Townsend expressed his views during his ‘View from a gamekeeper turned poacher on the British pub and cask ale’ speech at Cask Marque’s The Future of Cask Seminar, which took place on Thursday 28 September at Brewers’ Hall, Barbican, London.
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He said: “I can’t help thinking cask ale needs to become more rarer in order to be more special. Customers would really have to seek out the pubs where it is nurtured, protected and dispensed with pride. Because it’s would be such a special product, it could command a much better price premium.”
Townsend, who is also a non-executive director at Adnams, Cote and JW Lees, lamented the state of the cask ale market in the UK.
“My enthusiasm for the product has not diminished but my frustration is the challenges facing cask ale now are pretty much the same issues that have been present for decades. And if they’re not addressed, then events such as The Future of Cask Seminar may have to change the name and I certainly don’t want to be part of that.
“In the early 2000s, commentators and campaigners across the sector were celebrating the explosion of new independent breweries. If I remember rightly, there was something like 1,400 new breweries established between 2000 and 2010 and that was before craft beer had taken off.”
Learn to improve your cask offer with this free webinar
This free Cask Project webinar will look to peel back the lid on cask and how you can better your offering. With the help of a variety of experts, you can discover a plethora of new ways you can get ahead of the curve when it comes to cask.
However, the Heriot Watt University-qualified brewer questioned what the key levers for the explosion of brewers was in the early 2000s.
He cited then PM and Labour leader Gordon Brown giving a massive incentive through Small Brewers Relief for independent breweries to open as start-up businesses.
And also companies such as EI Group, Punch and others opened up their supply chains enormously, which increased the diversity of suppliers across the pubs that were owned by those companies.
“On the face of it,” he said. “Both sound like great ideas and you could be forgiven for thinking that both were instrumental in the resurgence of cask ale but was it ever sustainable?
“The problem, in my view, with the progressive beer duty regime is it created perverse incentives for producers to stay small. And instead of the economic advantage being invested into capital equipment, brand development, people, marketing, which would benefit the category as a whole, it created a genuinely unfair advantage over all of the long-established producers of cask ale.”
He said there was a share loss as a result and the opening up of supply chains produced a quality issue. Too many products were spread across too many handpulls and the quality in the glass just wasn’t reliable.
Townsend said: “It might be a hindsight explanation now but I now think fewer producers, each selling larger volumes of products, which become permanent fixtures on bars, with investment being directed at marketing, people and innovation – and the category as a whole – would have resulted in a much healthier, more sustainable cask ale category.
“Hand-built beer is hard to make, hard to keep but the consumer isn’t concerned with any of that – they just want a great reliable pint.”
Cask suffered ‘wacky’ beers
He added the last poor cask ale experience a consumer has makes them less confident about the whole category, not just the particular brand or product that has just let them down.
And it’s also down to whether the consumer actually likes the drink offered as well. He cited a period when some brewers have produced ‘wacky’ beers when brewer’s intention appears to be as much about the shock value as it is the satisfaction level.
He would like to see salespeople being incentivised based on how long a cask product stay on the bar and not targeted on how many new distribution points they gain while publicans need to be rewarded for permanent stocking of certain cask products and volume sales.
Townsend is a fan of mini casks because they make sure cask ale is “fresh, reliable and is more accessible for more people and should benefit [the category] in the long term and attract more younger people”.
“I’ll wager the funding for campaign activities only comes from a limited number of producers and retailers,” he stated. “I do think there’s a place for all cask ale producers, pub companies and trade associations to come together to support a major sustained category campaign celebrating and promoting the cask ale category.
“But I do recognise that getting everyone to contribute and funds such a campaign seems like an impossible dream so maybe such a campaign has to be delivered with edge. Perhaps the campaign benefits have to be limited only to those participating pubs who are part of the funding mechanism. And those pubs may have to only stock the brands from the producers who are part of the funding to make the genuine competitive tension.
“Of course, there is a place for altruism but I think we have to be really commercial about something like this.
“Maybe we have reached a tipping point where product proliferation is simply no longer viable and the focus has to be on fewer distribution points but higher throughputs and higher margins? Maybe the future of cask requires a concerted effort to rebuild the value from a smaller but ultimately more stable and sustainable foundation?”