In Britain: Cask Ale v. Craft

Last night, I was at Boulder Beer for a book event, and I had an interesting chat with brewmaster David Zuckerman. He'd recently been to England and was startled by the amount of American-style ale he found. (Quick and dirty definition: stronger, many more hops.) Like me, he loves a 3.8% bitter, and was concerned that these beers are slowly being put out to pasture in favor of what the English call "craft beer." These are makers of what looks a lot like the standard American taplist, including non-English styles (which Americans love) like saisons, strong stouts, wild ales, and full-flavor lagers. They sell these, controversially, in bottles and kegs, like Americans do; there's even a term of art called the "craft keg" which has been the subject of heated debate.  All of this has injected a huge amount of excitement into the British beer market, and beer geeks in the cities regard old-school cask like something grandpa drank. So, if you're like David and me and enjoy grandpa's old cask bitter, is this cause for worry?

By happy coincidence, London writer Pete Brown just announced the release of the latest Cask Ale Report. The story it tells is more complex than you might imagine, but it leaves me feeling hopeful. The most important piece of context in understanding British beer is recognizing that the vast, vast majority of it is mass market lager. Ales were supplanted a generation ago in their native country, and most Brits drink the same crap the rest of us do. So instead of thinking of things in terms of craft versus cask, it's worth considering ales versus lagers. Craft and cask have a lot more in common with each other than either has in common with Stella Artois and Carlsberg. According to the report, cask accounts for just 17% of sales in pubs, and if you add keg ale into the mix, it goes up to between 25-30%.

The fascinating part of the report illustrates that the lines between craft and cask aren't actually as clean as we imagine. Pete Brown:
Cask ale and craft beer are not the same - and neither are they totally separate. There's a significant overlap between the two.

Avoiding the torture of trying to DEFINE craft beer, it's possible to look at beers on a beer by beer, style by style basis and say 'that one is definitely craft' and 'that one definitely isn't'. Among everyone obsessed with trying to define craft, it;s hard to imagine anyone arguing that, say, Magic Rock High Wire is not a craft beer, or that John Smith's Smoothflow is craft beer. So by looking at the market one brand at a time, analysts CGA Strategy have compiled (an admittedly subjective) list based on ingredients, beer styles and brewers so that craft can be measured even if it can't be defined. With me? Good. On that basis, we can show that:

  • Craft beer has grown by 533% in five years and now accounts for 8% of total on-trade ale
  • Cask ale is by far the biggest format of craft beer
Much as in the US, this nebulous category of "craft brewing" has been great for the beer industry. It's appealed to young people, brought a new population to beer, and helped create all those downstream positives like fests, good beer pubs, and interest among chefs and good restaurants. If you look at a company like Fuller's, you see how craft has help transform their line of beers, giving them a chance to dabble in styles the old cask fans would never have appreciated. And that in turn has helped goose sales for traditional cask breweries willing to expand their horizon.

The other thing you're seeing is cask, the dispense-system, being appropriated by craft breweries as a platform for other types of beer. Until a decade ago, "cask ale" wasn't a term that pointed only to a method of brewing and dispense, but styles. Cask meant the same five styles of beer that have been brewed for generations. Pete didn't make predictions about the future, but his report hints at evolving trends. Here in the US, we've already seen that the term "craft" is rapidly losing any meaning. If ales continue to claw back market share from mass market lagers in Britain, I suspect the distinction between craft and keg will also lose any meaning. You'll have good beer, sometimes served on keg and sometimes served on cask. And then you'll have generic mass market lagers.

Beer has been evolving since the Sumarians first made it 8,000 years ago, and it is in a moment of rapid change. Sometimes that means beloved beer styles fall by the wayside. (RIP jopenbier!) Maybe mild ale will be a casualty as British palates look for stronger, more flavor-forward ales. But I suspect there will always be a market for sessionable cask ales in English pubs.