Cask ale: a glass half full?

By Jessica Mason

- Last updated on GMT

Image: the first barrier the cask-beer sector has to overcome
Image: the first barrier the cask-beer sector has to overcome
Cask ale has some difficulties to overcome, but with the correct application, it can maintain its rightful place at the bar of all good pubs.

Cask ale’s reputation is at risk. Ordering a pint at the bar is akin to a game of Russian roulette – it’s hard to know if it will be brilliant or a dud. But this does not have to be the case because the issues holding customers to ransom are easily resolved.

This unknown is lamented by beer writer and author Adrian Tierney-Jones, who says the issue stems from “a lack of knowledge in what makes a good beer” and how said beer remains great at the bar. From a customer’s perspective, without this knowledge, they’ll simply not buy it again if they have had a bad pint.

Magic Rock Brewing managing director Richard Burhouse says that it’s the “cask format’s perishability that makes speed of serve and throughput of vital importance”.

If it was food that was failing to be served at the correct temperature, or when past its best, people would be quicker to flag this up. The same needs to happen for cask beer. Like other artisan products such as cheeses and breads, people need to know there are fresh, living versions that taste amazing and there are processed options too.

Beer writer and author Pete Brown highlights that one of the issues cask beer faces is the fact we’re not being honest about it.

He says: “The revival of interest in cask has led to a cosy consensus in the industry where we all tell ourselves cask is thriving, and we feel we can get more pubs to stick it in and more drinkers to drink it, just by telling them they should.
“But there’s a disconnect: we also keep saying cask is a ‘super-premium’, incredibly special, unique product, which it is. But we don’t treat it like that.”

As Brown explains, cask is now in the majority pubs, but in most of them it’s put on the bar too early and stays on past its best. “At either side of its peak, it’s simply not a great example of how good cask can be,” he adds.

But there are ways to address this. “Cask Marque accreditation requires ale to be served between 10°C and 14°C,” says Scott Parker, trading manager for beer and cider at Molson Coors.

10-14°C

the temperature range at which ale should be served
in order for pubs to qualify for Cask Marque accreditation

£100

The cost of Cask Marque training, which can be delivered off-site or in the pub itself

“The cost of training is just £100 and this can be delivered off-site or in the pub itself,” says Cask Marque director Paul Nunny, adding that “payback can take place within two months”, but publicans and staff need to make sure they “sell a cask once its on sale within three days”, after all, “it is a living product”.

Image is the first barrier to overcome

In short, there are three major areas affecting cask ale’s reputation, which are: image, training and pricing. Image is the first barrier the sector has to overcome.

“Cask is seen as old-fashioned by people who are new to the beer sector, which is worrying as those people are at the start of their beer drinking life,” says Jane Peyton, beer sommelier at School of Booze.

“Image remains an issue for cask beer. It would be foolish to fail to recognise that cask beer can have a negative stereotype,” agrees Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) head of communications Tom Stainer. But there are signs this may be improving. “The past few years have seen beer’s reputation and modern image develop and everyone in the industry needs to keep up the momentum,” he adds.

Bill Simmons, beer buyer and food & drink awards judge, feels that CAMRA in particular has not helped the image of cask ale in general by contributing to its backdated image and not moving with the excitement that has surrounded the craft beer revolution.

“Look at GBBF (Great British Beer Festival) and consider that it is the flagship event of the cask-ale industry, it is being totally overshadowed by Craft Beer Rising. Why? Perhaps because Craft Beer Rising is more vibrant, has more to offer and say and it engages with people in a far better way than GBBF has ever done,” says Simmons, adding there are some very close-minded views from people within cask.

Roger Protz, beer writer and author of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide reiterates that the supporters of cask need to wake up, become more progressive and understanding of how exciting beer is becoming and not rest on their laurels. “There is no room for complacency,” he says. “[Look at it this way], craft keg is about 1% of the total beer market. Real ale is about 16%”, this needs to be addressed before that statistic just becomes an historic side note.

“Another part of the problem is that pub work isn’t seen as a career,” says Mark Tranter brewer and founder of Burning Sky Brewery. “It is thought that bartending is generally considered to be a poorly paid job with not much training and no real care from the management down. In the worst cases – where there is a lack of regard for the pub or the role of bartender – people won’t take beers off the bar even when they have clearly gone off.”

If the image is not right and training has not been delivered correctly or at all, then there is no hope in getting the third and, arguably, most important point right: price. People will pay more for high quality, but it is unusual for them to pay for products of an inferior quality at all.

Tiny Rebel co-founder and director Brad Cummings says: “Margins on cask are very low, because of the price landlords typically expect to pay for a cask, which is affected by what drinkers ex-pect to pay for a pint.”

When something is bad, it changes how consumers behave and they are now changing what they drink, he adds. “They are seeking innovative, crafted beers by brewers who are really up against it when it comes to margins. Tastes are moving towards more expensive ingredients, but prices are not moving to the same extent.”

Consumers need educating about cask

Purity managing director Paul Halsey believes cask beer is often heavily discounted and used to create deals, which affects its premium image.

This mentality affects the maverick brewers, looking to create progressive cask beers. They are already squeezed on margins because of the ingredients they use, explains the managing director of Siren Craft Brew, Darron Anley.

A traditional cask beer will be made with only British hops, costing about a third of the price the New World hops an innovating brewer will use. These beers will not be dry-hopped either, so they are using a lot less.

Matthew Curtis, founder of Total Ales and writer for Good Beer Hunting reckons: “There are too many brewers producing a substandard product and selling it too cheaply at one end and too many large producers using the economies of scale to sell it too cheaply at the other”.

Tranter adds: “People think they should be able to go and buy a decent pint for £2.50, but the same people don’t seem to moan about paying more than £3.50 for a cup of coffee. It’s ridiculous.”

Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) managing director Mike Benner says there is a need to “work together to reposition cask so consumers are aware of what goes into a fantastic pint”.

He adds: “We would like brewers to be able to charge more for quality beer and also see pubs make a good profit. This means consumers may need educating by the industry about the wonders of British cask beer.”

But Curtis highlights that trade organisations need to go a step further than saying we should work together and make a stand to stop devaluing cask. He insists: “SIBA needs to support its members by campaigning against the pubcos, rather than allowing them to buy in beer from small producers at a price that isn’t sustainable for the quality-focused cask ale brewer”.

Consumer education should be aimed at areas they are already interested in, such as the provenance of ingredients and locality, argues Hogs Back Brewery owner Rupert Thompson.

It is now up to both the brewers and pubs to work together to solve the issues within the segment and boost its image, urges Craft Beer Co founder Martin Hayes. He adds: “We need to work towards changing people’s perception about cask ale needing to be cheaper.”

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