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.