Cask ales from smaller producers are enjoying an ongoing strong period of growth, which has led to a dramatic increase in the number of brewers.
The Good Beer Guide for 2013 showed the number of brewers in the UK had surpassed 1,000 representing a significant increase on the lows the UK reached in the 1970s.
Such has been the increase in the number of brewers that the market (i.e. pubs) is finding it hard to consume the myriad beers they are producing. The number of hand-pumps available in your regular pub to serve cask ale and the number of customers able to consume the beer – within the tight time-frame that it remains fresh – is finite.
Pubs renowned for their beer selections are being bombarded by new brewers offering their wares. The likes of Draft House (with five outlets in London) are among the pub companies swamped by requests from brewers to stock their beers.
Paddy Johnson, co-owner and brewer at Windsor & Eton Brewery (W&EB), knows the problem all too well as distribution of his beers is coming under pressure, with pubs increasingly tempted to give the latest new kid on the block’s beers a go – at the expense of W&EB ales.
His answer is to attack another part of the market – keg beers. These are the long-life equivalent of cask ale, with CO2 giving the beers long shelf life and a freshness from the carbonation.
In your typical pub there will be more keg dispensing fonts on the bar than hand-pulls that serve big brand goods – namely lagers, ciders and Guinness. Until now these fonts have been no-go zones for smaller brewers as customers and pub owners have been largely fine with the status quo of Fosters, Carling, Strongbow and Heineken maintaining a clamp-like grip on them.
But such has been the increased interest in beers from the smaller operators that they have felt confident enough to attack the keg market of the big boys and potentially grab the prime retail land of fonts on the bar.
And they are not scared to take them on in their own back yards with lagers. They are producing much authentic brews than those of the large global operators. Johnson for one is significantly boosting production of his Republika lager.
He has recognised that for his brewery the future is not just cask ale but also keg and a serious investment is being made at his brewery to produce lager and potentially other keg products. Others having tied their flag to the keg mast are Camden Town Brewery, Brewdog and to some extent Magic Rock Brewery.
As with the retail industry the brewing sector is undergoing a period of dramatic change and there is no longer a belief from the smaller players that they have to adhere to the rules of the existing hierachy. And the customers quite like the taste of this change.