Saturday, 26 September 2015

Glass half full

Pete Brown (again) has recently produced the latest edition of the annual Cask Report, which in fact will be the last one he writes. Obviously the purpose of this publication is to take a positive view of cask beer, and encourage pubs to stock and promote it, but it does make some important points:

  • Cask is the only section of the on-trade beer market that is in growth
  • Cask is a significant driver of trade to pubs, as the cask drinker is the most likely to want to avoid pubs that don’t sell his favoured tipple
  • Cask is unique to pubs – it can’t be replicated at home in the way that most other drinks can
This has been extensively discussed on blogs and in social media, notably in this post on Stonch’s blog, so I won’t attempt any kind of general summary. However, there are a few notes of caution that need to be sounded.

Firstly, cask now appeals predominantly to an ABC1 customer base, which is a striking turnaround from the situation at the birth of CAMRA, when cask beer (albeit often served under top pressure) was the ordinary beer in pubs, and lager and keg were premium products. In a sense this is a good thing, as it attracts better-off customers into pubs, but there are risks associated with too much of an upmarket, élite image, and of course cask more than any other pub drink is critically dependent on throughput. It can’t survive as a low-volume niche product. It would be interesting to ask the C2DE drinkers why they shun cask - it certainly isn’t on price grounds.

Allied to this, there is the repeated call for cask to be regarded as a “premium” product, something that is often echoed by brewers and pub operators. However, for historical reasons, cask has always sold at a discount to other beers, because it was originally the basic, staple beer sold in pubs, and there’s little sign of that changing. There’s also a “risk premium” associated with cask as, unlike other beers, there’s a small but significant chance of getting a dud pint. In most markets, the concept of “premium” is associated not just with higher quality, but with greater consistency and reliability.

This leads on to another issue – that of choice. The report urges that pubs should offer a “broad range of styles”, but only tangentially adds that “stocking too many ales can have an adverse effect on quality”. But, as often said, the worst enemy of cask beer is a bad pint of cask beer, and in recent years the quality vs quantity trade-off has veered far too much towards quantity. The good pubs still provide a reliably good pint, but in the general pub trade I’d say the chances of getting a poor one have significantly increased. CAMRA spokespeople and magazines continue to promote the idea that more choice is desirable, but we have long passed the point where it has a negative impact on beer quality. This really is an elephant in the room that CAMRA needs to confront.

The report also seems to make a lot of assumptions that may be relevant to a certain category of middle-class, cask-focused London pub, but don’t really apply elsewhere. Apparently having bar staff knowledgeable about beer, and offering tasters, are key points in encouraging cask sales. This may be true in specialist pubs, but in reality many bar staff are students and others just doing it for a short time, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to have a knowledge of the beers on sale, let alone the wines or whiskies. It’s still the case that most cask drinkers see it as their regular tipple, and to ask for a taster of Old Brewery Bitter in the Boar’s Head, or Unicorn in the Armoury, would be greeted with incomprehension.

Yes, in recent years cask beer has enjoyed a moderate success story, and when it’s on top form it trounces everything else on the bar. But there is no room for complacency, and there are serious issues its champions need to address – in particular beer quality.


  1. Quality is sometimes sacrificed when licensees who aren't familiar with real ale are told to stock it by their pub company. Keeping real ale well isn't complicated, but you do have to know what you're doing, and I've come across pubs where they clearly didn't. These are the pubs that end up with a couple of handpumps gathering dust on the bar, disused after they had to pour away half full casks of vinegar, with a resultant financial loss, and locals who swear they'll never touch that real ale muck again.

  2. Cask beer is the only reason for suffering the indignities of the public house. Every other drink can be bought more cheaply from a supermarket or wine-merchant and consumed more comfortably at home.

    Pubs are increasingly becoming places where it is very difficult to get a drink. It is so common now to go into a pub and find that there is no one behind the bar and with no way of summoning them. Or to have to wait ten minutes to get served whilst the conversation that is perhaps the only other justification for going to the pub carries on without my scintillating input.

  3. Really? You must be going to some lousy pubs, David, because that is not my experience at all.

  4. Agree with everything there, and share your experience of more inconsistent pints (largely in Beer Guide pubs). It's not easy to guess which pub will have the slow-selling duds either; specialists with a dozen pumps like the various Taps or the Wellington seem to sell enough. Politely asking for the fastest seller is my norm, which can worryingly mean one pint of DoomBar has been sold.

    NB I also find pub service overwhelmingly good; you might wait a couple of minutes in a Spoons but I'm not that impatient anymore.

  5. I've occasionally had problems with attracting the attention of the bar staff when in the "other bar", as mentioned here, but I don't really recognise David's experience. In most pubs I get served quickly and find a pleasant, convivial atmosphere that is a big contrast with my living room.

    IME the highest chance of a poor pint is in pubs, whether pubco-owned or freehouses, that aren't aimed at enthusiasts, but try to offer "choice" by putting on more beers than they can sell. It's very rare to get a dud in a family brewer tied house.

  6. I don't know why everyone bangs on about "drinking comfortably at home". My house is a shithole, and I can't smoke there either. I'd much rather be in the pub.

  7. Apropos of nothing in particular but I was in a pub in Ireland last night where everyone went delirious with unrestrained joy at the sight of England losing to Wales in the rugger.
    " Jaysus,boy,'tis great to see the Brits get beaten " said one particularly gormless individual to me.
    The look of utter confusion on his face when I reminded him that Wales was still in Great Britain was actually worth the abuse that followed.

  8. I agree with you about quality MudGie. I intend to bring it up at next year's AGM.

  9. Sorry about the Mud Gie. Mudgie. New keyboard.

  10. The cask report is an example of paying for the answer you want to hear and selectively interpreting the results to support it.

    We all know on entering the pub, by looking around, if the cask is a gamble. I experience little poor quality cask because I don't gamble. I like keg filth and opt for it, and drink cask in pubs where the beards tend to congregate or I know keep it well. I wouldn't touch the muck in a fair number of pubs that sell it. You can't go wrong with lout.

    The best bits of the CASK report were in the raw data published on Stonches blog.

  11. Could some of the quality issues be solved by minicasks eg half or two-thirds sized. Has this been tried? OK a bunch of issues not least having them manufactured, plus ullage etc; but easier to move, store, could be used in a compact stillage space or even at the bar. I know polypins are another answer but cider in spoons is the only mainstream ontrade use I've seen (although a local microbrewery keeps a range on by using polypins (minipins maybe) unboxed in trugs under the bar. (I know that some of that Eurocraft stuff comes in smaller kegs, especially stronger stuff. If they can do it ...?)

  12. I think you are missing the point about staff training. Even in a pub with one pump, staff need to know what their pint of cask is meant to look like and is meant to taste like.

    We've all had the, "I don't know, don't drink the stuff" and "must be OK , everybody else is drinking it" responses from staff who have clearly never had it explained that beer does go off. That is lack of basic training.

  13. Drinking cask ale goes hand in hand with other middle class interests like eating vegetables and baking your own bread.

    It should come as no surprise to anyone here that its strongly an ABC1 category good, I've been telling you all that for years. Its seen as healthier and more traditionally English than drinking lager and as such forms part of a wider middle class lifestyle choice.

  14. I'm yet to be convinced that choice is necessarily (or even, often) the enemy of quality. If you put 8 beers on in a pub with no trade then they're going to get pretty tired, for sure. But your problem is lack of trade and bad management - which would likely make for a bad pint anyway.

  15. Quite often what happens is that a wider variety of beers attracts more customers = more throughput, equals better quality.

    Its often the pubs with only 1-2 pumps that suffer from the most vinegary beers, because anyone who drinks cask ale is liable to go someplace else. with a bit better choice.

    Cask ale is not like lager where you can just pick a "safe" brand in the knowledge that the majority of punters will happily drink it. There are very few ales out there that are enjoyed by more than 50% of cask ale drinkers. In order to be able to satisfy 90% of people who come in the door, you probably need at least 4 different ales on, preferably covering a variety of styles.

    Most of the pubs that have gone bust in the past 10 years have done so because they simply haven't put on a wide enough variety of beer to satisfy enough people's tastes to attract in enough punters in to keep them solvent.

  16. @Dvorak - we have already moved from a situation where forty years ago, 36-gallon barrels were the standard cask, to 9-gallon firkins being normal. 4½-gallon pins are increasingly common, but if you can't shift one of those quickly enough then it's probably time to admit defeat.

    @geordiemanc - yes, staff training is desirable up to the point where they know how to pull a pint, and they know that real ale may be "off" and how to respond to customer complaints. But it's not reasonable in most cases to expect staff to be knowledgeable about merits of the various products on offer.

  17. at least Stonch has cleared up one of the stats in the report was a mistake, though I still cant work out how they extrapolate from "51% of (self nominated) pub goers" to 51% of the UK population from a survey of less than 2,000 people

    so frankly I take the stuff about which customer base it appeals, the cask/keg crossovers, even the average spend with a pinch of salt, the survey just isnt covering enough people to make such claims and back it up with the data.

    and yes Id agree it tries to assume that one size, a London centric view IMO, fits all, they "NEED" facebook, no i dont think actually they do, the only reasonable suggesting it makes is you need to train staff properly but thats a perenial complaint not in itself specific to cask ale, because people just think bar work is easy.

    the choice thing is interesting, because I feel quality has got better over the years, we went from a position where maybe only 3 pubs in the town served regularly decent beer to now theres at least 6-8, with another couple who are knocking on the door kind of thing, it is and always will be something pubs have to keep on top of,which some forget.

    I dont know what the answer is, is it more beers, pub I went in last week had 7 handpumps, out of 4 I tried, 3 had off flavours, the last 1 was great, so they should have just stuck with that last one, was it the pub I dont know I complained once to abrewer about an off flavour in a different brewers beer and he pointed out it had to have been picked up during the brewing process,there was literally nothing the pub could have done with it except just not put the beer on, so how do you fix that quality issue.

  18. There’s no doubt that real ale has been touted by the trade as a ‘premium’ product for some time now and quite successfully, too. They’ve also done well with selling it-literally-to the ABC1 set. However, that’s not the whole story, is it? Spoons are easily the largest sellers of cask in the market and they’re hardly known for pulling in the ABC1 crowd. Also my experience of seeing who buys it locally; the regular drinkers who really keep the pumps flowing doesn’t chime with that either. ABC1s are few on the ground, I can tell you!

    Also I’m not sure that the quality of beer in the family brewers houses v pubcos is what it was, either. I’ve certainly come across quite a few dud pints of Thwaites, Holts and Lees locally. Indeed, there are a number of Holts pubs that consistently serve duff beer. One, annoyingly, right in the centre of town.

  19. I get the impression that the North-West is more of a stronghold of working-class cask drinking than many other parts of the country, especially That London.

  20. There is an age/class correlation. Amongst the over 50s, ale is a working class drink and the posh folk neck wine and GnTs, in the 20-40 age group that I belong to, the working classes all drink lager and the middle classes drink ale. I have observed this in pretty much every city in the UK without exception.

    As for the U20s, either they don't drink at all or they drink alcopop cider rubbish.

    Spoons drinkers are generally either working class youngsters necking the lager, old men nursing an ale, and the odd middle class invader slumming it for the beer festival.


  21. Agree with py.

    Used to be the case that older working classes drank John Smiths cask in vast quantities (particularly in South Yorks) though whether this changed when "the Johns" moved brewery or when Smooth introduced hard to say.

  22. A major factor in this shift was the move to identifying real ale as a separate product category, rather than just a different way of storing and serving "mild" or "bitter". "Smooth" was successfully established as something with its own USP, not just boring old keg.

    Also the general abandonment of electric metered dispense for real ale has made a substantial contribution.

    "this has left a substantial population of older drinkers who would once have happily drunk real ale in the pub, although never thinking of it as such, but have now been deterred by bad experiences of that funny stuff that comes out of handpumps and prefer to stick to the likes of John Smith’s. Indeed on several occasions I’ve heard older drinkers ask bar staff “have you got any smooth?” when, in their drinking heyday, “smooth” as such had not even been invented."

  23. Different people have different levels of risk aversion. Many people (possible correlated with a stereotypically middle-class desire for "authentic experiences") will put up with the odd dodgy pint in exchange for an occasional really great pint, whereas other people, who possibly don't get quite so excited about beer in the same way, are just happy with consistency.

    I'd rather drink one 5/10 beer and one 9/10 beer than two 7/10 beers. Hence I'm generally happy to take a chance on the cask, or with a beer I haven't heard of before.

  24. My father by and large drinks John Smiths Smooth and likes it. He is what you might call prosperous working class. A bloke that's worked all his life and retired in comfort. The prosperous working class being the ones that actually work or worked.

    He drank all the 60's and 70's keg that was much derided because that is what young men drank then. He was out with his mates, not out to sample beer. He likes to claim he was a bit of a lad, but he wasn't and was somewhat lucky to pull my Mum. Old photos show a bloke punching above his weight on that score.

    He was never bothered about it enough to campaign. He was busy passing exams at night school, working, raising a family and the all the things most people care about more than beer. Beer being a product, not an interest. The weird thing is those that did bother about it enough, not those that didn't. Really, giving that much of a toss about a pint?

    He tried the "real ales" and liked them and for a while drank them when we lived in an area where all the pubs did them. He just drank the local bitter. We lived there to be in the catchment area of better schools that put my sister and I in university, not for the real bitter.

    In retirement he's moved back to where he grew up and rather likes a workings man club where he and his mates meet up. There, they all drink the smooth.

    Lager is too foreign, bitter is British. Lager used to be advertised as a womans drink and he remembers that more than lager being a young mans drink.

    To see him now, you'd think "Jeremy Corbyn". His mates look the same. They thing I'm the idiot for paying so much for brightly coloured branded trainers when you can buy comfortable brown shoes for a tenner at Wyndors world of shoes.

    They enjoy meeting up at their club, they enjoy blandish bitter. They have no interest in beer as a hobby or enthusiasm. They are there for each others company and bitter is what northern English working class blokes drink. If they were French it would be red table wine. They all vote Labour, but to hear them speak you wonder why they are not Tories, until you accept politics is about tribalism more than policy.

    I don't see a problem. They are happy. You have no shortage of what you like, and they like a few pints of smooth in what is a really nice smart club. If I join them I drink the wifebeater lager and ask whether any of them fancy a game of darts. Sometimes I think of moving closer, so that club would be my local. They have multiple dart boards and full size snooker tables.

    I find smooth bitter to be muck, but that doesn't mean people that drink it are stupid. There are lots of things people eat and drink that I don't like. My Dad and his mates are canny old timers. I respect him and his pals more than any beer enthusiast I've ever encountered.

  25. That's your best yet Cookie, and your Dad is right about the brown shoes.

  26. You need to put that up on your blog, Cookie :-)

    I think back in May an awful lot of blokes like that broke the habit of a lifetime and voted UKIP.

  27. My father didn't because as I said, he's a canny old timer. He can spot a shyster like Farage at ten paces, even though his eyesight isn't what it was.

    He was a child during the war, remembering only rationing. He still likes to say "We fought a war against such things", though in cause of fact that would be my grandfather who did that, a petty officer in the Navy (being skilled working class)

    As a young man he went on a demo against Farages hero, Enoch Powell, the only one he ever went on.

    He dislikes Corbyn, likes Cameron thinking he is a decent Tory like "that old puff Ted Heath" and rather wishes Liz Kendall won, sharing my opinion that one would enjoy her company, socially.

    An early capitalist memory is of my father paying me to distribute Labour party leaflets he couldn't be arsed doing.

  28. I did manage to convert my father to real ale, although that was what he was usually drinking anyway. I used to give him the previous year's Good Beer Guide, which he would consult when away on holidays or day trips, although my mum sometimes complained that it led them to "grotty pubs".

    The last pint of beer he ever drank in a pub was a pint of Sam Smith's OBB.

  29. A discerning choice for a gentleman. I wouldn't object to it being my last pint. Maybe that's something to consider when I'm old like you or my Dad. This might be my last one, better make it count, sort of thing. Wouldn't want my last pint to be a can of Stella on the transpennine express.

    My Dad also rather likes OBB and when I told him that was real ale his reply was that it didn't matter as he liked it anyway as it was a decent pint of proper bitter at none of those rip off prices pubs usually charge.

  30. There are worse things to have on your tombstone than



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