Way back in 2005, when we first started brewing, 100% of our beer was cask. In the first 5 years of the life of Hardknott the percentage remained in the high 90% range. We had a tiny amount contract bottled and hand bottled a little bit ourselves. We experimented with the odd keg.
When we moved to our current location in 2010 we knew we wanted to explore other formats. Bottle was a high priority1 and keg was a very close second. However, the vast majority was cask beer, and that was the way it stayed until we finally bought our bottling line.
I'm doing some fairly intensive business development thinking right now. We've built a great team, made huge progress, but the financial success of Hardknott in any sort of meaningful way needs a good move forward.
I've been looking at some sales statistics. Sales of cask is standing just about steady. Stagnating, in fact. Cask is dominated by a plethora of breweries many of whom are competing on price alone. This means turning the stuff around with little time in tank, no dry hopping, minimal hops in any case. And to some extent if that is their thing, turn it out cheap, 'cause actually, cheap low-taste beer is what the majority of pubs can sell easily.
We don't want to make low-taste beer. We don't want to make stuff to the lowest budget we can. We want to make stuff that makes a statement, makers a difference, turns heads. We use more hops, dry hop most beers, and it stays in tank a little longer, because Scott refuses to claim it to be ready until he is happy2. It costs a little more to do and we unashamedly charge a little more than many breweries.
What we've found is that our bottle and keg production has been our solid growth area. We now produce less than 25% cask. It isn't that we put less beer in cask, we have just grown the other areas. Most of what we package is in bottle. This is a good situation from a business point of view. To justify the space the bottling line occupies, to pay down the loan we still have on the machine, we need to make it work hard.
Putting beer into keg at the same time we bottle is easy. We like doing that and is generally what we do for Azimuth for sure, which sells very well in both formats.
Cask is becoming more and more of a chore, and makes less and less business sense. There is frankly a huge surplus of rubbish cask producers, and equally a good number of great cask producers. Competing on price, maintaining quality, in an area that is becoming a marginal activity, isn't going to replace my shoe leather. Running so many different beers in several different packaging is becoming difficult to manage and something might have to give.
But, I'm happy to sell beer in whatever format makes commercial sense. If I can empty a full tank into cask and sell it in a week, then I will3. But more and more now we're trying to shoehorn cask production into what space we can find in the schedule, exacerbated by the fact that we are very close to absolute maximum production we can achieve with the equipment we've got.
I noticed a blogpost by Tandleman back in August regarding a brewery that announced the cessation of cask production. I can understand his frustration at the brewery's announcement. Stopping cask production does then result in a failure of the beers to appear in cask-only outlets. But it might be obvious to the reader that I can see the point of view - every business owner has a primary responsibility to make decisions for the good of the business.
I was however a bit taken aback by Tandleman's "that raises two fingers to those that have loyally supped Buxton beers on handpump these last years" comment. That one has sort of lingered in the back of my mind. Surely, if cask were supported with enough strength, breweries would not make such decisions?
1And if we started again today it would be cans, all the way, but we are where we are for the time being.
2Which in itself causes us problems. We try to guess when beer will be ready to rack. We send out availability lists to pubs and distributors at the beginning of the week, and to provide the range we want to show, sometimes beers might not be quite there. Ann then makes sales and issues racking orders. "[So and so] want it by Friday, and we need to send out Wednesday, which is tomorrow, is it ready to rack?"
The sale might not be made until Tuesday, but it is still in tank, it is brewday and the mashtun is still to dig out. A look at the beer shows it isn't quite ready, and then a tank for today's brew needs to be cleaned. The beer might get racked tomorrow, if we get enough casks cleaned, but then there will be the pallet to build, and we might miss the window to call in the haulier. It could go out Thursday, but then we'd have to pay for next day delivery, putting up the delivery cost, which we absorb. Besides, the beer will be ready when it is ready "Ask them if Monday is OK" and generally the reply is that no, they need it this week or not at all.
3A full tank is more than two full pallets of casks. Most of our distributors only take one pallet at a time, and that is generally a mixed pallet. It means to carry on making sense, and for us to carry on making cask, we need you, the cask fan, to drink Hardknott, demand Hardknott, that way we'll get more demand this end, and everyone will be happy.