However, an obvious issue is that they will inevitably be judged as being just another type of keg beer. Back in the 1970s, beer tended to be categorised in terms of style and brand, and there were many different ways of serving it as well as real ale, such as bright beer, tank beer and top-pressure beer as well as the archetypal keg, all of which had their own characteristics.
But, as CAMRA sought to promote the uniqueness of real ale (or cask as we now seem to have to call it) it presented it as a category that stood apart from all other beers. If it wasn’t cask, it was keg. This is despite the fact that keg beers today are certainly not all the same – a nitrokeg is very different from a classic carbonated one, and many keykeg craft beers have a much softer level of carbonation. Fresh Ale, whatever its merits, will simply be seen as one more type of keg. Serving it through a handpump, as the illustration suggests, will be condemned as misleading.
We are often told that “everyone’s a repertoire drinker now”, as there’s certainly some truth in this. Fewer and fewer drinkers exclusively confine their drinking to one category as they may have done a few decades ago. However, many of those who account for most of the sales volume of cask are people who, while they may not drink it exclusively, do predominantly choose it and show quite a lot of loyalty to the category. If they do venture into other areas, it will be for things that stand well apart, such as Guinness, premium lagers or strong craft kegs. They won’t be tempted by something that isn’t cask, but is fairly similar, and if that’s all that’s on offer they may not be too enthusiastic.
At a time of declining volumes, this loyal customer base provides something of a cushion for cask, but it can cut both ways. There’s no denying that cask is currently fighting a rearguard action, and its main problem is inconsistent and often downright poor quality which makes drinkers reluctant to trust it. This comment on Twitter is typical of several I have seen, and he describes himself as a “cask evangelist” in his bio:
It’s not the sole reason, but the core of the problem is slow turnover and over-extended ranges, something that remains very much an elephant in the room that the industry as a whole is reluctant to confront. Sometimes even one beer can be one too many. It often used to be said in CAMRA circles that if a pub didn’t have the turnover for cask it should stop selling it, but the pubs that took them up on that then found themselves cast out in the cold.
I've given up on cask tbh...why pay >£4 for poorly kept warm flaccid slop when I can drink cold @thornbridge Lukas/Bayern/Czech Mates for a little more. *other lagers are available 😉— Christopher Sherratt (@evilkeg74) May 30, 2023
Ironically, it’s the pubs with the lowest and most fluctuating turnover of cask, often in rural areas, that are most likely to continue stocking it. They tend to have an older and more traditionalist customer base who would be resistant to the idea of drinking keg beer. By dropping cask, they would exclude themselves from the Good Beer Guide and any other guides produced by CAMRA and place themselves in a second-tier category on WhatPub.
Yes, other pub guides are available, such as the Good Pub Guide, but even they would tend to comment negatively on the absence of cask. And many casual customers, on entering a pub with no handpumps on the bar, would immediately turn round and go out again. For some people, even if they don’t drink cask themselves, the presence of handoumps on the bar selling ales from local breweries is a reassuring part of the atmosphere along with horse brasses and old local photos.
So pubs soldier on with cask, even in the full knowledge that they’re often not presenting it at its best. Except in areas well off the tourist track, you would be hard-pressed to find any rural pubs in England and Wales that don’t at least nominally stock cask.
Something like Fresh Ale would provide a sensible solution for low-turnover pubs like that, allowing them to consistently provide a pretty decent pint, rather than occasionally offering up a really good one, but more often serving up warm slop or vinegar. But the continued loyalty to the concept of cask means that they would be ostracised if they chose to go down that path.