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 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.
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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.
CAMRA members who voted against a motion to extend the remit of the organisation think they did so to preserve cask ale. In reality, they’re killing it.
On Saturday, the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) Revitalisation Project reached its conclusion. At the organisation’s AGM, members voted on a range of measures that would modernise the campaign and broaden its scope. All but one of these measures was passed, and there is undoubtedly cause for celebration that the campaign has resolved to promote the benefits of moderate social drinking, show more support for pubs, and think more about inclusivity. But the one proposal that would have really changed everything – that CAMRA should “act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers” – was not passed. 72% of CAMRA members voted for it, but it needed 75% to pass. A small minority of the organisation’s members have prevented the majority from moving it forward.
I’ll concede that this tweet, posted on Saturday night when I heard the news, was a bit melodramatic:
But I stand by the feelings of sadness and dismay that prompted it. I really didn’t anticipate that it would cause so much discussion on Twitter yesterday, with agreement and disagreement both being expressed passionately. The comments of many of those who delighted in the motion’s failure only deepened my feelings that both CAMRA and cask ale are in deep trouble. So I’m going to outline why here, in a lot more than 280 characters.
First, let’s deal with some of the predictable responses and get them out of the way.
1.”Real ale is the only beer worth drinking. CAMRA is right to fight for it exclusively because anything else is fizzy industrial piss.”
If you really think this, I have nothing to say to you. You might as well stop reading now. You know nothing about beer. Go and do something else.
2. “Duh – the clue is in the name! Its the campaign for REAL ale.”
No, the clue is not in the name. It’s not called the Campaign for Cask Ale. (Although CACA is perhaps a more descriptive acronym for the campaign at the moment.) Cask ale has a precise technical definition. ‘Real ale’ is a marketing and campaigning slogan created by CAMRA when it was already two years old. CAMRA invented the term and decided what it meant, and can change that meaning whenever it chooses. Leaving aside the campaign’s support for cider and perry, its commitment to pubs, and its arm’s-length support for traditional German, Czech and Belgian beer styles (so long as they stay over there) CAMRA already has changed the definition of what it considers to be real ale. It did so when it decided bottle-conditioned beer also counted as real ale, and again more recently when it declared key keg to be real ale. It has the freedom to apply the term ‘real ale’ to anything it wants, because it invented the term, and controls its definition.
3. “OK, I do like some other beers, but cask ale is always better so we should stick to campaigning just for that.”
No it’s not. Green King IPA is not a better beer than Westmalle Tripel. Doom Bar is not a better beer than Pilsner Urquell (although ultimately, it comes down to individual taste). British brewers are now making decent lagers and Belgian style beers, among others, that do not have cask conditioning as part of their traditional production or dispense. Is cask special? Absolutely. Does it deserve to be supported and campaigned for? Totally. But you don’t have to pretend it’s always better than anything else in order to support it. If you do, you sound like me and my fellow Barnsley FC supporters, standing on the terraces at Oakwell chanting that our club is by far the greatest team the world has ever seen, when clearly they aren’t.
4. “If you love keg beer so much, go and start your own campaign for keg beer.”
This is the most important and complex issue to address, and I’m going to spend the rest of this blog on it.
I suppose it’s easy to assume that the reason people like me want CAMRA to support a wider range of quality beers is that we want the the campaign to help what CAMRA drinkers insist on calling ‘craft keg.’ But for me at least, that’s not the point. And anyway, craft keg os doing just fine without CAMRA’s help. The point is that segmenting the market into cask and keg is no longer the most relevant and useful way of looking at things, if it ever was. There’s the obvious point that what ‘keg’ beer is has changed fundamentally since CAMRA was founded. But it’s about much more than that.
Cask ale’s health has recently gone into severe decline. Over the twelve months to February 2018, and in the twelve months before that, cask volume declined by over 4% each year – that means almost ten per cent of the entire cask market has vanished in the last 24 months.
It’s curious, perhaps, that this decline comes at a time when CAMRA’s membership is increasing. It’s easy to equate CAMRA’s growth with burgeoning interest in cask. Clearly, this is not the case. Cask ale has gone into steep decline as CAMRA’s membership soars. CAMRA does many fine things in support of cask, but the sum total as it stands is not doing enough to protect cask ale. So something has to change.
What I find most alarming is that no one in the cask ale industry wants to ‘fess up that there’s a serious issue here. This is a recipe for disaster, like the middle-aged man who won’t go and get that pain checked out at any the doctor because he’s scared of what he might hear, and anyway it might just go away. Last year. when I wrote about the quality issues around cask in London, I was comprehensively attacked from all corners of the industry, in a number of different publications. Now, the plight of cask is actively being covered up. From 2007 to 2015, I wrote eight editions of the Cask Report. Every single one of them contained a figure for cask ale’s value and volume performance versus the previous twelve months. The two editions of the report that have come out since I resigned from doing it have not contained this figure – because it’s so bad. The most recent edition of the Report stated that cask had declined by 5% over the last five years, which was in line with the overall beer market. The reason they gave a five-year figure is to disguise the fact that almost all that decline has come in the last two years.
It also disguises the fact that cask, for the first time in a decade, has begun to perform worse than the rest of the beer market.
One of the central arguments of the Cask Report since year one was that while cask ale was in steady decline, it was actually outperforming the rest of the on-trade beer market. This is no longer true. The total on-trade beer market is steadily improving while casks performance worsens.
The other thing that used to be true was that cask was performing way better than keg. It was strongly increasing its share of total ale as people turned away from smoothflow and traditional keg. While that is surely still happening, the arrival of craft keg finally seems to be having an impact on total keg’s performance. For a long time, keg was in seemingly terminal decline. Now, it’s outperforming cask. (Although it would be useful if craft keg could be separated from old keg to get a clearer picture.)
Now, I imagine that to some seasoned casketeers, this chart will represent a battle cry. “See? We were right! Evil keg is making a comeback, we must protect cask at all costs! Keg is or enemy!”
Well, good luck with that. It really was nice knowing you. You know those clickbait headlines that tell you you’ve been brushing you’re teeth wrong your whole life? To a non-cask drinker, that’s what you sound like., only more annoying. And if you want to save cask ale, you need to get more non-cask drinkers to start drinking cask. You can’t do that by going on about how awful keg is. Especially when it’s not true.
Year after year, research for the Cask Report showed us that there were no deep-seated objection to cask, not in significant numbers. any way. The main reason people hadn’t tried it was that they hadn’t been given a reason to. Cask needs to be made relevant to these people in the context of what they’re already drinking: if you like that, you might like this. Craft keg drinkers are a soft target for cask to convert – they’re half way there already, as this piece of research commissioned for Box Steam Brewery (which produces both traditional cask and modern craft beers) shows.
Source: Big beer ballot 2018, Colour and Thing
Most drinkers just want good beer, irrespective of who made it or what it comes in. Most cask ale brewers now brew in other formats as well – cask now only accounts for 74% of SIBA members’ output, which puts CAMRA in the strange position of endorsing some but not all of the beer of the breweries it claims to support. Most cask drinkers also drink other drinks. Back in my advertising days. I had access to a big survey database that asked pretty much anything you could think of. One attitude statement was ‘The only beer worth drinking is real ale.’ I took people who ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement, and split them to see what beer brands they claimed to drink ‘most often’. Top of the list was Stella Artois. Some cask drinkers switch to Guinness if they’re in a pub with nothing good on. Some Stella drinkers have a pint of cask with their dads when they go home to visit. Many drinkers I know make a choice based on style, ABV or brewery before they decide whether they want cask or keg. From both a producer’s and drinker’s perspective, saying you’re only going to support cask and keep it in some isolated bubble actually confuses things rather than helping get the message across.
To engage the occasional or non-cask drinker more often, cask needs to speak to them on their own terms, where they are, and in a way that’s relevant to them. In other words, in order to save cask ale, CAMRA needs to engage with and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers – precisely the thing its most reactionary members have just voted against.
Craft keg is not the enemy. There are many reasons people are walking away from cask. Look at the graphs above – no sector is having a great time here. Pubs are closing, partly because we’re visiting them less often than we used to. We’re drinking less alcohol overall, which is being exacerbated by increasingly blatant lies from the anti-alcohol lobby. Within that shrinking market, we’re drinking more at home than we do out of the home. When we do fancy a drink, we’re increasingly likely to order wine or spirits – both of which are in growth at beer’s expense. And within this scenario, cask is doing worse now than any other beer style because of its appalling quality issues – which need to be saved by training and education as a matter for urgency – and because the price of this premium product has been depressed to such an extent that publicans can sell other beers – which are easier to keep and have less wastage than cask – for a lot more money. The are the main reasons cask is in decline. CAMRA’s leadership do of course recognise all this, and deserve huge credit for working so hard to moderniser the organisation. But while CAMRA members are still spending most of their time fretting about the kind of container beer comes in, they are not tackling these other, far more important issues as urgently as they could. Broaden the remit to good beer, establish cask’s relevance within that broader remit, and champion the bigger picture. You just might turn cask’s fortunes around.
Or you could just sit there and carrying on ranting like these guys, and fade into deserved irrelevance.
Cask ale, real ale, handpulled ale – call it what you will – grew by 1.6% in 2011. This is the first time cask volume has grown (as opposed to not declining by very much) for twenty years. Sales in 2012 to date are steady, which is still excellent news given that the total UK beer market – down 3.5% in 2011 – is down again this year. Cask now has such momentum behind it that it has overtaken keg as the most popular draught ale format.
This all made my launch of this year’s Cask Report last night very pleasant indeed. When you’re the messenger, it’s nice when no one wants to shoot you.
This is the sixth time I’ve written the Cask Report. Up to now, it’s been a weighty tome that acts as a snapshot of what’s happening to cask ale, who’s drinking it and why, and a detailed source of information for licensees about how to choose, stock and sell cask ale in a way that will increase pub turnover and profitability.
This year we’ve done it a little differently. All the advice for licensees is now running as a monthly section of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser called ‘Cask Matters‘. With greater frequency we can tailor the advice more precisely, examining in detail how cask can contribute to the character and bottom line of the pub in different ways, with case studies, Q&A’s, advice, industry comment and the occasional bit of whimsy from yours truly. You can download PDFs here. We should probably do Boxing Day TV ads saying you get a free binder with the first issue and it builds up into a beautiful collection or something.
The market stats are now in a thinner, flimsier Cask Report that gives a much more concise and easily navigable picture of what’s happening to cask ale. Apart from the basic stats, this year’s report examines in further detail two issues that have emerged as key in the last couple of years:
What are the main drivers fo cask ale growth? Why do drinkers like it? And what are the barriers to trial among those who have never tried it?
What range of cask ales should a landlord stock?
Drivers and barriers
53% of British adults have now tried cask ale. Among those who have tried it, 84% have gone on to drink it, at least occasionally. People like cask because of its flavour and variety – microbrewers are now brewing a wide array of different beer styles:
The problem for cask is that 71% people who’ve tried it drink it occasionally or rarely. Only 13% claim to drink it often or regularly. Like ‘Guinness drinkers’ who only ever have a pint on Paddy’s Day, an awful lot of cask ale drinkers are people who tend to order a Peroni or Stella, until the rare occasions they go to a beer festival or visit a nice country pub.
Those who love cask, as well as loving the flavour, tend to have other reasons for drinking it too. Some like to support a local producer, others a great British tradition. Some like it for its natural ingredients. Cask ale allows people who know it to support causes or make statements about things they care about. This gives brewers and pubs a list of things they could say about cask to encourage trial, or get occasional drinkers more interested.
Among those who haven’t tried cask, there are no real barriers – they just haven;t been given a good reason why they should try it:
The negative stereotypes about it being warm, flat or an old man’s drink are tiny reasons compared to a simple lack of any reason why they should care. Again, looking at committed drinkers gives us some good clues as to what those good reasons might be.
Stocking the optimal cask ale range
Talk to a beer blogger and they’ll tell you you should be stocking awesome craft ales from the awesome new wave of microbrewers using awesome New World hops and awesome wood ageing and an awesome lack of finings. Talk to a regional brewer and they’ll tell you people want to see familiar, tried and trusted brands on the bar.
Both are right.
If I were to open a pub in London tomorrow, London Pride and Doom Bar would be on the bar permanently. I would then have a seasonal beer from a traditional British family brewer, and three pumps stocking a range of IPAs, milds, porters, stouts, golden ales, all depending on seasonality and availability, the most eclectic and exciting mix I could find.
Most readers of this blog, I would guess, are dismissive of Doom Bar. So am I. But it sells by the bucketload, and it sells to people who would never buy Magic Rock Human Cannonball. There are at least 3000 different cask ales in Britain, which is amazing.
But know what? The top 39 most recognised brands account for half of the total market volume. Most pubs are stocking too many unfamiliar beers and not enough recognised brands. Sales go up the more familiar, established brands you have on the bar.
Conversely, it’s eclectic, unfamiliar beers, often brewed by micros, that are driving the current excitement in the cask ale market. Stock only familiar brands and people will think your range is crashingly dull, and rightly so.
Also – and this is common sense, but you’d be surprised – know your audience. If you are a self-declared craft beer bar and you know that your clientele consists of people who actively seek out new beers, weigh your range to rotating new and unfamiliar beers. If you’re a typical high street pub, refresh your range constantly, but always have a few favourites on the bar.
Whoever you are though, it’s good business sense to have both. 75% of cask ale drinkers say a familiar, trusted brand is important when choosing what beer to drink. And 78% say they like to try new beers from microbreweries. You may have noticed that adds up to more then a hundred – the same people want both familiarity and novelty – and that’s consistent across every piece fo research we did for the report.
Download. Digest. And maybe we can stop arguing – from a commercial point of view at least – about what’s best, big brands or micros? Both are essential from the point of view of a good pub.
Well there we are. I’ve set up the direct debit and got my membership number.
This is in some ways a ‘hell freezes over’ moment for me, and there are traces of discomfort around the edges of my decision. But it was the right thing to do.
What’s the big deal? Many of my readers (and friends) simply assume I’m a CAMRA member already, given what I do.
A few words of explanation for people who may have started following me more recently:
Back in the day, when I wrote my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, I earned a bit of notoriety by attacking CAMRA in its pages. I have carried on attacking them – albeit with declining frequency – ever since. With hundreds of beer blogs now, many written by younger, craft beer fans, there’s nothing unusual these days about seeing CAMRA slagged for being out of touch, blinkered, too set in its ways etc. But at the time I wrote MWIAP, in ye olde pre-beer blogging, pre-social media days, you didn’t do that. I was unable to find anything else in print at the time about CAMRA that deviated from the line that cask beer was facing extinction until they came along, and then they arrived, and saved the world.
I was a big real ale fan, but I also drank mainstream lager (there wasn’t much else between them back then.) When I went to CAMRA beer festivals I felt alienated. It came across as a clique – one that I really didn’t want to be part of. There was a sneering, condescending attitude towards people who drank lager – and as I keep saying, calling someone an idiot has never been a great strategy for persuading them round to your point of view. There was that social stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt. I didn’t want anyone to think that just because I was writing about beer, I was one of those people. (Distressingly, in the last ten years I’ve grown to look more similar to this stereotype than I would like. But beards are trendy now. As for the belly, well, I need to so something about that. The rest of it, mercifully, remains at a distance.)
I wanted no part of a world view that denied there was any such thing as good beer that wasn’t real ale. It rankled when lager was unfailingly dismissed as ‘industrial yellow fizz’. I gnashed my teeth whenever I picked up a book with a title like ‘Beers of Britain’, and brands like Carling weren’t even in the index. OK, you might not like big mainstream brands, but saying you were writing about British beer and then pretending 70% of the market simply didn’t exist was childish. Include them and dismiss them as crap in one line if you must, but really… I’d come away from events such as the Great British Beer Festival (not the ‘Great British Real Ale Festival’, note) feeling genuinely angry at the distorted picture it gave of British beer, and the contradictions that riddled CAMRA’s stance on “We’re the campaign for real ale, that’s our name, we can’t support anything else (oh, except if we feel like campaigning for cider, oh and Budvar.)”
I shared many of CAMRA’s beliefs. But I felt I couldn’t sign my name to an organisation that believed real ale was the only beer worth drinking. The emphasis on format and container rankled whenever I thought about it.
So what’s changed? Is this a sell out, a kind of tiny scale inversion of Bob Dylan going electric?
Well, the nerds are still there, and I’m still uncomfortable about people at parties thinking I’m one of them when I tell them what I do. And some of those issues I objected to are arguably more prevalent than ever, now craft beer has expanded beyond real ale to incorporate quality drinks of all shapes, sizes, formats and containers (jeez, even canned beer is good nowadays). And CAMRA still refuses to change its stance on campaigning for real ale, and only real ale (unless they feel like bending the rules for cider, Budvar, etc.) I still have fundamental disagreements with them on major policy directions. I still think they often present an image that’s by turns cheesy, out of date and out of touch, and sometimes pompous and arrogant.
But many things are different now.
I could talk about how CAMRA’s membership has doubled since I started writing about beer, but the number of outlandish nerds hasn’t, about how CAMRA’s membership is broader, younger, more female, more inclusive now.
I could talk about how key figures such as CEO Mike Benner and magazine editor Tom Stainer talk nothing but good sense whenever they open their mouths, or how branch chairmen like Tandleman present a moderate view that, even if I sometimes disagree with, I can see the point of, and how these are all great people to enjoy a beer with.
I could reflect on the fact that 140,000 people represents a very broad church and a huge spread of opinions, that there is no monolithic ‘CAMRA’ to rail against, and that every time I criticise aspects of CAMRA there are many members who agree with me.
I could point out that there is a new rhetoric coming from a senior level, along the lines that a Campaign FOR Real Ale does not mean a Campaign AGAINST Other Beers, that even if CAMRA does not act for other great types of beer, it doesn’t (or rather, shouldn’t) act against them, and that while there are still some dinosaurs with positions of influence within the organisation who don’t reflect this official stance, I am as ‘for’ real ale as I am ‘for’ any other type of craft beer (because real ale is one type of craft beer – of course it is).
I could admit that for the last four or five years I’ve really, really enjoyed the Great British Beer Festival, despite its Gordian knots of logic and bureaucracy.
And I could argue that, as a writer who likes to campaign for great beer when it is being attacked or derided, when pubs are being hammered by successive governments and beer is still, for the most part, either ignored or scapegoated by the press, it’s important to stop playing Judean People’s Popular Front and recognise that what unites us is more important than what divides us. This is what I’ve been preaching at industry conferences and in the trade press for a while now, and my own anti-CAMRA stance is increasingly at odds with what I’m saying.
I could promise to campaign from within, and try to justify my decision by saying that I’ll continue my criticism at conferences and AGMs, where it might have more effect. (But I’m not sure I have the time or the will for that.)
I could say all these things to justify my about-face.
But while I’m not saying any of that is untrue, or not a factor, the real reason I’m joining CAMRA is that being a member is the only bleeedin’ way I can get hold of BEER magazine, which now goes out to members only, and is the only consumer-oriented beer publication in the UK, and pretty much the only publication on beer of any description that I always read cover to cover when I can scrounge a copy from Tom. I give in. I surrender. OK, I’ll join your bloody organisation. Just send me the magazine.