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There have been quite a few articles in recent months asking the question of “how to save cask?” Some of these, especially those from across the Atlantic, refer to cask beer as a “style”. But, as I have pointed out in the past, that is incorrect. Bitter is a style; IPA is a style, but cask is rather a whole system of storage, maturation and dispense that can encompass a wide variety of different styles, but is critically dependent on sales volume to be viable.
However, it has come to be established as a beer category in its own right that commands a great deal of loyalty. In the 1970s, many people would identify themselves as “a bitter drinker” or “a mild drinker”, which could include both cask and keg, but that has virtually disappeared now. Cask is not just a delivery mechanism for various styles, and indeed people are much more likely to identify themselves as “a real ale drinker”. That doesn’t mean they will never touch beers that aren’t real, but that if there is no real bitter available they don’t immediately turn to a keg bitter as a substitute. The handpump has become clearly established as a distinctive symbol of a particular generic kind of beer.
The loyalty goes go the other way too, though. Some people identify as “smooth drinkers”, and I have seen people come in to pubs and ask whether they have any smooth. Likewise, the typical Guinness drinker would not see a cask stout as an acceptable alternative – they identify with Guinness as a brand, not with stout as a style.
POLL: Do you drink non-"craft" keg ales? (i.e. not stouts or lagers)
— Pub Curmudgeon 🍻 (@oldmudgie) January 11, 2019
I recently ran the Twitter poll shown above. Presumably most of my followers, or at least the ones who would answer this poll, are cask ale drinkers, and the results show that, while some do drink non-craft keg ales, for most it is something they do rarely or never. Personally I can only recall a handful of occasions in the past year, a couple in Sam Smith’s pubs, and one in a keg-only free house in a small town in Wales where I had a half of Banks’s Mild. I don’t dogmatically avoid keg beers, but if I find myself in a pub where there is no cask available I will generally switch to lager or perhaps Guinness rather than smooth ales.
It’s noticeable how little cask and keg actually tread on each other’s toes in the marketplace. Forty years ago, many brewers had a mixture of both versions of the same underlying product in their pubs, but nowadays the only ones I can think of are Felinfoel and Sam Smith’s. The vast majority of the remaining family breweries, at least in their own pubs, are all-cask. About a third of the pubs in the country still have no cask beer, but in most areas they tend not to be the ones the casual pubgoer would go into, leading some people to overestimate the dominance of cask. And a lot of keg beers are sold in clubs, which by definition tend to be used by regulars rather than casual customers. Very few of the new generation of breweries produce keg versions of their best-selling cask ales.
Much the same is true in the sphere of craft keg. Most craft kegs tend to occupy niches where cask is absent, typically American-style IPAs and very strong or speciality beers that by definition are not going to sell in the quantities needed for cask. There is some overlap, but not all that much. However, it is not difficult to foresee in the future that a keg American-style IPA, albeit at a moderate, sessionable strength, will become a regular fixture in mainstream pubs, no doubt to the detriment of cask. For some drinkers now, the fact that these beers are on keg is a selling point in itself.
It’s also important to remember that much of the change in market share amongst the various segments is due to customer churn rather than direct switching from one to another. Of course some drinkers have transferred their allegiance from cask to craft keg, at least on some occasions if not all the time, but that isn’t the prime reason for the apparent rise of one at the expense of the other.