Everything you need to know about the ‘fresh ale’ category
The new beer category ‘fresh ale’ is set to shake up the sector. Here, the drinks business finds out what makes it so different and exciting.
Following the launch of the new category, db has looked in greater depth at how fresh ale has been created to traverse the cask ale, lager and craft beer categories to appeal to a broader range of drinkers. Otter Brewery managing director Patrick McCaig explained more about what fresh ale is, how it is made and why it is going to be an interesting development that assists in modernising British beer.
How fresh ale is brewed.
Fresh ales are beers that are said to straddle the lager, cask ale and craft beer categories. In terms of creation, fresh ales are initially brewed as cask ales, but instead of being filled into casks they are gently carbonated before being put into kegs. The concept has been met with both curiosity and scepticism with a few questions including: ‘What makes it different to other beers?’ or ‘Is it a live product?’ As well as working out if there are ‘any similarities to lager’ also being tabled. Here, db hopes to level a few facts and clear up the misunderstandings.
Firstly, let it be known that fresh ale has been created by a fan of cask ale. McCaig adores cask ale and has a long family history of brewing.
He explained: “I love cask ale. I’ve been brought up on it by a family who have been brewing it for five generations. But I just think you can sit there and watch the cask ale end of the bar and see the volumes drop, or you can do something about it. People have been banging the cask ale drum for 10 years and saying ‘ask for cask’. Of course, we should all be asking for cask. I would love it if we were able to encourage that. But I need to get some confidence back into that end of the bar first and I think we can do it with a slightly different product. It doesn’t need to be cask ale. My great great grandfather was a brewer and I can imagine him turning in his grave if he could hear what we were doing. Having said that though, the rationale behind it is that this is the right move because we can now produce different types of beers, so we shouldn’t just always get wrapped up in the history. We need to evolve things a little bit.”
An evolution in beer making.
“People have been kegging ales for a long time and they have been selling them by positioning them at the keg end of the bar,” said McCaig, but added: “What we want to do with all this is move things along.”
By evolution, McCaig wants beer fans to talk and discuss the merits of broadening the ale category. But also make known some of the similarities and differences between fresh ale with what is already on the bar. Essentially, the all-important information on how it is brewed.
Fresh ale is not a live product like cask ale.
“The fresh ale concept is that as soon as the beer goes into a keg it is not officially a live product at all. To be a live product, you need it to have yeast in it and cask ale has a secondary fermentation in the cask, whereas we are filtering out all the yeast just as you would with any other kegged product,” said McCaig.
So, what are the similarities and differences between fresh ale and cask ale?
“There are two major differences between fresh ale and cask ale,” explained McCaig and revealed that “one is that when we put it into a keg we actually low-carbonate it, so it has a much gentler and softer carbonation which is designed to emulate the carbonation of cask ale as far as taste goes in terms of mouthfeel. The second major difference is that when it is served it doesn’t run through chillers in the cellar. Instead, it runs through the python or whatever assets the pub has to allow the dispense temperature to be around between 8.5 – 10℃. So, it is slightly cooler than cask ale, but it is not as cold as keg and it is slightly fizzier than cask ale, but it’s not as harshly carbonated as keg. Instead, we have simply moved the product along.”
Granted, the cask ale category’s image has needed to be addressed for many years as it loses market share to other drinks, but it moves at a glacial pace in terms of taking action to revitalise itself. This means that the timing for fresh ale to step in to support it before it disappears completely couldn’t come soon enough.
Cask ale’s demographic isn’t evolving. This can help.
McCaig pointed out: “When I was aged 28, I was selling to a target market of people aged 35-60 years old. Now, 20 years later, the target market for cask ale is probably 57 and older and they’re all falling off the perch.”
Aligned alongside cask, not against it.
“I’m not trying to trash cask ale, because that’s 80% of what we make,” said McCaig and stated: “What I am trying to do is offer a novel product at that end of the bar without it just having to be cask ale there.”
What does the fresh ale category bring to beer fans and pubs?
Rather a lot, it seems. As McCaig has described: “The benefits are huge. The beer lasts for weeks rather than days. It has a flavour profile that is actually more akin to the slightly younger palate of someone about 30 years old and it’s slightly cooler. It meets all of the things that everyone is asking for. The only thing that it isn’t is the very old fashioned conditioned cask ale that has secondary fermentation in the cask. But otherwise the brewing process is the same as cask ale.”
As with all beer, the yeast and the water is important. With fresh ale this is no different. In fact, it is pitched with a lager yeast. McCaig revealed: “We filter out the yeast before the beer goes into keg, just as you would a lager. Except we don’t do it at such cold temperatures as might happen for a lager. We actually use a lager yeast. But really, all of our cask ales since 1990 we have brewed with a lager yeast. It just happens to really work well with our water. We Burtonise our water for cask ale, but we don’t Burtonise it for our lagers.”
This means that fresh ale is, in many ways, where cask ale meets lager.
McCaig pointed out how “fresh ale is treated in exactly the same way as cask ale is. We brew it for one week, we ferment at around 22℃ whereas lager is fermented at around 12℃. The fermentation process is about a week for fresh ale and then we put it into a conditioning tank and then we filter it and keg it at a very low carbonation so it emulates cask ale itself and is quite soft”.
From Otter Brewery’s perspective, the fresh ale concept is simply the brewery responding to the research and making a beer that appeals to more people. He told db: “All the research shows that people aged 30+ want something that is slightly cooler and just slightly more fizzy than cask ale. This gives it just a little more punch, but nothing like the punch of fizzy lager.”
The new beer category, creates a bridge between lager and craft to fresh and cask, through yeast, temperature, carbonation and dispense. It takes learnings from all of the other categories and tweaks them to fulfil an ‘ideal beer’ standard.
“If we can get more people looking at that end of the bar then they may well convert to cask ale,” said McCaig and insisted: “We have to reach people and introduce them to that end of the bar” and described the marketing efforts the team had made and explained: “The way we are branding it, it doesn’t have a pumpclip on it. It is just a rod with a brand down the front of it. We are also going to have a light on it as the next stage, because there has never been a light at the cask end of the bar.”
He lamented: I just think that all of the focus has been on Madrí and every other Mediterranean lager made elsewhere. But why are we talking about that? Why are we not talking about this in the same way as craft beer in this country, which was taken to a completely different level which is brilliant. But it has morphed into the keg end of the bar, so what I have been thinking is ‘hang on, a massive opportunity has been missed here because we are getting wrapped up in our sentiments too much’ and we can bring back the cask category, but we have to bring it back to life first of all.”
How should this be viewed by beer lovers? Is this modernising ale? According to McCaig, that is no bad thing.
“I love CAMRA, but they have been banging this drum saying for years that cask ale is the best beer on the bar. But surely that is also based on how many people are drinking it?” He laughed: “I feel a bit like a morris dancer who is going out there with Nike trainers rather than old bloke buckled shoes. We have to modernise ale” insisting that other brewers should take note and add to the category, creating a sweep of fresh ales. “Any brewer can make it. It isn’t just us. I would say, let’s do this.”
McCaig observed: “We have always said at Otter that our beers should be the facilitators of conversations and not the topics of conversations. That is the difference between fresh ale and craft beer. For craft beer it is always about the topic, but beer is about the pub and conversation and we need to remember that too.”
In many respects, what is happening here is the chance to create a resurgence in the taste of British ale. He explained: “If people got behind this then there could be a massive resurgence. The American craft beer movement coming to the UK helped already, before then cask ale was seen as even more of a flat cap and a whippet category, but craft beer assisted in revitalising beer and we suddenly saw branding for beer that was more vivid and energetic compared to the old school branding we had been used to and wasn’t quite as appealing to new drinkers. The whole craft movement coming in was one of the best things for cask ale. What we are doing here is taking a slightly old traditional beer and facilitating a conversation. I want people to be happy to talk about drinking it. It is why people should go to the pub – to talk b******ks for a couple of hours. I want people to talk. I want people to know how it tastes and know it will be consistent and fresh. This is how we will create a resurgence in the taste of British ale.”
Added to this, getting people to drink in pubs is the halo effect. As McCaig explained: “One of my biggest objectives is to get people to drink in pubs and not at home. There isn’t a commercial market that is viable for brewers to put beer into supermarkets and then sold at a low price. The supermarkets are continually devaluing the on-trade and our brewery is all about pubs. All I want to do is to create a beer that is more appealing to a younger generation so that they can go to the pub and enjoy the conversations.”
Another plus point for the category is how it is meeting sneers from elsewhere with transparency. There is no pretence in how it is made. Or why. And honesty and authenticity are at the heart of any new craft movement.
McCaig remembers how CAMRA responded to craft beer initially, repelling it with fear and disgust, but there is another argument to suggest that CAMRA overlooked an opportunity to broaden its reach. McCaig does not want that to happen again. He said: “There is an element of craft beer being shocking to CAMRA, but I love the responses. CAMRA fans may think we are trying to disguise cask as keg or vice versa. We aren’t — not at all. I am just saying we need to think about this differently. To do that it takes causing a similar amount of shock but being comfortable with that.”
Fresh ale is being made by a respected British brewery too. A brewery that has seen its beers travel near and far. This is not a fad product.
“We have always been quite a well-respected brewery,” McCaig told db, explaining how “people can find our beer at Glastonbury and they can find our beer at pubs and others have found our beer when we have supplied it to the Olympics. I think we have gone beyond where a small brewery would normally go. If you think ‘who are we to launch a new category?’ Well, I think someone has to do it at some point, so why not us? We are giving it a shot. But I would take any advice on taking this further because as I see it there is a real opportunity in bars to reignite that end of the bar”.
There is also an element of hitting back at global macro lager brand marketing and instead modernising beer in a way that does not disguise what it is.
“Let us not forget that at the other end of the bar things are being sucked up by the big brewers whether it is through brew lines via Smart Dispense or that kind of stuff or by anything else,” said McCaig, who hinted that “because of this, independent brewery’s opportunities at that end of the bar are reducing and beers like Madrí as a concept are such a joke because they are messing with consumer’s perceptions”. He mused how “it just shows how the power of marketing can turn the heads of the drinking population,” but agreed that “it is so sad to see” and said: “If I could get Louis Theroux to do some kind of exposé on those kinds of beers on our bars it would be hilarious. If hearts and minds can be won by a fictitious campaign then imagine how many hearts and minds can be won by a really exciting product that is brewed by brewers here in the UK? Fresh ale is essentially a modernisation of England’s pint.”
“That is what I want to preserve, more than anything. Pubs. As a place to drink pubs are, on the whole in the main, our community spirit. It is the right step.”
CAMRA should be for it, not against it, he insisted. After all, “CAMRA now promotes ‘World beers’ which are in keg. If they are doing that, why wouldn’t they look at something brewed in the UK that is in keg and talk about it just as favourably?”
All this is doing is re-energising the ale end of the bar — a deeply neglected part of the British pub and, as McCaig stated: “I think we need to look at the strengths that cask ale has and draw attention to that.” he insisted: “I don’t want to kill the category. Not at all, it isn’t what I want to do, but this will re-energise the category. At other places on the bar we have lager, cider, craft beers, hard seltzers and there is everything there. Why should cask ale just be cask ale? It should be just the ‘ale’ end of the bar. But I want it to be known that it is different.”
The fresh ale category is set to make inroads towards developing the beer sector in a big way and, according to Otter Brewery, beer fans are ready for it. After all, he revealed: “It’s completely on track and, really, it is quite exciting.”