Despite a significant drop in sales in 2018, passion for cask ale is being reignited across the industry with the likes of BrewDog and Cloudwater re-entering the fray, writes Jessica Mason. It might have an old-school image, but beer with a natural sparkle and live flavour fits with modern lifestyle trends for conscientious consumption
If you read last year's Cask Report, the idea that we are on the precipice of a cask revival might seem slightly off kilter. While overall beer sales in pubs and bars declined by 1.6% in volume last year, MAT figures to July 2018 from the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) showed that cask was down 6.8%. A startling drop by any standards.
However, the report identified that it is mostly traditional amber beers seeing a decline, whereas golden craft (which includes some cask) are up by 22%, showing that there are opportunities for cask to be revived – especially via modern brewers. And despite having been around for years, cask has finally begun to crop up in conversations.
'The renewed love for cask beer has been a by-product of beer culture that increasingly demands better knowledge about what goes into everything we consume. Transparency is becoming ever-more important,' says James Watt, co-founder at Brewdog, which announced in November that it's reinstating its cask offering after a 10-year break.
This means that cask ale as a dispense method, being fresh and naturally carbonated, offers the virtues that lots of people are seeking. But there’s more good news – cask is becoming ever more exciting, flavoursome and stylistically broad.
Paul Jones, managing director of Cloudwater, which also made a return to cask last Autumn, says now is a great time to 'have a damn good look around and discover beers out there that maybe haven’t poured at your premises'.
'Look for Redemption’s Trinity or Big Chief, Burning Sky’s Arise or Plateau, Magic Rock’s Simpleton, or Wylam’s Jakehead – there are some phenomenal [cask] beers out there. I think it’s a great time to look at them again and see the true variety that’s on offer.'
Mark Tranter, head brewer at Burning Sky, points out that cask is a craft that many brewers admire Britain for mastering.
'So many of the brewers I respect from around the globe eulogise about UK cask beer – Frank Boon, Pierre Tilquin, Yvan de Baets, Kelly Ryan, Doug Odell, John Hall, Garrett Oliver,” says Tranter, reeling off some of the world’s best beer masters.
Does this make cask ale a discerning drinks choice? Hell yes.
One of the major issues with cask, according to the Cask Report, is that 58% of publicans put cask on sale before the recommended three-days of cellar conditioning. Cask quality needs to be revered. For this very reason, Brewdog's move back into cask coincides with its acquisition of Draft House, allowing it to better monitor quality and ensure staff keep a good cellar.
Breweries without estates don’t have that assurance, so there needs to be a heightened focus from all corners of the trade to educate staff and consumers about cask ale.
'It’s really important for the future of cask beer to have a number of different custodians,' says Jones, who previously removed cask from Cloudwater's remit due to margins and quality, but is now keen to revive the format. He says we need to keep talking, because, if we don’t, nothing will change. To be a part of the change, he insists, you have to be involved.
'It’s great to be back in making cask beer ourselves and also to be back in the conversations about what its quality standards really ought to be from a brewer’s perspective, rather than from an enthusiast’s perspective – I think that’s really important.'
Modern beer in a traditional format
One reason for the decline in cask has been its failure to attract younger drinkers. 'It’s wallpaper to millennials, who just think that’s what the generation before me drank,' Richard Yarnell, beer & cider category manager at M&B, recently told Imbibe. So the cask-ale revival will most likely involve modern beer styles inching in on territory that has historically been reserved for traditional family brewers. This is where cask will get its cool. It will also highlight the diversity of beer.
'Cask beer might be traditional, but it doesn’t have to be boring or resistant to experimentation,' says Watt. 'On the contrary, the future of cask beer will depend on how willing brewers are to break from tradition and push the boundaries of what cask beer is expected to be.'
Jones adds that a lot of traditional breweries up and down the country are 'complete pros and legends' within cask beer, even if they’re not turning their hands to more modern beer styles. 'I think something of a hybrid offering from us really ought to diversify what cask beer is and what it could be in the future.'
Wild Card's head Brewer Jaega Wise, who recently won the title of Brewer of the Year, will be relaunching its cask-beer offering next year. However, she stresses that it will be on the brewery's terms, reminding how modern brewers are reiterating cask’s relevance, but are not willing to bow to outdated stereotypes.
'Cask beer’s future is undoubtedly brighter when modern breweries play their part in defining what it is and what its qualities and standards ought to be,' insists Jones. But the future is here and the trend is already in motion – as Tranter reminds: 'Now is the time to drink it.'