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Cask ale in volume growth! How to stock the perfect range! Yes, it’s the launch of the Cask Report

Cask ale, real ale, handpulled ale – call it what you will – grew by  1.6% in 2011.  This is the first time cask volume has grown (as opposed to not declining by very much) for twenty years.  Sales in 2012 to date are steady, which is still excellent news given that the total UK beer market – down 3.5% in 2011 – is down again this year.  Cask now has such momentum behind it that it has overtaken keg as the most popular draught ale format.

This all made my launch of this year’s Cask Report last night very pleasant indeed.  When you’re the messenger, it’s nice when no one wants to shoot you.

This is the sixth time I’ve written the Cask Report.  Up to now, it’s been a weighty tome that acts as a snapshot of what’s happening to cask ale, who’s drinking it and why, and a detailed source of information for licensees about how to choose, stock and sell cask ale in a way that will increase pub turnover and profitability.

This year we’ve done it a little differently.  All the advice for licensees is now running as a monthly section of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser called ‘Cask Matters‘.  With greater frequency we can tailor the advice more precisely, examining in detail how cask can contribute to the character and bottom line of the pub in different ways, with case studies, Q&A’s, advice, industry comment and the occasional bit of whimsy from yours truly.  You can download PDFs here.  We should probably do Boxing Day TV ads saying you get a free binder with the first issue and it builds up into a beautiful collection or something.

The market stats are now in a thinner, flimsier Cask Report that gives a much more concise and easily navigable picture of what’s happening to cask ale.  Apart from the basic stats, this year’s report examines in further detail two issues that have emerged as key in the last couple of years:

  • What are the main drivers fo cask ale growth?  Why do drinkers like it?  And what are the barriers to trial among those who have never tried it?
  • What range of cask ales should a landlord stock?
Drivers and barriers
53% of British adults have now tried cask ale.  Among those who have tried it, 84% have gone on to drink it, at least occasionally.  People like cask because of its flavour and variety – microbrewers are now brewing a wide array of different beer styles:
The problem for cask is that 71% people who’ve tried it drink it occasionally or rarely.  Only 13% claim to drink it often or regularly.  Like ‘Guinness drinkers’ who only ever have a pint on Paddy’s Day, an awful lot of cask ale drinkers are people who tend to order a Peroni or Stella, until the rare occasions they go to a beer festival or visit a nice country pub. 
Those who love cask, as well as loving the flavour, tend to have other reasons for drinking it too.  Some like to support a local producer, others a great British tradition. Some like it for its natural ingredients.  Cask ale allows people who know it to support causes or make statements about things they care about.  This gives brewers and pubs a list of things they could say about cask to encourage trial, or get occasional drinkers more interested.
Among those who haven’t tried cask, there are no real barriers – they just haven;t been given a good reason why they should try it:

The negative stereotypes about it being warm, flat or an old man’s drink are tiny reasons compared to a simple lack of any reason why they should care.  Again, looking at committed drinkers gives us some good clues as to what those good reasons might be.

Stocking the optimal cask ale range
Talk to a beer blogger and they’ll tell you you should be stocking awesome craft ales from the awesome new wave of microbrewers using awesome New World hops and awesome wood ageing and an awesome lack of finings.  Talk to a regional brewer and they’ll tell you people want to see familiar, tried and trusted brands on the bar.

Both are right.

If I were to open a pub in London tomorrow, London Pride and Doom Bar would be on the bar permanently.  I would then have a seasonal beer from a traditional British family brewer, and three pumps stocking a range of IPAs, milds, porters, stouts, golden ales, all depending on seasonality and availability, the most eclectic and exciting mix I could find.

Most readers of this blog, I would guess, are dismissive of Doom Bar.  So am I. But it sells by the bucketload, and it sells to people who would never buy Magic Rock Human Cannonball.  There are at least 3000 different cask ales in Britain, which is amazing.

But know what?  The top 39 most recognised brands account for half of the total market volume.  Most pubs are stocking too many unfamiliar beers and not enough recognised brands.  Sales go up the more familiar, established brands you have on the bar.

Conversely, it’s eclectic, unfamiliar beers, often brewed by micros, that are driving the current excitement in the cask ale market.  Stock only familiar brands and people will think your range is crashingly dull, and rightly so.

Also – and this is common sense, but you’d be surprised – know your audience.  If you are a self-declared craft beer bar and you know that your clientele consists of people who actively seek out new beers, weigh your range to rotating new and unfamiliar beers.  If you’re a typical high street pub, refresh your range constantly, but always have a few favourites on the bar.

Whoever you are though, it’s good business sense to have both.  75% of cask ale drinkers say a familiar, trusted brand is important when choosing what beer to drink.  And 78% say they like to try new beers from microbreweries.  You may have noticed that adds up to more then a hundred – the same people want both familiarity and novelty – and that’s consistent across every piece fo research we did for the report.

Download.  Digest.  And maybe we can stop arguing – from a commercial point of view at least – about what’s best, big brands or micros?  Both are essential from the point of view of a good pub.



Al Ward

I am thrilled to see this report,it justifies what I have been seeing for the last three years.Here at the Cock Inn,Leek,Staffordshire cask sales well outperform keg and for the first time in memory and after three years work we are in this years Good Beer Guide.Let`s hope for more and better news to follow.I am well aware of your part in this resurgence,thank you and well done.

Dawn E Bear

You are right that most of us licensees can work out what works best for our own pubs – in our own for instance, we stock our own brewery ales as it is always hard to sell anyone elses, so the customers' have made the decision for us, as it should be – but that is because we are freeholders. Don't forget the poor blighters who are tied & really don't get a lot of choice, especially when it comes to putting on smaller breweries' ales, it's not always the landlords decision, unfortunately.

Chris Schryer

I love this, Pete. At the bar I work with in Toronto, at the start of the year we decided to cut back from 13 draught lines to 6 draught and 4 cask handpumps. Part of the plan was what you suggested, that the cask pumps had a mix of solid English-style ales as well as new-school funky stuff. The other rule we set, was that there would be no competition between the two formats. Draught is only things like lagers, wheats, Belgians, etc, and cask is only milds, pales, IPAs, golden ales, browns, porters, etc. This way, the drinker coming in wanting a nice brown ale can't opt for a familiar draught selection. Often the cask option is a brand they know, but in a different (better, in my opinion) format. We risked a good chunk of money at the outset for the installation, but we're very happy with the results. We move somewhere around 200 litres of cask a week in a bar that only seats about 45, and does a lot of draught/package sales. We still sell more pints of King Pilsner than any other single brand, but many people who have never had a cask ale try it and keep ordering them. As well, so many UK expats get misty-eyed drinking cask Granite best bitter special, we have no doubt we made the right call.
Here's to the future!

Lord Egbert Nobacon

Radio 4.
I'd drink anything in a pub that has Radio 4 in the background.
Just thinking about a pint of pong listening to Charlotte Green reading the Shipping Forecast while there's a gale lashing outside gets me tumescent.
Yep,I'd drink anything if I found a pub like that.
Well,anything 'cept Doom Bar.That really is a pint of shite.


Here in the North West I've noticed an increase in cask beer consumption by women over the last year. Hopefully, that will continue to rise as the perception of ale as a man's drink is eroded.


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