After talking last week about some general attitudes and behaviours around cask ale, this week I’m focusing in on the sense I got from research about some specific issues around how cask is presented to the consumer.
Everyone has their own opinions about cask. The main reason we do research is to test those opinions for conformation bias – do you see what you want to see? Is your opinion the same as that of most people? In my experience, most research is a mixture of confirming things you thought, because they’re bleedin’ obvious, and throwing up a few surprises that may seem counter-intuitive but make sense when explained.
Here’s what I found out via a mix of eight focus groups in four locations around the country, and quantitative research with just over a thousand people in the sample.
People in the industry – and drinkers – have long known that the variability of cask ale can be an issue. A few years ago, when cask was resurgent, it got stocked in more pubs, and the typical cask pub started stocking more lines. Cask went into pubs that didn’t really know how to keep it, and too much cask was stocked for the throughput of the pub. Quality suffered because the beer stayed on the bar too long, which meant people drank less of it, which meant it stayed on longer, and there you go.
This is still an issue, and the scale of it is not fully apparent. Anyone who has taken a dodgy pint back to the bar will have been told at some point, “Well no one else has complained.” That’s because most drinkers don’t feel confident enough to complain. A YouGov survey for the Cask Report showed only 34% of people say something when they get a dodgy pint. They’re more likely simply to leave it, and not come back to the pub, or at least to avoid cask from then on.
I used the focus groups to explore why this happens. Apart from the obvious reason that conflict over a bad pint creates the opposite atmosphere and emotions than those you went to the pub to experience, quality is closely linked to awareness and knowledge of cask.
It’s another vicious circle: cask is recessive on the bar. People really don’t notice it that much. Because it’s recessive, they’ve never really learned much about it, and don’t feel any urge to change that. And because they don’t know much about it, when they do occasionally drink it and don’t enjoy the taste, they have no idea whether they simply don’t like it, or if there’s something wrong with it. Therefore, they just leave it and don’t say anything. As someone who has often taken back stale, vinegary, infected, or unintentionally cloudy pints only to be told, “It’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that,” I can sympathise.
Every focus group summed it up by saying “Even my mate who drinks loads of cask says it can be variable. You know where you are with other drinks. Best to stick with what you know.” Now people are generally going to the pub less often than they used to, the stakes are higher. You don’t just shrug off a bad pint any more. You expect better. So even people who don’t like lager that much will order it instead of cask if they’re not confident about how it’s going to taste.
People like drinks to be cooler these days. I even see craft beer geeks chilling down Imperial stouts. I’ve always been a believer in the principle that telling someone they’re eating or drinking something in the wrong way is not a brilliant business building strategy. If that’s how they prefer it, they’re not wrong; they just have different tastes.
I asked my research sample what temperature cask ale should be served at if they were to drink more of it. I tried to help them have some clarity by stating in the question that room temperature was around 20 degrees, while lager was served at 2 to 4 degrees. 64% of them said they would prefer it to be colder than the current recommended cellar temperature of 11-13 degrees: 30% said it should be the same temperature as lager; 34% said it should be between 5 and 10 degrees celsius. When we split the sample down, and look just at people who say cask is the beer they drink more often than any other style – real cask aficionados – 56% say they would like it to be served cooler than cellar temperature, with only 29% saying they prefer to at the correct cellar temperature.
You might expect this to be skewed by younger drinkers, but its consistent all the way up, in every age band until you get to people in their mid-fifties and older. Even among 55-64 year-olds, who show a warmer preference than everybody else, more would prefer it to be cooler than prefer it at current cellar temperatures.
Now you can say – as some on social media already have – that these people are ‘wrong’ if you like. Good luck with that. I also appreciate that serving cask colder is not without it’s problems. But the research is clear: if you want more people to drink cask more often, you need to offer at least one option that’s cooler than cellar temperature.
Clearly, Sharp’s have already discovered this on their own. It’s going to be interesting to see how Doom Bar Extra Chilled performs.
Moreover, Cask Marque ran a cellar audit at the same time as I was doing my research, and discovered that 64% of pubs audited were selling cask ale warmer than 11-13 degrees. That makes for grim symmetry: 64% of drinkers want it cooler than cellar temperature; 64% of pubs are selling it warmer than cellar temperature. Suddenly, double-digit year-on-year decline starts to make sense.
*There is one significant caveat: all this research took place during the July heatwave. Surely this will have exacerbated both the drinkers’ desire for cold pints and the pubs’ difficulty in keeping beer cellar-cool. I’m hoping we can run the research again in December to compare. My hunch is that the figures won’t be as extreme, but the trend will still be evident.*
When brewers talk of stopping or deprioritising cask, they tend to talk about issues around guaranteeing the quality of their beers in the pub, and the struggle to get a decent margin from cask compared to beer in other formats.
For historical reasons, cask ale tends to be the cheapest pint on the bar. This delights large sections of CAMRA and some ale drinkers, but makes it much harder for brewers and publicans to make a decent return on stocking cask.
In his commentary on the Cask Report, Matthew Curtis rightly pointed out that pricing wasn’t really discussed in the report. It is an omission, but it’s one I think I can understand. The Cask Report is an industry publication, backed by CAMRA and many other industry bodies. CAMRA, rightly or wrongly, campaigns for cask prices to be kept low, and the rest of the industry is eternally involved in campaigning agains rises in beer duty and, in some quarters but by no means all, opposing measures such as Minimum Unit Pricing. Let’s just say I can imagine the difficulties involved in getting all those bodies to agree to a message that says cask ale is underpriced relative to other drinks. I can also see the potential for some embarrassing PR if someone were to fashion a story about the beer industry publicly saying beer should be more expensive.
So I get it. But as an independent writer, I don’t have the same difficulties – I can just express a personal opinion and people are free to either agree or disagree with it.
I asked drinkers how much they thought cask cost compared to other beers on the bar. In focus groups, no one really new. In the quantitative research, roughly a third said it was priced cheaper than standard lager, a third about the same, and a third said it was more expensive. In other words, an entirely random split – drinkers have no idea what a pint of cask costs relative to other drinks.
Again, I’m not really surprised when I think about it. We either buy in rounds and have no idea what drinks cost relative to each other unless we look at the receipt, or we buy one pint at a time, and you’d only really notice the price difference if you were switching between cask and mainstream lager, and even then you’d have to be paying particular attention.
But there was a second part to my research question. I asked people how much a pint of cask was compared to standard lager: cheaper, the same or more expensive. But I also asked if drinkers – whatever price they thought it was – thought it should be priced like that relative to standard lager.
Now, bear in mind that no one is going to complain that their pint isn’t costing them enough money. But among those who said cask was cheaper than standard lager, 45% of them – almost half – said it was wrong that cask was cheaper, that it should be more expensive than standard lager. Among those who thought cask ale was more expensive, only 28% said that it was ‘wrong’, and that it should be cheaper. 72% of people who currently believe cask ale is more expensive than standard lager think that it should be. But it isn’t. It’s cheaper.
We have to be careful how we interpret this. People are NOT telling us here that they want to pay more for their beer. What they are saying is they don’t now how much it costs, and that it would be fine for most if cask were in fact more expensive than standard lager.
A separate piece of research, conducted for the 2017 Cask Report by YouGov, asked drinkers “How likely, if at all, would you be to pay more for a pint of cask ale or ‘real ale’ that has been well looked after?” 67% said they would be either ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to pay more.
Price is a thorny topic to get to the bottom of. As a cash-strapped drinker, of course I don’t want the price of beer to go up. But as an adviser to brewers and pubs, I’d say there’s a lot more potential margin in cask if you want it – and if the quality is good.
That’s it for this post. I have two more lined up: one on the relationship between cask and craft, and the final one on attitudes towards cask in the trade rather than among drinkers. I hope it’s useful, particularly for brewers and publicans.