Back in 2019, I posted a list of the ten best-selling cask beers in the UK, taken from this article in the Morning Advertiser. Abbot Ale is #4 on the list. They’re probably much the same now, although the volumes will have diminished. But the notable feature of this list is that most of them are beers about which many “beer enthusiasts” won’t have a good word to say. They’re dismissed as dull, bland, dumbed-down, mass-market products. Landlord is probably the only one that would receive general approbation.
Obviously everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but if you want to promote a category of product, it seems self-defeating to disparage most of the leading brands within that category. For any product category to thrive, it needs strong, well-regarded flagship brands that people are happy to recommend. As Cooking Lager recently very perceptively said in the comments on one of my blogposts:
…It's an attempt to rationalize its decline that hints at the truth. Recognition & trust.It’s not good enough to grudgingly say “it’s not too bad if it’s kept well”, you need to be able to say unequivocally “This is a good beer. It’s a good example of real ale”. If you profess to be a real ale enthusiast, but if you’re asked to recommend a beer and all you can come up with is some obscure product intermittently sold in a handful of outlets, you’re not encouraging people to drink it. Maybe they’re not the absolute best beers in the world – the top selling products in any category rarely are – but to damn them with faint praise does the whole category no favours.
Drinkers are not enthusiasts, they are not thrilled by thousands of breweries dispensing beer you've never heard of.
Much cask ale, these days, is just that. It lacks trust and recognition that sees a drinker say "I know that beer, I've had it before, it's good, it's trustworthy, I like it"
The main consumer campaign for this category of ale have championed their own preference for an enthusiast cottage industry which to none enthusiasts is a commodity product they don't recognise or trust. A CAMRA micropub services their niche interest. Leave that there and let normal pubs serve a regular good quality beer drinkers trust, not 6 pumps of commodity indifferent pale ale.
Champion reliable national and regional brands, ensure those are consistent and good, and people will drink cask ale. A pint of Holts bitter is a decent pint. Remove the "when kept well", "in the right pub", and people will recognise and trust it.
Some may point out that their local taproom or micropub does consistently good business without selling any of these beers, and that may well be true, but it is the acceptance of a niche existence. Most drinkers of cask beer are not enthusiasts, they just want a decent, reliable pint. If cask fails to deliver that, they will take their custom elsewhere, which is just as likely to be home drinking as another beer in the pub. A survey that I have quoted on here before found that 85% of cask drinkers want to see well-known, recognisable brands on the bar. They don’t want to have to negotiate a minefield of unfamiliar beers every time they go to the pub.
But it seems that some people are entirely relaxed about cask losing market share, provided they can still get hold of it in their local specialist outlet. If you disparage all the leading brands of cask beer, you’re disparaging cask itself.