Wetherspoon’s have always put cask beer at the centre of their offering, and their recent expansion into medium-sized towns in Scotland and Northern Ireland has brought cask to places that have scarcely seen it for decades. I recently saw a comment along the lines of “Why keep knocking Wetherspoon’s? No other pub in my town sells cask, full stop.”
So, full marks for effort and, in my experience, Spoons also do a good job of promoting cask beer at the point of sale. But the problem is that, while you can make it available, you can’t force people to drink it. Tandleman has recently been to Dumbarton in Scotland to visit his elderly mother, and reports a very dismal experience in the Captain James Lang, which WhatPub says is the only cask outlet in a town of 20,000 people.
Think there has been a 100% record for me of undrinkable cask at @jdwtweet Captain James Lang in Dumbarton. Bonnie and Blonde v murky. Sad.— Tandleman (@tandleman) 23 May 2016
Martin Taylor backs this up with a more general comment about Spoons:@oldmudgie @jdwtweet I didn't try the Abbot or Doom Bar in fairness but I don't think a single pint of cask was sold all night.— Tandleman (@tandleman) 23 May 2016
@oldmudgie @tandleman I rarely see cask bought in any quantity, however much promoted. Cider/soft drinks/smooth/lager 90%+ sales now. Spiral— Martin Taylor (@NHS_Martin) 23 May 2016
Inevitably, this leads to a vicious circle of declining sales leading to declining quality which just serves to put more people off. Cask, more than anything else sold in pubs, is critically dependent on volume. You can’t stock it as a niche product selling five pints a day. I’ve long said that, if a pub can’t turn over enough cask beer to keep it in good condition, it shouldn’t stock it at all, and CAMRA should accept that rather than complaining. On too many occasions, I’ve had a pint of soup or vinegar from that solo apologetic handpump at the end of the bar, with the result that in unfamiliar pubs I now often think twice before ordering it. While it may not please many in CAMRA, maybe Wetherspoons need to recognise that cask simply isn’t a viable product in some of their Scottish and Northern Irish branches.
Some inhabitants of the beer bubble (not Tandleman) often fail to appreciate how, for large swathes of the pubgoing population, cask is something they simply won’t consider. On a recent Sunday lunchtime, I was in my local pub, where there were a mixed group of people in their twenties and thirties, plus a couple of reasonably well-behaved children. Quite respectable, not at all chavvy, indeed the kind of customers pubs want to encourage for the future. Yet the drinks were a mixture of lager, fruit cider and soft drinks. If any of them had had a pint of cask, it would have raised eyebrows. There were more cask beers on sale in the pub than there were people drinking it, with the not entirely surprising result that my pint, while acceptable, was a bit dull and tired.
You sometimes have to wonder how often some of the people who pontificate about beer on the internet ever actually go in pubs used by “norms”.
(NB: I got the OK from Tandleman before posting this)