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!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Will it be COVID that finally kills off cask beer?

With Christmas done and dusted, probably with Arsenic, we're rapidly approaching the death throes of 2020 and at this time of the year, I would usually be thinking 'Golden Pints' and telling you all about my favourite beers.

This time around I shan't bother because I've drunk so little beer this year, what with the pubs having been closed for so much of it and my strong preference being for drinking beer on cask while sitting comfortably in a pub.

But this year, visits to the pub have been - shock, horror! - somewhat thin on the ground (and beer festivals absolutely nonexistent). For what little its worth, my favourite cask pints of the year were Arbor's You may say I'm a dreamer and Mallinson's Shift, but there wasn't a whole lot of competition as there wasn't a whole lot of drinking going on.

I know it's not the same for everyone. I know plenty of people are happy enough drinking cans and bottles at home and given the opportunity to spend more time there, might have actually drunk more than in a typical year.

But that's not me.

And so, I come to the question that's been bothering me for a while now: Is this the end, more or less, of cask beer?!?

 

Trembling Madness

In an uncertain world where pubs don't know if they'll be open from one month to the next - and are sometimes told at extremely short notice to shut their doors to customers - it would be commercially stupid to stock a large range of cask beers, and equally insane for brewers to put lots of beer into cask and send it out into this troubled market.

Better times...

It doesn't apply equally to all beer. With a longer shelf-life, keg beers aren't going to be as affected by the pandemic, and bottled/canned beer even less so. 

The future of the pub and beer industry looks decidedly unrosy, with less beer sold overall, but it is, surely, a particularly difficult turn of events for cask.

Of course real ale will technically survive in some form - the big National brands you see everywhere, and the ultra-tiny garden-shed cask-only producers whose beer you never see anywhere - but I'm wondering if the relatively good times that cask tickers have enjoyed for the past few years are over.

A few years ago I asked 'Is cask beer going the way of vinyl?' and I feel it's a point that hasn't gone away. There are folks out there who for whom vinyl is their preferred medium for listening to music, and yet a lot of the albums they want to listen to aren't released on the format, so they have to go with a digital alternative.

Drinkers like me with a preference for cask ale will generally do the same and plump for a keg, bottled or canned beer in the absence of good cask. We're mostly pragmatic about such things and CAMRA, likewise, has moved to a less-hardline position around the acceptance of non-cask beer. Indeed the new CAMRA stance is arguably an unhelpful one when it comes to the preservation of cask.

I wonder if this short-term pragmatism and 'common sense' is actually playing into the hands of enemies pursuing a long game strategy? 

Even before this year a situation where one had to choose between interesting/tasty beer and cask beer was becoming increasingly common as brewers refused to put their better beers into cask. 

Ripe, one could argue, for the coup de gr√Ęce


So...

Even when we're all vaccinned-up and COVID-free there will likely be several ways in which the world doesn't return to the old normal. And cask beer could be one of them.

Some people who used to go the pub regularly will be a little older, a little more world-weary or a little more dead, and won't go back as often when they reopen.

Some for whom cask used to be their 'go-to' choice will have got used to drinking something else and won't go back to it.

Some pubs and breweries that were looking for an excuse to phase out cask anyway won't be bringing it back. Others will simply be closed.

I hope to God I'm wrong about this, but right now I'm not optimistic.

3 comments:

  1. Cask was getting to the point where fewer and fewer pubs were selling consistently excellent cask but I can't see it going away completely. Maybe a contraction will be a good thing and good cask will be reborn as a premium product rather the price led thing it is now?

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  2. We discussed these issues back in 2018, and I think much of that still holds true. There's likely to be continued attrition of cask availability at both ends of the market - the high-end specialist beer bar and the pub that has a token Doom Bar pump, which lockdowns will accelerate.

    But I don't see it as being in imminent danger of disappearing or anything near as long as the major pub operators continue to see it is a key part of their offer. The day Wetherspoon's drop cask from some of their pubs in England and Wales is the day you *really* need to start worrying.

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  3. I suspect cask beer will go the way of the

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