Tuesday, 5 October 2021

A long road back

Last week, it was widely reported that 2021 had seen a 40% decline in sales of cask beer compared with the last pre-lockdown year of 2019, which naturally set many alarm bells ringing. However, this figure needs to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt. It covers the period from April to July, during most of which pubs either couldn’t open at all, could only serve outdoors, or were operating under severe restrictions that affected both their capacity and their appeal to customers. It was only in the last two weeks of July that relatively normality was allowed to return.

The 40% figure is therefore likely to be a considerable exaggeration, but there are many signs that the cask market is struggling. Licensees are reporting a noticeable shift from ale to lager, and my local Robinson’s brewery are now only supplying cask in 9-gallon firkins. There have been a number of reports of pubs, especially in London, dropping cask entirely.

Since the unlocking in mid-July I have visited around 50 different pubs. Obviously I can’t claim that my experiences are representative of the whole but, while there has been the expected variation in quality, I can’t say I’ve had any pints that were obviously well past their best and had to be returned to be bar. Nor have I come across any pubs where I expected to see cask on the bar but there wasn’t any, and I haven’t heard of any local examples where it has been dropped entirely. I wonder whether the pubs in question are ones where there was previously just a lone handpump of vinegary Doom Bar at the end of the bar, as opposed to those with a significant cask offer.

One thing that has happened is a reduction in cask ranges but, given some reduction in demand, this is a sensible case of cutting your coat according to your cloth, and in some pubs is probably long overdue. The overall conclusion seems to be that, while there are grounds for concern about the prospects for cask, it certainly isn’t time to be reading its last rites, and in some pubs it has made a strong comeback.

Of course the fortunes of cask are closely tied in with the general health of the pub trade. Again, judging from my experience, while trade seems somewhat subdued, it’s not dramatically out of line with what it was before. Some licensees have said that things are now pretty much back to normal, and I have come across one or two extremely busy pubs, particularly those with a strong Sunday lunch trade. One thing that has been widely reported is that trade is much less predictable than pre-lockdown, with unexpected rushes being offset by dead sessions.

The fact that many workers have still to return to the office has an impact on pubs in city centres although, as Tandleman reports in relation to the Lower Turk’s Head in Manchester, the city-centre weekend leisure trade in some places seems to be thriving, with several reports of peaks coming earlier in the day.

Heavy-handed Covid safety protocols largely seem to have gone by the board, although a few Perspex screens at bars and pointless one-way systems remain. I have walked out of one pub where it was clear that the full works of safety theatre were being applied, and declined to go in another because of a sign outside saying the same, but those were isolated examples. In general, rural and semi-rural pubs seem keener to retain restrictions than urban ones, maybe because they feel they have a captive market who can’t take their trade elsewhere so easily. Pubs may feel they are doing this to reassure their customers, but they should recognise that it doesn’t help the trade overall as it perpetuates the feeling of not knowing what you’re walking into on a casual visit. If you want normality to return, you have to embrace it.

I haven’t been anywhere that refused cash or insisted on app ordering, although I did go to one restaurant when on holiday that was card-only. Something that has persisted in a number of pubs is asking customers to move away from the bar after being served. While I accept that some people like standing at the bar, if not managed properly it can lead to others being blocked and so from my perspective in many pubs it is a welcome development.

It is clear that there is a long road back for both pubs and cask beer to return to what might be regarded as pre-lockdown normality, but there are some grounds for optimism in both the level of trade and customers feeling at ease in pubs. However, the last thing the trade needs is for restrictions to be reimposed over the winter, which would deal many pubs a grievous blow.

This coming Friday, I will be meeting up with a few fellow pub connoisseurs for a visit to central Stockport, and it will be interesting to see how things have come on just short of three months after unlocking.


  1. The sword of truth5 October 2021 at 13:45

    After taking a break from cask and enjoying packaged beer for a year, who'd go back to cask? You'd have to be crazy. Variable, unreliable. Keg beers are most like packaged beers and I'll be sticking with those.

  2. Not much to disagree with there Mudgie. I would have gate crashed your Stockport do, but in London. I'll make do with reporting back from there.

    1. Cheers. One thing that does seem to be common, as I said, is the increased unpredictability pf trade. I've ever heard of some pubs being busy at unexpected times because people want to avoid crowded sessions.

      But there really doesn't seem to be an epidemic of stale cask. Indeed I've had surprisingly good cask on occasions when I wasn't really expecting much.

  3. Nikola Catchpole5 October 2021 at 14:32

    I do like the English cask beer they do. It is my favorite since in the UK. I do very hope that it survives the building back things better. I think it is already better. I like the Hydes, the Robertsons and the brew dog ones. I also like the traditional pubs and the strange smells

    1. I'm hoping you mean the "strange smells" of the beer, Nikola !

    2. Nikola Catchpole5 October 2021 at 15:30

      Everything Martin, the beer, the toilets, the damp, oh the damp, and outside the cigs in the outdoor wooden hut things you have. But the boy the beer is good for my liking

    3. The aroma of stale beer, damp, tobacco, cheap perfume, flatulence and body odour is what defines pubs :-)

    4. Nikola Catchpole5 October 2021 at 15:52

      yes I forgot the stale beer. It is the very essence of the public housing

    5. Not sure about "building back better," Nikola. Our illustrious leader is a lover of empty, meaningless and ultimately vacuous slogans, but it's good to know that you appreciate our pubs and our beers, warts and all.

    6. Nikola Catchpole7 October 2021 at 15:31

      Yes the beer and the pubs much to my liking. The stale beer smells good but the odd people with the smells and the beards and the sandals that shout numbers at each other less so I thinks.

  4. A very insightful read as usual. Although I go in a few more pubs than you, you may well spend longer in each, and c. fifty pubs is still a very significant sample.

    I share all of your views. Several publicans have noted the volatility of trade (busy Monday, dead on Friday). Look at some forums (e.g. Discourse and you'll see that some pub goers have been reticent about returning to pubs, or have chosen the quieter times.

    Beer quality has been pretty good, only a couple of returned pints since April which is less than 1 in 100, and some good quality as ranges reduce a bit, notably in London and the Yorkshire Dales. Perhaps that means the microbreweries have been squeezed out a bit by better known brands, but not always.

    My own sense is that pubs often seem even happier places than previously. The folk who feel comfortable have rushed back, the more cautious (e.g. the older diner) have stayed away.

    Stockport on a Friday afternoon in October will be a good test.

    1. I can see what you mean about pubs being happier places. Maybe people don't appreciate things until they're taken away from them. And also maybe a touch of "Blitz spirit".

  5. Professor Pie-Tin5 October 2021 at 16:06

    October 22nd is the big day for Irish pubs with all restrictions 'due' to be lifted including the need for pubs to check on vaccine passports.
    The guvnor of Whelans in Limerick has sent out advance notice to the anti-vaccination crowd on where he stands.

    After all these months waiting for the big day I now find that on that very day Mrs Professor Pie-Tin and I will be embarking on board the good ship Britannia ay Southampton for a transatlantic cruise to the Caribbean - I have checked with P&O and they inform me Brodies bar has an extensive selection of regional British beers in bottles at pub prices after I was horrified to see John Smith Smooth on the promotional video.
    We're looking forward to getting pissed for a fortnight gazing out to sea from a sedentary position.
    On the cask front I spent 25 years drinking nowt but boring brown bitters and loved them all but after 20 years in Ireland drinking cold keg stout when I try it now on our occasional return to the UK I find them hard going.
    I wonder if all that time in lockdown drinking cans and bottles from the fridge has affected the taste buds of long term cask drinkers.
    It's a quandry I face on our permanent return to Blighty soon.

    1. Cunard offer a better selection of beers on their ships Prof, including a range brewed specially for them by a Salisbury-based micro.

    2. Professor Pie-Tin8 October 2021 at 15:57

      Looks okay to me and the missus has seen the Aspalls cider so she's happy.
      Tbh,having paid only £945pp for 15 nights in an outside cabin to the Caribbean with return flights included I'd be quite happy to down euroswill for a fortnight.
      Just got to watch out for the pesky hurricanes.

  6. In Leicester and London, the two places I know well, I have found all the pubs I used to go to have reopened and none has dropped cask. The beer has been good. One place has kept some real restrictions (possibly due to being small and cramped). People seem quite conscious about not blocking the bar and only going up when there's space etc.

    More worrying in Leicester has been some pubs further restricting opening hours (closing at 9pm on a Friday or not opening at all on Sundays). Talking to bar staff last week, they felt people were even more sensitive to when pay-day fell, which is not a good sign.

    1. Maybe staff shortages have something to do with that.

    2. I suspect staff shortages may be the issue here. My local reopened like it used to but is now closed Mon/Tues because they cannot get enough staff. Pretty much every pub and restaurant around here (Cheshire) has signs outside advertising for staff wanted.

  7. The problem I find with cask is that it is often pot luck.You may get a fresh, well kept ale or one that is a bit 'iffy".Always been that way.I can understand customers who play safe and stick to the more consistent keg, even though it isn't my thing.

  8. Nikola Catchpole6 October 2021 at 20:24

    Does anyone know what time of winter the Old Cat cask beer hits the pubs? I really love that strong beer, it's so tasty as a morsel.


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