Can cask beer be cool?
It's a question I have considered these last few months as I have pulled this year's Cask Report together. If you fancy it, you can read the full report here.
I like cask. At it's best it is really hard to beat. It can be tasty, moreish, refreshing, cheeky, powerful... but I'm not sure I could ever describe it as cool.
To my mind, the closest it got to being cool was back when Madonna claimed she was a fan of that Timothy Taylor's Landlord. But that was back in 2003, when she was going through her 'Lady of the Manor' phrase, so even then, what was cool for cask wasn't what would pass as edgy or hip for anyone else.
It certainly isn't on trend in the same way that 'craft' beer is, even though cask is probably the craftiest a beer can be.
But let's not go down that already well-trodden 'cask is the ultimate form of craft' path right now.
One of the routes we took with this year's Cask Report was to examine why people choose not to drink cask.
This is important because cask sales are struggling. Actually, that is being too kind. Cask sales are tanking.
The figure we quote in the report is -6.8%, that's the MAT figure to July 2018, from the British Beer & Pub Association. The truth is things have been bad for a few years now and something has to be done to stop the slide.
It used to be that cask beer outperformed the market. Hurrah we would say; cask beer is great for pubs because it is doing better than other beers. Hurrah again because the people who drink cask spend more money than anyone else in the pub. And as those big spenders influence where the group goes, cask is an absolute must for any pub. Let's all raise a glass and slap each other on the back.
But cask can't hide behind those 'hurrahs' anymore because it is seriously underperforming.
So why don't people like cask?
No, that's the wrong question. Why don't people choose cask?
There are so many reasons that it is almost depressing too list them, but here goes: "it's an old man's drink", "it's brown and bitter and warm", "it's old fashioned", "it's a bit 'gammon'", "it's fattening", "I had it once and it tasted funny", "I don't trust it", "I prefer lager", "I don't know what it is".
These kind of phrases were all too common in the focus groups we held this year.
The bottom line is that cask is not an attractive proposition, particularly to younger pub goers and, as it stands, the perception simply, is that cask is not cool.
But it could be that the other meaning of 'cool' could be the secret to a return to growth.
In my opinion the most compelling piece of evidence we uncovered this year is around the temperature cask is served at.
The industry recommendation is that cask should be served between 11 to 13 ̊C or 10 to 14 ̊C, if you want to be a little generous.
However, our research reveals that pubs are struggling to achieve that. We found that 25 per cent of Cask Marque pubs were serving beer above those temperatures in July and August this year. In fact, 69 per cent were above 13 ̊C. The results are slightly better in the winter, but not much.
Further to that though, it seems most customers want their cask a little cooler anyway. We asked around 1,000 people about the temperature they would like cask served at. Two-thirds (64 per cent) said below 11 ̊C.
So, there appears to be a huge gap between what customers want and what is actually being delivered.
Can the industry overcome this?
It certainly needs to start trying because temperature is not the only issue. Inconsistent quality, over-ranging, keeping beer on for too long and using language that just doesn't appeal to a huge chunk of the pub-going public are all areas that need to be addressed.
Cask beer is a national institution but that is a phrase that is often used when something becomes older and less relevant than it used to be.
The industry needs to take note of the findings of this year's report and act now. If not, it could be that cask had its last hurrah.