The latest edition of the Cask Report has prompted quite the debate around the plight and possible future of cask. I didn’t write the Report this year (well, only bits of it) but I did do the research behind it. With a head full of stats, here’s my take.
For a minute I almost regretted going on holiday.
I didn’t have much choice though: between late July and the start of September, I read a mountain of documents, recruited and moderated eight focus groups, designed and ran three separate online surveys, crunched the data from them all, and pulled the results of all this together into six separate documents running to hundreds of PowerPoint slides. It was essentially a three-month research project condensed into six weeks, all done at the same time as finishing off the final draft of my new book and keeping up with regular writing commitments. People have commented that I look tired in the video at the bottom of this post. No shit.
This was by far the most comprehensive programme of original research ever conducted for the Cask Report, and while I was recovering in the Andalusian hills, the report’s release created quite a stir. It’s got people talking seriously about cask, which means it’s done its job. There’s already been a lot of commentary on the report’s findings and implications – Martyn Cornell gave a good summary, and today Matthew Curtis follows up and explores some issues that got less coverage in the report. If I hadn’t been on holiday, I’d have got my oar in first, but like I said…
The top line is, cask ale is in double-digit year-on-year decline. For the last couple of years – after I stopped writing it – the Cask Report tried to draw a veil over this worrying decline. This year, wisely, the Cask Matters steering committee decided this approach was no longer wise or helpful, and tasked the report with identifying the reasons for cask’s decline and trying to devise some actions to halt and ultimately reverse it. For this first time, Matt Eley edited a team of different writers rather than a single author – another positive move forward – and I did the background research.
I wrote the first nine editions of the Cask Report, from 2007 to 2015. During that time the outlook for cask was relatively positive. So what had changed? My going-in point was this: If we were to look at both macro and market trends and see that cask was no longer relevant to what beer drinkers want, there would be a case for saying cask has had its day and it is futile to resist that. But in a market that’s being driven by demands for flavour, novelty, a breadth of styles, local and small scale production, and an interest in tradition and quality, (craft in other words) then cask is on paper as relevant as it has ever been. That means something has gone badly wrong with how cask is being presented to the drinker.
The finished report could only summarise the most important headlines from the research I did. Companies that subscribe to the Cask Matters group will have access to all the documents later this week. In the meantime, without weighing in with too many personal opinions on what we should and shouldn’t do about cask, I wanted to share some insights – some of which are touched on in the report, others that aren’t.
1. Occasions are more occasional
The number of people who claim to drink cask ale is actually going up, even as sales are in freefall. But most cask drinkers – about 60% of them – say they drink it every now and then, or hardly ever. They drink it in pubs, and they’re going to pubs less often than they used to. They might drink it on holiday, or when they go home and go out for a drink with mum and dad, or when the cask lover in the group is buying his or her round. But it’s not part of their core repertoire of drinks.
Also, that core repertoire of drinks is growing wider all the time. When I did focus groups ten, fifteen years ago, the typical ale drinker might say, “I usually drink lager, have an ale every now and then, or maybe a Guinness.” Now they’re just as likely to order a cocktail or a craft gin, or even a coffee depending on where they are and what the occasion is.
2. ‘You’ve been talking about cask ale wrong all your life!’
Remember how the lack of a precise technical definition is one of the criticisms often levelled at craft beer? Here’s CAMRA’s official definition of cask ale:
In the early 1970s CAMRA coined the term ‘real ale’ for traditional draught cask beers to distinguish them from processed and highly carbonated beers being promoted by big brewers.
CAMRA defines real ale as beer that is produced and stored in the traditional way and ferments in the dispense container to produce a reduction in gravity. It is also dispensed by a system that does not apply any gas or gas mixture to the beer other than by the traditional Scottish air pressure system.
I presented this, along with three other definitions, to focus groups consisting of people who said they occasionally drink cask ale. The reactions ranged from hilarity, to concern, to bemusement to complete and utter apathy. (Before I read this, even I hadn’t heard of the ‘traditional Scottish air pressure system’ before. Needless to say, no one in my Edinburgh groups had heard of it either.) Talk to the average punter, and a reduction in gravity has something to do with space travel. They’re not being funny – it’s thirty years now since ‘gravity’ was replaced by ABV as a measure of alcohol on drinks packaging. People felt this definition was more about what cask ale isn’t than what it is. Other definitions that talked about live yeast in the cask put off more people than it interested.
The average ale drinker is not interested in technical definitions (which must be why 13 million Brits seem perfectly happy to call themselves craft beer drinkers even without such a definition.)
After talking through the various definitions, I explained what cask ale is in my own words. If you were to read the transcripts from the groups, the reaction to this was very positive. “Yeah, that’s interesting.” ‘I never knew that.” “I might give it a try now.” But this is why you have to be careful with focus groups. There were long pauses between these statements. The people saying them were slumped in their chairs, looking bored or staring off into space. Their body language was saying “I really couldn’t give a shit.” I challenged them on this and asked whether they meant what they were saying, and they replied that while all this stuff about live beer in the cellar was fairly interesting, it wasn’t relevant to how they choose what to drink, and would make no real difference to how likely they are to choose cask. All they want to know is if they’ll enjoy drinking it. What difference does all this make to the taste?
3. Imagine if were talking about curry…
I got a thousand people on an app called OnePulse to describe cask ale in a few words, and then I put those words together into a cloud:
Here’s what the cloud looks like if you just take those who really like cask:
And here it is for people who have never tried it:
When I explored these further in the focus groups, it emerged that the biggest barriers to trying cask are the perceptions that it is strong, bitter and dark, none of which is necessarily true. ‘Don’t know’, as always, is a big issue – people simply don’t have the knowledge about cask, and don’t see any reason to change that.
Cask is an ‘old man’s drink’, traditional, but widely perceived as good quality. In groups, people said that cask ale should be served in big, dimpled mugs. It should be poured from wooden handpulls. It should look old-fashioned. There should be a group of old codgers standing around the pumps drinking it. None of these attributes make my respondents any more likely to drink cask more often, but that’s not the point – to them, this is all part of the background ambience of what a proper pub should be.
I likened it to an Indian restaurant. Imagine you weren’t that fond of spicy food and only ever ate a korma. But you went to an Indian restaurant and there was no vindaloo, no madras, nothing spicy at all on the menu. You’d probably think, “Hang on, this isn’t a proper curry house,” even though you had no intention of ordering a spicy dish.
Cask is an institution. It’s part of the fabric of a ‘proper pub’. That in itself counts for something. But it doesn’t really help[ stop the decline.
Where to from here?
This hopefully gives a sense of the general mood and attitude around cask. In Part Two, some time later this week, I’ll dig into the thorny issues of quality, temperature and pricing.
In the meantime, here’s the video of tired, pre-holiday me summarising some of these findings for the report’s launch.