The Cask Project

Pete Brown: difficult to find why cask is doing so badly

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Pete Brown - people see cask as premium and expect it to cost more

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Pete Brown has told an audience of beer experts customers see cask beer as a premium product and say it should be priced as high as any ‘premium lager’ at the bar.
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Brown made the announcement during his ‘New analysis of the cask market and update on the Drink Cask Fresh​ campaign’ speech at Cask Marque’s The Future of Cask Seminar, which took place on Thursday 28 September at Brewers’ Hall, Barbican, London.

“The consumer sees cask as a premium product,” Brown explained. “We have different categories and show them the pricing ladder for different beer styles and ask ‘can you place cask in the right place on the pricing ladder?’ People put it next a Mediterranean lager and I say ‘Well that’s next to a premium priced lager’ and they say ‘yeah’. I say ‘why do you think it’s premium priced?’ and they say ‘well, why wouldn’t it be? It’s a premium product, it’s harder to keep and serve, it takes more skill to make, of course, it’s a premium product.”

The Drink Cask Fresh​ campaign is Cask Marque’s bid to reinvigorate the cask market at pubs and it held a 10-week trial at almost 30 sites using a variety of methods to try to get customers to enjoy cask beers.

Brown added: “People are drinking less when at the bar but they are not compromising on cheaper brands. The more expensive and premium a pint is on the bar, the better it’s doing.”

Despite those questioned saying cask is a high-quality product, the sales statistics do not bear out equally.

Brown said: “Covid has taken a permanent bite out of [total] beer volumes sales. It’s increasing very steadily and about 13% of sales has gone. Covid accelerated trends that would happen anyway but for cask it is more “disastrous” with 22% of volume sales gone.

“Cask was in quite steep sustainable decline before Covid – it was never going to completely disappear but was going to find a new level.”

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Pete Brown (centre) at the British Guild of Beer Writers' awards in 2021

The Madri effect

However, the pattern is not constant across all categories he added, citing the premium lager category, which is now 111% of volume sales in 2019.

“This is the Madri effect,” Brown explained. “The new category of Mediterranean lager is running away and Madri was the most successful beer launch ever.

“Consumers talk about needing a story of a [beer] being local, having authenticity and then go a buy a completely made-up brand that pretends to be Spanish.

“It’s easy to slag Madri but it’s doing something phenomenally right and we need to look at that because cask isn’t doing that.”

He added Guinness is also defying the odds with volume sales at 112% of what they were before Covid.

Brown said: “On the surface, it’s difficult to find a reason why cask is doing so badly. New research from Greene King suggests 80% say cask is essential to UK pub culture. This is a really interesting point. Even if those people don’t drink cask, they don’t see it as a proper pub, because of the handpulls on the bar.

“I was comparing it to an Indian restaurant and if you don’t have vindaloo on the menu, it’s not an Indian restaurant is it? So even people don’t drink cask, they think it’s part of a UK pub culture and don’t want to disappear.”

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The Drink Cask Fresh​ campaign started in March to raise awareness of cask. Brown said ‘freshness’ is important to drinkers but they were not linking that to cask, they were more likely to link it to premium bottled lager “for some reason”.

“We successfully increased the visibility of cask [in the 27 test pubs],” Brown said through varying methods such as wraps around handpulls, glassware and beermats.

“There we’re no strong prejudices against cask, people just didn’t notice it. What we did succeed in doing was to make cask a lot more noticeable, particularly through the handpull wraps.”

More engaged staff equals higher sales

He said, in the best pub, the campaign saw sales increase by 42.5% while, in the worst pub, sales decreased by 25%. In the control pub, sales increased by 0.6%.

There were many factors that influenced sales, Brown said, including the Drink Cask Fresh​ campaign during the 10-week period it ran for that was not known about to customers or a wedding or students going home for half term.

Brown said: “When we ranked the pubs in order of sales increases, the ones at the top were all the ones that we were used to seeing on our WhatsApp calls, in our briefing meetings, all that kind of thing. So where there were engaged staff, the campaign went better. Where the staff were not so engaged, the worse it went.”

Another issue is the fact all beers are poured at eye level so there is an excitement seeing it poured but cask is below the bar and can’t be seen so some people don’t know the colour and opt for something they can see instead.

Guinness will be worth more than the entire cask category if trends continue, Brown warned. “It had a rebrand focusing on craft values and it has a new font where the pint is poured above the bar. It already has the best pouring ritual on the bar and now you can see it much more clearly.

“The YouTube channel Shit London Guinness​ is so popular now that the guy who runs it has been asked to do a book and I think he’s got TV interest, and Guinness is in close contact with him too and as soon as he names and shames a pub in London, Guinness is out there the next day to improve quality control.

“[Guinness] is a premium price and every single pub landlord I know complains about how expensive it is but feels like they have to buy it anyway. These are some things cask could be learning from.”

In conclusion, Brown said the category knows the issues it is facing and what he was saying over the past 14 years is still relevant. His advice back then including giving tasting samples at the bar, building knowledge and relevance is key and active investment pays off when given, yet when he compiled the first Cask Report​ in 2007, the cask market was 50% larger.

He added Guinness can commit 10s of millions of pounds in marketing, including rolling out PoS to 10,000 pubs just for the ongoing Rugby World Cup, and if cask wants to achieve similar goals, it would need a big budget too. And although there is nothing wrong with building up backing slowly, at some point the cask category will need those “big numbers”.

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