Jason Caddy dusts off the DRAM file marked ‘Beers’ and takes a look at the impact of craft beers on the market.
A decade ago Madonna no less was routinely snapped, pint of Timothy Taylor in hand, and the world braced itself for a cask ale revival. But even the Mistress of Reinvention couldn’t mesmerise the masses into abandoning lager, leaving Real Ale stuck with the stuffy, beer-bellied, purist image that had dogged it for aeons.
But there’s a new and exciting weave of interest in the category and, although from a relatively small base, the cask/craft beer market in Scotland is growing by a mightily impressive 31%, says the Cask Ale Report 2010/11.
Cask accounted for 12.4% of the total on-trade beer category in the UK in 2009, up 11.6% in 2008.
It would be too easy to lay the credit for this at the door of Scotland’s headline-grabbing Brewdog chain. It fancies itself as a bit of a David throwing down the gauntlet to CAMRA’s Goliath, and whether this is just a lot of hype is frankly irrelevant. What does matter is that it’s further stimulated discussion in Cask, as the category continues to excite the interest of a hell of a lot of drinkers who hitherto would rather have licked flies off a number plate than sample a Real Ale.
The Brewdog ‘brand attitude’ has borrowed much from its American ancestors – the breweries across the West Coast which make up much of the richly diverse American beer market. When America sneezes it’s not long before we in the UK catch the cold, and we here in Scotland have already got the sniffles. Yet there still seems to be some confusion, even among real ale aficionados, as to the differences between cask and craft. Most people I spoke to agree it’s one and the same, and whether one is a subset of the other or vice versa, is neither here nor there. Both have common interests, that of heritage, provenance and a niche quality. Although what definitely sets craft apart, and give it an edge in the current climate, is its maverick quality. You wouldn’t get a Cask called ‘Arrogant Bastard’ but this craft beer does exist.
This undoubtedly appeals to the Jackass Generation – the Channel Four American TV import that encouraged extreme and daredevil stunts. It was full of surfer dudes, all in good shape, yet session drinkers at the same time, and there were beards, but a distinct lack of beer bellies. A world away from the traditional CAMRA devotee. They also took seriously the threat to climate change, and the ethical implications of global brands, concentrating on a back to basics approach. The Report stresses, “Like it or not, image is everything. Cask ale and cask ale drinkers have traditionally been painted in a less than flattering light by the mainstream media, as old men in flat caps, or bearded eccentrics with questionable dress sense. These things matter: image conscious younger drinkers could be put off if they think drinking cask ale would make others associate them with these stereotypes. But every bit of evidence suggests that in the real world, these stereotypes have simply faded away”
The most dramatic difference to the world now compared to ten years ago is the rise of social media. The likes of Facebook and Twitter have played their part in spreading the word. The report says the impact on cask ale has already been huge, with ‘Wine and Beer’ blogs allowing people to kick about ideas, talk up new products and compare tasting notes. More significantly, much of this activity happens in real time with 37% of people accessing the internet via their mobile phone.
The global recession is the other notable difference, with 27% of Britons saying that they are more likely to buy British since the recession. It says, “Anything that describes itself as ‘craft’ is booming: baking, bread making, knitting, paper craft and cooking are all prospering. The global boom in craft brewing is part of this trend towards simple quality, away from mass-market standardization.”
What has been carved out is an environment where innovation has been encouraged to flourish. Frank Murphy of the Clockwork Beer Company in Glasgow, a pub and a small brewery, is keen to point out that established micro-breweries in Scotland have been influenced, even indirectly, by what has been happening across the Pond. He says, “Glasgow’s first Beer Week, which happened over the summer, drummed up a lot of interest from both young and old. We tried a couple of new riffs on our regular beers that we named Herb Garden. For example, adding vanilla pods to stout and lemongrass to Amber. It was great to get the feedback that we did and I sit on the
Beer and Brewing Committee for the Scottish Parliament, and we are lobbying to have the festival in other Scottish cities, too.”
Paul McDonagh, owner of Glasgow’s Bon Accord sells gallons of the stuff and is quick to highlight some of the best Scotland has to offer. “There’s a real buzz about the cask ale in Scotland right now. I’d say that the top four breweries are Fine Ales, The Houston Beer Co. which has just won a Gold at the Great Britain Beer Festival for Peters Well, Inveralmond in Perthshire and The Highland Brewery in Orkney.”
Licensees are also reporting that customers from different walks of life are showing more of an interest in the category. And there’s a lot to be said for having a point of difference. “We are a real ale pub but Black Isle organic lager is doing really well,” says Lauren O’Loan from Edinburgh’s Blue Blazer. “It’s not just fizzy and wet. It has a lot more flavour and people come in especially for it. Tourists also love it because it’s organic and Scottish, and there are a lot more women drinking it too.”
I could talk about craft until the cows come home but we do have to look at what else is happening in the beer market, beginning with new brands launched across the category.
Red Nectar is from this month now available in Wetherspoon pubs across the country. The award-winning beer, brewed in California, is a bit of a coup, in that this is the first time the beer has been available in the UK.
Molson Coors has launched a beer squarely aimed at the female market called ‘Animee’, which launched last month. The brewer hopes that the lavish marketing and the fact that it has a low ABV will mean that it will eschew the laddish image that seems to follow beer around. Will this work? Perhaps it will ride the crest of this wave and succeed where Madonna failed.
Summer Creek from the Copper Dragon Brewery in Yorkshire will be available to stock in Scotland’s bars at the beginning of next month. It follows hot on the heels of limited edition ales Ozwat and Conqueror.
The other big news is that Belhaven has also launched its first new permanent cask ale in a while, Belhaven IPA.
Belhaven’s Head Brewer George Howell says, “Consumers are buying in to the fresh, natural and crafted nature of cask ale. As cask is one thing drinkers cannot get at home, it gives the pub an excellent way to attract more people down to their local.”