Thursday, 5 January 2017

A small brewery far away ...

A choice of good real ales
in the Guest House, Southport
The decision of the Cloudwater Brewery of Manchester to cease brewing real ale seems to have evoked a variety of reactions from "Is this the beginning of the end of cask beer?" to "It's no big deal - move on." In the latter category you'll find Tandleman and the Pub Curmudgeon.

The doom mongers will always be among us, of course, often comprised of people who favour craft keg over real ale, sometimes despising CAMRA into the bargain: while they are fully entitled to their own preferences, their views should be taken with a large pinch of salt as they've an axe to grind.

I'm not the only person to have suggested that at some point the contradictory phenomena of ever more breweries and fewer pubs will collide - see my post from June 2016. One licensee I put this point to last year told me he thought that process had already begun, and pointed out that hobby brewers add to the problem by their ability to undercut those who need to make a living out of their breweries. 

So: apocalypse? Or damp squib?

Some breweries can cut production in the face of fierce competition, but not all. Brewers who either go to the wall or abandon real ale production will not necessarily be those who brew the least interesting cask beer. It is logical to assume that we will lose some good real ales in a process of consolidation that seems almost inevitable. Quite a few of us have been predicting this for a while, so I don't quite understand the apparent shock the Cloudwater decision has made in some quarters. They're a business, not a charity, and therefore have to make a profit - although even charities need to balance the books - and if their current business structure does not enable a profit to be made, then it is not surprising if they discontinue the product with the slimmest profit margin.

This will probably happen again elsewhere, but it would be incorrect to assume this means the beginning of the end for real ale. If the number of breweries producing real ale does decline, it will reach a new, lower point of equilibrium, a position that should be more sustainable in the longer term. The unfortunate consequence is that in the process we may lose some of our favourite beers.

While there is an overlap in the markets for real ale and craft keg, there is also quite a level of separation. Because of its longer shelf life, keg can be transported further and can supply small volume venues better than cask beer with its need for quick turnover. On the other hand, small real ale brewers tend to supply within their local areas. I doubt the two products will ever be wholly separate, but there can be circumstances when they'll meet different requirements.

Not an apocalypse, but not a damp squib either. Long term predictions about the beer market by people more knowledgeable than I am frequently prove wide of the mark. While pubs are still closing, micropubs, café bars and other small venues are opening in large numbers, and many do stock real ales; they may not be able to compensate for all the pub closures, but they should mitigate the situation, especially as they often go for locally-brewed real ales. Furthermore, many of the pubs that are closing were not real ale venues anyway; that's not to say such closures don't matter, but they won't affect real ale sales.

This decision by Cloudwater is part of the evolution of the beer market, and where we will end up in the long term is anyone's guess - and I use the word 'guess' intentionally.


  1. I wasn't completely dismissive of it. It's not something that will affect me much, or in any sense threaten the generality of cask sales. But there must be a concern that challenging, innovative, high-end beer is increasingly found on keg, not cask. Twenty years ago, virtually all the best draught beer in pubs was cask. Nowadays, that certainly isn't the case.

    However, as 2016 showed us with a vengeance, anyone who makes predictions about anything runs a severe risk of coming a cropper.

    1. I understood that you weren't being entirely dismissive. On the whole, I thought your approach was fairly similar to my own: not insignificant, but not earth-shaking either.

  2. Of course these are deep waters, but numbers of breweries against potential accounts are in mismatch. There will be a shake out.

  3. You have my assurance that when I'm boss they will produce cask and they'll be no more talk of profits in the socialist utopia to come.

    Keep the dream alive, comrade.


  4. In the latter category you'll find Tandleman and the Pub Curmudgeon.

    And indeed me.


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