Cask Beer: solving the problem of price

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Undervalued: The price of cask beer rarely reflects its premium nature
Undervalued: The price of cask beer rarely reflects its premium nature
Real ale is a uniquely British phenomenon, but the price of cask rarely reflects its premium nature. What can operators, brewers and other industry figures do to ensure that it remains the point of difference in the Great British pub?

Make no mistake about it; cask beer is in a difficult place. Despite the optimistic tone of The Cask Report 2018,​ which proudly declared that cask was “the most resilient beer sector” over the last five years, an alarming 3.8% fall in sales in the last 12 months, and a growing number of breweries turning their back on the dispense method, remain areas of huge concern for the industry. But why does this decline matter to the pub, and how can the on-trade help revive the cask sector?

One of the major reasons breweries have given for turning their back on cask is the price it commands on the bar. It is rare to see a pub place its cask offering at a similar price point to its craft keg or even premium lager options, and with more breweries than ever competing for handpumps (over 2,000 according to the latest statistics from The British Beer and Pub Association), price has been forced so low that for many breweries, the dispense method is no longer commercially viable.

Speaking to The Morning Advertiser​ last year, Siren Craft Brew founder Darron Anley outlined the difficulty cask production caused his brewery. “We have pulled back from the amount of beer we put into cask by a reasonable chunk and that is a purely commercial decision,” he said. “The more production I turn over to cask beer, the less I can make sure we meet the overheads of the brewery.”

This is a view that is echoed by other brewers across the industry. “The cask market is currently a challenging category. It’s over-supplied, as the barriers are low to enter, which can drive down wholesale prices paid down to the lowest common denominator,” explains St Austell brewing director and industry veteran Roger Ryman. “Whilst variety is not a bad thing, and increased competition drives excellence in brewing standards, more choice means there are many options for drinkers to choose from. The pressures of this market present cask with a continual battle.”

Near impossible to replicate

It is a battle, of course, that holds particular significance for the pub, where cask ale remains a major point of difference. The increasing proliferation of great beer in UK supermarkets has certainly made staying at home a more attractive proposition, but it remains neigh on impossible to replicate the unique experience and taste of cask ale in an off-trade environment. Hence, one could argue that the future of pubs is intrinsically tied to the survival of cask beer, and pubs must therefore take action to secure a positive future for the dispense method.

On the subject of why there is such a value perception issue surrounding cask beer, industry figures blame a combination of factors. “Recent cask ale price pressure in the UK is mainly due to classic supply and demand economics, i.e. too many brewers chasing too few pubs,” says Vernon Amor, managing director of Wye Valley Brewery. “The root cause of this is the unintended consequences of progressive beer duty, which has seen a mushrooming in new small breweries, who maybe haven’t considered the marketplace.”

Smaller breweries, however, claim that the issue is more historical, and stems from both cask’s limited shelf life, and the intrinsic link consumers make between alcoholic strength and price.

“A major reason for cask traditionally being cheaper is the shorter shelf life,” says Steve Grae, co-founder of London’s Affinity Brew Co. “Once you put that beer on it has to be finished in three days, and what are you going to do after 3-5 days; you're going to go and buy another beer. So the cheaper the brewery can offer it to the pub, the more likely they are to get a returning customer.

“We know there has been discounting going on, and some potentially larger breweries can afford to sell for less. I wouldn't want to criticise their business practice or for wanting to sell their cask cheaper because they want pubs to keep buying it!”

Try more, drink less

On the topic of the relationship between price and alcoholic strength, Grae adds: ”The whole idea that price should be linked to ABV suggests that there is value in what gets you drunk quickest, and personally I think people need to be trying more and drinking less,”

This view is also shared by Tiny Rebel co-founder Bradley Cummings, who recently hit the headlines for calling on​ The Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) to ban JD Wetherspoon vouchers in an attempt to halt the devaluation of cask beer.

 “Cask is has been historically very much been priced a certain way and based around ABV,” he says. “Craft beer or keg beer has had the luxury of being able to make its own price right from the get-go, and it has never had the same historical expectation of price around it that cask suffers from.

“Everything else in beer has evolved. Beer styles, brewing techniques and everything else have evolved but price is the one thing that hasn't at this moment in time, and that is something that needs addressing.

It’s clear, then, that something needs to change. Simply putting the price of your cask beer up without explanation, however, is a recipe for disaster. The Cask Report 2018 ​showed that four in five customers (81%) would be willing to pay up to 20% more for a quality pint of real ale, but this needs to be backed up by effective sales techniques and well-educated staff. It is imperative that bartenders are adept at upselling the cask beer offering, explaining to customers why the price has gone up, and presenting their product in the best possible way.

“Licensees have a raft of tools available to help them promote their cask ale offer,” explains Rupert Thompson, managing director at Hogs Back Brewery. “Chalkboards with tasting notes, and a ‘try before you buy’ offer are both great ways of helping customers understand your cask ales and encourage them to purchase.

“However, even more effective are knowledgeable and enthusiastic team members – so make sure your bartenders have tasted all your cask ales and can chat about them to customers.”

Cummings echoes this sentiment. “For me education, starting at the consumer level, is where we need to start addressing the issue,” he says. “Talk about why it costs what it does, and why this pint costs more than that pint. What goes into that beer, and how much of that price is made up of duty. A lot of people don't understand that if a cask costs £80, over a quarter of that might be tax.”

Quality over quantity

There is little point in trying to command a premium price for cask, however, if the final product does not live up to required standards. Without delving too deeply into the importance of good cellarcare (which could and indeed has made up an entire feature on its own), it is worth noting the view of Magic Rock managing director Richard Burhouse, who recently told M​A​ that quality over quantity was the key for pubs seeking to develop a good reputation for cask.

“Pubs need to be a bit more stubborn from a quality perspective, and there could be more training and information out there as to what good cask is and how long it keeps on the bar,” Burhouse said. “Lots of places have too many options as far as cask is concerned and that is when you start to run into quality issues, and that pulls the whole sector down.”

Of course, it isn’t just down to pubs to change the perception of cask, and breweries need to do more themselves to ensure the product commands the premium it deserves. Affinity Brewing Co has recently announced details of a festival dedicated to cask beer that it is hosting in April. Beers at the festival will be priced at £2.50 a half, or £5 a pint. Grae explains that this decision was down to a desire to redefine consumer’s value perception of cask.

“The price point is reflective of what we have offered each brewery for their beer,” he says. “We are paying a premium across the board for the beers. We are working with some producers who don't ordinarily produce cask ale for the very reason that their competitors in the cask beer sector are larger and can potentially sell a little bit cheaper.”

Another brewery seeking to change consumer attitudes towards cask ale is Lincoln Green Brewing Company. The Nottinghamshire brewer and pub operator has recently launched its new range of ‘Blackshale’ beers in cask, showcasing a range of more unusual styles such as white stouts and double IPAs, and serving the beers in 2/3 pint measures.

“Our Blackshale range of unfined premium beers offer customers and publicans a glimpse of the style of beers that are typically being produced in keg, but delivered in cask,” director Anthony Hughes says. “We sell each cask with branded glassware – lined at 1/3rd, ½ and 2/3rd to brim. The chalice presentation helps accentuate hop aromas, while offering a point of difference on the bar in comparison to traditional beer glass tulips or tankards.

“The 2/3rd of a pint measure also makes the price more palatable to the customer,” he continues, “£2.85 for 2/3rds pint of a heavily hopped West Coast pale sounds more reasonable than the equivalent pint price of £4.20. That said, to the discerning beer drinker, we’re finding price is less of a barrier if quality is reflected in both the beer and its presentation on the bar.”

A market for different prices

There is, of course, a counterpoint to this argument, and one that is oft forgotten in amongst the clamour for ‘fairer’ pricing of cask. By continually pushing for higher prices, in cask or keg, the argument goes, we are excluding poorer and/or working class drinkers, who simply cannot afford to pay over a certain amount for a pint. By bashing JD Wetherspoon, often the only place some of these people can afford to drink, we will simply drive working class voices out of the pub and the on-trade as a whole.

One possible solution to this issue is for pubs to stock a greater variety in terms of price across their cask range. Ashley Corbett Collin’s, a candidate standing for election to CAMRA’s national executive, has called for​ cask beer to be viewed as more like wine, with a variety of price points available to cater for a range of drinkers. “What we need to introduce is the idea that cask beer comes at different prices,

” he said. “There are brewers who can produce beer for £2.80 and everyone involved gets a fair price, but there’s a market for £5 pints as well.”

“It’s like wine; you can buy a £4 bottle and it will do the job on a Friday night, or you may try a £20 bottle on a special occasion, and people do not bad eyelids at that. Cask beer should be the same and we should embrace that.”

Grae shares Corbett Collin’s view that cask should exist across a range of price points, but argues education remains the key to securing a more prosperous future for the dispense method.

“When you go into a shop and buy a loaf of bread, one is 65p and the other one is £2.50,” he says. “So you'll naturally ask why one is more than the other, and you will be told that one has extra ingredients, or is soughdough or whatever. If you want to pay the extra and buy it you can, or you can get the cheaper one.

“This is perfectly accepted in food, so why not in cask ale? We need to educate people about what they are buying and why they are spending more. We need to be talking about the ingredients and the time and care that has gone into cask beer, both in the brewery and in the cellar. Everything points towards the fact that cask should be more expensive.”

Ultimately, creating a fairer price for cask, and one that reflects the time, care and passion of those involved in its production and service, has to be a joint effort. Only by working together, being transparent, training staff and educating consumers can this fine British tradition be protected and preserved.

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