In a troubled market, the East London brewer announces it has doubled its cask ale sales. How? By doing the things everyone knows need doing.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my long-standing involvement in the Cask Report. For the last few years, the picture has been grim. Cask – once the best performer in a declining beer market (i.e. it was in decline, but at a far slower rate than any other beer) – is now falling far faster than any other beer, with double-digit year-on-year decline.
Pundits often point to the fact that cask is unreliable, and with the rise of craft beer, drinkers can now choose flavourful, interesting beer that – even if you believe is not quite as good as cask at its best – is certainly far, far better than cask at its worst. Pubs often don’t keep cask well because it requires more work, and what’s the point of that when it offers the lowest margin of any beer on the bar?
The arguments go round and round, the same every year, as cask ale sales continue to dwindle.
So what a delight this morning to hear from Five Points that they have DOUBLED their cask ale sales year-on-year.
In 2018, cask accounted for 20% of Five Points’ beer sales. In 2019, this grew to 26%. In the context of an undisclosed expansion in production over that time, cask is taking a bigger slice of a substantially bigger cake – according to the company, an increase of 325,000 pints versus the previous year.
Well, as one of the darlings of the craft beer scene, whenever Five Points have gone to festivals, cask has always been part of their offer. Their core range are all available on cask as well as keg.
Then last year, they introduced a new beer, available only on cask. As the craft beer world goes crazy for novelty, this beer was a best bitter – possibly the least fashionable style craft geeks can imagine.
And it went crazy.
I first realised they were onto something at last August’s Great British Beer Festival, when they had two versions of Five Points Best – one brewed with Fuggles hops, one with Goldings.
They sourced these ‘boring’, ‘twiggy’ British hops directly from Hukin Hops in Kent, a fourth-generation hop farm where the fourth generation is bringing fresh ideas to an ancient trade. And guess what? If you treat these classic British hops with the same care and attention as American hops, they’re just as good – who would have thought? Different, yes, subtler, absolutely, but not boring. And definitely not twiggy.
In terms of presentation, cask and keg sit alongside each other in the company’s portfolio, with the same enthusiasm around each. Five Points sell their cask beers to local pubs with a reputation for keeping cask well. This year, they’re introducing cask training for the publicans that stock their beers, financial incentives for new pubs to start stocking them, and a Cask Ambassador in their sales team to help pubs maintain quality.
This is what good cask ale look like. And the thing is, it’s all there in the Cask Report, every year, that this is what you need to do to make a success of cask.
I’m not saying that Five Points is the only brewery making a success of cask ale – talking to publicans across the country who are passionate about cask when I was doing research for last year’s report, their stories were so positive I almost started to doubt the official figures on cask’s plight.
But Five Points are at the absolute heart of London’s craft beer scene. They don’t need to invest in cask; they do it because they want to. Today’s announcement about sales figures is not just significant because of the extent it bucks the prevailing trend. It chimes strongly with me because it proves what we’ve been saying in the Cask Report for years:
One, there’s no massive prejudice against cask, you just have to give people a reason to try it, to make it relevant to them.
Two, cask belongs inside the broader scope of craft beer, not in opposition to it.
And three, there’s no mystery to making a success of cask. All you need to do is give enough of a shit about it.
Also, Best Bitter goes astonishingly well with the pizzas at the Pembury Tavern. See you there next month.
It’s time for the Cask Report again – and if you work in a pub, I need to know what you REALLY think about cask ale…
Over the next couple of weeks I’m conducting focus groups with people who work in pubs to find out what you think of cask ale on both a professional and personal level.
If you’re interested in taking part, I need you to travel to a central city location and give us about 90 minutes of your time, for which I can pay you £30.
The point is to be honest. All responses will be anonymised and nobody’s name will get back to their employer. I need to hear what you really think, not what you know you are supposed to say or what you might think I want to hear.
I need to make up quotas of people with different attitudes, and spread my research evenly across different locations.
So if you’re interested, please copy and paste the info below, fill in the answers to what suits you and either leave it as a comment below this post or send it to me privately via my contact form here. I need all parts answered in order to build up a balanced set of groups. I’ll then let you know if I need you asap – it depends on how many responses I get in each place/category.
Thanks in advance for your help!
1. I am in or prepared to travel to ((highlight or delete as applicable):
Nottingham (Thu 13th June only)
Edinburgh (w/c 17th June only)
2. I could be available at the following dates and times (highlight or delete as applicable):
Tues 28th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Weds 29th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Thurs 30th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Fri 31st May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Thurs 13th June (Notts only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Fri 14th June 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Tuesday 18th June (Edinburgh only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Wednesday 19th June (Edinburgh only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
3. Which of the following best describes your relationship with/attitude to cask ale? (highlight or delete as applicable):
“It’s a major part of the business in the pub I work in – it’s something we’re known for and I’m proud of how we keep and serve it.”
“We stock cask, but it’s not really a core part of our core business and I’m not particularly engaged with it.”
“The place I work doesn’t really do cask ale and I’m not really bothered about it.”
Finishing off my analysis of the research I undertook for this year’s Cask Report, having looked at consumer and market dynamics, here are some thoughts about cask and the trade.
As part of my research for the Cask Report, in August I conducted a survey among publicans who stock cask ale. The results made curious reading, and took a bit of time to work out, but in terms of solving the issues cask faces in the trade, the answers are pretty simple.
If you ask people to fill in a survey about cask ale, those who like cask are more likely to respond than those who don’t, so it would be wrong to draw any conclusion about the total market from our respondents – a significant majority said cask was becoming more important to their business, which clearly doesn’t tally with cask’s steep overall decline. What it does tell us though – and we have to be mindful of this – is that behind the overall decline, there’s a group of pubs that are genuinely prospering from cask – more on that later.
Taking those who say cask is becoming less important toothier business than it was, more of these pubs blame the rise of craft beer than any other factor. In their own words, craft in formats other than cask is what drinkers are demanding, because it is ‘interesting’, ‘varied’ and ‘colder’. A few also say that, for them, craft is more profitable and more consistent.
But craft isn’t the only thing pulling drinkers away from cask. Many publicans cite the growth of craft spirits as a significant factor too. Some say the pubco tie stops them from getting the ales their drinkers demand, and importantly, a fair few say they can’t compete with local pubs where cask has become a speciality.
It must be noted that for some pubs, the growth of craft beer more generally, irrespective of format, is helping cask ale. Among those who say cask is becoming more important to their business, by far the most common reason is growing consumer demand. Interest in beer styles and the growth of small, local breweries is driving demand for cask in places that do it well.
When it comes to issues around quality, it’s very clear that messages around cellarmanship, perfect serve, training and engaging with drinkers are getting through. The problem is whether publicans and bar staff are acting on this information or not. Ask them if they’re aware of training, if they find it useful, if they know how long a cask needs to be on stillage before serving, how long it should remain on sale once tapped, and what to do if a drinker brings back a dodgy pint, and they know all the correct answers. The trouble is, compare these answers to market data, and publicans who say they sell a beer for three days are actually selling it for seven. Pubs that say they’re training their staff are not. And pubs that say they replace a dodgy pint without question are in reality shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘It’s cask, it’s meant to be like that.’
Why would publicans choose not to treat cask correctly when they know how to? I can only speculate, but I think it’s obvious, and have discussed it with other people in the industry who have reached the same conclusion. It’s tough running a pub. You’re working at least a sixty-hour week, probably more, and you just can’t get to everything you want to do, or should do. So that little bit of extra work on cask doesn’t get done.
John Keeling, recently retired from Fuller’s, thinks there’s one issue at the heart of all this: margin. “If you make less off a pint of cask ale than anything else, it’s going to come bottom of your list,” he told me. Keeling believes cask’s low margin compared to any other drink on the bar is why it doesn’t receive enough marketing investment, enough training, enough care and attention generally.
This was echoed in my research. Some publicans even said they used craft beer and expensive spirits to subsidise the lack of profit from cask, just so they can keep cask on either out of love or for the reputation of the pub, such as maintaining a place in theGood Beer Guide.
There are of course exceptions to this. On my questionnaire, before we got onto the business side of things, I asked respondents how they felt about cask themselves. Now – I split the data by size of pub, by whether it was freehold, leased, tenanted or managed, whether or not it had Cask Marque accreditation, and there was little variation in the data. The one difference that was significant was when I compared publicans who said they personally adored cask and drank it themselves to everyone else. These were the guys for whom cask ale was making money, who put in the extra time, who trained their staff properly.
That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The people for whom cask is a vocation rather than just part of the job are those who have the greatest investment in cask being perfect.
You see this playing out in other pubs. Some of those who said they struggle with cask cited the presence of a nearby cask ale shrine or micropub as the main reason. If you’re a typical boozer, you can’t compete with cask aficionados on range or quality. I have no solid data to back this up, but I suspect we’re starting to see cask drinking gravitate towards pubs that have a particular specialism in cask. If there’s one of those in the middle of a town, we’ll start to see cask disappear from other pubs near it.
So if we want cask to succeed, from a trade point of view, there are two options.
Firstly, if you’re a cask pub and you’re not that into it yourself, hire someone who is, to be a ‘cask champion’. Pay them a little extra for their knowledge and passion. Give them the leeway they need to indulge their passion. There are plenty of people like this out there, and cask is still recruiting new acolytes.
Secondly, if cask is to have a long-term future as a mainstream drink rather than a specialist niche, it needs a better margin, either from an increase in price or a reduction in duty. If pubs are making more from cask, they’ll look after it better. If breweries are making more on cask, they’ll invest more in promotion and marketing, and in quality control and technical support for the pubs they sell it to. Sort these issues out, and all the issues we previously addressed on the consumer side will start to fade.
So there we have it: seemingly simple on the surface, how to save cask ale for the nation in two easy steps. Let’s wait and see how that turns out, shall we?
When trying to categorise beer, it may be time to drop subtle distinctions – because there are signs the beer drinker already has.
I’ve always argued that traditional cask ale is craft beer. Many of these who founded the first wave of American craft breweries think so too.
In this long-running argument, opponents of my view may concede that some cask ale is craft beer, but not the stuff that’s bland, or ‘twiggy’. To which I reply that if the actual quality or flavour appeal of the beer has anything to do with it, there are scores of modern craft breweries turning out bland or downright horrible stuff too.
The real reason many craft fans struggle with cask is best summarised by the slide below, which I’ve used several times before.
Cask is a traditional part of British heritage, whereas craft is modern, trendy and American. Despite the protestations of craft beer die-hards that it’s all about the integrity of the product, they’re as image-led as anyone – it’s just that the image is communicated via different channels.
But as well as the chart above – which was based on extensive research among drinkers of both cask and craft in other formats – there’s growing evidence that the broad mainstream of drinkers see at least a partial overlap between craft and cask, perhaps even more than that.
Drinkers who say they understand what craft beer is and claim to drink it were asked to name a craft beer brand. A majority of them – 55% – named a beer the researchers felt was a ‘traditional ale’. Tellingly, the report’s authors say that 45% ‘correctly’ named a brand they deem to be craft – implying that those who named a traditional brand were incorrect in doing so.
Perhaps you agree. Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Blimey, over half of people who think they’re drinking craft beer don’t even know what it is.’ Maybe to you this is a sign of how bigger brewers have co-opted the term ‘craft’ and made it meaningless. Maybe you just think these people aren’t as knowledgeable about beer as you are. Or maybe – just maybe – they’re right and you’re wrong.
Craft has gone mainstream. That means it no longer belongs solely to the bloggers, geeks, brewers and experts. And that means we don’t get to have the final say on what is and isn’t craft. When people say craft has become a meaningless marketing term, they need to clarify that it has become meaningless to them. When 13 million UK adults say they enjoy drinking craft beer, it takes some pretty extraordinary arrogance to say that they’re all wrong – that what they’re drinking is not craft, or that craft actually doesn’t mean anything.
If you want to carry on those debates, that’s up to you – but please do it somewhere else out of my earshot. I’ve been having this argument for eight years now and it’s boring.
My reason for bringing up this consumer perception that craft and cask are pretty similar, if not the same, is that I think it’s increasingly useful to view the market in this way. Because if a majority of drinkers think they’re the same thing, people analysing the market should probably do so too. If you look at them as the same from a data point of view, it’s pretty interesting.
If you add together the on-trade volume sales of cask ale and craft beer in other formats, you see that in September 2014, they accounted for 18.9% of all beer sold in the on-trade. Now that’s already quite impressive. But by September 2018, that joint figure had increased to 23.5%. If we call this ‘the market for more interesting or flavourful beer than the mainstream’, it’s on course to account for one in four pints drunk across the entire on-trade.
This is important for a whole bunch of reasons:
You can no longer call it a niche: craft and cask together are bigger than the entire premium lager category, which accounts for 22% of the on-trade.
Craft is not just cannibalising cask: yes, cask is in decline and many publicans cite the growth of craft in other formats as the main reason, but the growth of craft is many times bigger than the decline in cask. Craft is bringing new people into this ‘interesting beer’ segment.
Mainstreaming might help everyone. There’s some understandable paranoia that big players muscling in might snatch the market away from ‘true’ craft brewers. But there’s that hackneyed phrase, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ When big players come in, they have the budgets to do proper marketing. They have the reach to get to places smaller players can’t. They familiarise a much bigger audience with the whole concept of craft beer. At least some of the people they bring in are going to move on to ‘true’ craft brands as they learn more. This is exactly what happened when Magner’s created the cider boom of the 2000s. There were small, artisanal cinder makers who loathed the brand, but still thanked it for their very existence because even they saw the benefit of new people coming into a market that had been in seemingly terminal decline.
So from now on I’m going to be talking about ‘the market for interesting beer, across all formats’. It just needs a catchier, more accurate name. How about ‘craft’?
n.b. Thank you to Heineken’s Andy Wingate for supplying me with the CGA data that confirmed my hunch.
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.
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.