Tag: cask ale

| Cask ale

BEER INDUSTRY CAMPAIGN REIGNITES CONVERSATIONS ABOUT CASK ALE

I’ve been working for the last six months on the cross-industry ‘Drink Cask Free’ campaign, which aims to make cask ale more relevant to a younger audience who only drink it now and then. Here’s the press release we just issued about the camapaign. It contains links to download the presentation slides and a video of my presentation yesterday.

There’s growing interest in cask ale amongst younger drinkers, according to the results of a test campaign by a cross-industry coalition, as issues like freshness, craft and local provenance top the list of priorities when choosing drink and food options.

The campaign was designed to make cask ale more noticeable and relevant to drinkers younger than its core base. It succeeded in making cask more visible on the bar, prompting conversations among drinkers and staff, and generating sampling activity. In some pubs this translated into increased sales.

Consumer research found that people do not hold the long-parroted stereotypes about cask ale. They see it as a more considered, mellow, flavourful drink that’s perfect for slower tempo occasions. They like and respect its tradition and heritage, and are even more interested in the fact that it is often locally produced on a smaller, more hand-crafted scale than big lager brands, and offers a wide variety of flavours and styles.

The main reason they don’t drink cask more often is that it’s increasingly less visible on the bar, which is where they often decide what to drink. All other draught beers are now served at eye level, from tal fonts, into branded glassware. Cask is falling behind in the visibility arms race, and needs to catch up. The product, and the variety it boasts, needs to be celebrated visually.       

Campaign coordinator Pete Brown said, “As we’ve seen before in all the research on cask, there are no deeply held prejudices against cask ale. What we’ve learned from this pilot are some specific fixes in-outlet. It’s clear that the vibrant line-up of cask, with constantly changing guest ales, is part of its appeal. But this also means that the issues would be best solved at a category level, with the industry working together to promote the visibility and relevance of cask as a whole.”    

The summary presentation of the Drink Cask Fresh campaign is available here: https://we.tl/t-zx1bpnzivd

A video pf Pete Brown presenting it, followed by Q&A at the trade day of this year’s Great British Beer Festival, can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/849416299/50082713ad?share=copy

The collective behind the trial are now urging the cask and hospitality industries to fund a national roll-out of the campaign later this year or in early 2024.   

ENDS

***

NOTES FOR EDITORS

  • The pilot phase of the Drink Cask Fresh campaign ran from w/c 6th March to w/c 8th May.  
  • The campaign comprised of 20 pilot pubs, each with a paired control pub, similar in profile and cask sales, and measuring the difference between them over the pilot period As well as examining sales data, qualitative market research was undertaken with pub staff and with drinkers, to understand exactly how the campaign was working.  
  • Drink Cask Fresh was co-founded by SIBA’s Head of Comms and Marketing Neil Walker, and former CAMRA Senior Communications Manager Katie Wiles. Writer and consultant Pete Brown succeeded Katie Wiles as Project Manager. Creative work was by Ape Creative and campaign research was undertaken by Jane Lyons of Research Management & Consultancy.
  • The pilot campaign was funded by Arkells, Asahi, BBPA, CAMRA, Greene King, Harveys, Hogs Back, IFBB, Lincoln Green, Robinsons Brewery, Sharps, Shepherd Neame, SIBA, Timothy Taylors, and Wadworth.
  • The project was supported by breweries, pub groups and organisations across the beer and hospitality industries, including Admiral Taverns, the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group, the BII, Black Sheep, Camerons, CAMRA, Cask Marque, Festival Glass, Greene King, Harvey’s, Lincoln Green, McMullens, Robinsons, Sharps, Shepherd Neame, SIBA, Star Pubs & Bars, Three Acres, Titanic, and Wells & Co.
  • The organisers would love to hear from anyone wishing to help support the campaign as it rolls out beyond its pilot phase to become a national campaign. To get involved, find out further information, or get more comment or imagery, please contact petebrownsemail@gmail.comjane.eason@camra.org.uk, or head to www.drinkcaskfresh.co.uk.

| Beer, Cask ale, Pubs, Real Ale

Six Reasons Cask Ale-Loving Publicans Should Immediately Whack the Price Up*

(*Relative to other drinks they serve)

It sounds counter-intuitive. Especially when drinkers face the prospect of losing any disposable income we may have had. But all the available market data suggests that the best way to sell more cask ale is to make it more expensive in comparison to other drinks on the bar. Here’s why, in six handy points.

1. People who already drink cask are perfectly happy to pay more

Cask drinkers have always been, on the whole, older, more upmarket and more affluent than the average beer drinker. They have a higher than average income, and spend more on average when they go out to the pub. In one survey of reasons why they drink cask, “price” scores 10th on a list of 13 options, with just 21% saying it’s important, versus 53% citing “flavour” and 39% saying it’s important that it’s “brewed locally.” In a separate study, “better value for money” comes 8th in a list of ten factors, with 25% saying it’s relevant versus 74% again claiming “flavour” is what matters. 72% of all ale drinkers say they tend to buy quality rather than quantity, compared to 44% who say they tend to be influenced by what’s on special offer.

It’s worth noting that cask ale drinkers are drinking less cask ale than they did. What are the drinking instead? Craft beer in other formats such as keg. 67% of all craft keg beer sells for north of £5 per pint, whereas over 70% of cask ale sells for less than £4 a pint.

Cask ale drinkers are telling us they care about quality more than price, and proving this by switching from cask to drinks that are far more expensive.

2. Non-cask drinkers already think – wrongly – that cask is more expensive than the fancy Mediterranean lagers they’re currently drinking. So what have you got to lose?

Get a load of this recent story from spoof news website The Daily Mash:

It’s a funny story – ignorant and badly informed, based on a premise that’s entirely false – but funny nonetheless. On average, cask ale is cheaper than any other pint on the bar apart from bog-standard cooking lager. And yet, the rapier wits at the Mash aren’t the only people who believe it’s eye-wateringly expensive.

In a survey of beer drinkers who do not drink cask ale, when asked what the barriers, are, “price” comes second in a list of 15 possible reasons, just behind “taste”, and well ahead of the clichés we all tell ourselves matter, such as the perception it’s warm (3rd), old-fashioned (6th) or flat (9th). Almost by definition, these people are already drinking beer that’s more expensive than cask ale is in reality. So putting the price up isn’t going to deter them any more than they already are. And they could afford it just fine if they had a reason to want to buy it.

But why do they think it’s so much more expensive than it really is? Partly, people assume darker beers are more expensive. Many also mistakenly believe cask is on average higher in ABV than other beers, and therefore more expensive. But the main reason, to my mind, is that outside the beer bubble, among the vast majority of drinkers and in places like the Daily Mash, people see cask ale and craft beer as synonymous. (And why shouldn’t they?) Check out this splash from a feature in the Guardian from 2019: A “craft beer enthusiast’s guide to Manchester”… illustrated with a pic of six cask ale handpumps.

If craft beer is expensive relative to other drinks (and it is) and real ale is the same as craft beer, then that’s also going to be expensive – isn’t it? Makes you wonder why the opposite is true.

In terms of price, non-drinkers of cask wrongly assume it is priced close to craft beer. You could always seek to correct this perception and point out how cheap cask is… but you’d be wrong to do so.

3. People are increasingly choosing more premium products across the board

“Premiumisation” has been one of the dominant trends in marketing for at least the past thirty years, and it’s not going away. For anyone above the poverty line, there’s a basic version of most consumer goods that’s easily affordable. As status-driven beings, we therefore actively seek out premium versions of the products that matter to us, to help us stand out and feel special. Yeah, you do.

In beer, this is why Peroni exists. The most recent example of premiumisation across the board is the performance of different beer styles as the on-trade had opened back up post-pandemic, versus their relative price. As a general rule, the more expensive something is (the blue bar) the better its volume performance when comparing 2022 with pre-pandemic 2019 (the red bar). The best performing segment in the whole of the on-trade drinks is “Mediterranean lager”, likely to be the most expensive mainstream beer on the bar, beaten only by craft. Standard lager and cask ale – the cheapest pints on the bar – are performing worse than anything else in the pub.

People are premiumising their drinks choices because they’re going to the pub less often and so need things to be a bit more special when they do go. It’s not necessarily that they WANT to spend more – but they are PREPARED to spend more rather than accept something they see as inferior.

4. This applies even – especially – during economic hard times

When money is tight, certain types of treat become more, not less, important. Premium versions of mainstream brands tend to do best during economic downtimes: “I can’t afford a nice holiday. I can’t afford a new car. Sod it, I’m going to splash out on a more expensive cut of meat/fresh orange juice/morning coffee.”

In June, CGA Strategy asked a broad range of consumers, “If your disposable income is reduced as a result of rising costs, which of the following do you plan to prioritise for spending over the next 12 months?” People were given 12 options for things they were most reluctant to cut down on, and invited to tick as many as they liked. The top answer was “visits to hospitality venues”, with 35% saying this would be important to them – double the percentage who cited entertainment packages such as Netflix.

Having said that, people still believe they will be spending less money overall on going out. But how are they planning on economising? The top answers revolve round going out less often, and drinking less when they do. Choosing cheaper, less premium versions of what they drink came second-bottom, with just 12% saying they’d consider this, just below visiting less premium outlets. More people said that the cost of living crisis will make them MORE LIKELY to choose quality/premium drinks (32%) than those who say it will make them LESS LIKELY (28%).

Economic hardship makes us more, not less, likely to choose more expensive/premium drinks.

5. Pub groups actively don’t want to sell more cask right now

So here’s a weird and slightly unsettling thing. At the beer industry seminar for which I gathered all this research, CAMRA and SIBA presented a new marketing campaign to get people to drink more cask ale. They’re seeking funding from across the industry to get it going. After the presentation, there was some grumbling from some people in the room who run groups of pubs. They protested that if the campaign were successful, it might make people drink cask ale rather than drinking other beers. Given that they were there because they are part of an industry body called Cask Matters, you might think they saw this as a good thing, not to say the whole damn point. But no: they were concerned about this possibility. Their pubs are struggling. The last thing they want just now is for people to stop drinking expensive world lager or craft beer, which pays pubs a decent margin, and start drinking more cask beer, which delivers a lower margin, instead. Therefore, with relative prices as they are, large pub groups are likely to OPPOSE any marketing activity that seeks to grow cask at the expense of other beer. We are in the ridiculous situation where companies selling cask beer – sometimes even companies that brew it – are potentially actively opposed to growing cask ale’s share of total beer.

Let’s be frank: if this remains the case, cask beer is utterly fucked outside the specialist independent pubs that make it their mission. The only possible way of changing this is to raise the price of cask beer relative to other beers on the bar.

6. Where cask is more expensive now, it actually sells more

If you still aren’t convinced, if you need one final argument, it’s this: where cask ale is more expensive on the bar currently, it actually sells more quickly. Surveying 4765 pubs across the country in 2019, CGA strategy found that in pubs where a pint of cask cost more than £3.70, it sold 32.5% more pints than in places where it cost less. Stripping out London and looking at the rest of the UK, it sold 9.5% more pints where it was selling for more than £3.45.

Now – chances are, these pubs were not just selling cask more expensively. They were probably nicer pubs charging a premium across the board. Interestingly, drinkers tend not to judge price in absolute terms. You know that in one venue, drinks generally are going to cost more than in another venue. If you’ve ever chosen to go to a nice pub instead of a nearby Wetherspoons, you know what I mean.

Across ale generally, the brands that are succeeding are the brands that are most expensive. Check out the growth in the top ten ale brands (cask and keg) between 2019 and 2022:

Beavertown Neck Oil has grown by 482% since before the pandemic – I guess not many people are too bothered by it selling out to Heineken. A substantial chunk of this growth will be due to Heineken’s powerful sales force shoving it out to pubs across the country. But even if simple distribution growth were responsible for, say, 70-80% of this growth, it’s clearly still selling like hotcakes in the pubs it’s flying into. This proves that drinkers have a thirst for a flavourful, sessionable pale ale – if it looks good on the bar, comes in a nice branded glass etc. The growth of Camden Pale makes the same point, somewhat less emphatically.

When we get to cask, the only brand in the top ten experiencing similarly strong growth is Timothy Taylor Landlord – a beer that sells into the trade at a higher price than its rivals, is less likely to do deals on price, and therefore tends to cost more at the bar.

So there are lots of contributing factors to this, and it’s not necessarily a direct correlation. But the data shows that if you’re keeping and selling cask properly, you can charge more for it – and sell more of it as a result.

The cask ale industry is currently in a pricing death spiral. Pubs are looking to buy it as cheaply as possible, and among 2000 breweries serving a shrinking market, there’s always a brewer who will undercut their rival. This is stripping value out of the market, which is why small brewers are switching to keg, publicans are often keeping cask badly, there’s not enough investment in marketing it to make it relevant to image-conscious, promiscuous drinkers, so it’s staying on the bar too long, so it tastes shit, so even die-hard cask drinkers are going “Hmm… not sure about the quality in here. Best stick with a Neck Oil just to be safe.”

Just put the fucking price up, guys.

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.

| Beer, Dave Wickett, Kelham Island, Thornbridge

Sheffield’s legendary Kelham Island Brewery saved from closure

Back in May, the announcement of the closure of Sheffield’s oldest brewery felt too awful to contemplate. Now, a group including Thornbridge Brewery have stepped in.

The press release says:

Kelham Island Brewery, Sheffield’s oldest independent brewery, has been saved from closure by a group from Sheffield. 

The brewery’s rescue is a collaboration between Tramlines co-founder and Sheffield venue owner James O’Hara, his brother and financial analyst Tom O’Hara, Simon Webster and Jim Harrison of renowned Thornbridge Brewery, Peter Donohoe, founder of Sheffield based creative studio Peter and Paul and Ben Rymer marketing manager from beer festival organisers, We Are Beer. 

James O’Hara, who put the group together after hearing about the brewery’s closure, said: “Kelham Island Brewery, and its flagship beer Pale Rider, are known and revered beyond Sheffield. It’s heritage that we, as a city, should be really proud of. We couldn’t let that just disappear, it means too much within the city and to the UK’s beer culture for it to become another Wikipedia entry.”

Finally, some good news.

The closure of any brewery that is run by dedicated, enthusiastic people and produces good beer is a tragedy, and there have already been too many of those post-pandemic. But Kelham Island was more than that.

When the closure was announced in May, brewery owner Ed Wickett blamed “a whirlwind of problems,” a list topped by Covid and lockdowns. They were being hit by surcharges on fueL and other utilities, and at the same time the brewery was in a dilapidated state and needed new investment. In a broken cask ale market that is indulging in a foolhardy race to the bottom on price, there was simply no margin to survive.

Ed ran the brewery for ten years almost to the day following the death of his father, Dave. He has done a great job and devoted ten years of his life to Kelham Island. But I imagine somewhere in the sadness over the closure, there was also relief.

A generation of craft beer drinkers has emerged since Dave passed away from cancer in May 2012, aged just 64. I might be wrong, but it feels like his name is not known to many these days. But he was a pioneer in Britain’s craft beer revolution. Our beer scene today would not look the same without him.

Wickett the pioneer

Kelham Island Brewery was a trailblazer. When Wickett opened it in 1990, it was the first new brewery opening in Sheffield for over a century. Everyone told him he was mad. But they’d said the same to him when he opened the Fat Cat pub ten years previously. Wickett’s favourite beer was Timothy Taylor Landlord – it’s never been out of stock in the Fat Cat. The brewery were so sceptical of a new real ale-centric pub in the centre of Sheffield’s decaying industrial district that they refused to deliver to him. So Wickett drove a van up to the brewery in Keighley and picked it up himself. When he was back a day or two later for more, they started to believe in him.

Kelham Island’s flagship was – sorry, is! – Pale Rider, a pale blonde ale with pronounced citrusy hop aromas. It won Champion Beer of Britain in 2004 (the year everyone thinks Greene King IPA won – it actually came second.) But Pale Rider’s significance was far greater than that.

Wickett was a stubborn maverick who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He acknowledged that he wasn’t always easy to work for, and there was a steady revolving door of brewers in and out of Kelham. The thing is, when they left – either fired or storming out after being unable to work with Wickett any longer – they’d often go just up the road and open their own brewery. Grudgingly or not, they still wanted to brew pale, citrusy cask ales in Sheffield’s now post-industrial heart. There was a cloud of small, independent brewers around Kelham Island years before they started spreading across the country. And that pale rider-inspired blonde ale has become Sheffield’s signature brew.

The birth of British craft beer

Exact recollections of events vary between him and some of the people he worked with, but here’s how he told the story to me.

By the early 2000s, Kelham Island was struggling to keep up with demand. One day Wickett was visiting his mate Jim Harrison, who had recently moved into the magnificent but then run-down Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire. They went past an old stable block in the grounds and Wickett (everyone called him Wickett, never Dave) joked that it would be a perfect spot for a small brewery. They talked some more, and agreed that Thornbridge Brewery could be a handy overflow for when Kelham Island needed extra capacity. Instead of hiring some seasoned old cask ale brewer, Wickett interviewed two young men just out of brewing school, Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie.

Neither was especially wedded to the Sheffield cask pale ale tradition. They were excited by new hops from America and New Zealand, which at that point had hardly been seen in Britain. Thornbridge began brewing British cask ales with American hops, used American style. Their flagship, Jaipur, went on to win just about every award possible, and Wickett ended up having to build a new brewery for Kelham Island instead. In 2007, Martin Dickie left to do some kind of start-up brewery in Scotland, and Cossi left soon after. But the Thornbridge blueprint was established.

Family saves the day

I don’t know too much about the other people involved in the consortium, but I do know Tramlines now defines Sheffield as much as the brewing tradition Wickett began. But it feels so right that Thornbridge is part of this move. Without Kelham Island, there would be no Thornbridge. Now, without Thornbridge there would be no Kelham Island. There couldn’t be a more perfect end to what started out looking like a tragic story.

Writing this has made me think a lot about the time Wickett invited me to the Fat Cat to do a talk about my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, back in 2006. I had been invited to meet Thornbridge the following day, and they were putting me up at the hall that night. As Wickett took me out to the taxi, he said, “I’m jealous of you.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re going to Thornbridge.”

“But you’ve been loads of times!”

“Yeah, but you’re going for the first time. You can never get that feeling again.”

Welcome home, Wickett.

| 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.

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Craft Beer, Five Points, Real Ale

Cask Ale is Dead? Try Telling Five Points

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.

All images © Five Points Brewing

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.

How? Why?

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.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Fuller's, London, The Business End

Fuller Love: The Beery Heart and the Head for Business

Fuller’s is selling its beer portfolio to Asahi. The commercial logic of this is undeniable. The issue is, many of us place sentimentality above commercial logic. 

And Vintage Ale. And Dark Star, And Cornish Orchards.

As someone who (a) loves beer and (b) also aspires to being seen as a level-headed commentator with a degree of insight into the market, whenever something like this happens I have two reactions: the emotional and the analytical. Sometimes they match up with each other. Other times they don’t.

So let’s get the emotional reaction out of the way first: when I saw Asahi trending on my Twitter timeline on Friday morning, and then clicked on it to see what it was about, I was absolutely gutted. People asked me for my reaction on Twitter. The editor of Imbibe phoned me to see if I had a comment on it. An email thread of beer writers asking if anyone knew before the announcement or had any hot take on it spiralled through my inbox. And I had no words at all. I felt a bit stupid. The thing was, I didn’t understand it. 

I don’t want to sound too melodramatic: it wasn’t like a bereavement or anything. It was more like, imagine you have two mates. One of them is a bit lairy and is often asked to keep it down in the pub. The other one is quiet and thoughtful and one of the sweetest people you know. And one day, someone says, “Hey, there was a ruckus in the pub last night. The police were called and your mate was arrested.” 

“I’m not surprised. He probably had it coming,” you reply. “You know what he’s like.”

“No, not him,” the person says. “Your other mate! The quiet, nice one.” 

The offence is the same. But it feels worse because of who did it. Fuller’s don’t owe me anything, nor do they have any obligation to anyone else. But I had an idea in my head of the kind of company they are – entirely of my own creation – and just like it was for many people when Beavertown did their deal with Heineken, that idea now seems tarnished. Like I said, it’s an emotional reaction. It’s pointless trying to pick it apart, analyse it or argue with it – it’s just how I feel.

Now, given a day or two’s thinking time, here’s the rational reaction: one, it was probably as inevitable as it was surprising. And two, it’ll probably be OK.

Why was it inevitable? Because it’s part of the pattern. A few years ago, I was invited to be part of a panel for a Q&A session at a Greene King management awayday. There was me, and a bunch of serial entrepreneurs, City analysts and financial people. I was asked to speak first. I was doing the Cask Report at the time, and I spoke about how cask ale was looking good, and how that meant Greene King were in a good place if they stuck with it. And everyone else on the panel said, “Why are you talking about beer? It’s irrelevant. It’s the pubs that matter. This is a property company, a retail company. That’s where all the money is. The brewery is just a distraction.”

If you’re only looking at the money side of things, this is inarguable. In the early nineties, when the Beer Orders mandated that breweries could no longer own thousands of pubs, every one of the ‘Big Six’ brewery conglomerates that had dominated British brewing since the sixties eventually decided to sell off the beer and hang on to the pubs (which is why we’re in the extraordinary position of not one of the top ten beer brands in the UK – one of the world’s greatest brewing countries – being owned by a British company.)

Beer is in long-term decline, and brewing is a low-margin business. Pubs are property, and property is worth a lot of money. Pubs also sell a lot more than beer – as a sector, they now make more money from food than drink. If you had to choose to give up one or the other, only the most sentimental of brewing companies would choose to stick with the beer. 

Of course, Fuller’s were not forced to choose between one or the other. They’re well below the limit for the maximum number of pubs a brewer can own. And yet they decided to dispose of the brewing business anyway. 

From what I can understand from off-the-record chats, very few people in the business had any inkling of this happening. Not only were they not told, they were always under the impression that the board at Fuller’s were indeed very sentimentally attached to the brewing business. Ever since Young’s sold its brewing operations and shut its brewery in Wandsworth in 2006, there has been speculation that Fuller’s would – or even must – do the same. But the received wisdom among the upper echelons of the business was that the families of Fullers and Turners who still occupy board positions wouldn’t want to face the ignominy of turning up at their boxes at Twickenham, Lords, Glyndebourne or wherever and having to introduce themselves as ‘shopkeepers’ rather than brewers. I guess they’ve swallowed their (London) Pride on that score. 

I’m writing this blog post in a newly opened Fuller’s pub. Like every Fuller’s pub that’s been opened or refurbished in the last few years, it’s magnificent. We hear a great deal about pub closures, and while Fuller’s have long received praise for their brewing prowess and approach, they’ve not received enough credit for the care, attention and confidence they show in the pub sector. £250m, minus costs and yachts, houses or whatever else the beneficiaries might buy, remains a significant chunk of money to invest in pubs. Those pubs will all still stock Fuller’s beers, as Asahi will be their main beer supplier.

From Asahi’s point of view, this sale sees them building up a very respectable portfolio of western beer brands now. I have to admit that as a drinker, the prospect of Fuller’s, Dark Star, Meantime and Pilsner Urquell, plus Cornish Orchards cider, all on the same team, is an enticing one. Martyn Cornell also raises the sharp observation that this is a foreign lager brewer making a massive vote of confidence in British cask ale. Fuller’s flagship beer, London Pride, has been suffering sustained decline, squeezed between the big multinationals’ marketing power and the rise of craft beer. London Pride and the rest of the Fuller’s portfolio now belong to a company with much deeper pockets. 

And the point many of us miss is that these big companies have a global outlook. You have a well-respected traditional British beer called LONDON PRIDE that now has access to huge distribution in big, beer-hungry, and often massively Anglophile markets in Central Europe and Asia. People often ask me why the hell Carlsberg bought a toxic brand (within the UK beer bubble) called London Fields. Same reason. 

Many who, like me, remain sad about the deal despite this commercial logic, try to put their fears into rational terms by suggesting that a multinational lager brewer might screw up their beloved beers. I genuinely don’t think this will happen. Asahi has absolutely no experience in cask ale. They wouldn’t risk blowing their £250m investment by trying to change what they don’t understand. They’ll leave Fuller’s and Dark Star well alone to do what they know how to do best, merely providing them with more production capacity and wider distribution, and a shitload more health and safety notices around the workplace. That’s what they did with Meantime. And after a couple of false starts, they’ve actually handled Pilsner Urquell pretty well. 

I’m almost talking myself into cheering this sale rather than mourning it. But I can’t quite get there. It’s not just the keyboard warriors who want to keep craft beer pure even as they sit in comfortable corporate jobs drawing salaries from big multinationals who are sad about this sale. Brooklyn Brewmaster Garret Oliver told me that, “Fuller’s, more than any other brewery, is responsible for my becoming a brewer.” Last year I interviewed John Hall, founder of Goose Island, when he came to Fuller’s to brew a collaborative beer to celebrate that company’s 30th anniversary. On business trips to Europe, he used to detour via London simply so he could drink London Pride at the Star Tavern, a Fuller’s pub in Belgravia. When he finally changed out of his business suit and into brewer’s overalls, he brewed Honker’s ale to try to emulate his favourite beer. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale began life as an attempt to imitate Fuller’s ESB. ESB itself is now a category, a bona fide beer style brewed all over the world and judged in international competitions, when it was once simply the name of a tasty, strong beer in the Fuller’s portfolio. 

Fuller’s was the brewery that inspired the breweries that inspired the modern craft beer boom. Arguably no other brewery in the world is as responsible for shaping craft beer. These individual stories of inspiration – and there are many more – cannot be measured on a balance sheet. But they create value nonetheless.

Asahi are not evil and they’re not going to screw up these beers. Fuller’s are not sellouts who deserve to be shunned by beer ideologues. And yet we’ve still lost something. We’ve lost some of beer’s romance and heritage. We’ve lost a sense of stability and continuity. We’ve lost a bit of magic. Yes, I’m being sentimental. But even the most hard-nosed businessman should be wary of scorning or dismissing such sentimentality. Because it’s the basis of loyalty – no, devotion – a fierce passion for some beers and breweries that few if any other products can summon among their core customers. 

My warning to Asahi would be to respect this irrational devotion and sentimentality and to honour the beers and the brewery that created it. I suspect they will do a fairly decent job of that, because the business they just bought depends on them doing so. But it still won’t quite be the same.

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Craft Beer

What Ails Cask Ale? Part 3 of 3

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.

Photo: Frances Brace for Cask Report 1014

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 the Good 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?

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Craft Beer

The Market for Flavourful Beer

When trying to categorise beer, it may be time to drop subtle distinctions – because there are signs the beer drinker already has. 

Cask? Craft? Both??
(photo credit: James Beeson)

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. 

When compiling research for the Cask Report, I missed one or two fascinating nuggets contained in Marston’s On-Trade Beer Report. Check this out:

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:

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

| Beer, CAMRA, Cask ale, Cask report

What Ails Cask Ale? Part Two

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. 

1. Quality

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.

2. Temperature

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.* 

3. Price

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.