Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Third Wave

Interesting comment here from Martin on his village local replacing Punk IPA with "a weaker Black Sheep craft keg wannabe." I tried a (presumably) similar thing earlier this week from Greene King - their East Coast IPA, a pleasant enough blonde ale with a some lightly fruity hop flavour sat over a clean malty base. I didn't try Long Man Brewery's Crafty Blonde, which we saw on keg in a hotel bar in Eastbourne a few days earlier, but suspect that I can guess what it'd be like. (The best bitter was drinking well, but that's another story...)

But it's interesting, because these beers seem like a good examples of a new new wave of keg beers that are appearing on the bars of vaguely upmarket real ale pubs. Mostly from traditional family and regional brewers, they range from meek golden ales to full-fledged American pales, although they seldom go far past the magic 5% barrier beyond which lies loopy juice, and while they're often accomplished bits of work, there aren't many of them that'd pass for Beavertown or Magic Rock. There are precedents here in Adnams' Spindrift and the like, but it seems to be over the last couple of years that they've really taken off.

This is class of beer that gets very little attention. The traditionalists would rather talk about proper real ale, the modernists would rather talk about proper craft and the postmodernists want everyone to know they'd rather have a pint of Carlsberg than any of that fancy stuff. Not quite craft, not quite trad, this sort of thing is middlebrow, and doesn't get anyone much excited.

So the interesting question here is who, if anyone, is actually drinking them, and what purpose they serve for the pubs that stock them? For craft geeks - a niche market anyway - they're not really more attractive than cask ale or premium lager, and certainly not enough to tempt you into a pub that you might otherwise avoid. On the other hand, they're hardly a great sell for habitual lager drinkers either, at least not when actual lager is easily available.

Maybe the target market is actually regular cask drinkers, then: people who are under no illusions that this is Proper Craft, the gateway to the exciting world of barrel-aged stouts and lumberjack shirts that they've heard so much about, but who have at least been persuaded by the craft movement that keg beer doesn't actually have to be industrial lager or creamflow John Smiths, and who just at the moment, on a summer evening, actually quite fancy something a bit cold and refreshing. Or maybe - whisper it - who've been bitten by one too many pints of substandard warm-weather cask?

So maybe the old fogeys were right all along, and we really are seeing the return of Watneys Red Barrel - a safe, reliable and reasonably drinkable product that knocks cask off the bars, but it's coming from the real ale stalwarts rather than the new-wave iconoclasts. Or maybe the market just isn't there, and this sort of stuff will never get beyond the odd tap in a few bars.

I guess time will tell.


  1. Surely if they're "accomplished bits of work" they can't really be compared with Red Barrel? John Smith's is more the Red Barrel de nos jours.

    It's also the case that you'll struggle to sell any draught beers over 5% in any volume in mainstream pubs for the simple reason of social functioning. It's not really an irrational fear of loopy juice.

    But I'd agree that it's hard to see where the long-term demand for these products is coming from.

  2. Greene King "craft" is basically just Greene King cask ale sterile filtered and served under 30/70 "nitro" gas. I've tried a few. They range from innocuous to quite bad - the latter I think because they don't sell* so have been sat there on a manky keg system for weeks.

    These breweries are just making "keg ale" of the John Smiths class rather than interesting "craft" beers.

    * The fact according to a couple of GK landlords I know.

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  4. This is quite a perceptive piece. I think you have rightly identified that among all the craft cocnut imperial porter matured in a feta cask with added quinoa, that the old bad habits of the brewers are creeping back. That is, bog standard keg.

    I think too that they may find a niche predominantly in the London area where cask is very miss and miss, though possibly elsewhere.

    I think the Adnams beers are pretty decent and have been known to order it myself, though as a distress purchase.

    Yvan is right too, but the point is wider and he also makes the valid point of manky keg. Often overlooked.

  5. I think they vary from the rather workmanlike to the genuinely quite good (ie Adnams), although even Adnams Mosaic (say) I wouldn't choose over the same beer on cask in good nick. I guess you could also include the occasional Punk font on the same spectrum.

    The Red Barrel comparison was a bit glib - it's not really about genuinely crap beer so much as safe but uninspired beer. The cask market now is very different from the cask market in 1950 anyway - it's more of a positive choice now, so it'd take more for people to abandon it.

  6. Adnams is probably doing "craft"* better than any other large-ish brewer. Their keg is good, albeit lacklustre against the good smaller brewer alternatives**. Mosaic suffers from being filtered - a "problem" I am aware they are working on fixing. Cask (well kept) is always the better choice. Dry Hopped Lager is enjoyable enough, but lacks any real lager-like qualities and just comes across as a low-flavour session pale ale. That said I will drink (and even enjoy) both of them without complaint.

    * To be using the term in is businessy market-sector way.

    ** I had to go back and add the "good" there, more and more my experience is that there is a lot of _really_ bad keg about now - like cans, the other latest fad, the format is no silver bullet. Crap beer is still crap beer. It'd be crap in cask and bottle, it's still crap in keg and can. IMO keg "came back" at microbrewery scale driven by a few key brewers seeking better quality and presentation of more US styled beers - but now it is of course developing into a standard full-on free-market bunfight, I'm being offered plenty of dead cheap keg across the last 6 months or so (albeit still more £ litre-for-litre vs same brewers in cask). Stick a standard golden ale in keg, call it "Session IPA" and Bob's your uncle - even Woodforde's have done it now.

  7. "I think too that they may find a niche predominantly in the London area where cask is very miss and miss, though possibly elsewhere."

    I won't disagree on London cask (generally), but I think this "meh" craft keg landscape is a bit different in the capital vs other parts of the country.

    Your unadventurous London pubs (with dodgy cask) have long since had Meantime beers and mass roll-out of Pilsner Urquell to premiumise their offer. London was an early adopter, here.

    Camden offers a middle ground. Hells feels ubiquitous in London now as the Route One "will this do?" as a craft offer. (Unfiltered Hells is a very good beer indeed.)

    Beyond that, anyone wanting to make a genuine effort will stock Five Points, Fourpure or Beavertown - which may sound super craft, but Londoners regard these as local champions and (lest we forget), their biggest selling beers are far from esoteric.

    The regional breweries' London outlets may be pouring this stuff but I very seldom see the Adnams keg lines, say, compared to outside the smoke.

  8. I think there's two areas where this kind of beer works.

    One is in establishments that are keg only - whether through limited ambition, limited cellar skills or irregular trade (Red Barrel was original aimed at golf clubs, tennis clubs etc where there was no throughput during the week). For instance, I was at a sports stadium recently that is firmly tied to Heineken. First bar we went to had a choice of Amstel or Strongbow, but later one I was quite grateful to find one that had a wider range that included one of the Caley APA-ish things. It may not have been great, but it was much more my thing than Amstel.

    The other market is the kind of pub where you have regulars drinking trad cask during the week, but which gets visited by the middle classes seeking food at weekends. Mr salaryman does most of his drinking at home, in the form of Punk & Vocation in the weekly delivery from Sainsburys/Waitrose so he's got a bit of a taste for grapefruit juice, and he occasionally gets to go to the full-service craft bar in town with the boys after work. But neither of those really work when he wants to take the missus out for dinner on Saturday night or the missus + kids to Sunday lunch.

    The trouble is that those kind of punters want something a bit more interesting that typical brown/pale cask, but they don't go to the pub enough to justify a dedicated cask line. Keg APA is ideal - they're prepared to pay premium lager prices, the pub makes a decent margin and has one more string to its bow without chucking beer down the drain.

    It's different in city centres where the more sophisticated punter has a ton of options for feeding the missus whilst drinking half decent beer, far less so out in the provinces.

  9. My first reaction is one of wonder at a village local ever having had Punk on draught. That doesn't happen in any of the villages around here! Although I am lucky enough to have a couple of really good pubs locally that support local microbreweries and keep their beer very well.

    I do come across GK East Coast IPA from time to time. The first time I saw it I choose it out of curiosity and three desire to Untap a new beer. As far as I'm concerned it is a fairly decent beer; not anything special or exciting but perfectly drinkable. Recently I was at a wedding party in a hotel which was offering Old Speckled Hen, John Smith's, and East Coast IPA, all on keg. Given that selection the East Coast IPA was a good choice for me.

    I'm not surprised that nobody is talking about them much; in just the same way that Top Gear never reviewed the latest Ford Fiesta. Obviously there is a market for these 'craft' beers at the moment though. Probably a mixed demographic including people who sometimes see them as the best thing on offer in a particular bar and people who are moving away from macro lager or macro keg bitter because of the current fashion for craft.

    Something that I find interesting is that these beers seem to be coming only from the regional breweries. In Ireland there is the Cute Hoor range, which is similar, produced by Heineken. I wonder how long it will be before we see 'craft' keg from the largest breweries in the UK?