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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 26 September 2011

The Cask Report: everything you ever wanted to know about cask ale, launches today

The Cask Report was conceived four years ago to help solve the paradox of the UK cask ale industry: there are few if any national brands, it's a fragmented industry consisting of over 800 brewers with many voices and little internal structure.

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.

10 comments:

Steve Lamond said...

great work as always Pete. Look forward to reading it when I get a chance.

Chalkboards and being offered tasters are surely two of the easiest methods to encourage poeple to try; is it something breweries should be suggesting to pubs or is it for the distribution companies to make such a suggestion do you think?

Rob Nicholson said...

I haven't got last years report to hand but the formatting looks very good/improved. Much "lighter" in tone from first glance. So much so, that I might read it ;-)

Cooking Lager said...

It was quite interesting, though dare I mention a lower rate of decline than the sector doesn't equal growth?

Tom Unwin said...

Interesting read, must say it's all pretty common sense stuff really, and will be to most people reading this blog. I think that's the trouble - those publicans who will read the cask report are those it will help least. Publicans who really should read it and learn are those least likely to do so.

One small point I disagree with is the proactive use of the term 'retro' and the the like to entice younger drinkers - these things tend to be cyclical and can just as easily fall out of fashion and turn people off cask beer. Particularly when cask beer seems increasingly in new wave pubs to be served in dimpled jugs which seem to have become as much a part of the retro Shoreditch hipster look as the handlebar moustache - and could be just as vulnerable to changing trends.

Curmudgeon said...

As usual a lot of interesting stuff in this. The lack of overlap between the "specialist beer" and "cask" sectors is noteworthy - the beer blogosphere may see a close connection, but the punter doesn't. Also the point about "repertoire drinking" is something that many in CAMRA still have to take on board.

I remain unconvinced, though, that in the majority of pubs selling cask beer, offering tasters would make much difference to anything.

Eddie86 said...

Mudge, I can only speak for myself here but having the staff offer instead of wait to be asked for a taster has had more than a few people take a pint or a half rather than stick to their 'safe' drink. I know this as often people will say 'I was going to have a pint of lager, but I'll stick to this please' or something along those lines.

It also has helped the staff gain confidence - if they're not too sure of how to describe a beer (I nearly hit the room when a member of my team described Oxymoron, a Black IPA, as 'a traditional stout') they offer a taster and let the customer decide.

It's one of the reasons IMO that at this time of the year you'll still find all 5 pumps selling ale, compared to last year it was down to 3 at most

Owen said...

@Cooking Lager : It is growth in market share, but I agree it's a hair's breadth from weasel words.

I also agree with Tom in that attaching to hipster trends is a surefire way of being seen as old hat in 15 minutes time. More important is to establish cask as a timeless product of high quality.

I've mentioned it elsewhere, but I'm also a bit disappointed that the report considers a range comprising golden beers of varying bitterness as "balanced".

Richard English said...

Two things. It is a good idea to offer tasters and, whereas not all pubs do so, all Wetherspoon's outlets (like them or loath them) do so.

Secondly, one of the most stupid things that is common to almost all pubs is their failure to show their opening and closing times on their doors (again, apart from Wetherspons). All other shops do so but pubs - of all outlets the most likely to be the first port of call for a stranger - rarely if ever show their hours. So a stranger arriving at 1025 has not idea whether he has to wait five minutes, 35 minutes or even an hour and 35 minutes!

I would mention, by the way, that my own local shows its hours, uses chalkboards and offers tastings. And ny my estimate it has increased its business by at least ten times in the 6 months since Dark Star took it over. Oh, and the new owners also threw out all but one of the lager pumps and all the rubbish lagers and installed 8 beer engines, all selling Dark Star beers and at leat one guest.

Curmudgeon said...

@Eddie: yours is a bit of a specialist beer pub, though, isn't it? The relevance of tasters in the general run of pubs, especially those that do not have guest beers, is going to be far less.

Leigh said...

an interesting read (as always) - thanks Pete...