July 18, 2022

Celebrated Brew Under Threat as Cask Sales Fall by 40%! Can Real Ale Find a New Audience and Thrive?


In the first of a new series about cask ale, we explore the challenges presented by cask and hear expert views from some top British brewers…

To Keep Cask Fresh, Drink Within 3 Days

 It’s Britain’s heritage beer style: Cask ale. Probably better known to customers as ‘real ale’.  

It’s a magical brew that continues to ferment in the cask, and is naturally carbonated and unpasteurised.  

Cask is a fresh, live product that needs to be consumed as swiftly as the milk you keep in the fridge.  

But with milk, you probably have a six-pint container at max. With beer there are seventy-two pints to get through in three days – making sure it’s kept fresh until the last drop. 

Devoted Drinkers Will Accept Nothing Else

The extra effort is well worth it because cask ale is an amazing drink and loved by many drinkers who will accept nothing else.  

Research has shown that cask fans simply will not go to a pub that does not serve their preferred brew – and they will take their non-cask drinking pals with them.  

Cask may be niche, but it’s a real draw for British pubs and venues. 

 

Cask is a fresh, live product that needs to be consumed as swiftly as the milk you keep in the fridge. 

 

Downward Trend Well-Known and Accelerating

Falling sales of cask ale are not new. But cask has taken a further battering due to the pandemic and preserving it now seems a bigger challenge than it was for the Campaign for Real Ale in the 1970s.  

But as a cornerstone of British pub culture, preserve it we must! 

Six-Thousand Fewer Outlets Selling Cask

The pandemic has led to there being fewer licensed premises overall, but according to data insight experts CGA Strategy, there’s now at least 6,000 fewer outlets selling cask ale – a bigger decrease of outlets than for other types of beer.  

The amount sold has fallen by about 40% (depending on who you ask), equating to tens of millions fewer pints. 

So why hasn’t it bounced back? 

“Stagnation in the market [is an issue]. A lot of the same, old, large brewers punting out the same old stuff which probably isn’t getting the younger drinker on board,” suggests Chris Williams of Scotland’s Williams Bros. Brewing Co. 

Poor Cask Practices and Cellar Management

He also thinks the seemingly age-old problem of ‘beer not being looked after’ remains an issue, along with the perception of ‘very traditional’ types of venue that sell cask.  

And then there’s price.  

 “Pricing has a big effect. I think people expect it to be cheaper, so cheaper beer is put into casks and bought.” 

 

 “A lot of the same, old, large brewers punting out the same old stuff which probably isn’t getting the younger drinker on board.” 

 

Better Staff Training and a Focus on Younger Consumers

For him, facing down this problem with cask means younger drinkers need to be persuaded. And we need to sort out other problems that have always plagued the category.  

“Training on pub cellaring, brewers conditioning their beer properly, more interesting beers being put into cask to win over some of the younger drinkers,” he suggests, adding, “Educating people on the difference between a well-kept cask beer and keg is vital.”  

“Younger me would probably tut [at that], but older me definitely prefers the softer carbonation and mouthfeel of a well-conditioned cask [over] keg.”  

Perceptions Need to Change for Cask to Thrive

Despite the decline in sales, Chris says that he keeps hearing about… ‘the great cask revival, these cool craft brewers putting ESBs [extra special bitter] and Mild into casks’.  

He’s not wrong.  

One brewer doing just that is Justin Hawke of Bristol’s Moor Beer, a brewery which is most certainly craft and modern, but also has cask ale at its heart. Justin is realistic about the challenges facing cask but doesn’t think they are new. 

“It comes down to positioning and quality,” he says. “I can’t understand why, but it’s still perceived as a cheap, lower quality, lower value product, much the same way cans were for years.”  

“The market for cans and acceptance … as the best packaging format has completely reversed. Hopefully the same will be said of cask soon.” 

Cask Comeback Possible with Relentless Quality Focus

He goes on to state the need for ‘a relentless delivery of quality by the operators’ without which there is the risk that drinkers will have bad experiences and abandon cask ale altogether. 

His views are borne out by the recent experience of Darren Batten, Head Brewer at Dorset-based Palmers. “Currently, cask in our estate [of 50+ pubs] is almost back to pre-pandemic levels… due to great quality and well-trained licensees serving it well. We also have great cellars and tech support to make sure every pint is great.”  

“The free trade [though] is much more difficult and often under-invested and cask quality isn’t always 100%.” 

 

“We need to market cask to younger drinkers who will soon be bored of over-hopped, cloudy keg and be looking for something else.” 

 

Cask Future Bright if Industry Learns Lessons of the Past

On the whole, Darren is optimistic, but still believes more must be done if cask is to successfully ride the wave of drinks trends. 

“We need to market cask to younger drinkers who will soon be bored of over-hopped, cloudy keg and be looking for something else. [Also] we must remember [that] cider was just a cheap drink for the workers once and it’s now more expensive than all cask ale.” 

That cask needs to become the comeback kid is a given. How it achieves that is very much down to the trade pulling together to raise standards and offer beers that will attract a wider range of drinkers. 

Avani Beer Quality Technicians can help you make sure your real ale is dispensed just as the brewer intended. Get in touch to learn more about our intelligent approach to beer management and dispense.

🍺 Beer Takeaway

Five cask ales to tempt younger palates:  

  1. Dark Star, Hophead (3.8%) This golden ale features Cascade hops, which give it a refreshing zesty character. The lower ABV makes it a great session beer for the seasoned cask fan and accessible for those new to cask too. 
  2. Moor Beer, Illumination (4.3%) A modern best bitter that’s suitable for vegans, thanks to Justin Hawke’s pioneering of ‘unfined’ beer. Widely praised for its clean taste, bready malt flavours and gentle peppery hops, it’s incredibly moreish (pun intended!).
  3. Palmers, Dorset Gold (4.5%) A good example of the modern tradition of less hoppy golden ales. Many such beers were created with the idea of converting lager fans to cask and are likely to suit drinkers who are not keen on bitterness.
  4. Williams Bros. Brewing Co, Red (4.5%) Red ales are often overlooked and underrated but are a great way of offering cask ale that’s a little bit different but not too far from what drinkers expect. This one is a tasty combination of caramel and biscuit flavours with berry notes and a medium hop character. 
  5. Oakham, Citra (4.2%) Named for the hop, Oakham lay claim to being the first to use the US variety which provides the sort of lip-smacking piney, grapefruit bitterness that kickstarted the craft beer trend in the UK. 

Sophie Atherton is a freelance writer & journalist. Her work has appeared everywhere from specialist beer and pub magazines to the broadsheet press. She’s also an accredited beer sommelier and an experienced beer judge. 

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