Cask ale, to say the least, is a strange category surrounded by several contradictions, each bringing a mixture of positives and negatives to the mix.
Let’s start with the positives. There is a resurgence of activity within cask ale brewing, especially since Cloudwater and BrewDog have re-entered the category after bailing out a few years ago due to price and quality issues at the bar.
Following the comeback of these two brewers, other smaller operations have also stepped in, according to analysts.
Another positive is the support that comes from cask ale’s hardened fan base, mostly driven by Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) members. This group of die-hard ale drinkers has got the category’s back to say the least.
Other pockets of positivity centre on the innovation within the segment, with more brewers looking to get one up on the craft beer movement, which drives innovation within the wider beer category.
However, on the negative side of things, volume and value sales of cask continue to slide. Also, on price, it remains difficult for cask brewers to make enough money from the category as profits continue to be eroded by poor consumer perceptions of the drink, while larger operators are often criticised for pricing smaller producers out of the market.
Meanwhile, the issue of quality at the bar is still a sticking point for many brewers who, despite making ale to their desired standard, can be let down by the operator if the product isn’t treated correctly.
In short, a view from consumers that cask is not worth a higher price point along with, sometimes, bad quality at the bar, is still causing issues for cask – something that has yet to be rectified despite many years of trying.
The biggest negative, however, is the consistent decline in cask sales. CGA MAT data to 26 January 2019, shows a drop in volume from 2.7m hectolitres (HL) to 2.4m HL and a value dip from £1.6bn to £1.4bn.
“The cask beer market continues to be challenging in the UK,” says CGA commercial director Graeme Loudon. He continues: “Volumes are continuing to fall yet despite this the number of new breweries entering the market each year remains substantial thanks in part to the tax relief on offer.”
The on-trade, however, has the biggest opportunity when it comes to cask, as the drink can’t be replicated in any other environment.
‘Nature of the category’
“This comes with a challenge, though, and the special nature of the category means that it requires special care in outlets, and that is something that I don’t believe the entire market is able to offer,” says Loudon.
“Too often, the quality in the glass does not match the quality in the cask. This is mostly caused by poor cellar management, with the care needed to keep the category not being delivered coupled with outlets often offering more taps than they should be based on the volumes sold.
“The result is that the drinker gets a bad experience and often will leave both the category and the outlet.”
Recent data shows that 35% of consumers surveyed said they would leave a pub and go elsewhere if they were served a poor-quality drink. The fact that your pub could empty by more than a third because of badly served drinks should make any savvy operator sit up and listen.
“The trade must continue to wrestle with this challenge but, while they do, a new impetus has appeared,” explains Loudon.
He is, however, hopeful that cask’s price point issue could be muted by consumers’ willing to spend upwards of £5 for two thirds of a pint of craft keg beer, adding that this offers outlets a chance to move cask prices in line with keg, ultimately, driving both value and volume back into the market.
The perils and positives in the cask category have not passed by CAMRA either. The organisation, which once may have been guilty of burying its head in the sand, has openly admitted there are issues in the sector that need to be resolved to ensure its growth.
CAMRA chief executive Tom Stainer believes there is a lot of hope for cask’s future in the pub and, like Loudon, cites craft and keg’s growth as a sign fortunes can turn.
“I take this as a sign that more needs to be done to keep real ale thriving,” says Stainer. “Many consumers might turn away from a traditional real ale because they think it’s all just bitters when, in reality, cask ale encompasses a range of beers of all styles, shades and varieties – from the hoppiest IPAs to the silkiest stouts.
“We need to do more to educate consumers at the bar about different beer options on tap and also ensure that cask ale is well kept.
“There’s nothing more off-putting than a poorly kept ale, and just one sip could turn a beer consumer off the style forever.”
As a result, the group is adamant beer drinkers have all of the information they need to make informed choices, including where a beer comes from.
Camden Town and Fourpure
He cites recent research from the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), which showed most consumers did not know that craft beers such as Camden Town, Fourpure and Goose Island were owned and brewed by some of the world’s largest beer companies.
“For the individual looking for a local or artisan beer experience, a real ale might actually fit the bill in more cases than not,” he argues.
“That’s why we’re currently working on a new learning and discovery element to our beer festivals across the country to help beer drinkers learn more about where their beer comes from and the differences between cask and keg.”
And this locally produced, artisanal story is something CAMRA is set to shout louder about to help turn cask’s fortunes. The category has a lot going for it, but it doesn’t appear to be working its good parts as hard as it should.
Although education from groups such as CAMRA and SIBA must form a big part of the push for change, brewers must also work to modernise and better target new and existing cask ale drinkers.
Robinsons Brewery in Stockport, Greater Manchester, for example, acknowledges the fact that cask ale still often has an “old-man image”, which makes people think of warm and flat beer.
However, the brewer’s director of marketing David Bremner says: “We’re hugely passionate about cask ale, we’ve been brewing it for 180 years.
“Research tells us customers want it cooler, so we decided to give the customer what they want and created ‘Chilled Dizzy’. It’s an extra-chilled version of our most popular cask ale, brewed to the same recipe, but served at a refreshing 8°C (the same average temperature as premium lager),” he says.
“We tested it in our visitors’ centre and the results were overwhelming – 90% really liked it and 85% said they’d order another pint. We’re now trialling it in 14 of our tenanted, free-trade and managed pubs and, if it’s successful, we’ll offer it to all our customers.”
These cooler tactics have also been adopted by other brewers, including Molson Coors-owned Sharp’s, which trialled its Extra Chilled Amber Ale last year, as a result of 70% of consumers saying they wanted cask served at a temperature cooler than the cellar.
Such innovation, however, must not be empty, Robinsons’ Bremner warns. “It’s really important to die-hard cask drinkers – in fact to all drinkers – that every pint has to be as perfect as the last.”
So, year after year, the same issues within cask crop up: price, quality, etc... However, there appears to have been a shift the sector over, with many brewers and advocates of cask acknowledging and finally acting on the issues that have troubled the segment for years. The only thing to do now is carry on and hope the story will have changed this time next year.