Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 2001
High strength can handicap sales of popular beers
Bass have recently reduced the strength of their premium nitrokeg ale Caffrey's from 4.9% ABV to 4.2%. Apparently the customers, while they liked the taste of the beer (or was that the advertising?), were ending up too drunk if they stayed on it throughout an evening session. Somehow I doubt whether Bass will cut the price in proportion, but they do have a point.
Many higher strength real ales have experienced a similar problem, being highly respected but not being beers that people wanted to drink more than a couple of pints of. A good local example is the 5.0% Frederics, at its best a superb pint, but almost impossible to find in Robbies' pubs anywhere near the brewery.
There's an interesting parallel with Bass's attempts to introduce real ale to some of their local pubs a few years back. The pubs in question weren't in the most prosperous areas, and were mainly used by session drinkers. It would have been logical to replace the keg standard bitter - Stones in those days - with the real equivalent, but instead Bass chose to install the premium-strength Draught Bass, at a premium price.
The locals gave it a try, but not surprisingly found that it was leaving them with a headache and a large hole in their pocket the following morning. Within a few months the real ale had disappeared again, after what gave the impression of an experiment designed to "prove" that there was no demand. Bass seem to have learned a lesson as far as Caffrey's is concerned, but it's a pity they couldn't have applied the same common sense to selling real ale.
CAMRA may have more members than ever, but real ale sales are at a record low
CAMRA recently passed a milestone when the membership exceeded 60,000 for the first time. But, despite this record figure, there is less real ale being drunk now than at any time during the organisation's existence. CAMRA has been highly successful in developing an interest in distinctive, quality beers - as witness the growth of multi-beer alehouses, the mushrooming of micro-breweries and the vast array of bottled beers in your local Tesco's. But it has been far less successful in maintaining cask beer as a mass-market, widely available product.
Around here, with the concentration of specialist pubs in the Northern Quarter and the strong representation of local independent brewers, you could be forgiven for thinking that real ale was in rude health. But across the country the position is very different - huge swathes of the pub stock, especially urban locals, have lost their real ale completely, and in many other pub company outlets and free houses it struggles along on a single handpump but is outsold two or three times by nitrokeg.
Some would say CAMRA itself has not helped matters by presenting real ale as something complex and obscure, that may appeal to connoisseurs but is just too difficult for the ordinary drinker. So perhaps the way to restore real ale to the keg wastelands is to promote not a bewildering range of names, styles and flavours, but a more limited choice of recognisable beers that are strong enough to stand as premium products, but not so strong that you can't drink them all night; that provide a distinctive yet reliable pint and that, having tried once, you stand a reasonable chance of finding in other pubs you go in. In other words, beers that can take on Caffrey's and Guinness head on. Pint of Landlord, anyone?