Brewing up change: How we can make cask beer sales flow again

HAND-PULL: A punter pays for his cask ale with a token at the bar. Picture reference: Drinkers Top 10 Beer fest.
HAND-PULL: A punter pays for his cask ale with a token at the bar. Picture reference: Drinkers Top 10 Beer fest.
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Cask ale sales are “nose-diving’ but it can be brought back from the brink.

Reporter Charlie Bullough talks to beer expert Pete Brown about the rise and fall of the hand-pulled pint.

FESTIVAL: Cask ale is a staple of ale festivals up and down the land. Picture reference:  tj1_1389beerfest.

FESTIVAL: Cask ale is a staple of ale festivals up and down the land. Picture reference: tj1_1389beerfest.

A pint of cask ale can be sublime at its best but might look like a glass of ‘porridge’ at its worst.

That’s the varied experience of leading beer writer Pete Brown who has been probing people’s attitudes to the hand-pulled pint.

He is the nine-time writer of the ale industry’s Cask Report and has provided the research for this year’s edition: ‘Cask Reconsidered’.

The bleak picture for ale aficionados is that cask beer is in double-digit year-on-year decline.

GLASS HALF FULL: Is there a future for real ale or is it a lost cause? Picture reference: ale1.

GLASS HALF FULL: Is there a future for real ale or is it a lost cause? Picture reference: ale1.

It has been through peaks and troughs before. And only five years ago it was the most popular sector of the beer market. But Brown says: “In about 2014 to 2015, when you get craft beer coming in other formats, that’s when it goes off a cliff and it starts this precipitous decline, which is the worst it has been for a long time.”

So what, as Brown aptly puts it on his blog, is “ailing cask ale?”

The question is complex and down to a range of factors.

The author added: “Ten years ago we were saying the trends people were wanting were more small producers, more variety and more local things. If all of those trends have changed and people were saying, ‘we don’t want that anymore’ then you might write off cask ale as a lost cause. But those are still what people want.

Beer writer Pete Brown. Picture: Paul Fenn

Beer writer Pete Brown. Picture: Paul Fenn

“So all the factors that drove cask ale into growth a few years ago are still there, so it’s obviously something else that is going on with cask. It should be growing alongside craft beer. That was my going in point.”

During his two-part blog on the cask ale question Brown picked out three strands: variable quality, the temperature it’s served at and its pricing.

Taking those in turn, he says: “At it’s worst it could put you off beer. People think they don’t like beer because of it. I’ve had pints that have made people throw up. A friend of mine had a pint with line cleaner still in it. He threw up immediately, he should have sued the pub. I’ve had pints that look like porridge and been told they are meant to be like that.”

But at the other end of the spectrum cask can be a thing of wonder. Brown became a bit weary of drinking ale following his summer of research for the Cask Report and supped mainly lager. But he said: “I then had this pint of Hawkshead Pale Ale and it was that kind of monumental moment. It was excellent and a pleasure to drink. I thought, ‘this is what it (cask ale) can be like, why isn’t it like that all the time?’.

Temperature, meanwhile, is a divisive issue. The Cask Report, which is published by quality control group Cask Marque, revealed two-thirds of cask drinkers preferred cask to be served at a cooler temperature than the recommended 11 to 13°C. But traditionalists aren’t too keen on drinking it at cooler temperatures like those for lager or craft beer.

Brown said: “I’ve seen some reaction on social media from people saying ‘If they don’t like the temperature it’s at they should just drink lager or craft beer instead’. That is exactly what they are doing, which is why cask ale is nose-diving. So if you are happy for the brewers that you drink to go out of business then carry on with that attitude. If you want to support the brewers then it’s time we had some cooler beers.”

Price is also an issue. The stakes of getting lumbered with a bid pint during a session could cost you as much as £6 nowadays, says Brown. People’s perception of cask ale pricing compared to other drinks is also confused. The report revealed a quarter of people think cask is more expensive than mainstream lager, it isn’t.

So what can be done to get cask back to the glory days?

Brown believes there should be an industry-wide marketing campaign to change attitudes towards cask.

He added: “Cask needs to be more salient and relevant on the bar. It needs to start putting some different messages out that appeal to people: talk about it’s naturalness, it’s freshness and its flavour in ways that are relevant to people.”

He thinks all is not lost for cask. Brewers like Cloudwater and BrewDog have recently announced they are going back into cask ale.

He also sees a future where cask becomes a niche product in centres of excellence, like at micropubs.

Brown concluded: “There is also a generational skip as well. When I was in my twenties cask ale was the boring drink old men drank, and lager was the cool drink.

“That first wave of lager drinkers is now in their sixties and seventies, so Carling is now the drink that old men drink in corner pubs.

“I think it allows for cask to come back at some point. The craft beer market is so fickle that at some point people are going to say ‘Hey! Look cask ale is cool now’ because it gets to a point where it is so uncool that it will be cool again.”