Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Is cask ale going the way of vinyl?

I have considerable admiration for vinyl collectors.

Obviously it was once the dominant format for releasing music, but when the CD came along it was largely usurped from the marketplace over several years. Sales of CDs themselves then went into decline with the emergence of downloads and subsequently streaming - us audiophiles know that this hasn't necessarily represented progress and are increasingly frustrated that most modern-day music consumers don't really seem to care.

Vinyl lovers stuck with their records against the tide, and, I think, have been proven largely right in their instincts. (Personally I went down the very niche route of super hi-fidelity digital music on DVD-A, a format which never took off and is now considered pretty much dead, despite sounding superb!)

But vinyl is now a specialist niche. It will, in all likelihood, never be truly mainstream ever again. No matter how good it sounds, what if the music you happen to like simply doesn't get released on vinyl? A lot of music isn't. (Yes, I think you can already see where the comparison with real ale is coming from...)

Thrive, survive or die?

The format was arguably kept alive during the thin years of the late 1990s only by the enduring popularity of the 12 inch single for dance music. There was then a bit of a resurgence with vinyl albums released by rock and Indie artists, often marketed at a premium price-point as the 'definitive' version of the release, but it's still niche. About 3% of the music market, up from a sub-0.5% low a few years ago.

'Classical' music hasn't been widely released on vinyl since the 80s. Likewise if you're a Folk or Country fan, you're unlikely to find very much new stuff put out on your favoured format. And mainstream pop is now specifically engineered to sound vaguely acceptable via low-bitrate streaming as this market is considered far more important than musos and audiophiles.

So, beer then.

A vinyl record, yesterday
The good news is that cask ale appears unlikely to completely die out in this country - it has enough champions both on the consumption and production sides to ensure that. (It's not quite like the audio cassette or VHS with nothing going for it that successors lacked, is it?!?)

So, are we instead heading for a world where real ale is, like vinyl, a niche product - not really for the mainstream, sold only in specialist outlets and usually restricted only to certain styles or genres?

I worry that this is the case. I want cask to be the mainstream format, because I fundamentally believe that there is no better way to condition and serve beer.

This years cask report tells of a marked decline in cask beer sales. Much has been written lately about the (poor) quality of cask beer and whether this will hasten the (inevitable) decline.

Martyn Cornell asks the difficult question: Why, despite CAMRA, is it still relatively hard to find cask beer in good condition? I've also questioned CAMRAs commitment to doing something about beer quality, and this is an issue that is not going to go away if cask sales continue to decline on their watch.

Mudgie wonders if the differentiation between handpump and keg font is part of the problem, and if blurring these lines might offer some sort of solution. Craft keg market share has risen rapidly despite lacking an identifier like the handpull.

Debate, at least, is healthy, even if the state of cask beer is not.

Are we reading too much into the cask report headline stats (cask sales down by 6.8% over the year) and not enough into the detail? After all, the report notes that sales of pale and golden beers in cask are actually up, and amber/brown beers - mainly the 'traditional bitter' category - are substantially down.

This could simply mean that a certain style of beer is losing popularity rather than cask per se - it just so happens that this style of beer is particularly common in cask and relatively scarce in keg - John Smiths Smooth sold in Wetherspoons now seems to be the only really big player in the old-school keg bitter sector.

Maybe these things naturally rise and fall with the passage of seasons and the gleam and fade of trends, and we shouldn't set too much store by a single years figures.

Or, perhaps, this shit just got real and the days of cask as a mainstream, everyday container for beer are numbered. And, drawn as I may be to the idea of being a smug and superior champion for a minority format, I'd prefer that this wasn't the destiny of my favourite drink.


  1. There's a fundamental problem with cask being niche, though - it needs volume to survive. Whether that volume can be concentrated into a limited number of outlets is highly questionable.

    There's still loads of Boddingtons, Tetley and Worthington smooth bitter being sold, just not in the pubs and clubs you tend to visit.

    1. Quite - and that necessity defines the nature of the niche. It's not going to be like organic foods with a small selection in almost every supermarket or a couple of cask ales in every pub. It's ultimately going to mean far fewer pubs with cask, but those that do have it will specialise in it and serve a substantial range, much like specialist vinyl shops.

      Ironically it might result in a bit of a comeback for mainstream keg bitter brands, if the likes of JDW eventually ditch cask.

    2. I was just thinking along the same lines. Maybe it is better to preserve beer brands in keg form than lose them entirely, and of course keg is sexy again now ;-)

      A surprising number of well-known cask brands are also available in keg form, but you don't tend to see them in pubs, more clubs and hotels.

    3. Good read Ben.

      On Mudgies's last point, Stones, Magnet, Bass and Old Peculier, even that old favourite Jaipur, all seen in keg around Sheffield in last week. And many would pick a slightly inferior cool keg product over the soup masquerading as cask in a significant number of GBG pubs this summer.

  2. Interesting piece but you only refer to releases of 'new music', The big business with records is in the secondhand market which isn't counted in sales statistics. Perhaps we'll see a rise in secondhand beer sales.


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