the cask project

We need to stop the ‘Real Ale Assassins’

By James Cuthbertson, director Frisco Group and ex-MD of Dark Star Brewing

- Last updated on GMT

Frisco boss Cuthbertson on cask ale

Related tags: Cask ale, Social responsibility, Training, Multi-site pub operators, Pubco + head office

Let’s be honest, as an industry, when it comes to cask beer, we need to do much better.

The Cask Project

The Morning Advertiser​ launched The Cask Project​​ in a bid to re-energise the category and reinstall it in pride of place on the bar of pubs throughout the country.

Cask beer is in long-time decline and, having joined forces with some of the UK’s leading cask beer suppliers – Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company, Greene King, Sharp’s Brewery and St Austell – we want to reinvigorate attitudes within the trade to a product which should be rightly cherished by operators.

Cask beer is a unique product that can only be replicated successfully within pubs but the perception of cask, particularly among younger drinkers, is that it is made and loved only by an ageing male population.

We want to create a real buzz about cask to get pub owners, operators, general managers, bartenders and all pub staff on board and debunk the myths surrounding the drink and educate them on how to make cask work for their business. And by doing this, we can pass on that knowledge, care and skill into cask beer at the bar for customers to get excited about too.

I think the issues started back in the days when the price of real ale was weaponised by retailers to win customers, see: Wetherspoon. 

It became a “pound shop” product. At the same time, regional brewers had an eye on world domination and started to look at things like “market share” rather than just focusing on being brilliant brewers of beer and serving their community and their estate – probably due to younger members of the family brewers looking for greater return and modernisation. 

That price-led strategy swept the country back in the noughties and it then became a race to the bottom among the big boys. 

Then the craft beer sector emerged and we entered a period where you could find at least one brewer in every town doing some really amazing things (as well as some rubbish) and the big boys started to try and join the party... failing and just looking like a dad dancing at a wedding. 

Reset for the category

But we are where we are and I think it's time for a reset for the real ale category. From the horsemeat scandal to sugar taxes, consumers have never been more alive to what they are eating and drinking, and UK brewers need to lean on this and the wonderful simplicity, yet amazing process, behind one of our greatest industries.

We have a problem though. In terms of real ale, I think we fall into four categories of retailer:

  • The Specialist: The likes of the Head of Steam group and Craft Beer Co that can do real ale brilliantly across multiple sites
  • The 'local': Independent retailers with a passion for real ale and who make sure every pint is in optimum condition
  • The brewer-owned pubco: Generally a more limited choice, but training in place to ensure quality is, in the main, good
  • The Real Ale Assassin: The pub/operator/pub group that thinks they have to have a real ale as part of their offer but have no idea how to keep it and just buy on price. Combined with clueless staff and poor cellaring, they are doing so much harm to the category. They should stick to 'plug and play' keg. At least they can't f**k that up.
james.cuthbertson

Keep it premium

There are two points I think need addressing. Firstly, brewers need to take responsibility for their product beyond the brewery and do deals where they know their product will be cherished, not sacrificed all for the dreaded 'market share' – it's a short-term game. 

Keep it premium, have pride in your product and stand by your pricing. As a great friend of mine Yaser Martini says, "turnover for vanity, profit for sanity". Secondly, we have an image problem. The real ale/craft beer market (whatever) has been polarised. Many so-called craft brewers fell into the trap of thinking they were superior and seemed to question whether consumers were cool enough to deserve their beer while the bigger brewers seemed to get distracted by "craft" and seemed to lose their identity, forgetting what they are brilliant at and celebrating the beer that had served them well for generations. 

Looking ahead, what's the answer? If I knew that, I'd be on the board of several brewers and pulling up trees, but my gut feel is that unless both brewers and retailers commit to making the product premium, by that I mean both in terms of the beer and the price, without going round the back door and making silly deals, the category is going to struggle. 

However, if the industry can unite itself, we'll secure great real ale for generations to come. Writing this, I was reminded that many years ago Greene King launched a big budget TV campaign that ultimately celebrated the category, as much as their own beer, ahead of its time perhaps, but we face the same struggle today – can the industry unite to win the battle?

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