I recently attended the Bristol Craft Beer Festival (BCBF) and my only disappointment was that while there was stacks of delicious keg beer on offer, there was no cask beer.
Entry to the festival was £30 for a five-hour session, which included a free tulip glass and as many 1/6 pint tasters as you like. I tried about 18 different tasters – about three pints of beer, averaging £10 each.
So did I feel ripped off? Well, no actually. The experience was fantastic. The chance to try a multitude of different beers from a huge range of styles and discuss them with the brewers in a unique setting meant the value could not be measured in just millilitres of liquid consumed.
It got me thinking about my beloved cask beer and tried to imagine the outrage at a £10 pint at a typical beer festival. Craft keg prices command a premium roughly 33% higher than cask and people seem to accept this. It’s fair to say that cask beer is hugely undervalued in comparison.
My personal preference is almost always for cask beer. Due to its shorter shelf life, it’s often served fresher than keg. It also commands greater cellarmanship and risk of spoilage.
In any other industry, a product that is fresher, arguably better, is served with skill and carries risk should command a premium. So why does craft keg carry a greater premium than cask?
Moving away from price
What craft has done brilliantly is move the focus away from price, and towards quality of experience.
The best craft beer bars are well designed, with expert bar staff who engage the customer, the beverages are full flavoured, high quality and with a story or personality behind them, the glassware is carefully considered, the branding and packaging is immaculate and there is a whole discourse and fashion culture to engage in should you wish. Through all this added value, craft has been able to justify the premium.
The traditional champion of cask, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), has saved our national drink and done a huge amount for us. However, as a consumer organisation that emerged from the era of giant brewing monopolies, its campaigns have often been price-focused, (fair price and fair measure on a pint, CAMRA discount schemes, etc.), which now require a rethink.
There are currently 1,700 (mostly cask) breweries in the UK and as price competition starts to bite, brewers may have to focus on safer, less experimental but faster-selling products, look at cost, possibly quality reduction, or search for higher profits by switching from cask to keg.
Like it or loathe it, lessons can be learnt from the craft beer movement.