Charlie Martin delves into the cask ale category and how it can solve its quality issue.
According to the Marston’s Beer Report, 1 in 10 pints of cask ale leave a customer disappointed and 70% of consumers who drink cask ale have been served a stale or off pint of cask. The numbers point to a worrying trend of poor quality, and as highlighted by the Cask Report, the category is being pressured by pub closures and an upturn in brewery openings. As a result, it simply can’t afford to be disappointing consumers on such a frequent basis. The issue of quality in fact isn’t just prohibiting cask gaining new and loyal customers but is leading to existing drinkers leaving the category due to sub-standard pints.
Focus on quality
It seems that the general purveying thought amongst advocates of cask, is that this issue lies at the door of operators. The Cask Report this year has highlighted the need for quality ale to be served by pubs and if not possible, they should destock it entirely.
The suggestion that the category would be better off with certain pubs not serving the product at all highlights, along with calls for cask to raise its prices, the universal impact premiumisation is having on all drinks categories. It also points to the fact that some pubs no longer need cask to survive in the sector, and this is something the Cask Report explicitly states throughout.
This shows the significant change the industry has undergone over the last 20 years. It’s almost impossible to imagine a body such as Cask Marque or CAMRA advocating for certain pubs not to serve cask ale 20, 10 or even 5 years ago, and also admitting that certain venues can still be successful without serving cask ale is equally revelatory.
But pubs are no longer just purveyors of fine ale and beer, they have adapted, morphed and changed to suit the needs of the local communities they serve. Now they proudly offer fine food, gins, wines, coffees and cocktails, depending on the venue. This change has moved operators away from the cellar and to the pass, coffee machine or cocktail station and they are increasingly finding their time constrained.
Cask ale is a uniquely labour-intensive product, and takes time and effort to get right. As operators are being pulled in different directions, their ability to serve high-quality cask ale on a consistent basis is hindered. This shift has also impacted demand for cask from the consumer, as cask ale is now competing with craft beer, premium lager and far wider range of products than previously. This decline in demand, uniquely for the category, hampers quality. Cask ale is a product with a three-day shelf life and needs to be sold within that time and many pubs find that a struggle.
The solution could well be, as the Cask Report states, that pubs that can’t make cask work stop serving it all together. In the short term, this may work as form of protectionism that will help ensure only high-quality cask ale is served and potentially establish it as a premium category.
But can cask ale really afford to make an already shrinking market even smaller?
The answer is not a simple one and when visiting a venue that excels in serving cask, you understand the desire to protect it, and do away with those serving cask poorly. But there needs to be a change in approach on how to ensure cask ale is served to a more consistent high-standard. The relationship between brewer and pub operator needs to be closer and an emphasis on education and training to make operators and staff genuine ambassadors of cask. Only by cultivating these relationships and creating true ambassadors of cask behind the bar, will operators and brewers reap the rewards of getting cask right.
A brazen approach of either serve cask right or not at all risks further alienating those operators that are already struggling with the product. But discouraging those from serving cask ale will surely inhibit the category’s ability to grow, meaning its popularity will never be more than niche.
If the category is to truly thrive, surely this is an outcome even less palatable than a stale pint of cask beer?
 Marston’s Eureka Survey19
 Marston’s Eureka Su