Is cask beer too cheap? Some might say so, especially when compared with what is commonly called craft keg.
According to CGA Strategy, the average price of a cask pint is £3.24. Meanwhile the same measure of craft keg costs £4.26
And, what's more, anecdotal evidence suggests a sizeable minority of craft keg drinkers are happy to dip into their wallets and pay even more (well past £5 in this writer's experience).
It could be argued this differential is a drag on the reputation and value of cask, giving it an air of cheapness which diminishes the category.
This isn't helped by the Poundland-style approach to price some operators take with cask.
Ironically many of those who drink cask are not short of a few bob.
Figures published in the latest Cask Report show 61 per cent of those drinking cask come from the well-heeled ABC1 bracket, the kind of people who are presumably willing to pay more for high-quality beer.
The affluent cask customer exists but this financial imbalance between cask and craft keg prices is not a simple matter. In fact it could involve the kind of sleight of hand a magician would enjoy, as Hook Norton's managing director James Clarke explains.
The problem of perception
"We know if the price of session cask ale goes up, it meets with resistance," he says. "Yet craft keg can seemingly command a higher price in the first place and be increased with much less resistance. Part of this is perception — craft keg is being sold in thirds of a pint for £2, but people don't seem to make the link that this is £6 per pint."
Richard Westwood is managing director of Marston's Beer Company, which produces beer in both categories. He agrees cask is undervalued, especially when compared with its keg rival. For him, the onus is for the brewers to do more to explain its value to drinkers.
"Cask has always been too cheap and given the sustained Recommended Selling Price (RSP) differential between it and craft keg, we are missing a trick," he says.
"Anybody who knows anything about beer will know cask is the ultimate craft. For this reason alone cask is under-valued and hence under-priced relative to craft keg. Also the massive 'added value' a highly skilled and motivated cellarman can bring to the perfect maturation of cask beer is rarely, if ever, reflected in the retail price."
Yet, as Clarke notes, there is always resistance to the price of beer being raised. Perhaps deep down drinkers still believe cask is the people's drink, while craft keg is the province of beer snobs. So would it work if cask brewers went down the "reassuringly expensive" route that was such a success for Stella Artois?
Wadworth's commercial director Paul Sullivan is optimistic about such a move: "Cask beer is an aspirational product and I can only see a positive if it becomes more expensive," he says. "There's still a huge gap to close between cask, craft and some mainstream lager brands.
A more nuanced view comes from Ben Lockwood, Mitchells & Butlers' procurement manager for craft beer and cider.
"Simply charging more for cask on its own won't add value to the category," he says. "Continuing to educate guests on cask ale is key, but let's not forget, as much as the value of the craft keg market is higher than cask, you often see negative reaction to the price of a pint from guests dipping their toe into the craft category for this first time. Maybe there's a job to do from both sides in narrowing the gap?"
Education is also a key point for Peter Wells, commercial director at Charles Wells: "We invest in training and support to give our licensees the confidence and knowledge to charge a premium for cask ale. They sit the BII Award in Beer and Cellar Quality course and by providing additional expertise from our own in-house cellar quality team, other training support, briefing notes, point-of-sale and so on we equip all Charles Wells beer stockists with the tools they need to maximise their sales profit."
Why's my pint more expensive?
And it's not just a simple case of adjusting your cask price nearer to whatever craft keg you sell. The drinker needs to be told why the beer they buy commands a premium. Can this work? Richard Westwood sees positives for cask if selling it at what is perceived as its true value is handled correctly.
"The category should move on with a higher RSP for a new generation," he says, "a generation which is not locked in low prices like the older generation. However, it needs to be a quality product. The quality and skill that top-notch cask beer requires deserves a higher valuation, relative to keg."
Will this all happen? It's a hard one to second-guess and let us not forget that British brewers pay some of the highest duty taxes in Europe. On the other hand, when it is right cask beer can taste as if a host of angels were dancing on the tongue; when it's not right it's the devil incarnate, and this is still a common experience.
If we can have education (cask as an affordable luxury perhaps) and consistent quality, then brewers, and licensees, could be emboldened to ask more for their cask.
There's also one other aspect about cask we might pay heed to when promoting cask as a premium product,says Peter Wells: "Cask is the one drink that provides pubs with a point of difference over drinking at home, so it's important operators do recognise its premium nature and charge a corresponding price."
Cask: here's one you can't do at home.
The publicans' perspective
Gareth Rowlands, City Arms, Cardiff
"I doubt putting up the price of cask beer would give any value to the cask category. There is something ugly
about the word cheap that marketing companies would have us believe damages the good name of cask. Where they say cheap I would say accessible, great value for money, competitive"
Mitch Adams, The Bull, Highgate, London
"I do believe some cask brewers don't charge enough for their beer. However, keg beer does cost more to produce. I don't believe customers would mind paying more for beer on cask, although £5 for a pint of best bitter might be a stretch!"
Mark Dorber, The Anchor, Walberswick, Suffolk
"There is a scope for increasing the price of cask but in doing so you might drive a further nail into the coffin of the British pub. We charge £3.50 for a pint of Southwold Bitter, which is an OK price, but we are not getting enough of it thanks to duty and VAT."