The Gastropub Machine

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in Fulham for an early evening midweek drinks date. Despite being born in southwest London, this corner of the west has eluded me until now. London is often like that. Its sprawl and the sheer scale of paralyzing choice makes it surprisingly easy to leave entire areas untouched for years – even parts that are relatively close to home. I met with my friend at a charming corner pub which has maintained the brass rail around the bar in the style of a proper old boozer, whilst adding chic and modern touches.

Bottles of water and glasses sat on each table. It’s great to see more British gastropubs cottoning on to this trend. One of my favorite things about the casual dining scene in the US is the fact that water is brought almost the second one sits down, before any alcoholic drinks are even ordered. This takes the pressure off; many a time have I tried in vain to catch the attention of waiting staff to chase up my forgotten order of a water jug. Since this gastropub was an order-at-the-bar affair, having the water already placed out was perfect.

As I glanced over the menu out of curiosity, it struck me that the gap between pub grub and fine dining – both in terms of quality and cost – is gradually narrowing. Nowadays, the price of a couple of courses in a gastropub scarcely comes in any cheaper than a meal with wine at an intimate and dimly-lit bistro, but to Gen X and Gen Y, that has never been the point. The casual, low-stress dining experience with minimal table service is beloved by many who find the white tablecloth stereotype stuffy and unnecessary. The same millennials that devoured piled-up Sunday lunches in eclectic pubs, sat at chipped wooden tables, now earn tidy city salaries – but their tastes haven’t really changed all that much. Gastropub quality in the UK has therefore dutifully grown with its audience, and it goes without saying that the prices have too.

It got me wondering how far the gastropub machine can go. There’s a uniformity to the model, and whilst each establishment might have a signature dish, sometimes reading menus can feel like déjà vu. The rate at which drinking holes receive swanky refurbs in conjunction with new menus has become quite prolific.

Sometimes, I like to remember a time when triple cooked chips weren’t so frequently found with a parmesan and truffle sprinkling. And every time a place I love edges towards the hot-smoked-salmon-brunch end of the spectrum, I worry that the charm which I first fell in love with could eventually end up vanishing for good. It happens more and more; I stumble into a favorite Victorian pub to find that their simple and affordable bar snacks menu has been replaced by a three course extravaganza, and not one single main on the menu will pair quite so well with my pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best as that scotch egg would have done.

The whole thing sometimes makes me want a packet of Scampi Fries, enjoyed at a slightly sticky table adjacent to a fruit machine. I suspect that there are no such places left in West London, but I’d be very happy to be proved wrong.

Is the CAMRA discount killing cask ale?

From my first foray into drinking real ale, I always had a soft spot for CAMRA. Sure, their meet-ups of beardy straight white middle-aged men could do with a bit of diversity, but they always seemed a friendly enough, if decidedly ‘uncool’ bunch.

Over time, sneers in CAMRA’s direction became more common, and inspired in me a somewhat protective knee-jerk response. It seemed to start around the time that the first BrewDog pubs displayed signs reading ‘No CAMRAs’ upon the walls of their hip joints; no doubt tongue-in-cheek, but with an underlying acidic aftertaste. There was a school yard bully vibe about it that struck me as unpleasant. And of course, we all know that what starts as a series of playful jibes at the bespectacled dorky kid eventually amounts to something much bigger.

My CAMRA card was last in the front of my wallet around the same time that I last carried a student card. Like all cash-strapped youngsters, I was a bargain hunter when it came to going out and having a good time, and I took my real ale habit the most seriously of all. It brought me fresh joy each time I found myself receiving 20p off a pint, and I admit that at the time I never thought too deeply about exactly who was discounting me – was it CAMRA themselves, the pubs, the suppliers, or the breweries?

For a while I imagined that it might be the pubs. The Bree Louise in Euston sent a drinking buddy of mine into shock upon demanding about £5.50 for a pint of Guinness several years ago. This seemed so steep given their usual prices that I couldn’t help wondering if this was some sort of ‘bad taste tax’. People who want to drink Guinness when there’s three stouts and two porters on the ale pumps will drink Guinness no matter what it costs. Could it be that the pricing up of the beers which enjoy an absurdly loyal and almost cult-like following was helping to keep the indie selections cheaper for the rest of us?

But on closer inspection, it’s easy to see that the CAMRA discounts are not doing wonders for everyone – especially the breweries. Ben Duckworth, Director and Co-Founder of Affinity Brew Co spoke to me about how breweries can often suffer due to the discounts offered to CAMRA card holders. In turn, the pubs want to pay less for the casks in order to preserve their profit margins. This echoed the sentiment from Matthew Curtis’ recent ‘Cask Confidential’ article for Ferment Magazine; cask is often the “lowest common denominator… treated without the care and attention that a premium product both requires and deserves.”

Ben highlighted the two main threats to cask ale today – pricing and presentation.
“For too long, people have only been willing to spend under £4 for a warm pint of flat ale. Which is probably all it’s been worth!”
Ben explained that this led to an effective ‘race to the bottom’, with pubs looking to pay as little as possible. He said he has heard of casks going for as low as £40 each.
“That’s £1 a litre, and is an absolute insult.”

As we talked, I felt dismayed and a little embarrassed to have celebrated the low cost of cask over keg throughout my student days and early twenties. But then I immediately saw the problem; as craft keg offerings have been getting better and better, cask quality has plateaued and demand has stagnated. It’s tough to feel ok about paying an extra quid for something that isn’t constantly upping its game. Looked at this way, the demise of cask under discounts seems like a sad self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone loves value for money, but could it be that the CAMRA discount could eventually help to kill off the great quality cask ale that it has worked so hard to promote?

This Catch-22 definitely demands a new approach. Ben told me that Affinity’s Cask 2019 festival aims at exactly that.
“We thought, let’s get some of the best breweries in the country, some of whom don’t normally put their beers into cask, to put their beers into cask. We encase all the casks in a cooled container, and serve them on gravity.”
The festival will be offering beers at £5 a pint (halves are also available) and will feature beers from breweries such as Beavertown and Pressure Drop.

Ben’s dedication to reviving the demand for cask gives me hope, and it definitely sounds like it’s time to snap out of my nostalgia. As such, I promise that I will try my very best not to be appalled and whinge about the good ol’ days the next time a pint of cask costs me a fiver. And maybe at the Cask 2019 event, I’ll finally get to see what Smog Rocket tastes like on cask. Now there’s something to look forward to.