Magic Rock Brewing Co: We have to be more stubborn on cask quality

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Increase: Magic Rock put its cask prices up by 15% to 20% in 2016
Increase: Magic Rock put its cask prices up by 15% to 20% in 2016

Related tags Cask Public house Beer Cask ale

Greater education around cask quality is essential to the survival of the style in UK pubs, according to Magic Rock founder and managing director Richard Burhouse.

In an interview with The Morning Advertiser (MA),​ Burhouse hit out at the “discount culture” in the UK cask market, and suggested that the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) needed to do more to educate pubs on how to improve the quality of their cask offering.

“Cask is the entry level packaging format for small breweries,” he said. “It is an easy way to access the market and as such there's a lot of people doing it and a lot of competition and that is driving the price down. People are discounting it to almost cost price just to get it out of the door.

“I think perhaps pubs need to be a bit more stubborn from a quality perspective. There could be more training and information out there as to what good cask is and how long it keeps on the bar. Lots of places have too many options as far as cask is concerned and that is when you start to run into quality issues, and that pulls the whole sector down.”

Cask beer 'not mystical'

On the subject of who ought to be responsible for educating pubs and consumers about cask, Burhouse said: “I never hear CAMRA talking about shelf life as far as cask is concerned. Maybe I'm not looking deep enough but the big elephant in the room is the two to three-day shelf life isn't it?

“If you're not busy in the week you are going to struggle to get through the cask quick enough. If CAMRA were to champion something like cask breathers or methods of keeping beer fresher on the bar for longer it would make absolute sense as far as I am concerned.

"I think there is an education gap, or a lack of knowledge, within a lot of CAMRA membership and hierarchy,” he continued. “A lot of the information seems to be based on hearsay and Chinese whispers as far as what makes good cask beer.

“It is not mystical; if people want to learn how and why you keep quality higher and what can be done to improve it, the information can be put out there.”

Burhouse’s comments come after Russell Bisset - director of fellow Yorkshire brewery Northern Monk - told MA ​he was now only producing “a very, very small amount” of cask​ due to the lower margin the product commands.  Burhouse admitted he shared Northern Monk’s concerns, but suggested the answer was to increase the price of cask rather than to stop producing beer in the format entirely.

A rock and a hard place

“Cask is really difficult for us to sell because the problem is that it doesn't fit in with the idea of a progressive brewery that wants to make money and reinvest in what they do. Because the price is set so low there is little margin in it," he said. 

“We need to make good margin because we want to sell to people that we are innovative and quality driven, but you can't be truthful to that unless you invest in procedure, process, training, people, and if there is no margin you can't do that.

"We are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he continued. “I completely agree with the sentiment that Russ (Russell Bisset) is saying, but you could also just turn around and say 'we are putting it up to this price because we need to make this margin to be progressive'.

Magic Rock increased the price of its cask beer by around 15% to 20% in 2016. Burhouse said this decision was driven entirely by price, but the brewery could sell more cask if it produced it.

“We had to do it really, or we might as well have strapped a fiver to every cask we were sending out the door,” he said. “It was literally losing money for us, which I'm sure is the case for other people.”

“So we put our prices up and almost universally a lot of people dropped it, but quite a few didn't as well. At the moment we are in a strange position where if we bought more casks we could potentially sell it. There is a market for it; you just need to find the right home for it.”

Supermarket discounting

Burhouse also defended his brewery’s decision to put beer into Booths and Marks & Spencer’s, but admitted that discounting in supermarkets was making drinking in the pub look expensive in comparison.

“I am aware I have kind of contradicted myself because I do think supermarket discounting is an issue as far as pushing people out of the pubs is concerned, but then we have just done this deal to sell some volume into some supermarkets,” he said.

“Discounting as a whole is an issue, but I don't think our beer is sold at a price that is that impactful, but the whole pile it high sell it cheap mentality isn't helping anything. It just makes drinking in the pub look expensive.”

Earlier this week, an investigation by The Morning Advertiser​ revealed supermarkets are selling lager and cider for as little as 75p a pint ​in the run up to Christmas. 

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