| Beer, Cask ale, Pubs, Real Ale

If you love cask ale… set it free.

It’s Cask Ale Week, and Britain’s ‘special’ beer style is in freefall. It’s time to cauterise the wound that’s bleeding out.

Last week, at the launch of Cask Ale Week, I was asked to present a summary of all the market data and research that various brewers were willing to pool and share. I learned a lot. But here’s one of the most urgent points for cask ale brewers.

The whole on-trade drinks market is still recovering from Covid (just in time to be pummelled by a cost of living crisis and the collapse of the economy). But some parts of it are suffering worse than others. Standard lager is struggling as people trade up to “premium” options such as the newly invented “Mediterranean lager” category. Still white wine is having a rough time as people – especially young people – switch to cocktails instead.

It’s not looking good for cask ale

But down there at the bottom of the table is poor old cask ale. A quarter of the volume of the market had already disappeared in the decade to 2019. And as the rest of the on-trade makes its slow and difficult way back to parity with the pre-pandemic year, cask languishes a further 25% down in volume versus three years ago. The number of pubs stocking it is down. And in the pubs where it remains, it’s selling 18% less than it used to.*

There are far too many reasons for this to fit in one blog post – same as there are far more things that could be done to alter the decline. But what’s abundantly clear is that the strategies cask ale brewers, stockists and fans have been pushing up to this point are not working. If you want cask to survive, you need to change the conversation and actions around it.

When I write stuff like this, this is usually the point where some cask die-hards chip in with the “It’s snowing outside my house therefore global warming is a myth” argument. “I know loads of great cask ale pubs,” they say. “The quality and range in them is excellent. They are busy and punters are happy. Therefore you are talking bollocks, Pete.”

The premises of this argument may be true, but they don’t lead to that conclusion. Yes, there will always be great cask ale pubs that will make a profit from selling cask ale. And the people who love cask ale will seek out those pubs and drink in them. But what percentage of all cask ale pubs are like that? And if you look at the overall figures, how awful must the other pubs be to create such nightmarish headlines overall?

Well, now we know.

Throughput is king

One of the biggest of the many issues facing cask is throughput. While some brewers disagree, the industry consensus is that once it is on the bar, a breached cask should be sold in three days. After that, the quality starts to decline. It starts with it just tasting not as good as it should – not as good as an experienced drinker knows it could be – and it ends up tasting like vinegar. In pubs that are not core cask ale pubs, you probably wouldn’t take a pint back. If you did – trust me on this – the staff, who are not trained in perfect cask ale, will say, “Well, no one else has complained” or “It’s cask, mate. It’s meant to taste like that.”

The data shows that if you’re an experienced cask drinker, you’re 39% likely to never visit the pub again. You’d tell your mates not to go there either. But the vast majority of cask drinkers only do so occasionally. And what those people do is go, “Oh, I guess I don’t like cask ale.” They blame the drink rather than the pub. They order a pint of Neck Oil (up 482% in volume since 2019 – and no, that’s not one of my frequent typos) or a Negroni (on-trade spirits up 16% since 2019) instead.

This is a huge problem, and it’s getting bigger. Brewers would love it if publicans who don’t sell a cask in three days take it off sale. But as cost pressures on the publican mount, that’s the last thing they’re going to do. Only 24% of pubs selling cask sell enough of it to guarantee a maximum three-day shelf life. If you were to just look at the peak selling time of Thursday to Sunday, that number is 54% – but that’s down from 62% since 2019.

So pubs that can’t sell cask fresh enough are actively driving people away from drinking cask. And over the course of the week, that means three out of four cask pubs are actively turning people off cask. The industry has loads of quality and training initiatives. It also has loads of passionate landlords who pride themselves on their cask ale as the sign of a good pub. But they’re not in these pubs. So why are these pubs selling cask?

The Oxford Partnership looked at flow data measuring beer going through the pumps in a sample of designed to reflect the national average. They then segmented these pubs on the basis of how quickly they sell cask ale on one axis, and how big cask ale is as a share of all the beer that pubs sells on the other axis.

The results are interesting.

If you were a sandwich maker, would you put 20 fresh sandwiches into a shop that only sells three sandwiches a day?

Adding up the bottom row, we see that 21.7% of pubs are selling more than 72 pints of cask a day on average. No throughput issues here. These 21.7% of pubs account for 42.1% of all the cask ale sold.

Whereas look at the top left boxes. 39.3% of all pubs sell less than 48 pints of cask a day. Frustratingly, this is a different measure than the 24 pints per day that needs to be sold to keep cask in good nick. But the principle still holds. They’re not selling it quickly enough, which is why nearly 40% of all pubs selling cask can only muster 13.9% of all cask volume between them.

These are the pubs where there’s maybe one handpull on, or three with two turned round for most of the week. That handpull probably serves Doom Bar or Greene King IPA, because if you’re reducing your range after lockdown, in theory it makes sense to stick to familiar brands. But this simply reinforces the dull, staid image of cask, on a bar where spirits, cocktails, craft beer and lagers like Madri all have a bigger, more colourful presence than they did three years ago. And so the cycle accelerates.

So maybe it’s time to rip cask out of those 39.3% low volume, low share pubs, or at least a good proportion of them. (This is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of anyone involved in Cask Ale Week.) An additional 13.9% volume loss might seem unbearable on top of the volume loss the market is already suffering. But you’d be cauterising the wound. You’d be getting rid of the vast majority of shit pints of cask beer that are being served every day.

You’d break the cycle of poor quality pints turning off occasional drinkers. Only serve cask in outlets where it sells enough for the quality to be decent.

Once you’ve stopped the rot, you can start the recovery. Once you can be sure that curious, younger drinkers will be served a pint that won’t put them off for life, you can feel safe giving them good reasons to try it. But that’s another story…

*All figures Oxford Partnership research, Feb-April 2022

I was a marketer long before I was a beer writer, and I still like to keep my hand in. For more marketing insight, sign up to my regular industry newsletter, or get exclusive, paywalled content via my Patreon. If you’d like to have a chat about you business specifically, drop me a line.



Carlos Garcia

Agree whole heartedly with you’re article. Yes, it is a hard pill to swallow pulling beers. But if you’d like future sales to increase, you need to get good beer in front of young curious drinkers. My first pint of cask was a Harveys Sussex Best in 2003, a thing of absolute beauty! Loved it so much, I’ve been an active advocate ever since. Started volunteering at GBBF since 2006 and have been an American Cask Coordinator since 2010. I have experienced the decline 1st hand and especially in large cities (London, etc). And I have personally turned off many prospective cask drinkers, for life, because I assumed all outlets knew how to handle and serve real ale. So if the beer is to survive, the industry must shrink and start servicing only quality, knowledgeable outlets. Then new young drinkers will have the chance to experience, and love, the fresh living beer that you and I know can the best beverage on Earth. Cheers!

Kris Butler

Hello Pete – Great points, especially about the 3 days. Here in the states, places that care about real ale and are trying to teach new customers/attract knowing fans advertise “cask Tuesday” (or whatever day, consistently) so customers learn the pattern, fans know when to show up, and understand why it’s gone fast. Plus it promotes cask as special. I always thought this would not be necessary in the UK, but might be helpful to places trying to educate?

James Thornley

I agree wholeheartedly, it’s heartbreaking to taste a slightly off pint, bearable but not great and know that people are going to try cask ale for the first time here and be put off it for life.

I went to Liverpool a few months back, visited 6 or 7 pubs and had a cracking pint in every one. I visited Norfolk and found the same thing. Living just outside London I often go there for a pint and can be forced to visit numerous pubs before finding one good pint. So I do believe (from the smallest of surveys) that the problem is especially bad in London.

Personally I think that’s for exactly the reason you are saying Pete, London being full of youthful foreign types (I hope that doesn’t sound racist) does not have enough turnover to keep cask ale decent, therefore, more often than not it is slightly over (or worse), unless you are lucky and its less than 3 days old.

This is a real shame in my mind as all the tourists that visit London will have a pint of that crazy British Cask Ale and it will taste like crap – so please Pete get this message out there in London.

BTW, I find when I take a beer back because it’s not good enough, the most common reply is “We only changed the barrel this morning”, this happened to me in a London pub and I took a pint of something else. Half an hour later the next pint he served from the first pump was obviously the last, as only a half pint came out, so I shouted across the bar “Jeez mate, you sold that barrel real quick!” He frowned at me.

Peter Jackson

This has been the story for many years and only occasionally has there been some respite.

The parallel factor is “over ranging”. By stocking 3 or 4 cask ales “to give a choice” many pubs are compounding the throughput issue. By restricting the range, particularly early week, and putting on a couple of “When it gone it’s gone” lines on a Thursday, with a little imagination pubs can maximise the throughput per line, and give the best quality possible.

Pubs should also destroy more old beer – whilst it might seem like pouring money down the drain, protecting quality will lead to better sales, in the same way poor quality will drive sales down.


One of my favourite pints was Wadworth’s 6X until I went to the brewery in Devizes and had the most undrinkable pint of vinegar I’ve ever tasted. Haven’t drunk it since.

Ian Ward

Agree with Pete Jackson – Low ranging early part of the week and again running down your range on Sundays to create higher throughputs on fewer beers, has always been the smart thing to do. The one thing we are still not talking enough about is profit. Not enough value is created for brewers and retailers and so low cash margins will also drive cask off the bar. Charging a premium RSP equal to world lager for great quality cask should be the target. In my view Spoons have a big role to play in the future of cask, as in many towns and high streets they set the everyday price for cask (far too low) but quality is often excellent – I once tried to over pay for a pint of local independent brewers cask beer and I was told to either pay the asking price £2.19 or leave. If we are to lose cask in many pubs then we need to reset RSP expectation where quality is consistently excellent.


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