Pete Brown has weighed in to the discussion about the future of cask by suggesting that one of the best ways of improving its perception is to take it out of a whole swathe of marginal outlets. He correctly identifies that poor turnover is the single biggest problem it faces.
One of the biggest of the many issues facing cask is throughput... This is a huge problem, and it’s getting bigger. Brewers would love it if publicans who don’t sell a cask in three days take it off sale. But as cost pressures on the publican mount, that’s the last thing they’re going to do. Only 24% of pubs selling cask sell enough of it to guarantee a maximum three-day shelf life. If you were to just look at the peak selling time of Thursday to Sunday, that number is 54% – but that’s down from 62% since 2019. So pubs that can’t sell cask fresh enough are actively driving people away from drinking cask.
He has used data on beer flow produced by the Oxford Partnership to divide pubs into segments depending on how much cask they sell and what proportion of their overall draught sales it represents, as shown in the graphic below. This shows that 39.1% of pubs stocking cask only represent 13.9% of total cask volumes. Surely removing cask from these pubs, where it doesn’t sell much, and isn’t given a high priority, would do wonders for its overall perception for relatively little loss of volume.
While this kind of approach may seem persuasive, it’s important not to confuse becoming leaner and fitter with just wasting away. 13.9% is a seventh of the total market, which would leave a gaping hole that would not be solely felt by the bigger brewers. It also has to be remembered that most people who drink cask are not dedicated cask drinkers. They visit pubs for a whole variety of factors, but happen to choose cask from the range of drinks presented to them. Take it away, and they would drink something else rather than making a beeline for the nearest cask pub. It would have the further effect of reducing cask’s overall visibility, so they would see it less often, and be less likely to choose it even when they did encounter it.
The biggest problem with Brown’s analysis, though, is that he has made a fundamental schoolboy error that frankly I find surprising from someone with such long experience of writing about the industry. The figures that he is quoting look at total cask turnover in a pub, not turnover per cask line. It is entirely possible for a pub to only sell 24 pints a day, yet still keep it in decent nick if they only have one beer and get it in firkins. Indeed plenty of small rural pubs do just that and achieve entries in the Good Beer Guide. On the other hand, a pub can be selling 72 pints a day, but if that is spread over five or six different lines, customers are going to end up with a lot of stale dishwater.
Yes, you do come across a fair number of family dining pubs and sports boozers where there’s one apologetic handpump for Doom Bar or Wainwright at the end of the bar and you have to wonder how much of it they ever sell. Losing these outlets would not do cask much harm. But it is possible (although usually not the case) that these pubs have a group of dedicated regulars who provide ample turnover for that one beer.
But the true problem is all the pubs whose eyes are bigger than their belly, and put on far more lines than they can actually shift. It’s not a single type of pub – it covers the high-profile urban managed pub belonging to the likes of Stonegate or Mitchells & Butlers, rural gastropubs and of course Wetherspoon’s, many of whose outlets really don’t seem to have much cask turnover at all. As an example, I was recently in one of their local branches, admittedly not the one in the Good Beer Guide, where there were ten cask lines. Thinking I would use some of my CAMRA discount vouchers, I ordered one beer, which was cloudy and went straight back. It was replaced by another that was at least clear, but was plainly well past its best. Frankly, I approach ordering guest ales in Spoons with considerable trepidation.
The problem even spreads to the well-known specialist beer houses which we are regularly assured have the turnover to maintain freshness. But when you see a pub with more pumps than customers on a Monday or Tuesday you do have to wonder, and I have sometimes had very poor beer in multi award winning pubs. To some extent, I tend to think this is done knowingly to provide a wider choice, a trade-off that is accepted by many of their customers who are prepared to take somehing of a risk in seach of variety. But the occasional punter will still be unimpressed by getting a poor pint in the Connoisseur Tap where his mates assure him the beer is brilliant.
What is needed to improve the perception of cask is not so much a cull of outlets, but a cull of lines. We need to see a dramatic reduction in the range of beers offered by many pubs. There is no reason why this should impact on volume, as the same level of sales will simply be spread over fewer beers, thus improving quality. As the choice offered often seems to consist of a multitude of similar pale beers, it doesn’t necessarily need to result in a loss of stylistic variety either. We should get away from the poster image of cask as an array of different colourful pumpclips stretching along a bar, and move to one of two or three handpumps standing proud in the middle of the counter with a row of kegs on either side.
Virtually the whole industry recognises that cask turnover is a major problem, but everyone thinks it’s up to someone else to do something about it, and so nothing ends up getting done. Having a very fragmented industry is a good thing in many ways, but it does reduce the scope for one operator to make a move that will shift the market.
A year on from now, that drastic cull of lines won’t have happened. Cask volumes will have declined further, and the chorus of complaints about stale beer will continue unabated. So it seems to be stuck in an endless cycle of rinse and repeat as it slowly disappears down the sink.