This year's Cask Report found that all is not rosy for the pub staple. Here's a look at some of the findings, and what pubs can do to address them.
Can a pub really call itself a proper pub if it doesn't have cask ale? Well, we might be on the way to finding out, if the category doesn't pick up soon.
The Cask Report gives an overview of the market and shows what is going well, and not so well, in the world of cask.
And it seems that there are a few wrongs that need to be put right if our national tipple is to thrive once more in the bars of Britain.
Sliding down the sales chart
This is the worrying bit. It used to be that cask ale sales outperformed the rest of the beer market. This was great for pubs because cask drinkers tend to spend a little bit more at the bar. However, British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) data shows that cask sales are falling sharply – down 6.8 per cent in volume in the year to July 2018. The rate of decline is greater than that of the overall on-trade beer market.
This is concerning news, but all is not lost. Golden ales are in growth (this includes cask and keg products) and cask remains a big seller. One in seven pints of beer sold is cask and at £1.6bn, sales of cask are worth double those of gin to the on-trade.
What's gone wrong?
Where do we begin? The report highlights many problem areas for cask: its image, perceptions of flavour, lack of standout on the bar, quality and consistency issues, and many customers just not knowing enough about cask to feel confident ordering it.
The majority of cask drinkers are men aged over 50, and the category has done little to appeal to different demographics or to capitalise on the buzz around craft beer.
Jane Jones, director of marketing at Fuller's, says it is vital for the cask category to appeal to a younger crowd.
"If we don't recruit younger consumers into this market, our consumers are effectively dying off," she says, adding that the industry needs to address the way it talks to customers about the product.
"We haven't worked hard enough as an industry to present the brands in a more innovative way. If you look to lager, they have definitely done that. As an industry we need to think about how we communicate to consumers not just about why cask is special but about how we define all beer."
Can cask be cool? (Part I)
Cask's image is clearly a barrier. Focus groups of non-cask drinkers revealed that they were put off cask because it is "old-fashioned, bitter and brown." Basically, something that the old guy with the beard and the beer gut guzzles.
The good news is that when people drink it, they tend to like it. But there are barriers to overcome to get to that point.
Kris Gumbrell is the co-owner of the 22-strong Brewhouse & Kitchen chain. Each pub has an on-site brewery that produces a range of cask and keg beers for sale on the bar. He says that, generally, cask is not presented in a way that catches the eye.
"From a guest point of view the image is wrong, it is seen as the old man drink," he says. "It is badly merchandised. We put our casks on a bronze plinth and give them real reverence, but if you look at any bar cask is always the dark, plastic, boring, handpull , low down, right under the customer's nose and not in their eyeline. It doesn't get presented well enough in the market."
Can cask be cool? (Part II)
One of the headline findings in this year's Cask Report is that temperature is a major issue. Research by Cask Marque in July and August found that 69 per cent of pubs were serving cask above 13˚C. The recommended serving guideline is between 11-13˚C.
Further to that, 64 per cent of the 1,000 consumers asked by the Cask Report said they would like their cask served cooler than 11˚C anyway.
So, it's coming out too warm and people want it cooler.
A few days after the report was published, Sharp's revealed that it is trialling Doom Bar Extra Chilled in selected pubs with a dispense temperature of 8˚C.
James Nicholls, senior brand manager at Sharp's, says: "Doom Bar Extra Chilled is an exciting opportunity for us to respond to changing consumer trends, and appeal to traditional ale drinkers as well as new audiences."
Jane Jones says Fuller's will be keeping an eye on the trials but stresses that the first challenge for pubs to overcome is getting the temperature down to recommended levels.
"I wonder if serving great-quality cask that has been kept well in the cellar at the right temperature is enough," she says. "Do we need to go colder? It is a big challenge for us as an industry and something we will be thinking about."
And the answer is?
So, lots of issues but what, beyond chilling cask, are the answers?
Kris said he remains positive about cask: "Cask is still very important to us, we built our business on cask. Cask is not a ship of doom." However, he adds that there needs to be staff and customer education around cask.
"It needs to be qualified, you need to encourage tastings and samplings," he says. He adds that getting the range right is also essential for pubs.
Jane agrees, adding that as well as educating people, the category needs to be bold. "There needs to be product innovation through flavour profile and diversification through ABV, she says.
"There also needs to be innovation through serve and glassware and cellar management systems to make sure the product is served at optimum temperature and optimum condition."
Will such efforts be enough to save the drink that has stood for centuries as a symbol of the pub? Time will tell. But if the chance is there to breathe life back into a major point of difference for pubs, it's got to be worth a try.
- To view the full Cask Report visit https://cask-marque.co.uk/cask-report-2018-19/