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.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.
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.
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.