Cask Beer – An Endangered Species?

Well, no, not really. Reading the Cask Report though might well give the impression that the category is in terminal decline:

“I’m of the opinion that when served in prime condition, cask represents the very best of what beer can offer.

Sadly, I’m of the opinion that this just doesn’t happen often enough. I like cask, I want to order cask. But, as a regular pub going punter, I often avoid it. This is because I have lost trust in what will be presented to me over the bar.”

These are the first two paragraphs from the Cask Report 2018/2019. I’m not cherry picking; not being selective in my quotes. The cask report notes that cask consumption has declined by 6.8% in the face of an overall decline of on-trade consumption of 1.6% so there’s clearly a problem, what the problem is though is not entirely clear.

I don’t want to pick over the cask report point by point but there are some telling insights there and I will cherry pick those. Let’s start with the big one: quality.

There was a fuss recently when Brewdog released a document detailing their vision for the future. Part of their vision is a return to supplying some of their beers in cask rather than keg. Their stance is that the skills and the supply chain to put cask in front of customers in the condition that they, the brewer, demand were not present consistently and they were not prepared to put their beer across bars in anything other than perfect condition as they see it.

As part of this vision for the future they are building a supply chain, which includes training, that will control quality and temperature, and therefore condition, right up to the point of dispense. If all brewers took such control of their products we would be having a very different conversation right now.

Of course that’s impractical, but is it asking too much for licensees to have an understanding of the products they are serving and the skills to put them in front of the customer as the brewer intended? As a non-meat eater I can’t answer this question but I’m sure some can: would you order a steak in a restaurant where the chef didn’t know the difference between rare and well done?

I’m sure we all know a pub where the cask is always in great nick and an example of why so many of us see cask beer as the high water mark of the beer brewer’s craft. Unfortunately, we probably all also know a pub where the licensee apparently knows nothing about the product, cares even less and puts beer in front of us that’s absolute pony.

The notion among non-cask drinkers that cask is an old man’s drink that’s served warm and flat is, unfortunately, not completely without substance.  The cask report highlights that cask drinkers are predominantly male and towards the older end of the age range. It also highlights that in July 2018 alone seven out of ten pints tested by Cask Marque were served warmer than the recommended optimum range of 11-13 degrees Celsius. Let’s just allow that to settle in for a moment. Seventy percent  of pints put across a selection of bars in one month were too warm. Seventy percent.

Cask beer needs  treating correctly in order to be presented at its best and far too often that doesn’t happen so we have a quality issue at the bar.

The beer industry, like any other industry, needs to evolve as the consumer it serves evolves. If cask as a category wants to remain relevant then it needs to understand its audience and not just the audience it has today; it needs to try and understand its audience of tomorrow as well.

Why are we not making cask beer more accessible? If people want their beer cold then why can we not accommodate them? We can serve lager as ‘extra cold’ so why not cask if that’s what people

want?

Why can we not have alternative glass sizes? Would it be that much trouble to offer thirds? Who wants to take a chance on a pint that they may not like? Thirds may well be a way round that, and be a way for people to try different lines.

What about glass styles? Pint glasses for cask are generally functional and half pint glasses just scaled down versions, would it bankrupt the business to get some interesting glassware, balloons maybe? If these things matter to the pub going consumer then what would be the down side?

What’s happened to cellar skills? Why are there so many licensees who don’t know the difference between a soft peg and a hard peg? Why do we get so much poor beer across bars? Is it because the licensees really don’t know how to look after it or are the brewers are sending it out ‘green’ in order to keep up with demand?

Theoretically, we have arbiters of what constitutes good beer in Cask Marque and CAMRA. My feeling, personally, is that both can fairly be accused of being asleep at the wheel.

Although I’m an admirer of the Cask Marque ethos of positive promotion of the sector without the politics and confrontation that CAMRA seem so fond of, I’ve always felt they are compromised by some of their associations – Carlsberg, Enterprise, Heineken and Punch for instance – and the fact that they operate a subscription model for their Cask Marque plaque.

I get that they need to be funded but one of their big marketing points is ‘independent accreditation,’ I look at their sponsors and ask myself what ‘independent’ actually means.

Alongside that, I also question what the real criteria for attaining Cask Marque accreditation. What really counts, the quality of the product going across the bar or the filling in of the subscription form and the signing of the cheque?

With CAMRA as keepers of the gate it’s something of a miracle that the product has survived this long. Cask as a sector has been shooting itself in the foot since the 1980s with CAMRAs fingerprints all over the trigger.

I’m sure it’s a hoary old argument in some circles but why do craft beer and cask beer have to be mutually exclusive as sectors? To me that’s bonkers.

CAMRA as an organisation had the opportunity to embrace craft keg beer, and craft beer as a category, and chose not to. It would be fair to say here that CAMRA is, by definition, an organisation born to promote ‘real ale’ but, of course, ‘real ale’ is a term coined by CAMRA so they can decide their own definition of the term.

Choosing to exclude so many artisan brewers and those interested in their beer, and who really don’t care about an arbitrary definition about whether that beer is ‘real’ or not, is looking more and more like a spectacular own goal.

The argument seems, in the end, to be about carbonation and the size of the yeast particles left in the beer which honestly has me baffled and smacks of hubris on the part of CAMRA.

Ironically, one of the conclusions in the cask report is that ‘Craft is Key’:

“We have already seen independents and microbreweries innovating within the sector – many across cask as well as other dispense methods. But what seems important here is to recognise this not as a threat to the order of things, but to notice how it brings new customers into the category who would otherwise never have been interested in it at all.”

I wonder if CAMRA got that memo?

For me, cask beer doesn’t have to try and re-position itself as craft beer; cask beer is the original craft beer. We can very much learn some of the lessons though, the craft beer market is young and vibrant. It’s inclusive and accessible, there’s no snobbery around craft beer . There’s no politics or nonsense about the size of yeast particles. There’s just a sharing of something that those who enjoy it want others to enjoy.

Cask as a category has some issues. None of them are terminal on their own but collectively they are damaging. Where we don’t want to be is having the product confined to the history books and the odd bunch of Morris dancers who saved a couple of recipes and can still get their hands on fuggles.