Friday, 29 September 2017

The premium pint

The latest version of the annual Cask Report has been published this week. There’s a lot to digest in there, and I’m not proposing to do a general overview of its findings. So far, I’ve not noticed that anyone else in the blogosphere has done so either.

However, one section that caught my eye was that on trying to achieve premium pricing for cask beer. This seemed rather unfortunate timing in a week where “pub drinking is becoming increasingly unaffordable” was a major news story. And, as I’ve often argued before, you can only justify a premium price if you can consistently deliver premium quality which, as the report argues elsewhere, remains a major problem for cask.

Within the cask sector, there seems to be a pretty much total inability for individual beers or breweries to command a price premium over others of the same general strength and style. If you look at the wine list in a pub, some wines will be half as much again as others, or more. But all cask beers of the same strength will be much the same price, even though it’s accepted that some are intrinsically far better than others. All other categories of drink can manage this, and indeed consumer goods in general, so why not beer?

Whatever cask drinkers are willing to pay for beers of a high (or highly perceived) value, there is still a place for one or more beers at an entry level price point – equivalent to a standard lager. Depending on style, abv, scarcity and provenance, there may then be the opportunity to flex the price of other real ales on the bar.

Any standard strength brand viewed as premium in character should be able to sustain a price above that of a standard lager. Well respected, premium strength cask ales should bear a price point at least equivalent to a premium lager.

Artisanal, top-of-the-range ales that are high in strength, unusual in style or with particular points of interest have the potential to sustain a much higher price, and may be promoted in smaller measures, such as third of a pint.

A major factor in this, of course, is “rotating guest beer syndrome”, which presents cask beer as a homogenous, disposable, interchangeable commodity product. You’re only going to be able to command a premium price for your beer if it can be a permanent fixture on the bar, so drinkers get to know it and recognise that it’s something worth paying a bit more for. And even the finest beer in the land can be turned into unappetising slop by poor cellarmanship.

Plus, when by far the biggest single retailer of cask beer sells it at bargain basement prices, and tends to have a uniform price point across a wide range of producers and strengths, trying to position it as a premium product, or differentiate sheep from goats, comes across as swimming against the tide.

10 comments:

  1. The only mainstream brewery that seems to manage it is Timmy Taylors.

    Craftier ones can get charged at a heftier whack, but they only tend to be on in crafty places so not really relevant to the general debate. (And in the crafty places they are considerably cheaper than the keg alternatives, so that hardly reinforces cask as a premium product.)

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  2. And Taylor's (we're really just talking Landlord here) seems to be more vulnerable than many other beers to poor cellarmanship, so you end up paying over the odds for a dull pint :-(

    When it's good, it's lovely, of course.

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    1. This is indeed the problem - Landlord is a superb beer but it's produced in what is now becoming the old fashioned way with a rigorous secondary fermentation and significant sediment and too many pub owners/managers seem to think a beer is ready the second it drops bright which unfortunately many do just a couple of hours after delivery, assuming there's any sediment in the first place. They just don't see the value in letting beers mature for a few days, or even a week.

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  3. I reckon the quality of a pint of Landlord is a good yardstick for judging a pub's cellarmanship.

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    1. absolutely, and its what they tell you on the Cask Marque course, its the one beer you must respect any landlord for putting on because it deserves the care and attention, and you must always sample if its on. tbf I find the bottles are far more hit and miss than the beer has been lately in any pub, but thats another discussion entirely.

      I dont get the whole Cask ale must have a premium price part, you goto a coffee shop you pay the same price (roughly) for a cup of coffee as you do in Starbucks or your artisan independent, its called the market price thats decided by how much the consumer is willing to spend, both of them will probably taste reasonably similar, you might just feel more smug drinking at one than the other.

      why should beer be treated differently, apart from raw costs,tax differences, why should beer attract a premium price beyond what feels in some places to already be a premium price,£4 a pint isnt cheap, drink more than 2pints and youve spent one of those shiny new ten pound notes on a night out already when we are trying to encourage people to drink beer, putting the price up seems a really daft idea. I always think of the classic pub scene from Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, 6 pints of bitter, and he gives the landlord £5 and says keep the change.

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  4. Been at it for years ain't they? They are not wrong though. If cask ale was a premium product it would command a higher price than commodity lager. Trouble is it ain't therefore it doesn't.

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  5. With cask you are buying volatility. It might be fantastic, it might be indifferent. It might be totally fucking undrinkable.

    The drinker is taking a substantial gamble and this is reflected in the price point. It's much like buying a property at auction without a proper survey or taking a chance on discounted fellatio with a new whore.

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    1. Indeed, what Tandleman and I have referred to as the "quality lottery". But up to a point that's part of its charm.

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  6. Two separate things here - 'premiumisation' of cask ale in general, and pubs introducing a broader price range across cask beers. The first can't really be a flier - they're already 'premiumised' craft keg *relative to cask*, so turning it on its head would be quite a trick - but the second is more realistic. It goes against the traditional expectation of being able to rock up to the bar and buy a pint for the price of a pint, admittedly, but it can be done. At Pie and Ale, last time I visited, they had a house beer going for £2.80 and 'guests' ranging from £3.40 to £5.60, or double the price of the 'house'.

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  7. In any regular boozer most of the punters are on the lager. They wouldn't think "Oh, now the bitter's more expensive that must be better therefore I'll have a bitter"

    The report is punting out a message on behalf of the the interests of those that paid for its production. It's punted out the same one for years.

    Some beer geeks think that if cask beer in beer geek bars could maintain the prices of the craft keg more experimental breweries would put out cask versions. They are probably right about that but that niche specialist market isn't the regular pub market.

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