Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Something’s got to give

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about declining cask beer sales, and the vicious circle of falling turnover and lower quality across the bar that it can so easily lead to. Inevitably, if volumes continue to drop, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total on-trade beer market, there will be repercussions in terms of range and availability. But exactly what those will be is hard to say. I should stress that what follows is merely some musings on the subject, and is not intended as either a prediction or a statement of what I would personally like to see.

One outcome that is often suggested is that sales will increasingly be confined to pubs specialising in cask beer, as seen in this tweet from Gary Gillman.

However, the market doesn’t quite work like that. If cask beer sales fell evenly across the board, it would obviously be those with a higher proportion of cask in their mix that would continue to sell it. But there are plenty of generalist pubs that continue to sell a lot of cask and where it is in no sense under threat. Often it is these pubs that consistently provide the best beer quality. But their customers value them for other aspects too, and wouldn’t necessarily desert them for an alternative if cask ceased to be available. It must be remembered that pubs depend for their trade on a very specific combination of time and place. People tend to drink in mixed groups and don’t choose pubs on one single factor.

Such a move would reduce the overall visibility of cask in the marketplace and thus possibly intensify the vicious circle. And the archetypal specialist cask pubs are by no means blameless on the quality front. For example, I’ve been in one perennial GBG favourite where three beers sampled on a Tuesday lunchtime, that may have been fine the previous Saturday night, were all distinctly iffy. Indeed, those pubs that imagine they have to put on a wide cask range to compete, but don’t have the turnover to sustain it, often produce the worst beer of all.

There is another kind of specialist pub that might stand a better chance of solving the turnover problem – those that effectively specialise in one beer. In the old days, this was the case with the legendary Athletic Arms or “Diggers” in Edinburgh, which sold prodigious quantities of McEwan’s 80/-, and very little else, and managed to coax something special out of it that few other pubs could achieve. There used to be some pubs serving Draught Bass that were much like this. Even today, I’d bet that in some Batham’s pubs, at least three-quarters of all draught sales are their peerless Best Bitter. It’s the model followed by the famous Zum Uerige in Dusseldorf, where the main attraction is their own highly-esteemed Altbier.

But this again represents cask drawing in its horns and limiting itself to a specialist appeal. Such establishments, by definition, are only going to thrive in larger urban areas where there is a critical mass of customers interested in that particular experience. For many, it might be a once-a-month treat rather than something used several times a week. While people who didn’t drink that particular beer, or indeed beer at all, would still be catered for, they would feel like second-class citizens, like non-gamblers at a racecourse. And it goes against the established British tradition of pubs providing something for all-comers.

A different kind of consequence could be a growing realisation that, if people want a wider range, it needs to be offered on keg, not cask. In its early days, CAMRA was driven by two different motivations – championing real ale in preference to keg or pressurised dispense, and fighting the erosion of choice and distinctive local beers. At the time, overall beer sales in pubs were growing, and the market share of lager was still relatively insignificant, so the two weren’t in conflict. It was so much better just to offer the same beer range in cask form, and you could be pretty confident you’d shift it. It must be remembered that, although it is sometimes described as such, “cask” is not a style of beer, it is a system of conditioning, storage and dispense. Bitter is a style, cask isn’t, and can encompass a wide variety of different styles.

However, nowadays, with declining volumes, there’s a growing conflict between range and quality. But the remaining pub-owning breweries don’t seem to have responded to that by switching slower-selling lines from cask to keg. At one time, it was common to go in pubs owned by the same brewer and find some selling their beers on keg or top pressure, and others having the same beers on cask. Today, you only really find that kind of wide range of mainstream keg ales in Sam Smith’s pubs, which can theoretically offer up to two milds, three bitters, an IPA and a stout. Go in the archetypal “keg boozer” and the bitter will be one or more of John Smith’s, Tetley’s, Boddington’s and Worthington smooth, there will be no premium bitter and the mild, if there is one, will be some obscure survivor like M&B Mild or John Smith’s Chestnut Mild, brewed who knows where.

But, in an age where keg beer has regained a certain amount of respectability, even with many in CAMRA, might it make sense for established ale brewers, and indeed some of their newer brethren, to offer a wider range of ales in keg form? Surely it would be better for a pub to have a keg mild or strong bitter, than to either have none at all or dispense pints of vinegar. Realistically, how much sales would they lose by this? A few years ago, our local brewer Robinson’s decided to drop their 1892 Mild, once their best seller, entirely on the grounds of declining sales, but might it not have made more sense to keep it on as a keg beer?

Realistically, none of these things is going to happen as I have described. It is more likely that the same kind of gradual erosion of range and quality will continue. But, looking at the overall market, inevitably at one point something’s got to give. And the likelihood is that it will be some kind of “black swan” event that nobody has foreseen. In the early and mid-1990s, a whole swathe of lower-end pubs that had passed from the ownership of the Big Six brewers to pubcos lost their cask beer, because it was no longer seen as something essential either to draw in punters or to maintain the owning company’s reputation. Nobody saw that coming. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the main factors keeping cask relatively buoyant is that the biggest developers of new pubs are Wetherspoon’s, for whom cask is a key aspect of their business proposition, and Greene King and Marston’s, who are our major cask ale brewers. But it need not always be so.

52 comments:

  1. One thing that is going to happen - a swan too predictable to be considered remotely black - is that the Boomer generation will die out. They've started leaving us already of course, but at some point in the next few years the rate of death will accelerate and before we know it we'll be past the centre of the curve.

    This is significant because this is overwhelmingly the generation that gave us CAMRA activism, but it's also the generation that drinks 'bitter' in large quantities, whether keg or cask. It's the old boys supping John Smiths Smooth in Wetherspoons. It's the guy in the Con club that drinks the keg Flowers Bitter that everybody forgot even existed. And it's the stalwart of the local CAMRA branch that had to stand down a couple of years ago to care for his dying wife and no longer has the fight in him, or the drinking capacity.

    Once these people are no longer with us, the landscape will change significantly. Yes, some members of the next generation will step into their shoes, but nowhere near enough to sustain the status quo. It's a different generation with different views, tastes and preferences.

    I suspect the impact on beer will be that demand for brown, moderately hopped, relatively low strength ales significantly drops off, to the point where such beer is no longer mainstream. In 2030, traditional bitter will be as niche as mild or old ale in 2010.

    I think that brewers who have an ideological interest in the survival of cask get this. Cask will survive by actively distancing itself from association with a style of beer that is on a downhill trend.

    It's hard to envisage it not becoming more niche, hence my comparison with vinyl records, but the size of the niche will be whatever the overall beer market can stand. Frankly, a lot of it will come down to who is making the decisions at the major cask brewers and how ideologically or commercially minded they are. The next generation of drinkers will drink what is available and grow to like it until some point in the relatively distant future when we get 'CAMRA II' - whatever form that takes, and it might be fuck-all to do with cask.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As cask is something that was essentially designed to suit volume sales, there's a limit at to how niche it can become, though. And, as I said, there's a need to distinguish style from system. A lot of people automatically associate "bitter" with cask, but it doesn't have to be so.

      What could prove to be a real cask-killer is if someone came up with a quaffable craft keg ale of around 4-4.5% ABV that gained the traction of Punk IPA. Most people in pubs, most of the time, for a variety of reasons, don't want to drink stronger beers.

      Delete
    2. I don't think it's going to be 'volume' on a national scale again any time soon. It will remain a volume product in the places that sell it, but these will be fewer in number, and when this happens, quality will improve. Too many outlets now are clinging to the forlorn echoes of a past that is dying - sometimes under real or imagined pressure from misguided CAMRA branches - and beer quality overall is suffering because of it.

      I love cask. Unlike the Pete Browns of this world, it's still what I drink about 95% of the time. But there are pubs that cannot justify selling it and which committed caskophiles like me are now highly unlikely to be drinking in anyway.

      I'd like it to be the mainstream format for beer delivery, much as I'd like to see staunchly Libertarian policies in government and a resurgence in High Anglicanism. But if the things I like aren't going to be mainstream - and I reluctantly but pragmatically accept that they are not - at least I'd like the niche offering to be as good as it can possibly be.

      Delete
    3. I think people will drink anything from about 3.5% to 5% or just under - but no weaker nor stronger than that. I don't think 2.8% keg mild does brilliantly, because it's just too weak and the style is unpopular to begin with.

      But otherwise I'd sasy Curmudgeon is right.

      Delete
    4. My father constantly when questioned used to go on about how beers are too strong in the pub, yet if you put a sub-3.5% beer on the bar he wouldn't drink it. He might make an exception for Brakspear's Bitter at 3.4%, but that's all. Any weaker than that and taste becomes a problem and, obviously, people want their beer to have some effect on them.

      Delete
    5. Yes, in pubs people's preference does very much cluster around that strength range, and indeed when it comes to ales more like 3.5-4.5%. Several cask beers of over 4.5% such as Old Speckled Hen have had their strength reduced to fit within it. In the pub environment, people do want their beer to have an effect on them, but not too much, too quickly.

      Delete
    6. Apparently there are a very few limited NA beers on RateBeer that's amazing. The Polish Miłosław Bezalkoholowe IPA at 0.5% gets rave reviews but few would drink such an ale if you put it on cask (and I doubt it would keep well).

      Delete
  2. Great read. I think the key point (made by you) is that so much cask is drunk outside specialist beer houses in basic locals and chain dining pubs run by the likes of Greene King and Marstons. I bet your nearest Marstons "2-for-1" sells more pints of cask than most "Ale houses" today.


    Sam Smiths are quick to adjust to the market, and to be fair Spoons have also rationalised their cask ranges in recent years (Abbot/Doom Bar/IPA + 2 is now common).


    Martin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I prefer beer made by craft or regional breweries. If it's a toss-up between a pint of Greene King IPA and Guinness, I'll go for the Guinness.

      Delete
  3. Here in Devizes, Wiltshire, our own excellent local brewer Wadworth,confines cask beers in pubs with low turnover to IPA and 6X only. They are usually in excellent condition.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Stafford Mudgie23 October 2018 at 18:43

    You comment that "the remaining pub-owning breweries don’t seem to have responded to that by switching slower-selling lines from cask to keg" but the most successful pub-owning breweries are properly committed to cask beer and they wouldn't be if their customers didn't want it and it wasn't profitable.
    Fullers, Marstons and Greene King have all greatly expanded their tied estates in recent years, the latter two with many new build sites, and for all three having maybe two or three of their well known cask beers on the bar helps "the established British tradition of pubs providing something for all-comers".
    The 'Big Six' national brewers would probably be doing something similar had the Beer Orders not resulted in them being replaced by big pubcos not interested in beer.
    London Pride, Hobgoblin and Abbot are popular cask beers that sell well and such beers are quite likely to be the future of real ale, although of course that minority of drinkers who are beer buffs wanting twice the hops and double the gravity from a nice little railway arch will instead opt for "craft" keg.
    Yes, "cask is something that was essentially designed to suit volume sales" but a pub doesn't need the volumes it did in the 1970s given that firkins ( or pins ) have replaced barrels ( or hogsheads ), smaller bore pipes means less than half the beer in the lines overnight and cellar cooling means we don't expect room temperature beer.


    . cask is something that was essentially designed to suit volume sales,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't stand Marston's. Can't stand the stuff. It's disgusting. Fuller's is fine.

      Delete
    2. It's a bit of an acquired taste, much more sour than average even when fresh;quite like it myself
      Whilst they are building new pubs they're also closing a lot. The number of hmos in the black country with vestigial Banks's signs is striking

      Delete
  5. If the Stafford Mudgie is right about London Pride,Hobgoblin and Abbot likely being the future of real ale, and he may well be right, then I for one will have no future with real ale, but then he well knows I am within the minority of drinkers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the opposite is more likely to be true. The sort of people who drink Pride, Hobgoblin, Abbot and their ilk mainly drink them because they are familiar brands that they are comfortable with. They don't predominantly drink them because they are passionate about the fact that they are cask.

      If all these beers became keg-only, or keg-mostly, I suspect most of the same customers would carry on drinking them, just as they have carried on drinking these beers through numerous recipe changes and reductions in ABV. They might well also drink the bottled or canned versions of the same brands at home.

      The old boys who drink John Smiths and Tetley keg bitter now were almost certainly the same people who drank these beers 30 years ago when they were typically found in cask. Do they know the difference? Do they care?

      If cask only survives by accident, because beers that appeal to people who don't particularly care about cask just happen to be available in cask, then I'm not sure it is much of a survival, tbh!

      Delete
    2. There are a lot of drinkers who may not be committed to cask in an "ideological" sense, but who strongly identify what comes out of a handpump with what they want to drink. When they go into a pub, they survey what is on the pumps to make their selection. Anything on a keg tap will be automatically ruled out, and if there's no cask they go elsewhere. So I think in practice there would be a lot of consumer resistance to putting London Pride or Abbot on keg, whether in tied houses or in Spoons.

      Delete
    3. The Stafford Mudgie24 October 2018 at 01:55

      Citra,
      Yes, that's what happens as real ale loses market share.
      For much of the latter half of the twentieth century real ale accounted for virtually all good beer, encompassing most styles, and was popular with a wide variety of drinkers while CAMRA represented all pubgoers.
      Then 'the ordinary pubgoer' moved to nitrokeg or the biggest selling lagers and now the minority of drinkers who are beer buffs, drinking less often and seeking 'interesting' beers, apparently like colder beer and don't seem to mind increased carbonation and higher prices - and between the two are an ageing, and so declining, group of drinkers whose preference has always been cask beer.

      Delete
    4. How absolutely awful and downbeat we have all become. Proper beer will survive and remain strong. My main thoughts are we have to relax the authoritarian drinking culture we have at the moment and become a bit more libertarian about drinking and the pubgoing thing. We have to encourage responsible drinking amongst the young - they are abandoning the ale in droves. I became a committed mild drinker for life at 17 and I dearly love the stuff when it has just that right roasted taste.

      Delete
    5. All I'm doing is being realistic - if you want a Pollyanna-ish "cheery beery" approach then I suggest you try reading a different blog. And the scope for us, or CAMRA, to challenge the "authoritarian drinking culture" is limited when the tide is currently very much flowing in the opposite direction.

      Delete
    6. You realise that that's much of a problem? Encourage a healthy interest in alcohol from a young age and you'll get there.

      So, for me? A pint of Moorhouse's Black Cat please!

      Delete
  6. To the extent that we can generalise, I think it's gen-Xers that shun cask. Round my place there does seem to be a bit of a U shaped profile, age wise, wrt cask consumption. Cask has lost its 'old man' image with students a bit. They seem to see lager as 'chav fuel', though they'll also drink 'craft keg'. The price of 'craft keg' certainly tips the scales in favour of cask foe someone who's neutral. They're drinking less overall though so not entirely good news even if true.

    As I've said before in previous threads; in the midlands availability, and probably consumption too, has increased a bit from 'absolute rock-bottom' in the early 00s to 'niche but quite common' today. What I suspect is happening is that the few pockets of the country where cask is still mainstream are starting to converge with the rest of the country's drinking habits.

    We need data more detailed than just the cask report though, otherwise this is all just speculation and anecdote.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. well as a gen-Xer Id disagree we are the ones shunning cask :) so no I dont think generalisations are probably helpful in this case

      Delete
    2. I'm a millennial that's deeply committed to good beer, usually in the form of cask ale around these parts.

      Delete
  7. I've noticed quite a few pubs pull back recently and start putting on more well-known ales like London Pride and St Austell when they used to have constantly rotating guests. It might be that over the next couple of years, the beer range starts to look remarkably similar to how it looked about 13 years ago.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as I've argued before that going in a pub and being confronted with a range of beers you've never heard of is something that deters people from choosing cask. Yes, there is a role for rotating guest beers, but the importance of having familiar, clearly identifiable brands shouldn't be underestimated. Also remember that the Cask Report repeatedly says that most drinkers want guests to be on for a couple of weeks (hopefully with multiple casks) so they get the chance to try them again if they like them.

      Delete
    2. Which is basically the formula Spoons use, just on a larger scale, there is always the ever presents, Ruddles, Abbot etc, then the guests, often kept separate on the bar, so there is the comfort for the habitual daily drinkers who just want something they know and feel safe with, and something for the more adventurous further up the bar. It's obviously a successful formula, I don't know the figures but I would guess Abbot outsells anything else .

      Delete
    3. The Stafford Mudgie24 October 2018 at 11:48

      - and Tim has said that Abbot is his favourite beer.

      Delete
    4. To be honest, I love the possibility of trying different ales. The best mix I find is part-familiar and part-non familiar ales. Too unfamiliar and the beer offering feels alien and foreign; if it's the same stuff every time it soon gets boring and I think I'd rather sit at home drinking something from the supermarket or online instead.

      Delete
    5. One beer you don't regularly see up here that I'd love to see is Fuller's London Porter. Come the New Year, I might order some online (along, of course, with a couple of bottles of their Imperial Stout).

      Delete
    6. The Stafford Mudgie26 October 2018 at 09:28

      Paul,
      I think London Porter, though still a bottled beer, might effectively have been replaced as a cask beer by Black Cab which is now only available in keg.

      Delete
    7. Speaking as a customer the 'rotating selection of casks' always strikes me as 'whatever barrels the pub got cheap from a salesman this month', which is probably true more often than not.

      I do think I would prefer the 2005ish situation of going into a little boozer and seeing a simple Hobgoblin on tap vs. the current situation of finding 5 random golden ales on tap than even a Google search sheds little light on.

      Delete
  8. My nearest 'local' pub has just gone down from four cask to two in the week, although still plans to keep four on at the weekend. I'm most likely to go there in the early evening and looking at the custom they had on Monday, I'm not surprised that they have cut back.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Stafford Mudgie24 October 2018 at 13:18

      Ian,
      The extra two as "something for the weekend" is a good idea.

      Delete
    2. The "extra two" will fade away in time. Little demand for it, they'll say.

      Delete
  9. You should see how much cask bitter spoons flog. At 1.99 it seems to shift.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've been in the Stormbird, Camberwell the past few nights. It's a great pub, with a good demographic - but different from Spoons - and a wide range of ales. There's craft keg stuff and the rest, but about half-a-dozen *well-proven* cask beers. The latter used to be all £3.00 a pint, but I paid £3.60 for Jarl this time. To come to your point though, that's a good price for London, and, yes it seems to shift indeed.

      Why, it was very heaven.

      Delete
    2. Five pints for £10 - bloody fantastic. Supporting someone who's not known for being a Remoaniac helps too. Good for the soul.

      Delete
    3. My post above was kind of in agreement with your earlier one about us being unduly gloomy, Paul. Tim's probably on the right EU ticket, what with his pubs being - maybe unfairly, maybe not - labelled as for the down-at-heel. (Runs for cover.)

      Delete
    4. But there must be money in the down-at-heel market since Wetherspoons is valued at nearly £1.3 billion and in 2 years the share price has gone from 865p to 1222p. The temptation is to suggest that Tim Martin is spending enough time on the 'EU ticket' to give some very competent people time to get on with running the business.

      Delete
    5. Who said that there wasn't? That is my very point.

      Delete
  10. Good post�� I agree that keg is a good possibility moving forward as , for example, keg Everard's tiger at blue bell in Melbourne is terrific and sells well
    Britain Beermat

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Stafford Mudgie2 November 2018 at 16:17

      I remember when Everard's Brewery was in Burton-on-Trent and all their beer was keg and anything but "terrific".
      I went round the brewery in 1974 and the cats suggested that they had a problem with rodents.

      Delete
  11. What would be thethe point of that? The thing about cask is that it can only be had in pubs (unless you go to a brewey and buy a pin or firkin). If my local everards were to put tiger on keg, then I'd go to a supermarket and buy the same thing for less than half the price and drink it at home. Almost all everards houses will probably sell enough tiger for it to be viable on cask anyway; their range is a bit incoherent, tiger is quite good, but their two light beers are very boring and old original tastes similar to tiger with more alcohol and fewer hops.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The point is that, if cask sales continue to fall, pubs would be able to offer a wider choice of ales by having some on keg instead of slow-selling cask. Is it better to have keg mild, or no mild? And, believe it or not, some people do actually go to the pub to socialise. They're not just beer shops.

      Delete
    2. I don't see much mild at all. To be honest, I struggle to see good mild even in the shops! It's getting to the stage where I'm thinking of brewing my own!

      Delete
    3. Not all mild is called 'mild' these days, mind. It's entirely normal now for brewers to put out a 'brown ale' or a 'dark ale' that is essentially a dark mild, and there are session bitters out there which would at one time have been considered to be light mild.

      Delete
  12. I'm obviously aware of that, but then people do visit pubs for a variety of reasons and having cask does give them a unique selling point. People, after all, can socialise in a variety of places. I've spent a decent amount of time in pubs where mild is the sole cask offering, and good examples of it have a very delicate flavour that seems to unduly suffer from kegging more than the pale, high hopped high stuff, so, as far as I'm concerned yes. Pins might be a better bet, or maybe pulling the nitro bitter in favor of a nationally recognised, easy drinking cask brand (I've seen this happen in my local;they ran out of nitro gas, anyone wanting john smiths was offered bombardier at the same price and nobody complained) would make at least one more handpump viable in a lot of places. Very few pubs would not be able to shift one firkin within 3-4 days, the worst culprits for stale beer I've noticed have been places with a lot of style duplication.

    Still, the market share has been dropping for two years after rising for several. It's too early to tell whether this is just a blip or something more serious and, as I keep saying, we need more data about the source of the decline.

    I quite agree that the quality of cask can be iffy in places, and needs to be sorted: Ive had a few rubbish pints of late in some "grand old" central birmingham pubs and its especially annoying when it's expensive and crap, but not crap enough to justify returning.

    Nevertheless, if the source of the decline is old guys passing away, bitter drinking holdouts switching to lager a couple of decades later than most, the cold winter and hot summer, statistical noise or something else then it's a very different problem with a different solution.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm obviously aware of that, but then people do visit pubs for a variety of reasons and having cask does give them a unique selling point.

    If you sell good beer, people will go. All the local micropubs I know are doing very well where the regular pubs are dying. In some instances it's due to the pub being in an awkward or dangerous place; in other areas it's actually a lie that the pub is doing badly - they deliberately badly run it so that it's unprofitable, then sell/redevelop it as flats. That has been happening for years.

    I've spent a decent amount of time in pubs where mild is the sole cask offering, and good examples of it have a very delicate flavour that seems to unduly suffer from kegging more than the pale, high hopped high stuff, so, as far as I'm concerned yes.

    Please, tell me where these places are! I live in a former mild heartland and there's no places here that stock mild on cask. I think there might be one social club that does it on keg but apart from that...

    ReplyDelete
  14. I live in Coventry, but spend a decent amount of time in Birmingham and the black country. Holdens have a tied pub in a rough area of Birmingham where mild is their only cask; all of their tied estate will have it. A good few marstons places I've been to have also had Bank's mild as the only working cask on that particular day. Bathams pubs have all had bitter too but always mild. Cask mild is quite common in the black country, rare in Birmingham and only available in specialist places in Coventry. The latter seems typical for most of the country.

    ReplyDelete

All comments currently require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, if you want to make more than the occasional unregistered comment, if I don't already know you, you will need to tell me something about yourself - my e-mail address is in the sidebar.