The emperor’s new clothes?
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Making my way to a table just in front of the bar at my new local, Stockport’s the Magnet, I take a seat and watch a near constant stream of people approach the bar as I sip my pint. The vast majority of these customers – more than 90 per cent at a guess – are ordering meticulously kept, cask-conditioned real ale. Such is its popularity at this family-owned free house that at busy periods it is served across no less than 14 hand pulls. It’s a joy to have a pub like this on my doorstep.
The Magnet is not unique in that it represents how well cask can be presented if it is done properly with a focus on quality, and the high level of throughput required to maintain that standard. In a national sense, however, it’s not an accurate depiction of how the majority of pubs treat real ale. In many cases the quality of the end product can be something of a lottery, and it only takes one disappointing pint to put someone off the category for life.
There are numerous reasons why this is the case, with high staff turnover and lack of proper cellar training among some of the more obvious challenges real ale has to overcome. Low wages are another, as who wants to add extra responsibility to an already busy, tiring job when you’re being paid minimum wage to work 40-plus hours per week? There’s also that word again: quality. Why take a gamble on a locally brewed beer in cask, when you can turn to a tried and trusted keg beer that will probably taste exactly how you’d expect it to?
Nationally, sales of real ale are in decline. According to data provided by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) on-trade sales volumes of cask beer have nearly halved over the past few years, from 15 per cent of the total market in 2015, to 8.6 (according to figures last updated in 2021). I don’t believe this is “the end of cask beer” – there are many examples like the Magnet where it is evidently thriving – but supporters of the category should be concerned.
Producers of real ale are reacting in different ways to ensure their businesses can survive. One example – Devon’s Otter brewery – has even claimed to have developed an entirely new category as a result. Christened Fresh Ale, this recently developed beer is aimed at pub-goers who: “are looking for beer to be slightly cooler than traditional cask ale, flavoursome and gently carbonated”, according to the product’s description on its website.
Digging in to the description a little deeper, it admits that this is a keg beer – not real ale – before explaining how the beer is brewed the same way as Otter’s cask brews but is instead force carbonated at the brewery (instead of being naturally conditioned in a pub cellar). The beer itself is an amber ale, immediately different from the usual line up of pale lagers that grace a typical keg font. Its point-of-sale material is perhaps the smartest element of the idea, with the long, orange tap handle designed to look just like a hand pull, despite actually dispensing beer from a chilled keg.
Otter is bold enough to consider this an entirely new category. But those with reasonably good memories will know that the often-contentious Scottish brewery, BrewDog, released a product to almost the exact same specifications called Live Beer in the summer of 2016. The idea was that, although definitely not cask beer, it would be the closest thing to it within the brewery’s chain of bars. It can’t have been a success because it hasn’t been available for several years. It turns out that if people want to drink real ale, then they will simply go to places where it is actually being served.
Otter’s Fresh Ale is not even close to reinventing the wheel. There are hundreds of small producers up and down the country who produce artisanal keg beers, served at lower levels of carbonation, that cover a full range of beer styles, from stout to pale ale. The kicker here is that very little of this is actually real ale. The difference between Otter and everyone else is that it’s not pretending to be, either.
I’m a believer that real ale's strengths lie in its heritage and tradition, and that the breweries who are still managing to sell it, and make a profit, are those who are leaning as hard as possible into this. For many drinkers, buzzwords like “fresh” will never replace quality and consistency, and the majority of them will either happily continue drinking keg beer, or real ale, with hopefully a few great pints of the latter winning a few converts, one round at a time.
As for Otter’s Fresh Ale, I’d be very surprised if it’s still being served in 18 months' time. It’s all well and good telling consumers you’ve invented a brand-new category, but actually convincing them is another thing entirely. I think I’ll be sticking to lovely pints of cask beer in the meantime.