Controversy is following cask ale of late. Brewers, fans and critics have all condemned the rise of substandard pints in pubs, as well as the fact much of the trade is selling the beverage too cheaply.
In his column for this magazine some months ago, beer writer Pete Brown outlined these issues. But that is not to say the cask debate was not rumbling on before Brown spoke out. Prior to the piece, Manchester brewery Cloudwater announced it would no longer produce cask ale, citing quality at the bar and price as the main issues.
The debate was followed with great interest by Marston’s managing director Richard Westwood, who is first to admit Brown’s sentiment in his column was “spot on”.
In Marston’s Burton-on-Trent visitors’ centre, with the brewer’s and pubco’s microbrewery DE14 purring away in the background, Westwood’s opinions on the burning issues faced by the segment are refreshingly realistic.
He is suited and booted, having just met with the company’s chairman earlier that morning, and evidently passionate about the sector he works in. In fact, Westwood has been with Marston’s for almost all of his brewing career, after joining more than 40 years ago as a lab technician straight out of university.
There is no denying cask ale has problems to overcome, he agrees, but laments the fact these issues are unfairly outweighing the positives in the segment. For Westwood, the big issues with cask boil down to too much choice on the bar and poor staff training.
“If you pick apart what Pete said in his article, he was spot on,” explains Westwood. “He wasn’t saying cask is bad and craft is king, but was making quite a strident point about the bad quality out there that’s mainly driven by too much choice and poor cellar management.”
Despite consumer demand for a bigger selection, too much cask ale on the bar prevents the maintenance of quality and he believes pubs must decide whether choice should give way to quality.
“There’s a big decision to be made here and that is a balance between consumer choice and quality,” continues Westwood. “When you see pubs that, maybe, sell 200 barrels a year and have six, seven or eight hand pulls, you know there is a good chance you will be served a substandard pint.”
A long-term solution to this, he thinks, could be in taking cask size down by half to a firkin, allowing pubs that want to provide choice the ability to turnover stock more quickly.
This idea is not a silver bullet, though. Before such a decision is made, the entire industry – brewers, pubs and trade bodies – would have to decide if this really was a workable solution, since it would be costly to convert production lines to the format.
More choice has also led to a “relaxing of the rules” around cask quality as operators try to sell through their ales at all cost. Either it is pumped too long after being broached, the lines are dirty or it’s not ready to be served, the beer boss argues.
“Rules were far more rigidly adhered to 10 or more years ago than they are now,” claims Westwood. “But that’s not to say if you look at beer with rose-tinted spectacles in the ’60s and ’70s that you always got a good pint, because I’m sure everyone had their fair share of bad pints back then too.”
He believes Cask Marque is best placed to help pubs understand whether their beer is being served correctly and within its use-by date. Although, addressing the issue is not solely the job of Cask Marque, but all who are involved in the sector.
When asked whether Cask Marque is doing a good enough job of helping pubs serve cask ale at its best, he says: “In many ways, Cask Marque is driven by what we as an industry ask them or advise them to do. If there was a group of us asking them to do something, then we know they are open-minded enough to look at it and consider it properly.
“Are they doing a good enough job? Well, there’s probably still too much cask beer choice on bars as I’ve just indicated. I think they are doing a good job but could do more with support from brewers.”
But of every organisation involved in the segment, the responsibility of solving the issues in the cask debate in pubs lies with Cask Marque most of all, he believes. “What I’ve always said is what happens in the pub cellar determines the quality of pint and that’s probably always been the case. I think attention to detail for cask ale now needs to be a lot stronger, it’s not as good as it was.”
Look beyond the sticky situation of cask quality and we move into another big debate, which is the effect craft beer is having on cask. For Westwood, the ‘cask v craft’ argument is distracting and unnecessary. It is not one he will pursue and refuses to argue one against the other.
Instead, Westwood is diplomatic, stating cask is also craft. There’s just as much care and attention going into cask ales as there is in craft beers, he says. Also, the ‘rule’ that keg lasts a lot longer than cask is flawed in his opinion, as the difference is “a matter of just one or two days extra”.
Make even the slightest suggestion that craft is more innovative than cask and be prepared for a lashing formed of Westwood’s years of industry knowledge. “I’m not sure I would agree with that premise that the cask sector doesn’t want to move forward,” he counters.
“I think there’s been a history where various breweries have moved forward, but you may be right to say that it has moved forward within the paradigm of what cask beer is all about.”
That said, he agrees the way cask ale was made in the past by large brewers was, until recently, stuck in its ways. It was a “very subjective” route, which saw breweries create products they thought were right rather than what customers may have wanted. Usually, a new beer from a scale brewery would be a variation on something already out there, he adds.
“But, I do hate to get embroiled in this cask v craft debate. I actually don’t think there’s a one versus the other to it because great beer is great beer,” he explains. “We’ve all had, I think, a great cask beer and a bad one and, equally, a great keg craft beer and a bad one.
“The differentiation of craft to cask for me is almost a little bit of a side debate, but I think that as commercial brewers we have to be mindful of the way the market is seeing craft and certainly the way the consumer is seeing it.”
Marston’s is mindful of what goes on outside its own segment and especially in the rising craft arena. Such trends have arguably influenced the brewer’s new branding. In November last year, it announced a major image overhaul of some of its key products, including Pedigree, 61 Deep and Old Empire.
This £1m strategy brought the range into the modern day, using its heritage in trendy new on-pack and marketing visuals. The redesign was important to the future of the products, but its continued success was not dependent on it.
“I wouldn’t go as far as saying the whole future of our business depends on the success of this rebrand because where we have succeeded, certainly in the past 10 or so years, is by having a very wide brand portfolio,” continues Westwood. “But it is important, hence the amount of effort and investment we’ve put into it.”
A big part of the programme, which has been rolled out across all of the Marston’s range and the brewer’s other brands, apart from one, was about appealing to a younger audience.
“The only brands we haven’t looked at is Wychwood, which is rather peculiar given we would describe that as our modern and contemporary range. So there’s probably a ‘watch this space’ there for those,” he hints.
Has all the investment led to success, though? It’s hard to tell, other than through anecdotal evidence, what impact the rebranding exercise has had on sales. He says: “Given that it was quite a big and new departure for Marston’s, we were all slightly nervous but I have to say in the few months we have been up and running, it has surpassed my expectations.”
There are eight brand houses, as Westwood calls them, in Marston’s beer portfolio, which has been built up over the years. Each ‘house’ contains a handful of established names. For example, within Jennings, there is Sneck Lifter, Cocker Hoop, Bitter and Cumberland. The brewer is also working with American craft brewery Shipyard to brew its beers in the UK.
This leads to the question of whether Westwood and his team are looking to acquire or work with any other breweries at home or abroad. There are, he will say, ongoing collaborative talks with a number of breweries, but refuses to give any details on which and when anything may be confirmed.
As for acquisitions, he adds: “There is no movement directly on buying any new brands. Acquisition is part of our growth strategy but we have to be very balanced about this.
“My role and the role of the board is to have a strategy of organic growth and that for us hasn’t changed over the years. I don’t get out of bed every morning and say to myself ‘I need to buy a brewery today’.”
Westwood continues: “If another brand came up that we could do something with and use our expertise and infrastructure and scale to build, and it was at the right price, we would certainly look at that.”
Plans for growth, whether acquisitions, partnerships or new beer launches, are always on the agenda for Westwood, who is adamant the brewer and pubco will continue to remain relevant to drinkers present and future.
This growth plan, you get the strong sense when talking with the beer boss, will not be hindered by any down-talking of cask and the rise of craft keg beers.
Any controversy surrounding cask will not stand in the way of Westwood, that is clear from the off. It is important to him the collective beer industry gets its priorities right and focuses on creating better beer.
Westwood on cask debate
Cask brewers may have improved their beer quality over the years, but the on-trade’s openness to flout the rules and sell the product beyond its best condition could spell trouble for the category, according to Marston’s managing director Richard Westwood.
Despite the current issues aired around the quality of cask beer in pubs, Westwood told The Morning Advertiser (MA) in a video interview that the future of the brew is strong and secure.
Westwood said: “Cask beer will always be better than keg and there is no magic behind that – cask is pure.”
He added: “I have to say I don’t think the future has ever been rosier for beer generally and cask for us, and the industry still plays a major part.
“The brewers these days are genuinely producing the best beer we ever have and that’s because our understanding is better.
“But, we do have a conundrum in our industry and that is that no matter how good a cellarman you are and no matter how many times you clean your lines, if you want to sell cask beer beyond three-and-a-half to four days after being broached, you are in trouble.” Watch the full video here: http://bit.ly/2nEWFae