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.
Too late I think for success in the general run of pubs. Better that it be a speciality well-served in a few chains.— Gary Gillman (@beeretseq) October 2, 2018
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.