Cask Marque's Time to Get Real? initiative to raise the profile of real ales has got off to a successful start.
Cask ale has suffered from something of an image problem in recent years. Seen as a drink for sandal-wearing, beard-sporting, beer-bellied men it has been considered unpleasant by customers and too much trouble by barstaff and licensees.
But that could all be about to change after a trial initiative by industry standard Cask Marque to encourage people to drink real ale raised sales in 37 per cent of the pubs taking part.
Cask ale should be the success story of the pub industry. Quintessentially British - remember John Major's patriotic speech about "warm beer" - it should have been embraced by pub-goers. After all, for all the efforts put into developing widgets, cask ale cannot be served in a can. Ale needs pubs and pubs need ale - or do they?
Sales of cask ale have been in a steady decline over the past few years, having been hit by the rise of the independent pub operators, changing consumer tastes and the introduction of the nitrokeg.
British people turned their backs on their traditional brews, preferring instead to sup continental lager, wine and premium packaged spirits.
But, according to Cask Marque, things are looking up. The organisation's Time to Get Real? campaign, a pilot scheme for a national initiative, ended last week and the results have been encouraging to say the least.
Sales of cask ale rose in 37 per cent of the 40 pubs that participated and, more importantly, the image of the product appeared to change.
The trial of the campaign was launched in March with the aims of promoting a "vibrant image" of cask ale, increasing awareness of cask ale and offering customers a quality guarantee.
The trial was in two parts. The first - "try before you buy" - meant customers could sample an ale in a small branded glass before choosing whether to commit to a pint.
The second - a "satisfaction guaranteed" money back pledge - was to let customers know they could have a refund if they did not enjoy their pint.
Licensees could choose which to run. Fourteen pubs picked "try before you buy", 10 picked "satisfaction guaranteed" and 16 chose a combined promotion.
The pubs taking part in the campaign were spread around Berkshire and Oxfordshire and were a mixed selection of town centre, community and rural outlets, with more rural pubs taking part (44 per cent) than the other types.
Before the campaign, Cask Marque's research discovered cask beer drinkers were mostly 30 to 60-years-old and 90 per cent of them were male.
Barstaff agreed real ale was important to the business but 10 per cent of them said they never drank it and 30 per cent said although they had tried it, they preferred other drinks.
Paul Nunny, director of Cask Marque, said: "If barstaff do not drink real ale they will be less likely to promote it so we realised we had to do some education and conversion among staff as well as customers."
One of the criticisms levelled at Cask Marque in the past has been its failure to be recognised as a standard by the general public.
Although the campaign was supported by companies including London-based brewer Fuller's, Suffolk's Greene King and pub operator JD Wetherspoon, it may have been the lack of public knowledge about Cask Marque that deterred more big names joining the Time to Get Real? initiative. When the campaign goes national next month, organisers hope more companies will put their weight behind the promotion.
The trial did prove a success as 37 per cent of the pubs involved said sales of cask ale had risen as a result of the campaign. One licensee said: "We saw increased like-for-like
sales, despite foot-and-mouth. Generally sales for lager and stouts were down."
The small branded glasses used in the "try before you buy" promotion proved particularly irresistible to customers. One licensee phoned Cask Marque to tell organisers all his glasses had been stolen!
Barstaff in 30 per cent of the pubs said they understood cask ale better after the campaign and their own personal consumption of ale increased in 17 per cent of the pubs.
Younger drinkers were also attracted by the campaign and drinking of cask ale by 18 to 24-year-olds increased in 20 per cent of the pubs. One licensee said: "A lot of young people couldn't believe there was a free tasting trial on offer." Another said: "It was a good laugh. Customers like something for nothing. The campaign would be ideal in the summer."
Mr Nunny said: "Time to Get Real? has given customers the quality assurance they wanted and has upgraded pubs' ability to promote real ales."
He added that he was delighted with the results of the campaign and was now aiming to launch it nationally - into the 1,700 Cask Marque pubs - in June.
"I think it's given us a lot of very useful information and a much better idea of how to promote cask ale and Cask Marque to the general public. It's definitely time to get real."
With the Time to Get Real? campaign taking off, and the Campaign for Real Ale planning to promote its Ask if it's Cask initiative to younger drinkers, it could be that cask ale finally gets the makeover it has been needing for so long and reclaims its place in British pubs.
Time to Get Real? results
- Try Before You Buy: 59 per cent of pubs said it had a positive effect on the numbers of requests to try a beer
- Satisfaction Guaranteed: Pubs provided an average of two refunds a week.
- Mixed promotion: Customers responded more to Try Before You Buy when offered a choice of the promotions.
- The impact of the promotion:
37 per cent of pubs reported an increase in sales of cask ale.
30 per cent reported an increased understanding of cask ale by their staff.
Staff consumption of cask ale increased in 17 per cent of pubs.