This is what appeals about cask ale: its relative lack of corporate bollocks, its regionality and localness.
It's also one of cask ale's biggest weaknesses: no one voice putting a coherent case for the industry as a whole.
So it's brilliant that, despite their differences, CAMRA, SIBA, the key large regional players, the Family Brewers of Britain, and Cask Marque, can come together and agree to jointly issue a keynote industry report. I'm paid by these people to write this report every year, and this is the fifth time we've done it. Of course it's positive, but as an independent writer (who likes cask ale and likes a great deal of other beer as well) I try to keep it objective, accurate and informative, and resist the desire to make it too sales-y.
This year's report is out today and you can download it at www.caskreport.co.uk. It's primarily aimed at publicans who may (or may not) be interested in stocking cask ale, but some of it may be of interest to others who write about beer, or are interested in it.
It's been a really tough year for pubs generally - and cask ale is only available in pubs. The story for the last few year is that cask is in decline, but compared to the decline in the overall beer market, cask's decline is very small. It's been getting smaller every year, but has not quite managed to get back into sustained volume growth. With 25 pubs closing every week, beer duty up by 35% in three years and the total on-trade beer market down by more than 7%, that's not surprising - what is surprising is that cask is doing as well as it is. Here are some positive indicators in a difficult year:
- Cask ale drinkers are more than twice as likely to go to the pub regularly as drinkers who don't drink cask ale
- The number of cask ale drinkers has fallen overall - but the number of young people drinking it (18-24) has risen for the second year running
- This represents a broader recruitment trend - of all people who say they drink cask ale, 10% of them started drinking in the last year. 37% started drinking it in the last ten years. Cask ale drinkers are leaving the market at one end, but they are entering it at the other - a clear sign of the revival of interest in cask ale
- 2500 more pubs are stocking cask ale this year
- Cask ale's share of on-trade beer has increased to 15% - getting on for one in six pints served in the pub
So if it's so good, why isn't volume increasing? Because for most drinkers, cask is an occasional drink within the repertoire. Cask ale drinkers are more curious, experimental, have broader interests, go out more and try new things more than non-cask ale drinkers. This is both a blessing and a curse - it means they're more likely to try cask ale - it also means they're more likely to try other things too.
So the task is to get people to drink more of it, more often. This year, we commissioned some independent qualitative research to find out how publicans might do that - nine focus groups, across the country, probing attitudes to cask ale, and behaviour around it.
The results make for interesting reading. Some of the solutions sound obvious - but if they were, more pubs would already be doing them. I won't go into a full analysis here, but some of the most interesting things for me were:
- Only the beer industry and beer geeks debate the merits of micros versus big regional brewers. For most drinkers, the dynamic in the market is about 'familiar' versus 'unfamiliar' beers - it doesn't matter who brews them. Depending on who you are and where you drink, Thornbridge Jaipur could be more familiar than Adnams Bitter. Pubs need a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar brands. If you have, say, three hand pumps, three familiar brands is boring, while three unfamiliar brands is too eclectic (unless you're a specialist craft beer pub, frequented by passionate beer geeks). Most drinkers want to experiment, and then go back to what they know.
- The single best way to sell more cask ale is to pre-emptively offer tasters to people who look unsure at the bar. We've been saying this for five years now. It's still the first thing that comes up in research. Yet so few pubs do it.
- Another failsafe method - which sounds so obvious - is a chalkboard featuring names, ABV and, if you like, something about taste, style and provenance. At a busy bar people can't scrutinise hand pumps properly and feel pressured into making a quick decision. Often, they'll default to Guinness or lager. A clearly visible chalkboard gives them plenty of time to choose a cask ale
- We didn't ask this, people told us: cask ale is natural, flavoursome and 'a little bit cool'. The explosion in the number of new beers available, and the growth in the number of pubs selling them, suggests that cask beer has momentum, and it's becoming generally regarded as cool in an 'old school' way rather than uncool in an 'old fashioned, way.
Those, for me, are the points anyone interested in promoting cask ale should be banging on about. There's plenty more in the main report. I hope you find it interesting and useful.