Wednesday, 2 October 2019

It won’t lie down

The most recent version of the annual Cask Report was published last month. Against a background of falling sales, it argued that the key to turning the sector round was premiumisation, which seems somewhat perverse to say the least. This idea really is a complete canard that for some reason keeps getting resurrected. I have written about this several times in the past, here for example, so am reluctant to produce another lengthy essay on the subject. However, here are a few quick bullet points.

  • The historical reason that cask sells at a discount to keg ales and lagers is that it was originally the standard beer in pubs. Keg ales and lagers commanded a premium both because they were new innovations and because they incurred more processing and storage costs.

  • One reason that it continues to sell at a discount is inconsistent quality. People won’t pay top dollar for a product that is something of a lottery.

  • Cask doesn’t inherently cost any more to make than keg, and it isn’t really that difficult to keep well so long as you stick to a few simple rules.

  • Cask is a perishable product that is critically dependent on turnover. It is ill-suited to occupy a low-volume niche.

  • Most cask is consumed by ordinary drinkers, not beer enthusiasts. It is usually the staple ale in pubs and is compared with lagers and smooth ales, not with craft keg.

  • Cask beer isn’t exactly cheap at the moment, with the £4 pint very common now.

  • Many cask drinkers are people on a limited budget who have no scope to absorb hefty price increases. 59% of drinkers may say in a poll that it should cost more, but in practice would they be happy to pay it?

  • The single biggest retailer of cask beer is an aggressive discounter, which makes it very difficult to shift the perception of the market.
With work, premium pricing can be achieved for individual brands and pubs, as I wrote here. But it’s just not going to happen for the whole sector, so maybe it would be best to stop trying to flog this particular dead horse.

It’s interesting to see the contrast between these two Twitter polls by Ber O’Clock Show and myself asking subtly different questions:


  1. One may as well ask if soft cheeses should be premiumised. Or manual cars. Or stringed instruments.

    The cask sector is simply far too vast to be able to make that kind of generalisation. Some cask beers are rightly perceived as 'premium' and sold as such. Some not so much. Some are, in my view, *wrongly* marketed as premium. Some are not which arguably should be.

    But, crucially, it really does depend on the specific beer. The strength, the quality of the ingredients, the time and effort taken to produce it, the cost of raw materials etc. This is true for bottle, can and keg as much as it is for cask.

    For example, canned beer used to be seen as the downmarket, bog-standard option. This is now not the case, and the reason is because it wasn't the canning that made a beer inherently cheap and rubbish, just the fact that until relatively recently it was only really cheap and rubbish beers that were widely available in can. Whack decent beers into the canning line, and folks will pay £5 a go.

    'Craft keg' is seen as a premium product not because it's keg, but because it's 'craft'. It's not all just marketing wank - there is some genuine substance in there too. Without it the marketing wank wouldn't have found its way in in the first place.

    Trying to premiumise an entire sector seems to me to be futile and undermines our credibility as cask-preferential drinkers.

    1. The only thing I'd add to that is that premiumising specific cask brands is very much dependent how well they are kept in individual pubs. To be fair, Timothy Taylor's seem to be very alert to the possibility of this happening with Landlord, although I'm still distinctly dubious about it in most pubs.

    2. That's the irony - the mainstream cask beers that are a genuinely premium product tend to be those that suffer most in quality terms from poor turnover per container and poor cellaring. Landlord's often iffy quality is very much a result of the brewery marketing it nationally, losing the quality control they used to have over being careful who it was sold to. With cask 'craft' quality issues and brewing faults are often disguised by flavourings and absurd hopping - one example I found earlier this year was a railway arch brewer proudly boasting about his beer's butterscotch notes - which was actually a high level of diacetyl from his poor brewing skills.

  2. It's the pubs which hold the premiumisation. It's hospitality. Some folk will pay more to drink in a venue that keeps the rough arses out. So us rough arses go down spoons. It's the same Stella, either way.

    1. Still no draught Peroni in Spoons. But you're right - premiumisation in the on-trade is much more to do with outlets than brands. Compare the Baker's with the Boar's on Stockport Market Place.

  3. Spot on as always. Particularly taken with the 5th bullet.

    Most cask is consumed by ordinary drinkers, not beer enthusiasts.

    Despite what CAMRA promotions may suggest.far more Banks's Amber, Greene King IPA and Doom Bar is drunk by ordinary folk than the small quantity of Citra, DIPA and sours sipped by enthusiasts.

  4. There’re 2 main types advocating for this. Self-interested small-scale brewers who want a higher price for their products and a small number of beer enthusiasts who want to try the keg DIPA on cask and appreciate it won’t as cask exists in a lower price bracket.

    Both arguments deserve examination outside the wider mainstream beer market and are features only of the small-scale market. Small scale production in other fields commands a premium as customer pay for enhanced product or service. Tailoring is a good example of a product with many price bands where bespoke services command the highest price. So why isn’t there a premium band for small scale cask?

    Maybe a large amount of small-scale brewing really doesn’t offer a premium over the mainstream and can only exist at a discount supported by a tax break?

    Having a pop at a value pub chain who’s whole usp is a cheap pint, is missing the point. Most markets have a discounter. Producers have the capacity to avoid their products being discounted if they choose who to supply and can produce something special enough to warrant being highly sort after.

    1. That's the point, Cookie. If a pint of Dogs Bollocks was as superior to a pint of Unicorn as a Saville Row suit is to a Primark garment then there would be a case for premium prices. But the real comparison is Primark against Next

      And that is before you consider that a well cellared pint of quickly turned over Unicorn can be superior to a badly kept and served Dogs Bollcks IPA. Saville Row clothes wouldn't command a premium if half of them were badly stitched and fell apart the first time you wore them.

      And the so called superiority of premium cask is often merely a matter of preference not a genuine superiority.


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