He also records many pub visits where there are more handpumps on the bar than customers, or when not a single pint of cask is pulled in half an hour, sometimes when the Peroni and Prosecco are flowing like water. Clearly, despite all the efforts of CAMRA, all is not well in the realm of cask beer. In recent months there have been a number of articles seeking to analyse the problem and sometimes to try to suggest what could be done about it.
One such appeared recently on “Good Beer Hunting” entitled Critical Drinking – State of the Burton Union. Now, I certainly don’t agree with everything in this piece, and in particular it is yet another attempt to argue that cask’s woes will be helped by charging more for it, which comes across as a touch arse-about-face. Many of the points raised are rebutted here by Ed Wray. However, it is right to point out that, after a period when it seemed to be bucking the trend of declining on-trade beer volumes, it saw a 3.8% fall in 2016, which was more than the overall market. It’s clear that there is some kind of malaise; that cask is no longer seen as a happening thing.
It’s not as though cask is in imminent danger of disappearing or anything like it. Nor was it, if truth be told, in the early 1970s, despite what some mythmakers would have you believe. I visit plenty of pubs that clearly have a very healthy cask trade and where the quality is consistently good. However, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where there was a perfect storm leading to a substantial decline in availability, with a pincer movement of high-end craft bars seeing no need to stock it, while working-class locals find there’s no demand. A few ordinary boozers in Stockport have dropped it in the past few years despite having sold it consistently for a long time beforehand. In fact, much of its resilience has been due to the biggest developers of new pubs, Greene King and Marston’s, both of whom are also brewers, seeing it as a key part of their offer. But if a substantial operator of mainstream pubs decided that their business could manage perfectly well without it, it’s conceivable that the floodgates could open, especially if they could point to the presence of “craft kegs” like Punk IPA as providing something for the beer enthusiast.
A key problem that cask suffers from is that, while at its best it’s wonderful, it’s too often rather lacklustre. During the recent few days I spent in and around Carlisle, I had fourteen pints of cask in twelve different pubs. All but two were decent enough, but there was only one where you would turn to your drinking companion and say “Taste this! This is what cask’s all about!” There does seem to have been a general erosion of standards of cellarmanship following the break-up of the Big Six national brewers, but the central issue is surely the ever-increasing proliferation of handpump numbers.
The 1978 Good Beer Guide lists six pubs for Stockport. Five of them have just two beers, while the Midway, a prototype of the multi-beer free house, has seven. On the whole of the page on which it appears, there are only a couple of other pubs stocking more than two, both Tetley pubs with Draught Bass alongside Bitter and Mild. Since then, the total amount of beer sold in pubs has fallen by almost two-thirds, while the market share of lager has more than doubled. That means that the volume of cask beer sales is only a quarter of what it once was, if that. It’s hard to do a comparison with 2018, because so many pubs are just “beer range varies”, but the Magnet alone must stock more different beers than all the six 1978 pubs put together. Even with smaller cask sizes, if you keep increasing the range in a declining market something’s got to give.
The problem isn’t simply “too many beers”, though, as just decommissioning a few handpumps wouldn’t really make much difference apart from causing some to complain about reduction of choice. It’s more that cask has been held out as something that can provide infinite variety, which is something it is fundamentally ill-suited to do. By its very nature, it is a highly perishable product. It has to sell, and sell in volume, to justify its presence. It can’t just be an optional niche product on the end of the bar to satisfy a handful of enthusiasts. So it needs to play to its strengths rather than trying to compensate for its weaknesses.
Pubs should see their cask offer as central to their business model rather than being just one amongst a range of products. In a sense selling cask represents a whole system of running a pub. There’s not much you can do about lager sales, but if your best-selling ale isn’t cask you’re doing something wrong. Think carefully about which beers will appeal to your customers and draw people in. Try to stock something that has a connection to the area or the history and traditions of the pub, rather than a brand from the other end of the country that was never seen locally until a few years ago. In a sense this is what the pubs in the East Midlands serving Bass and Pedigree that Britainbeermat blogs about are doing – they are stocking a beer with a clear local identity that has loyal supporters amongst their customers in a way that Doom Bar or Wainwright in the same pubs never would.
Regard three days’ serving time as an absolute maximum, not a target. Beer may still be acceptable then, but it won’t be at its best. And seek to make your cask offer something that defines you as a pub and makes you stand out from the crowd, rather than just the apparently random selection of beers that often crops up today. That doesn’t mean that no pub should sell a range of constantly changing guest beers, but if you want to do that have some kind of theme to it rather than just accepting what turns up. Make it so that people will say “You really need to go to the Jolly Plover – they sell a great pint of XXXX – or, maybe, they have a great range of YYYY” rather than an anodyne “they have lots of real ales”. Whatever else you do, your cask beer should be part of your USP, not just something you happen to have on the bar. But if you’re half-hearted about it, best not to bother and leave it to those who can summon up some enthusiasm.
The article I linked to above suggested that CAMRA needs to take a lead in improving standards, but that’s making too much of its role. It is, at the end of the day, a pressure group, not the custodian of cask beer, which is a commercial product made by a large and variegated collection of breweries. It shouldn’t be CAMRA’s job to run training courses on cellarmanship. And asking CAMRA to call for smaller beer ranges would be rather like asking your dog to voluntarily go on a diet. But it could take the issue of quality more seriously, rather than simply paying lip service to it and often giving a free pass to new breweries and bars that are felt to need encouragement. And it should recognise that, in a declining market where consumers demand ever more choice, there are some venues that simply are never going to have the turnover, or indeed the commitment, to do cask justice. It’s not something you just dabble with, it needs to be taken seriously. And if the bottom 20% of marginal outlets took it out, it would probably make it a stronger and more valued product overall.