death of keg is coming far faster than the death of cask. And as mentioned previously the "craft beer" is not defined at all, or the format in which it is sold.

Overall beer sales in Britain have been in decline for many years, and the proportion of draught beer sold has also been falling. Back when cask beer was showing modest growth, it was pointed out that it was in effect "defying gravity" as with massive numbers of pubs closing the amount of places in which it was sold were falling. Unlike undefined "craft beer" cask beer is almost only sold in pubs, so pub closures are inevitably going to hurt cask beer sales. Pub closures though, or the shift from draught to small pack beer, aren't mentioned at all in the article, a huge omission.

We then get on to the fact that cask beer is sold for less than keg beer. I've always been of the opinion that this is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy, but on a more mundane level when keg beer was introduced it was sold as a premium product compared to "normal" cask beer and was sold for a higher price. Keg beer has always cost more than cask and it's nothing to do with CAMRA, though the author does take a swipe at CAMRA discounts, something that are only offered voluntarily by pubs because it makes business sense to them.

Next comes the pernicious argument popular with crafties that more expensive beer is better beer, and he waxes lyrical about a delicious, but expensive to make, pint of Cloudwater cask beer. The best pint I ever had was also cask beer, but it was made in a giant beer factory in Burton so I doubt it had huge production costs. What with cask being cheaper than keg beer is unusual in that price and quality are not linked, and it's possible to drink world class beers for less than inferior global brands.

CAMRA's mysterious role in controlling beer prices crops up again:
"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." 
So a beer consumers organisation is being told it needs to campaign for higher beer prices. An odd one that, and though I'm not an economist I can't for the life of me see how higher prices will increase demand. The increase in price will it seems be linked to an increase in quality:
"Of course, if the price of cask beer were to rise, the quality would have to as well"
Which is nice, though no mechanism is given for how this will come about. We're told "many reputable writers" have said finding well kept cask beer is increasingly difficult, though that quote only links to a single writer and my own experience is certainly different from his.

Then it's back to CAMRA who we're told should invest in a hare brained scheme to provide training and equipment for pubs, making the common mistake of confusing a consumer organisation for an industry body. After that it's the tired old line that CAMRA aren't interested in quality, including a swipe at their own beer festivals, ignoring the fact that they've invested heavily in beer cooling equipment.

With incredible insight it's revealed that the Great British Beer Festival is mainly a cask beer festival, and rare foreign beer sell out fastest. Then it gets to CAMRA needs to embrace keg to save cask. Or cask should be more like keg. Or more craft or something. That the 2018 ratebeer second best brewery in the world abandoned cask is a huge blow to its reputation apparently. Will cask beer be able to recover from such a mortal wound? Did anyone else even notice? We're also informed that CAMRA need to highlight beers made by breweries often found at their festivals (yes, bit of an odd one that).

I do get cynical when I see brewers and distributors saying cask beer should cost more. Personally I'd rather seem beer be made freely available and distributed on the basis of need. I will of course need a lot! At least in his post the author didn't include the awful statement that "beer is a luxury item" but as you may have guessed I wasn't overly impressed with the article.


  1. Also, the acceptance that outlets are grasping 70% GP (like a restaurant, even though their costs are way lower). Not a problem? There, I've said it.

    1. I'll have to find out what GP they work at in my local now.

  2. Some cask beer is too cheap but certainly not all. Making cask more expensive is just saying it isn't for those on low incomes.

    1. Tricky with cask though as it does to sell quickly.

  3. Hi ed, thanks for the response. I accept the 18% growth of craft does not define on and off trade. However, otherwise I am baffled by your reading of the article. I make it pretty clear I dont want cask to be more expensive. I would like duty reductions for small/mid size breweries. Unfortunately the new temperance movement and austerity prevent that. Would a rise in price increase demand? Not on its own. Would demand increase if availability and consistency increased? Yes. That requires a sustainable margin for producers, education for servers and trust from the consumer. All of which are at an all time low.

    I also 100% never say CAMRA should embrace keg - they do not need to promote it. But they do need to show to drinkers via their actions that variation makes us all richer and an association with a fast growing segment might be beneficial - as it has been to breweries like Marble, Siren, st Austell and others who simply make great beer, pick the right format and put it in the right places. And a price that is sustainable for all.

    If margins dont grow for small cask producers, the segment's shrinking (much faster than 3.8% in the last 2 years) will accelerate. And the
    "Crafties", most of whom grew up on and love cask beer, will lose out.


    1. Thanks for the polite reply Jonny, I did go off on one there!

  4. Nail hit firmly on the head there, Ed :-)

  5. Credibility lost with this comment "Then it's back to CAMRA who we're told should invest in a hare brained scheme to provide training and equipment for pubs, "

    Sorry that you think that it is "hare brained" but provision of training materials in the keeping of cask beer is very much what CAMRA plans to provide in the coming months. We are unlikely to provide training for publicans directly but are looking at partnering with a training provider to ensure that training is available to publicans.

    1. Oh no, my credibility gone! I though he was saying CAMRA should run training courses, which does sound bonkers to me. The do of course already provide information like the excellent cellarmanship guide.

    2. A scheme can still be hare-brained even if it actually exists. And I'd expect that the licensees who took up such training would be those least in need of it. For many, the idea that they needed training in how to keep their beer would be a mortal insult.