Tuesday, 2 October 2018

All too difficult

Back in August, I attracted a lot of attention for my post on The Cask Crisis, which looked at the reasons behind the decline in cask’s sales and public image, and put forward some suggestions for addressing the issue. Many of the points I made have been amplified in this post by Martyn Cornell on his Zythophile blog, which sets out in brutally honest terms just how much of a problem slow turnover and stale, tired beer has become.

Last week, the latest version of the annual Cask Report was published, which put some flesh on the bones by stating that, in the past five years, cask ale sales have dropped by 20 per cent, while the overall beer market in pubs has fallen by just nine per cent. It makes the usual worthy noises about making sure your beer range is properly matched to your turnover, although if anything it underplays that issue. It also, quite rightly, makes the point that far too much cask beer is dispensed well above the recommended serving temperature. However, to some extent that’s a consequence of lack of throughput, and a cool pint of stale beer is still a pint of stale beer.

It urges pubs to do more to tell cask’s story by providing tasting notes, offering samples, putting jam jars of beer in front of the pumps to show the colour, and training staff so they know something about the beers they’re selling. However, I can’t help thinking that this may be part of the problem rather than a solution. Arguably, it surrounds cask with a layer of mystique and obscurantism, and makes it harder to get to grips with, not easier. Most people go to the pub for a relaxing drink with friends, not for a beer-tasting tutorial.

Over the past few years, cask has declined from one-sixth to one-seventh of the beer sold in pubs. The biggest category, by far, is lager. But did anyone ever go into a pub and ask “what’s that Fosters like, then?” or ask for a sample of Stella? And fast coming up on the rails is “craft keg” (however defined) which apparently now accounts for 6% of the market. By far the biggest chunk of that must be Punk IPA, which is something that now commands instant brand recognition.

Yet go into so many pubs nowadays and you’re confronted with a line of cask beers that the typical drinker has never heard of. It’s all too easy to decide it’s all just too complicated and unpredictable and plump for a John Smith’s or a Peroni instead. The importance to any category of well-known, instantly recognisable brands cannot be overstated, and indeed the Cask Report itself reports that “84% of ale drinkers want to see at least one nationally recognised ale brand on the bar.” They also want guest beers to be on for two weeks (hopefully with multiple casks) so they get the chance to try them more than once. But most of the familiar big-selling cask beer brands are ones that many CAMRA members dismiss as “the usual suspects”. It’s an odd sort of organisation that denigrates most of what constitutes what it is supposed to be campaigning for.

Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help. Younger beer drinkers may not be aware that, in the early days of CAMRA, a substantial proportion of cask beer was sold through electric dispense of various kinds. In some areas it was the norm. People just saw it as Mild or Bitter. not “real ale” as such. But handpumps steadily spread as they gave an unequivocal symbol of real ale, and have now become pretty much universal.

However, what allows you to clearly identify something also allows people to instantly reject it as something not for them. In many pubs, there’s a binary division between stuff on T-bar taps (including craft kegs) and stuff on handpumps, and many drinkers just won’t consider the beers on handpumps. So, just a thought, but might it be an idea to try dispensing cask beer though the T-bar taps (obviously with the word “cask” on the label) so it is not immediately marked out as something “other”. There’s no technical reason why it can’t be done as, in the past, many cask beers were sold using freeflow electric dispense.

22 comments:

  1. Brand recognition eh? Perhaps a beer with a simple, visually distinctive trade mark, one which has been used for a good long time to allow it to disk into the collective unconscious.

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    1. A red triangle would do nicely for some, our lad.

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  2. Not so sure an obscure badlykept cask beer from a T Bar would solve the problem. I'm writing something today I hope about my experiences in Todmoren on Saturday. It kind of illustrates some of what you say. I think thoough that toomany unknowns is a huge problem. A consequence of too many breweries.

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    1. No, of course it wouldn't. But the handpump itself is a psychological barrier in some people's minds.

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    2. There are equally quite a few pub customers who will *only* look at the handpumps and never consider anything else. This doesn't appear to have affected the rise and rise of craft keg.

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  3. Aye, I agree with every word of that, Mudge, and I can only hope that it has some impact. Thanks for using one of my favourite words, "obscurantism" too. You'd think that we'd be hearing it all the blessed time these days, wouldn't you?

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  4. 'It’s an odd sort of organisation that denigrates most of what constitutes what it is supposed to be campaigning for'

    Nail hit well on the head.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie4 October 2018 at 11:40

      Yes. "84% of ale drinkers want to see at least one nationally recognised ale brand on the bar" but it's only the other 16% that are of any consequence !
      Represent all beer drinkers and pub goers - no, that would never have worked !

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  5. So Zythophile's idea is for companies to have "champions" for their lowest margin beer & you want to make the pong look like keg on the bar.

    Why not just accept it's a niche product? It should only be in a select number of pubs that do it well? Most mainstream drinkers are not interested in it and most CAMRA members would walk past a mainstream pub to get to a 10+ pumps specialist pub.

    Why hawk it at good people that consistently show they are not interested?

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    1. But the Jehovah's Witnesses will knock on doors, Cookie. I'm a convert - not to that bollocks mind - so they needn't bother me more.

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  6. Cask sales may have dropped in the last five years, but has anyone looked at the preceeding years. When I was in university in the mid 00s, cask was seen as an "old man's drink" and availability was considerably worse than it is now. This, I think, had changed by about 2010. If what happened then was a massive boom in sales, then there was always going to be a slump.

    My local is a large, knocked through 30s Tudor place in a majority, but not exclusively working class suburb in the midlands. The 18-40yo working class guys drink exclusively lager, the lower-middle class, 40+ and students occasionally drink cask, oldies drink nitro (which packed up once for a day and they switched to cask without much fuss before switching back). They served punk a year ago, but nixed it due to cost.

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    1. Not aware of evidence for any kind of boom in cask sales in the Noughties in either relative or absolute terms. Indeed, as is well known, the 2007-10 period saw pub beer sales in general fall off a cliff.

      My recollection is that it continued to slowly lose ground to lager and smoothflow and be taken out of bottom-end pubs.

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  7. I wonder if there are any data sets out there that could break things down by region or even companies. Cask's availability where I live in Coventry has gone up and up. Coventry, has a notoriously ugly city centre, beyond that there's a small ring of Victorian development where almost all of the traditional pubs are. The rest of the city, is either 30s suburbs or postwar estates. M and B have a virtual monopoly on the suburban pubs with ember inns and Sizzling in the middle and working class ones respectively. M and B are pushing cask in the sizzling pubs which were all keg-only in the mid 00s. Even a few of the very rough estate pubs have one handpump now which wasn't the case a decade ago. Don't get me wrong though, it's still niche and utterly shunned by the working class who are under 40. In my local sizzling roadhouse, they have 5 handpumps on all the time and I would estimate that between 2-5% of what they sell is cask, nevertheless that's up from 0% when it was keg only.

    If you say that there are still geographical hold-outs of working class cask drinking, Have you though that what might be happening is that these areas' drinking habits are converging with the rest of the country's meaning a large decline in cask consumption there overshadowing a small increase elsewhere from absolute rock bottom?

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  8. I think a major problem regarding real ale quality over the years has been the rise of the pub-co, the tenants/managers operating on a shoestring with staff poorly trained agency staff, the beer is brought in centrally,stockpiled in a warehouse somewhere in less than ideal conditions and maybe turning up short on date.Combined with a minuscule profit margin,the landlord is not going to be keen to waste any beer, i.e not pulling a pint through first thing before serving at opening time and squeezing every possible fluid ounce from a cask well past it's best, the beer doesn't stand a chance.

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    1. Yes, I remember Roger Protz saying rather ruefully at a Beer Debate at the Manchester Beer Festival a couple of years ago that the old Big Six did pay more attention to cellarmanship because their name was above the door, and so poor beer would reflect directly on them. Pubcos, at a corporate level, don't seem particularly bothered.

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    2. Yes - good smaller breweries from Mallinsons to Harveys to Dark Star would be shocked to know how dull their beer often is in the free trade (even GBG pubs) where it competes with five other beers but mainly against lager, but of course they'll never know. And the customer will think "that Hophead is overrated" rather than blaming the pub. You need your own outlets. RM

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  9. The other problem with pubcos is that they aren't (obviously!) breweries, and so have no vested interest in selling their own beer. I wonder if the proportion of cask sold in pubs belonging to long-established brewers (Harvey's, Batham's, Taylor's, for example), where the range is small, rarely changing and reliable, is greater than in other pubs?

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    1. I would certainly say that typically beer is more reliable and beer ranges tighter in family brewer pubs, although there can be exceptions.

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    2. the obvious exception would be Greene King though whose pub estate is mostly (not all are) run exactly like a pubcos. and I wasnt entirely wowed by the St Austell/Bath Ales match up in Bath when I visited last year, Id need to travel further into the south west to see if that is now representative of that brewery/pub operation as I dont recall it always being like that on the St Austell side, and certainly wasnt the case on the Bath side prior to the merging

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  10. I think part of the problem lies with the Landlord or manager. It is my experience that a fair number of those who run a pub selling real ale do not drink real ale. So they don't taste it but rely on customers to say it's on the turn. Some landlords also do not keep their lines as clean as they should. They get growth in the lines and this taints the live beers. In one pub which takes our beer it tasted distinctly different and not as good as it should . We thought so and so did one of the regulars that we know there. He likes our beers and noticed the difference. This has happened t two different brands of our beers in this pub. So we are not going to sell him any more. Other landlords we know commented about the great importance of line cleaning combined with good line flushing post clean. If we have had this problem then others must have too. We always have a pin up on stillage to ensure that it is a good brew, but you cannot predict the abuse some beers get in some pubs. We are noted for brewing stronger ales and these are certainly more robust for keeping. I am seriously thinking of just having one session ale and concentrating more effort on the stronger ones.

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  11. "putting jam jars of beer in front of the pumps to show the colour" Wouldn't that lead to loads of vinegar flies buzzing round the bar?

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