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Pete Brown (again) has recently produced the latest edition of the annual Cask Report, which in fact will the last one he writes. Obviously the purpose of this publication is to take a positive view of cask beer, and encourage pubs to stock and promote it, but it does make some important points:
  • Cask is the only section of the on-trade beer market that is in growth
  • Cask is a significant driver of trade to pubs, as the cask drinker is the most likely to want to avoid pubs that don’t sell his favoured tippleCask is unique to pubs – it can’t be replicated at home in the way that most other drinks can

This has been extensively discussed on blogs and in social media, notably in this post on Stonch’s blog, so I won’t attempt any kind of general summary. However, there are a few notes of caution that need to be sounded.
Firstly, cask now appeals predominantly to an ABC1 customer base, which is a striking turnaround from the situation at the birth of CAMRA, when cask beer (albeit often served under top pressure) was the ordinary beer in pubs, and lager and keg were premium products. In a sense this is a good thing, as it attracts better-off customers into pubs, but there are risks associated with too much of an upmarket, élite image, and of course cask more than any other pub drink is critically dependent on throughput. It can’t survive as a low-volume niche product. It would be interesting to ask the C2DE drinkers why they shun cask - it certainly isn’t on price grounds.
Allied to this, there is the repeated call for cask to be regarded as a “premium” product, something that is often echoed by brewers and pub operators. However, for historical reasons, cask has always sold at a discount to other beers, because it was originally the basic, staple beer sold in pubs, and there’s little sign of that changing. There’s also a “risk premium” associated with cask as, unlike other beers, there’s a small but significant chance of getting a dud pint. In most markets, the concept of “premium” is associated not just with higher quality, but with greater consistency and reliability.
This leads on to another issue – that of choice. The report urges that pubs should offer a “broad range of styles”, but only tangentially adds that “stocking too many ales can have an adverse effect on quality”. But, as often said, the worst enemy of cask beer is a bad pint of cask beer, and in recent years the quality vs quantity trade-off has veered far too much towards quantity. The good pubs still provide a reliably good pint, but in the general pub trade I’d say the chances of getting a poor one have significantly increased. CAMRA spokespeople and magazines continue to promote the idea that more choice is desirable, but we have long passed the point where it has a negative impact on beer quality. This really is an elephant in the room that CAMRA needs to confront.
The report also seems to make a lot of assumptions that may be relevant to a certain category of middle-class, cask-focused London pub, but don’t really apply elsewhere. Apparently having bar staff knowledgeable about beer, and offering tasters, are key points in encouraging cask sales. This may be true in specialist pubs, but in reality many bar staff are students and others just doing it for a short time, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to have a knowledge of the beers on sale, let alone the wines or whiskies. It’s still the case that most cask drinkers see it as their regular tipple, and to ask for a taster of Old Brewery Bitter in the Boar’s Head, or Unicorn in the Armoury, would be greeted with incomprehension.
Yes, in recent years cask beer has enjoyed a moderate success story, and when it’s on top form it trounces everything else on the bar. But there is no room for complacency, and there are serious issues its champions need to address – in particular beer quality.