Following the announcement that Cloudwater were quitting cask production, there’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about how brewers of cask beer aren’t getting a fair return on their money, and that cask beer needs to be more expensive in pubs to remedy this situation. Now I can’t say I have much sympathy for this viewpoint, as I explained here, and if you attempted to argue to a typical group of drinkers that beer in pubs was too cheap you would be laughed out of court if you were lucky. And the market fundamentals aren’t going to change, so brewers have to live with the world as it is, not how they’d like it to be.
However, buried in all the noise, there is an important point in there. Some cask beer is much better than others, but within the market it’s very difficult to command a price premium for higher quality. As I argued here, there are price premiums for some categories of beer over others, and for some pubs and pub chains over others, but not between products in the same general category.
One obvious difficulty is that in many pubs, Spoons as well as independents, guest beers tend to by priced in strength bands, or even all at a single price. Yes, there will be some variation in what they pay for beers, but they’ll obviously be reluctant to pay well over the odds and cut their own margin to the bone. The same is true of Premium Bottled Ales where, in the big retailers, pretty much everything is lumped together in “4 for £6” multibuy offers.
Things aren’t helped either by the prevailing culture of ever-rotating guest beers. The varying beers are just seen as a homogenous, dispensable product. Even if your beer isn’t up to much, the pub probably won’t be having it on again, so it will be quickly forgotten. All cask beer certainly isn’t of broadly uniform quality, but when customers are confronted with an array of beers, and possibly breweries, that they have never heard of before, it’s well-nigh impossible for them to decide that one is worth more than another.
Part of the answer must therefore lie with pubs being prepared to charge a premium for beers that have a reputation for standing out from the rest of the herd. Of course this involves sticking your neck out a bit, but I think customers would genuinely be prepared to pay a bit over the odds for beers from breweries like Thornbridge and, yes, Cloudwater.
And the other half of the answer must be for brewers to develop their reputation, so that pubs are going to make repeat orders, and that customers perceive their beers – whether individual brands or the overall output of the brewery – as something they actively want to drink. There’s no magic bullet for achieving this, but has to be the aim. Consistency, and having a product that stands out, not necessarily by being extremely distinctive, but by being of obvious quality, are vital factors. They need to aim to get their beers in pubs as a permanent fixture, or have a permanent tap devoted to the one brewery. Easier said than done, maybe, but getting more control of your own distribution chain is a sensible long-term objective.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s something that the more discerning pubs and quality-minded breweries need to keep plugging away at.