Cloudbusting – Unpacking Cloudwater’s Decision to Drop Cask Beer

Words & Photo - Matthew Curtis

Late last night Cloudwater founder Paul Jones posted a typically frank and honest piece on the brewery’s blog. The 7000-word piece reviewed what appears to have been a highly successful 2016 for the Manchester based company, as it nears completion of its second trading year. The brewery has experience a 44% growth in volume year on year and with new tanks in place it expects that to increase a further 128% in 2017 to around 12,000hl. With its growth following a pattern similar to breweries such as Beavertown, Magic Rock and Fourpure it demonstrates what appears to be a very healthy sector of the beer industry.

There is an immense amount of information to unpack in Jones’ article. Not least it demonstrates how far they’ve come since I had an article about Cloudwater published on Good Beer Hunting this time last year. The tone of Jones' post and the information contained within is something that deserves to be talked about. It’s not just transparent, it demonstrates an incredible level of both calm and confidence to be able to talk publicly about the intricacies involved in running a business such as his. Transparency like this is helping other brewers to talk about their own businesses in the same way. This is incredibly important, as it will help business owners shift away from the perceived model they think they should be following. In short, it will stimulate a conversation that keeps the industry healthy.

Another key point is the move away from bottles, bar the occasional special release in a 750ml package. Cloudwater, like many brewers in the UK right now, are investing heavily in canning equipment. It also plans to pack in 440ml cans, which mirrors the trend for larger cans in the US. With Fourpure and Magic Rock already opting for larger 500ml cans and Northern Monk allegedly moving to 440ml cans this year, this is indicative of a wider trend. This is going to be the summer of big cans. Plus I’m sure a line of new breweries is already forming to bite Jones’ arm off when that Meheen bottling line goes up for sale.

The biggest talking point in the lengthy piece however, is the breweries decision to cease the production of cask beer altogether. Personally, I think this is very bad news and part of a larger trend that should worry the consumer. I can’t blame Cloudwater though, because as Jones’ post honestly says, he is looking for his business to turn a profit in 2017 and the current market conditions will not allow it to do that based on its current output. In his shoes I would (grudgingly) make the same decision.

A brewery making the decision to focus solely on keg for its draught offering is not a new trend, it’s the fact that it continues to happen which makes it worrying. Who can forget when BrewDog abandoned its cask offering in 2011, or Camden Town in the same year, Beavertown in 2012 and Buxton in 2015? Cloudwater’s decision somehow feels even more significant because Manchester is one of the nations cask ale heartlands. I can imagine that many of the brewery's customers who only drink cask will feel a little cheated.

It’s important to look at the many reasons why Cloudwater has made this huge choice - for it's one that will mark the direction it travels in for years to come. The first of these is one of the biggest elephants in the room, price. Jones states in the post that “traditional price points remain an increasingly compromising norm.” Put simply, cask beer wasn’t making the brewery any money and in order to reach that huge growth target and push the business into profit they need to switch to keg and can only. That’s the cold, hard, truth – money. The reasons behind the decision should be as simple as that but Paul Jones is not a traditional cold, hard businessman.

Time is another big factor here. When you have a small team you can save a great deal of time by sending beer out of the brewery in one-way containers such as cans and Keykegs. You can’t do that with cask beer. Casks need to be washed, fresh beer needs to be racked before it leaves the brewery and on occasion staff will need to chase down those casks to ensure they eventually get back to the brewery. Time is any businesses most valuable resource – although surely any brewery truly committed to cask beer is willing to invest it.

Perception is the other factor at play here. Cloudwater was producing the kind of cask beer that its brewers wanted to drink - modern, flavourful and at times hazy beer. Much of the cask market, especially outside of metropolitan areas will simply not tolerate haze in its beer. There needs to be considerable time and consumer education done to help customers realise that not all haze is bad haze. However this will not change overnight because some of the hazy beer in the market is genuinely terrible and it only takes one bad pint to convince a drinker of this permanently.

However, perception will change over time and breweries that are truly dedicated to producing brilliant cask beer will continue to do so. As Jones states in the post this is not the direction that the beer Cloudwater makes is heading in. He is making a big call to take his business in the direction he wants it to and no single person should call him out on his choice based on this alone. Right now there is still plenty of incredible cask beer being produced by Manchester breweries such as Track, Tickety Brew and Blackjack to name a few. Check your cask privilege if you think otherwise.

Price, as ever, is a huge problem and it comes back to the pervasive discount culture that has blighted the traditional ale market. Huge regionals can compete via the economy of scale, small micros can sustain themselves in a tightly knit local market that sees rapid turnover. Cloudwater, which on its current path will eventually become a regional itself, will always struggle compete with both of these markets at the same time. Sometimes it’s better to cut the cord completely rather than continue to try and scramble in both directions.

The market conditions are not going to change, at least not in the short term. CAMRA has a great deal of responsibility here but its responsibility is not to breweries – it is a consumer organisation and its responsibility is to its membership. That includes campaigning for good beer at fair prices for its members. It does however have significant industry influence and could use this influence to gradually change market perception and help breweries make more margin on cask beer.

Despite that, with this not being its MO, I simply can't see it happening. The trend of modern breweries abandoning cask certainly prove however, that the Campaign is far from being won. CAMRA could add new relevance to its efforts by supporting modern brewers of cask ale through consumer education. Putting a scheme such as this into action could be a key part of its ongoing revitalisation. Although I would estimate that it would take a major UK cask brewer such as Adnams or St. Austell abandoning cask to catalyse it into action. Cloudwater dropping cask will likely only register as a tiny blip on its radar, despite the Greater Manchester branches being some of the most proactive and vociferous within the organisation. 

If CAMRA can’t take responsibility for brewers deciding to abandon cask beer within the industry itself then surely that duty falls at the feet of SIBA – a true industry-facing organisation. However SIBA’s aims are to ensure that its members remain profitable and the industry healthy. For many brewers that could mean abandoning cask beer if, like Cloudwater, it just isn’t making any money.

The true responsibility then, lies with the consumer and the choices we make. If you want to ensure the safety of cask beer in the UK then do so with the pounds in your pocket. The harsh truth is that maybe much of the cask beer in the UK is being sold far too cheaply and in order for cask beer to be completely safe then consumer perception around the price of a pint must change. Sadly I fear we are a generation away from this actually happening, more modern breweries will cease to sell beer in cask and cask beer will continue to suffer as a result.