For some industry figures, cask beer is the very pinnacle of brewing. A craft that requires dedication, attention and care from brewing through to serve. For others, it is an unwelcome distraction; a thankless task with little financial incentive or reward. Regardless of personal perception, cask beer is undoubtedly a quintessential part of Britain.
The 2017/18 Cask Report: Full Coverage
1. Cask beer sales down by 5%
2. Consumers willing to pay more for quality cask beer
3. Punters won't come back for bad beer
4. Cask beer pubs ‘serve good food too’
5. Cask ale drinkers spend more in pubs than other customers
6. Cask is craft, not keg, according to consumers
The Cask Report 2018, released today (27 September), paints a mixed picture for the state of cask beer in the age of craft. On one hand, there are more breweries in the UK than ever before, with 69% of consumers saying the range and flavour of cask beer has never been better. On the other hand, sales of cask beer have continued to fall and several high-profile UK craft breweries have recently turned their backs on the category. What can we learn from the findings of this year’s Cask Report, and what does the future hold for cask?
The headline statistic from this year's report highlights that sales of cask beer are down by 5% over the past six years, and 3.8% in the past year alone. While it is undoubtedly disappointing, and indeed worrying, to see cask suffering a sharp decline in sales, this is symptomatic of a wider decline in beer drinking across the UK, with keg beer and lager also falling by 25% and 11% respectively.
“In a challenging on-trade market, cask has been the most resilient beer sector in the past five years,” says Rosie Davenport, the author of this year’s report. “Cask ale has weathered the on-trade’s tough trading conditions more robustly than other beer sectors, maintaining strong market share and developing new products to sustain customer loyalty.”
“Among pubs with a focus on cask and quality beer generally, 65% have seen cask sales grow in the last year, with just 7% experiencing a dip.”
Cask drinkers are biggest spenders
Cask beer still plays a vital part of ensuring the continued survival of pubs across the UK. According to The Cask Report, cask drinkers spend 30% more money in the pub than other drinkers, and 42% of real ale drinkers visit the pub once a week or more. Their expenditure has increased by 6.5% in the past two years alone, and now stands at an average of £1,030 per consumer. With pubs still closing at a rate of 21 per week, according to The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the cask market is one that wet-led pubs in particular cannot afford to ignore.
To take advantage of cask drinkers’ willingness to spend in the pub, however, it is paramount that the beer is served in the best possible condition. Some 40% of consumers stated they would avoid pubs where they had been served a bad pint, but equally, 67% of cask drinkers said they would be prepared to pay extra for a well-kept pint.
The importance of good 'cellar care and presentation of cask beer' cannot be understated. Four in five customers (81%) said they would be willing to pay up to 20% more for a quality pint of real ale, showing a link between investing in staff training and higher margins on cask beer.
“Well respected, premium-strength cask ales should bear a price point at least equivalent to a premium lager.”
– Rosie Davenport, The Cask Report author
Despite this, keeping cask beer well is still proving problematic for a number of pubs. One in three pints is still served through an unclean beer line, and the same number of cellars are outside of recommended temperatures at some stage during the year. This issue was particularly prevalent this summer due to hot weather in June and July.
Cask Marque, the organisation which commissions The Cask Report, runs an accreditation programme designed to let consumers know a pub has a reputation for good cask beer. The number of Cask Marque-accredited pubs in the UK has now risen to more than 10,000 and 63% of cask drinkers know it is a sign that a beer has been cellared correctly.
“Pubs are still missing out on huge profits by ignoring beer quality and training,” Davenport explains. “Cask Marque is a vital symbol of quality and is recognised by all types of beer drinkers.” On the subject of price, Davenport writes that the higher price commanded by craft keg “demonstrates the scale of opportunity for the cask sector”.
“There is no suggestion to licensees to implement an immediate price rise of 20% across all cask beers,” she says, “But there is a nudge to look at the opportunities demonstrated by pricing in the craft keg category and at the willingness of cask drinkers to pay more when the offer is right.”
“Well-respected, premium-strength cask ales should bear a price point at least equivalent to a premium lager,” she adds.
Discounting culture proving problematic
The need to ensure a higher price point for cask takes on additional significance when considered from a production perspective. In January of this year, Manchester based craft-beer brewery Cloudwater followed the likes of BrewDog and Buxton in announcing it would be ceasing production in cask, citing a lack of profitability and the difficulty in ensuring its final quality on the bar.
If a price point that is acceptable to breweries, consumers and publicans is not settled on, more of the best UK producers will continue to turn their backs on the dispense method.
“The discounting culture that exists in cask is definitely a massive problem in our eyes, and it lowers people's expectation of the value of the product they are buying,” adds Siren Craft Brewery owner Darron Anley.
“We have pulled back from the amount of beer we put into cask by a reasonable chunk and that is a purely commercial decision. The more production I turn over to cask beer, the less I can make sure we meet the overheads of the brewery.”
“For me, cask beer is still important and it still meets one of our aims, which is to pull new drinkers into what we do and what we are about. Cask beer is definitely a medium I like and I want to continue to do that, but we have probably dropped our production by about 20% this year alone. The big increase we have seen has actually been in keg, that's where most of our efforts are in terms of growth.”
Elsewhere in the report, the debate around cask and craft continues to loom large, despite many in beer calling for an amnesty to stop comparing the two. Cask Marque insists that cask is king in this regard, citing recent a YouGov survey that claimed 56% of craft drinkers say cask is a craft beer, but only 8% see keg as craft. Smaller, keg-focused breweries have hit back at this assertion, saying that overall quality is more important that dispense method.
“To say cask is craft and keg is not divides drinkers instead of uniting them,” Fourpure Brewing Co’s head of operations Sean Knight says. “The whole idea of cask v keg is kind of redundant. We should be focusing on better quality beer of all types.”
“The bigger problem in the industry at the moment is quality of beer, and you can get bad quality beer in both cask and keg.”
“What's important is that interest in beer from independent craft brewers has never been higher and the variety and quality has never been greater in Britain.”
– Mike Benner, Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA)
The lack of definition for craft remains a growing issue, with consumers and publicans both split over what exactly the term means. Consumers tend to associate craft beer with small, locally brewed products, while licensees see it more as an expensive and trendy offering.
Last year, the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) launched a new logo aimed at helping consumers identify independently produced beers. In an increasingly crowded marketplace (there are now 1,704 breweries operating in the UK), wider uptake of this logo and an industry standard definition of craft that incorporates both cask and keg would help bar staff upsell products from independent producers and support growth.
"Cask beer is an important part of the independent beer market in the UK,” SIBA chief executive Mike Benner says. “For our members it still represents the majority of overall production, though in recent years we have seen measurable growth in keg and small pack, showing that quality beer can come in a range of formats.
“What's important is that interest in beer from independent craft brewers has never been higher, and the variety and quality has never been greater in Britain.”
“However, the growth in popularity of independent craft beer has not gone unnoticed by global beer companies,” Benner continues. “They are increasingly making in-roads into the market either by buying out previously independent craft brewers or by launching their own beers marketed as craft.
“SIBA's Assured Independent British Craft Brewer logo makes it crystal clear a beer was brewed by a truly independent British craft brewer and we would like to see the majority of brewers adopt the logo across the UK, adding it to pump clips, bottles and can labels."
Practical advice for publicans
The British Beer & Pub Association chief executive Brigid Simmonds says: “A great beer offering is of course vital for any pub. Cask remains extremely important, and has outperformed the beer market as a whole in recent years. Cask customers are very discerning, and they spend more than other drinkers, and go to the pub more often.
“Quality of dispense and good cellar management is an area where you cannot cut corners. The Cask Report is absolutely right to shine a light on these issues, and Cask Marque does great work in this area."
The Cask Report also offers practical guidance to pubs on how to win over consumers that remain unsure about cask. The biggest barrier remains that many customers (38% of non-cask drinkers) believe they would not like the taste. The report suggests offering a try-before-you-buy system and writing tasting notes on boards and menus as possible solutions to this issue, while also highlighting the range of styles and flavours now available in cask. Davenport recommends the use of third and half-pint measures to encourage drinkers put off by the idea of drinking pints, a suggestion echoed by CAMRA Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz in an interview with The Morning Advertiser last month.
“In this country we are not very imaginative when it comes to glassware, it’s either a pint or a half,” Protz says, “whereas you go to Belgium and every beer has its own glass. We should encourage people to drink less and drink better.”
Ultimately, the major lessons to be taken from this year’s report are twofold. Firstly, the role of education in securing cask’s future cannot be understated. There are still a huge number of potential cask drinkers who are too scared to try the style, and more still who have tried it and been put off by bar cellaring and poor conditioning. To ensure strong cask sales and to change the perception of the style (and potentially shift its price point upwards), bar staff need to know what cask is, how to look after it and how to sell it.
Secondly, cask champions such as Cask Marque need to move beyond comparing cask beer with keg. Craft is not and should not be defined by dispense method, but by quality, innovation and passion, and the greatest threat to cask beer comes not from craft keg but from global drinks giants seeking to undercut and otherwise damage cask sales.
By embracing the broad array of styles of beer available across all dispense methods and developing a reputation for being a good beer pub, venues will naturally experience an uptake in cask sales, and help ensure the style’s continued survival in British pubs.