Tuesday 15 May 2018

Cafe, culture, cats and craft beer

"Is that a problem?" replied Luke to the lady's question. "Well yes, I can't be in the same room as cats, and they know it"

"There is Poppi Red across the street there, they serve really nice coffee and cakes" Luke rather charmingly replied, quite deftly and politely dealing with the issue. Me? I thought the lady a bit daft and I might have been tempted to question exactly what she expected when the sign outside clearly said "Cafe Culture Cats" - dead cats? Stuffed? A place simply adorned with cat-related art?

No, this place very definitely has live cats wandering around, 4 at the last count, although I believe more may be introduced at some point. My reason for being there was purely on my technical merit and thankfully no customer interactions were required from me. Despite Luke's warm explanation and obvious desire to help, the lady still appeared to leave somewhat grumpily. I was surprised then when she returned a few minutes later to take some photos of the cats as apparently she has lots of friends that love the feline creatures.

Luckily I was simply finishing off the keg line install in Kittchen, a new cafe-bar in Hawkshead village. I had promised Emma that I'd help them with the cellar fit when they first talked about their own pleasantly unique project. We knew they were planning a cafe-bar style operation, with some inspiration most definitely from Hardknott along with their visits to various other proper craft beer bars and were especially excited about the project.

What was kept very quiet for a long time was the concept that this would be a cat cafe. This is not a completely new concept and my brief look on Google shows quite a few in the UK along with a BBC article back in 2016. I guess I'm more of a dog person myself so what appears to be a growing phenomena had completely passed me by.

Luke and Emma had intended to serve Hardknott beer at the cafe so I was very pleased to help them with the cellar. Despite our own uncertainty, as I had promised to help these guys out, and in any case it fits with my love of the unusual, I had no hesitation in supporting their venture.

I've fitted them with 6 keg lines, no cask as it would be bonkers to even consider such a thing in such a place. Currently we've got them going with a selection of Hardknott beers including Azimuth, of course, Cumbrian Lager, Neutron Citra and La'al Peat. We also sourced for them a keg of Timmermans and a keg of Delirium Tremens.

We've returned on several occasions since they opened two weeks ago. Well, the beers need to be checked for consistency and dispense reliability. They also serve lovely platers of locally produced meats and cheeses, cakes and pastries. Along with my introduction to Cards Against Humanity, which is definitely a game best enjoyed with openminded friends and a few Delirium Tremens.
Oh, I didn't comment on the culture bit, glad you reminded me. There is a superb large area upstairs ideal for showing films, live music events, poetry readings and many other diverse cultural curiosities. Check out here to see what's on.

Thursday 10 May 2018

The Cask Anomaly

Life goes on, and you might be surprised to know; so does Hardknott. We have plans afoot to continue, perhaps against my better judgment, and will be involved with the business of making beer for a while yet I hope.

We have definitely stopped brewing at Millom. The brewhouse is just old, tired and in need of serious upgrade. We simply cannot justify solving that where we are. But we have some nice tanks and a bottling line. It seems there are people out there who believe they could use them, and perhaps use me too. People who might just be able to help me with the issue of lacking a decent brewhouse. It's all top-secret, and I might even be jumping the gun by leaking this little snippet.

That preamble is relevant however. As part of working out what to do for the future I've thought long and hard about a number of aspects of the beer market. My conclusions are that the British beer culture is still largely stuck with a huge number of preconceptions, traditional practices and frankly stupid dogmas that inhibit microbrewing from emerging out of the twentieth century.

I've contemplated the issues regarding cask beer before on several occasions. As part of my review I have considered cask very carefully indeed and have come to some fairly decisive conclusions, key to it is the following point.

The vast majority of draught beer brewed by brewers below 200,000hl/yr production is cask. The vast majority of keg beer is produced by brewers over 200,000hl/yr production and these brewers produce nearly no cask at all.1

Something is very wrong with this situation, very wrong indeed. I do not think one can understate how this is linked to another fairly important point.

Cask beer represents less than 10% of the total beer sales in the UK and around 16% of the total draught sales. The remaining 84% of draught sales are keg beers and the vast majority of that volume is from the big global producers.

The total beer market is shrinking, partly due to overall reductions in alcohol consumption but also critically due to changing customer preference to what are seen as more artisanal products. Cask remains roughly static as a proportion of the overall beer market. Cask in the free trade also appears to remain largely free from dispense equipment ties and this is in itself an interesting observation.

People like cold and fizzy

It is undeniable that people like cold fizzy beer. Only the deluded would try to deny that, and indeed it is important to note that contrary to the message CAMRA have put out for years, people who drink keg beer are not morons simply influenced by the advertising campaigns of large multinational brewers. Drinkers really do prefer beer that is cold and fizzy.

The artificial restriction of microbreweries largely to cask rather weakens their ability to capture a larger market. If a drinker's enjoyment of a beer experience is inferior under certain circumstances then that consumer is likely to be swayed away from that situation.

I have long pondered this situation. A long-time lover of the pub experience, brewer of cask, keg and bottle beers, twice over publican, past lover of cask beers and now a firm believer in keg as the future of great beer has come from observation and thought about the whole market.

What is wrong with cask, surely it's the best?

Have no doubts, cask beer is technically easier to produce, needs less capital investment and is less expensive to produce. It is ideal in many ways as a method for a brewery to gain an entry to the market.

Cask beer has a number of serious disadvantages;
  • ·      Served at a warmer temperature and with less "fizz" making it less palatable to many consumers (this is true, get used to it)
  • ·      The open container results in the beer noticeably deteriorating in a couple of days (actually, in my experience, a few hours)
  • ·      The lack of carbonation inhibits the demonstration of great hop aromas
  • ·      Variability in the quality of dispense resulting in brewer's beer not always being as they'd intended
  • ·      Significantly more skill required by staff to ensure quality is maintained
  • ·      Poor cellar cooling and cleanliness impacts on cask over keg
  • ·      Due to significant over-supply in the market the wholesale price of cask beer is very depressed
  • ·      Simply not funky and trendy enough for youngsters resulting in microbrewed beer losing out to trendy spirits, fruit ciders and fizzy rancid grape juice from Italy

The dichotomy

The beer market is still very much sliced in two by the terrible dogma instilled into the culture of British beer. Whilst there is no denying that some changes have been made and craft keg has become a thing, despite many people being sceptical, it is still very much a niche and confined to craft beer bars and a few very bold progressive pubs.

Mainstream pubs generally have a number of keg fonts almost exclusively for multinational brands. They may well, if free of tie, have handpulls serving locally produced cask beer, if they serve any microbrewed beer at all.

Beer drinking customers can be broadly divided into two types; the cask drinker, who might default onto smooth-flow if desperate and the solid keg drinker who wouldn't wash their socks in that cask stuff.

Admittedly, there is a group of wise and discerning people who are much less blinkered, and who will drink based on their mood, thirst, level of sunshine or just because they are curious, but I'd suggest this group of people are in fact a small proportion of drinkers.

The future really is keg beer

A bold statement you might think, and indeed it is only part of the future, but a very significant part of it. It's not an easy road though. Much investment is needed along with working out the route to market.

Equally there is the task of convincing cask-only drinkers, who are only so in my view due to the pressure from CAMRA, to love microbrewed keg along with gaining trust of the keg-only brigade to try new beers. Changing that is likely to be a bit of an uphill battle, CAMRA AGM voting continues to prove this point.

Not only that, we have to tackle the stranglehold of the multinationals on the bar front. Various "soft ties" that effectively prohibit microbreweries from even being permitted to sell their keg beers to pubs in fact tie much of the market even where a pub is apparently free of tie. This last point is important. Many observers are getting their knickers in a twist about PubCos and brewery owned estates forgetting that this is actually not the really big issue we have to deal with.

And for Hardknott?

It is almost certain that in whatever form we finally re-emerge we will be focusing on keg much more than cask, very probably eliminating cask all together. For a start, the most likely solution to continuing would be to join with an existing cask producer thereby possibly forming a conflict.

My task then for the next few months is to work out how to tackle the various barriers to getting really great keg beers available and better accepted by the beer drinking public.

I think a return to a much more combative, confrontational and outspoken ethos for Hardknott is required; there is a lot to change in the minds of the public if we are to see microbrewed beers on keg fonts in many more regular pubs. I do not think there is any good reason for this not to happen other than inappropriate inertia emanating from a Luddite attitude.


1OK, so I expect I'll get some challenges here. Yes, there are the likes of Fullers and Marstons who put quite a lot of beer into cask, but even so, that vast majority of beer produced by breweries over 200,000hl/yr is keg beer.