OPINION: Pubs cannot afford to fail the ale test

By Tim Bird, owner of Cheshire Cat Pubs & Inns

- Last updated on GMT

Cask thoughts: Tim Bird met with Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt off the back of his previous opinion article on The MA
Cask thoughts: Tim Bird met with Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt off the back of his previous opinion article on The MA

Related tags Cheshire cat pubs Tim Bird Cask ale Cellar management Multi-site pub operators Pubco + head office

It has been a busy time since my last ‘Opinion’ article when I shared my concerns that, as an industry, we are at times a little too ‘doom and gloom’ and raised the question as to whether we are asking Government for too many things to help our cause.

This can end up gaining us very little in return other than freezes on beer duty, which are of no real benefit to pubs (or indeed hospitality as a whole) when the big brewers continue to put their annual price increase in irrespective of any positives in market conditions.

I was lucky enough to be able to talk about this​ at the last MA Leaders Club conference in Liverpool and also at the Northern Restaurant & Bar Show in Manchester, earlier in March, driving home the ‘think positive’ message and to have pride in our pubs, our industry and to savour all the great achievements one can have within it.

I decided to forward the opinion article to my MP and, as a consequence, was duly invited to meet Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to air concerns personally in London on the eve of the Publican Awards 2024.

His view is that he is helping the industry with the 75% discount on business rates in England until next April 2025. He is fully aware of the need to consider other avenues in helping hospitality, so we will have to wait patiently to see how this manifests itself.

In the meantime, we have to get on with things and do the very best we can to help our respective businesses grow.

Our company Cheshire Cat Pubs and Bars was recognised at the recent Publican Awards 2024 just before Easter, winning the Best Drinks Offer in the UK​. A very proud moment for all our teams and the wider pub industry as whole.

Commitment to real ale

We were the only pub representatives in the ‘drinks final’ with the other three finalists being highly regarded bar brands. One of our ‘distinguishing features’ in winning the title was our commitment to real ale. All our pubs are committed to using local micro-brewers from within a 35-mile radius.

Indeed, cask ale outsells lager (within our pubs) in pints sold per year by 25%. To put that in to context we sold 162,000 pints of ale last year versus 121,000 pints of lager. The sales of ale are growing too as ‘big brewers’ have been pushing cost prices of lager too hard in my opinion and we have had no choice but to move lager prices 20% in the last two years versus 5% on ale.

However, it would appear we aren’t typical of the industry and that cask ale sales are in decline and, of course, at the same time the quality is suffering because of a lack of throughput.

London pubs have been cited as having some of the biggest falls. Indeed at the aforementioned conference in Liverpool, Greene King proudly announced it was putting cask ale into pins (36-pint barrels) to help sales and quality. Microbrewers have been offering ale in pins for the 15 years we have been operating Cheshire Cat because they need to be in lower volume pubs as well as higher volume pubs to survive.

If pubs fail on the ale front, then they will be losing the very thing that differentiates them from every high street bar and supermarket in the land… a wonderful hand-drawn pint of fresh creamy ale. Nothing is better than the sound of a pint being pulled in a pub. Hand pumps should be at the centre of every pub bar, polished brass, interesting choices, from traditional copper coloured ales to the popular blondes and straw-coloured ales.

This is a moment in time for the pub, whether you are rural, village or town and city-based, and if we fail to look after our ale we will be ‘calling time’ earlier than we should.

True ‘craft brewers’

I am hearing that keg bitter is in growth. Are we heading back to the 1970s? Where is CAMRA when you need it? I have never known an organisation so quiet. Complacency could be the issue. We certainly need them back to full strength.

It is time to take ‘pride in cask ale’ before it is too late, to use local microbrewers where one can… let’s face it they are the true ‘craft brewers’ of this country.

The benefits are fresher ale, more choice and far better prices. You will be supporting local business and improving your green credentials while giving your customers and guests something they cannot get anywhere else, other than a pub. You will build sales and make more profit.

For those pubs that have concerns then the best people to call is Cask Marque. It runs training courses and help you get your cellars and ales up to scratch by vigorous mystery visits that can be ‘sponsored’ by a brewer who gets the most benefit from being on one’s bar.

I know I do not need to preach to all the pubs out there who already serve great cask ale but I am very worried indeed about those pubs who are struggling with it all. A poor pint of cask ale will do serious damage to your drinks reputation. The good news is that help is no further than a phone call away and many local microbrewers can help improve your ale reputation too.

Ale needs to be at the forefront of any great pub, it’s been with us for hundreds of years so let’s make sure it stays that way.

Related topics Beer

Related news

Show more