Yesterday, the latest edition of the Cask Report, written by Pete Brown, was published. Broadly speaking, this gives a positive message for cask ale, with volumes remaining steady in the context of an overall decline in on-trade beer sales, and thus recording a gain in market share. This was the first time cask volumes had not shown a year-on-year decline since 1994, which is especially impressive given the very difficult general climate for the pub trade. Unlike pretty much anything else they offer, cask beer is the one thing you can only get in pubs, clubs and bars. This has already been dealt with in general terms by other bloggers such as Tandleman, Hardknott Dave and Pete Brown himself.
Two points sprang out, though. The first is that only 18% of people who drink cask beer sometimes, claim to drink it regularly. Clearly this provides an opportunity to increase sales by encouraging people to drink it more often, but it also underlines the point that, for many people, cask beer is just one element in their repertoire of drinking. Cask drinkers are also more likely to experiment in the fields of wine and spirits. There isn’t the Manichean divide between cask drinkers and keg/lager drinkers often portrayed by some voices in CAMRA. So generic condemnations of lager and “chemical fizz” may end up not “converting” people, but putting them off. If you want to encourage someone to try something, but make out that what he’s currently drinking or eating is rubbish, you are in effect implying he’s a fool.
The report also highlights the association between offering cask beer and a more affluent customer profile. Long gone are the days when it was the working man’s pint – that, if anything, is now Carling and Stella. But you have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Simply putting cask in a crappy downmarket pub won’t suddenly get middle-class drinkers flocking in. There’s a strong association between affluent areas and Waitrose stores, but you won’t regenerate Beswick by putting a Waitrose store in the middle of it. In many pubs, there may be the potential to introduce cask, or increase the cask offer, but you have to weigh it up carefully and take your customers with you.
Pete is also absolutely right to emphasise the quality issue – there is no point in offering cask beer if you can’t keep it properly, and a few poor pints will put people off drinking it in general. Warm, flat, hazy beer should be completely unacceptable.