Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Cask crisis deepens

Last week saw the untimely death on his 67th birthday of David Thompson, the former chairman of Marston’s, which, it should be remembered, in fact originated as Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries, but took on the name of the Burton-on-Trent company after taking it over in 1999. He was the last member of the founding family to run the business, and had assumed the position of Managing Director in 1986 at the age of only 32.

It also saw the retirement of his successor, Ralph Findlay, who was interviewed by Roger Protz here. He offered a sobering assessment of the current state of the cask beer market.

“Cask has taken a terrible hammering,” he says. “The beer market is no longer a cask market. It’s a changing demographic – young people are not drinking cask and brewers are putting their money behind craft beer.”

“Banks’s and Pedigree haven’t performed well,” he says bluntly. “The market is changing and the Banks’s market is disappearing. There are no mild drinkers left – the industry has gone.”

Of course, some responded that it’s hardly surprising as Marston’s beers aren’t much cop anyway, but that falls into the familiar trap of assuming that everyone else is going to like what you like. Most people who drink beer in pubs don’t drink cask anyway, and those who do aren’t in general interested in beers they’ve never heard of. The idea that keg and lager drinkers will suddenly be converted to real ale if only their local pub was able to stock Crudgington’s Old Snotgobbler is a fallacy that dates back to the early days of CAMRA.

Of course the pub trade is still operating under lockdown restrictions, and it will be some time before things return to anything like normality. Increased footfall and turnover may improve the position of cask. But overall this is a very pessimistic view of its prospects. It echoes many of the points I made three years ago when I wrote about The Cask Crisis. As I explained in that post, there’s no simple answer, but they key must be that pubs treat cask as being at the core of their offer rather than just an afterthought at the end of the bar.

Part of the problem is that the whole system of cask storage and dispense was designed for high volumes and rapid turnover. It is ill-suited to a world where endless variety is prized and there is an increasingly long tail of niche products. Quality is the Achilles Heel of cask, and it is all too easy to get into a vicious circle of declining sales leading to a lower and less consistent standard of beer. It’s not that it’s often completely off, but it’s all too common to come across pints of cask that are just that little bit warm, flat and stale.

I haven’t yet seen much evidence of pubs removing cask beer entirely, although obviously I haven’t been out and about anything like as much as normal over the past sixteen months. Yes, it is happening at the margins, but not really in the kind of pubs you would naturally expect to stock cask. The situation in this area is also affected by a high proportion of pubs belonging to family brewers which are strongly committed to cask. It is when we begin to see the high-profile pubco pubs no longer feeling that they need cask as part of their offer that we really need to start worrying.

You might well think that, if cask beer is struggling, there is already an organisation ideally placed to champion and promote it, and indeed incorporates it in its name. However, over the years, CAMRA’s objectives have multiplied and become more diffuse, and cask beer itself doesn’t seem to feature very high on its list of priorities. No doubt many members will say that Marston’s beers wouldn’t be much loss anyway, while happily sipping on a keg mango sour in the craft bar. It is a touch hypocritical to claim that you are campaigning for real ale while at the same time dismissing most of it as not really worth drinking. And if you erode the mainstream market, you reduce the number of potential recruits for the supposedly superior products.

Despite what some revisionists may claim, CAMRA’s original purpose was not one of promoting choice and innovation in the beer market. It was to champion the idea that the ordinary, everyday ales served in British pubs should be cask, not keg or top pressure. They were more than happy to list pubs selling Banks’s and Pedigree in the Good Beer Guide. And that is what the organisation seems to have lost sight of.

So possibly it is time to look more to the Society for The Preservation of Beers from the Wood, or revive this idea which I floated a few years ago. Or maybe cask will only be saved if it is freed from the clutches of “beer enthusiasts”.

18 comments:

  1. Enthusiasts are by their nature different from mainstream consumers and unable to see the world from the perspective of the mainstream. Therefore they are not well placed to influence that market.

    Look at your local branch attempt to campaign for mild with an annual sticker collecting mild pub crawl. Declared a success in every year it ran. When Robinsons discontinued mild and showed you graphs of year on year decline over decades the mild campaign was considered even better for no longer having boring Robinsons mild in it. I guess it will be successful right up until no regional brewer produces a mild.


    Maybe just admit CAMRA is a middle class club for people who want be beer enthusiasts and be validated in a club for it, some of whom want to sneer at the mainstream and others that are happy to just ignore it. Sit in the Corbyn tap, enjoy a mango sour, and leave the rest of us real pub men to the real pubs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Beer for me, not for thee.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've drunk cask beer for 50 years. However now it is very difficult to get a pint of cask in a drinkable condition. Off it it warm, tired, and served by somone who has no interest in it. Marstons pubs are the worst. Here you are ok with Bathams, Enville,Holdens, and Joules. Thats all.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Your concerns over cask and its future, echo my own, Mudge. Quality has always been the Achilles Heel of cask, and the "beer exhibition" type pubs, favoured by many CAMRA members, and branches, doesn't help the situation.

    Your penultimate paragraph sums it up for me as, like you, I'm old enough to remember being quite content to drink beers from companies such as Tetley, Whitbread, Courage, Bass and even Greenall Whitley, providing they were in cask form.

    CAMRA has definitely lost its way when it comes to, what used to be its prime objective.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Amongst other factors but importantly, cask quality depends on turnover and in the 80s it was reckoned that a barrel should go in two days to maintain condition. I know this seems to have been extended to three in some quarters but I also recall being told by someone from M & B at the launch of Highgate in London that they aimed for 'a container a day', at least at that time. Hence the sight of a long array of pump clips usually just makes me groan in anticipation.

    Mention of Greenall Whitley brings back memories from the late 70s of cycling up (literally) to their pub in Leeds once a week. They used consumer-friendly diaphragm electric pumps and the beer was very good.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I grew up on Greenall Whitley, and in North-West Cheshire most of their pubs had real ale. Although I'd never claim it was in the front rank of beers, when well-kept it was a very decent pint :-)

      Delete
  6. Human progress is a story of technology. Once in ancient eqypt, beer was a sour porridge of mixed grains, sweetened with honey and spices. As technology improved, so did the products humanity consume. Barley was chosen as the main grain, hops came into use, gas fires allowed for lighter maltings, yeast was understood and altered. Meanwhile horse and carts gave way to cars. Society improved as people chose what applications improved their lives.

    Flat, brown, warm beers gave way to cold, golden & fizzy beers as people appreciated the improvement and chose to pay more for them.

    There are still niche clubs for people that like steam railways, horses and carts & wearing tweed. All harmless fun. But the world works in the current century.

    Real ale will not die. It will remain a niche hobby, enjoyed by many, in CAMRA micropubs.

    Meanwhile, Peroni anyone?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have found that cask beer quality in pubs that have a well thought out range of different beers (not 6 or so golden ales with the same taste) is better as the pub will attract people who like cask beer and ensure that it has a good turnover. Pubs that offer only one cask beer often suffer from low turnover and the quality can vary. I started drinking in pubs in the early 1970's,initially in West Yorkshire and later in the West Midlands. I do not agree that drinkers were content with the cask offerings on offer at that time,the 1970's saw a big drift to lager. Many cask drinkers,including me,were delighted when the early beer exhibition pubs opened such as Brahms and Liszt in Leeds,the Duck in Birmingham and the Sun in Lambs Conduit Street London,it was these pubs and those that emulated them which enabled the cask beer market to re generate as it will do again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The big switch to lager in the 70s and 80s was a mixture of generational shift and Britain belatedly catching up with the rest of the world in its beer preferences. Saying that it was to any significant degree due to the poor quality and choice of cask beer represents the fallacy I outlined in the post.

      Delete
  8. I think the sad truth is that CAMRA gave up the fight a few years ago.

    Campaigning for Real Ale is something that the organisation simply no longer does to any great degree.

    It had a fighting chance when the brewers that largely wanted to do away with cask were putting bad beers into keg. When they started putting good beers into keg, it was a bit of a game changer. When the good beer was deliberately kept away from cask, it was game over.

    Not great news for those of us with a strong preference for cask, but that's the way it is. Stuff evolves over time, and in a few years time we'll all be dead, and neither us nor our tastes in beer will matter. Not that we matter that much in the bigger scheme of things while we live and drink, truth be told.

    ReplyDelete
  9. The pubs I use regularly mostly have cask. Some have a national reputation for it and I’m more than happy drinking local cask beers in them, but I’d say the downfall of cask has been the mass marketisation and the rush in the 90s from regional brewers to get their beers on sale nationally, destroying their USP and more often than not, the quality. If they could set the clock back, every one of them would have sent unpasteurised keg versions out and non enthusiast punters would have loved it. Can you imagine the push back from CAMRA?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed, electricpics. When I started drinking there weren't any national cask brands, with the honourable exception of Draught Bass. Even that was sometimes confusingly, marketed as "Worthington E."

      Delete
  10. Excellent analysis.

    I'm noting reduced beer ranges everywhere, no bad thing but expect plenty of comments about "disappointing ranges" on Beer Twitter. Several Scottish pubs had taken cask off entirely, Wetherspoons retrenched to Doom Bar/Abbot + 1 national, and here in Sheffield plenty of marginal outlets like Church gone wholly keg.

    Plenty of good, or perhaps "good enough" beer about, though the heatwave will challenge that.

    ReplyDelete
  11. More choice = more interest, the single variety wet pubs that are stuck in the 1970s and 80a will die out as their customers fade away from old age.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But there's a fundamental tension between choice and quality. A wide choice of poor-quality beers is no choice at all. And it may be that is what kills cask in the end.

      Delete
    2. Pubs with poor quality beer will not ensure whether its 10 beers or one beer available, a wide choice doesn't always = poor quality and on the other hand a pub offering 2 beers doesn't necessarily = good quality, it's the pubs that make or break the beer.

      Delete
    3. There does not have to be a tension between choice and quality,a choice between similar beers is not a choice and will lead to poor sales overall with a decline in quality,a well thought out choice with contrasting beers with the selection appropriate to the capacity of the premises will lead to an increase in sales,this is why many newly opened pubs have done well with cask

      Delete
    4. The overall demand for cask beer in a pub is always going to impose a limit on the number of beers that can be kept in good condition. While it may be possible for an individual pub to increase its total cask sales by improving its offer, that is mostly going to be at the expense of other pubs - you're not going to shift the market across the board.

      Delete

Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, unregistered comments are liable to be deleted unless I recognise the author. If you intend to make more than the occasional comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.