Wednesday 26 August 2015

So Long and Thanks for all the Fish

Back in April 2011 I tipped Buxton Brewery for great things. Since then they have crept slowly but surely up the ladder of British brewing and have in fact increased the pace of recognition and gained the approval of many drinkers.  I particularly like it when I come across them expectantly at the bar and always order them when I see them.  Seems though I won't see much of them in the future. Well not in cask conditioned form anyway.

A rumour has been going the rounds for a little while that Buxton were to cease production of cask beer in favour of keykeg and bottles and yesterday it became apparent that apart from the Brewery Tap and selected (unstated) "special events" that cask beer production, which has already been scaled down, will cease from September. Bad news for cask drinkers who like a pint of their beers from a handpump.

Buxton go on to state on their Facebook Page the reasons for doing so:
  • Overwhelming customer demand for other formats - bottle and keg.
  • Customer feedback.
  • Quality control.
  • Cask losses and theft.
  • A depressed cask market place flooded with poor to average cask beer, sold cheap.
Dissecting this a little I conclude that the "demand" for other formats is more profitable and that they are being "forced" out of some markets because of the flood of cheap beer from breweries that aren't nearly as good, but which sell at a much lower price. Is this the inevitable result of too many breweries seeking too few outlets and a disregard for quality over price? It certainly looks like it.  There can be little doubt that with over 1400 breweries seeking a market, that some will cut not only prices, but quality corners to get on the bar.  There may well be more of this in various scenarios yet to come, as surely the number of breweries is approaching unsustainability, at least in certain areas? Nonetheless this is the market and many breweries compete successfully in this area and service demands for beer in any format.

The issue of cask theft, like the poor has always been with us, though again many other breweries seem to cope with this and while I for one won't argue about quality control,  it seems to me a bit flimsy, in that Buxton by definition and examination of their own reasons for ceasing cask, surely won't be selling it down to a price in outlets that exist on that business model and where a quality pint isn't guaranteed? 

Buxton go on to say:

"We love cask beer, and the great traditions of British brewing that surround it. It's where we started, with Buxton SPA in 2008, which we still brew and is a great beer to drink on cask. Our wish is to continue presenting beer in cask, but in a way that we can have 100% control over it." 

Well I guess if you want 100% control over cask then yes, just sell it in your own pubs. Or pub in this case, but of course that raises two fingers to those that have loyally supped Buxton beers on handpump these last years.  They'll have to put up with a much different product, served in a much different way at a much higher price.  Or hop on a train to Buxton I suppose? If you really love cask and think that highly of it, then you'd find another way, maybe by selling only to well chosen outlets and to a supply chain that will ensure that cask losses are kept to a minimum.  I don't know where they've been selling it that it ends up so poor. That doesn't quite hang together for me.  Now of course I'm a cask beer bar through and through, so I would be unhappy about this of course, but I rather doubt that I'm the only one. Loss of these fine traditional beers is unlikely to be met with universal approval.  Thankfully not all of the nearly 1400 brewers brew bad beer, so there will be plenty of decent replacements, even if sometimes loss of other beers is recalled with regret. In the end of course the financial aspects of their business are down to Buxton and I would never blame a business for going down the "it makes more money route."  I'd just be a lot happier if they simply said "Keykeg and bottles are more profitable and are easier for us. Sorry".  Expressing crocodile tears over abandoning cask helps no-one really.

Is there not too, a certain irony that in retaining cask beer at the Brewery Tap, no doubt that those that brew it and those that made the decision will still be happily supping cask beer after work? Seems a little like rubbing noses in it.

At least I was right in predicting success. Pity it had to end up like this and oddly unfitting surely that the Buxton statement is illustrated by a photo of a handump dispensing Buxton Cask Beer.


Barm said...

I’m surprised this sort of thing isn’t happening more. Wouldn’t every brewery like to see their beer selling for £5 a pint rather than £3 a pint? Wouldn’t every brewery like to be competing against 40 other keg beers instead of 500 other cask beers? Makes life much easier.

Curmudgeon said...

I wonder whether "rotating guest beer syndrome" is partly to blame for this. If a pub has a constantly changing range of cask ales from a large number of breweries, it's difficult for any individual brewery to command a price premium through brewing better beer.

DaveS said...

Personally I'd be quick to go for a pub that tends to have good rotating guest beers over one that has crap rotating guest beers, though. Maybe it'd take a bit longer to twig than if they had the same crap beers all the time, although tbh plenty of places seem to do well on that business plan, too...

I'd blame it more on the (related) thing of phrases like "independent local microbrewery" and "seventeen handpumps" (and "real ale", come to that) having been used approvingly in Greater CAMRA-land to the extent that a big range of real ales from local micros will do solid business for a pub even if very few of them are actually any good. How many times have you heard people get really excited about a brewpub because "they brew their own beers, you know", only to find that they're basically incompetent at it? And hence that there's very little incentive for pubs to pay top dollar for the beers that get self-declared connoisseurs like us excited when they can get plenty of people turning out by stocking whatever's cheap locally.

Maybe I'm just projecting my own prejudices, but I suspect that this is another case where CAMRA would do well to focus a bit more on promoting quality over quantity.

NB, if you want to extrapolate from this to the possible long term effects of people getting excited about pale, hoppy canned / keg beer from social-media savvy small breweries regardless of whether the beer's any good or not then I'm not going to stop you...

Edd said...

I'm not surprised Buxton are switching to keg, the easiest way to get hold of their beer is to buy it by the pallet, which inevitably means they'll struggle to get the casks returned. Buxton stopped selling directly to pubs in the region a while back, preferring to use a middle man, thus artificially raising their own prices, distancing them from the publicans and customers, and the feedback you get with it.

As a pub manager I'm happy to pay a premium for good beer and I know my customers are too, not just on keg, on cask as well. Just sounds like excuses from Buxton I'd say.

Herdwick said...

Gutted re Buxton - they are on my top quality cask brewers list.

Here in West Yorks we are spoilt rotten for good cask.

DaveS - in an increasing number of freehouses, both in here and further afield, we find ourselves scanning a range of pump clips from new-ish microbreweries - most of which we have tried once and vowed never again
- and walking straight out.

Frankly it beats me how many of these beers get any repeat custom at all. You couldn't pay me to drink some of the stuff.

Erlangernick said...

It's grim up north.

Phil said...

Damn shame about Buxton. I first came across them at a MTB/tap takeover at a JDW's, of all places - they can't have been so anxious about their margins back then.

I've been to the Buxton Tap but didn't stay long - very pricey, too much so in the case of the food. Odd to find high prices at a brewery tap - odd and a bit cheeky, you might say. It was busy enough, to be fair.

py said...

I honestly wasn't even aware they did cask. Only ever see them in bottles or on keg down south. Their beer seems designed for keg.

Stonch said...

This is sad. Really sad. Just shows that this craft beer revolution thing really does have its downsides. So what we've seen created is a new, frankly overpriced, market segment: small brewery craft keg. The brewery charges more, the customer pays more. The pub often takes a squeeze on its margins at the same time, I mignt add - you have to pull back from applying the same level of GP% you would on cask because the price point would just be too scary.

This isn't ideal because the small breweries already get compensated for their apparent lack of market access and for their lack of true economy of scale v. big brewers: they have goodwill piled on them by consumers, who do part of their marketing for them via social media etc; and they're compensated for their lack of efficiency due to small size by one of the most generous progressive beer duty regimes in Europe (and one that's skewed toward truly small producers far more than the German system).

Can't blame them for wanting an ever higher return on their investment, but there needs to be more push back from consumers and pubs on this. If craft brewers really did enter the market because of their love of it and a desire to "change the world one pint at a time" (as they love telling us), maybe they need to wind their necks in on their expectations of profit.

(I typed this out fast off top of head so might contain typos and word clash but hopefully will make sense)

Tandleman said...

Makes perfect sense. The problem is surely though that the market at the top end isn't one that can expand forever? How many mugs out there are there that will pay £8+ a pint or whatever?

I would argue (and observe) too that the reduced beer duty and goodwill are being jammed back up the customer's arse by price gouging. Great if you are changing the world one pint at a time? You betcha.

At least these guys, no matter how they dress up what they do, are good brewers. Does that make it better or worse? Worse probably as they built their reputation and goodwill on cask.

Tandleman said...

py: Even they say that's how they started. Interesting what Edd says.

DaveS said...

Re the last couple of comments, the obvious question to ask is why so many mediocre breweries are wasting time trying to undercut each other on £60-a-cask ale when they could just bung in a few more hops, pick up a keg filling machine on ebay and rake in the moolah by cranking out masses of "craft keg" to publicans who like the idea of craft keg but not the prices.

py said...

I wonder if it costs them any more to put a beer in keg than it does to put a beer in cask.

If they are making more money selling keg and bottle beer, and there is enough demand for it to keep their brewery at capacity, then they'd be mugs not to.

Obviously the push back has to come from consumers. If you think £6 is too much for a pint, don't buy it. Eventually both the brewery will have to cut their prices and/or the pub will cut their margins.

As I've said before, using a target GP% to set prices is incompetent management. Whether its common practice or not, its still fucking stupid.

Rob Nicholson said...

I've walked the 14 miles over the hills from Bollington to Buxton with friends three times in the past two years and we've always seeked out the Buxton Tap. However on the last visit at Easter this year we was disappointed in the beer range and this maybe explains it. There was only one cask beer under 5% on the bar and the other two were far too strong. I seemed to recall the keg beers also been pretty strong. We needed our thirst quenching after a stiff walk - not to sip on a strong beer.

So unlike previously when we've stayed there for several hours, we had some food (which was fine) and moved on. To the excellent 53 Degrees North up the hill. There is also a new micro bar there which we missed last time.

It's possible that we may even miss out the tap next time. I'm certainly not of a mind to dally there...

Whilst I think cask & keg can get on very nicely together, this does smack of being done for purely financial reasons. As Tandy says, no problem with this just don't hide behind other excuses.

Ben Viveur said...

Did somebody look at Brewdog's balance sheet since 2011 and think 'Me too'?

Camden did the same thing, of course, while Beavertown seem to be going the same way. Buxton will be a loss to the cask scene, and the emerging trend is rather worrying.

What if it's Thornbridge or Ilkley next?

Select all images with pies said...

Who cares, really? I don't care what it comes out of so long as it's good beer. Most cask is flavourless dross anyway, so no great loss.