Let’s hear it for cask ales

Something very unusual happened at my local pub The Great Northern Railway Tavern this week. Among the constantly changing 20-plus beers on draught the two most interesting brews were rarely available hand-pulled cask ales from London-based Signature Brew and Deya from Cheltenham.

In the four years since Fuller’s purchased the pub it has been fully gung ho for keg ales, with cask only available on four of the lines, and this week’s interesting pairing very much goes against the grain for the venue. Let’s be clear that this in no way reflects any sort of resurgence in cask. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite: cask ale has probably never been under greater pressure and is arguably fighting for its survival.

Sales of cask beer in pubs was down a hefty 40% between pubs reopening in April 2021 and July 2021. During this period 113 million pints of cask beer were sold in pubs compared with 189 million during the same period in 2019 before the pandemic hit, according to the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA).

Things were already looking pretty dire before Covid-19 came along and for intermittent periods closed off the channel to market for cask – namely pubs and the rest of the on-trade – with cask sales falling by 17% between 2014 and 2019.

Much of this beer is consumed by the older demographic as shown by Fuller’s where only 9% of its cask sales are purchased by customers aged under 34. Cask has been unable to shake off its reputation as the domain of the older beer drinker. This has meant it has been dealt a double blow by Covid-19 because it is this older grouping who are the most cautious about returning to their former habits – including regularly frequenting their local boozers.

This is being felt most acutely at JD Wetherspoon whose customer base skews strongly to the older demographic. The company has not surprisingly found demand for drinks preferred by this cohort suffering badly – with cask ales down by around 30% during the 15-week period to November 7 compared with 2019.

In an attempt to kick-start things and get the cask ales flowing again JD Wetherspoon reduced the price of some of its beers including Greene King IPA to a mere 99p during November. Recognising the severity of the situation the promotion was quickly extended to the end of February. Sadly the pub company’s actions are now being offset by the new Omicron variant and the Government’s introduction of new regulations, which Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon, has described as “lockdown by stealth”.

The problem for cask ale in this much broader narrative is that yet again the answer to selling more of the beer is solely down to reducing its price. Despite the various attempts by the brewing industry to inject some premium qualities into the cask category and notch-up the price points it has invariably failed against wider market forces.

The fact it is priced well below comparable keg beers is perverse because the product is much tougher to brew and to keep in good condition because of its live nature in the barrel versus pressurised keg products that are much more robust and have a significantly longer shelf life. Cask is only good for a couple of days once on the bar whereas keg has many weeks of shelf-life. This therefore leads to the potential for waste or a poor quality cask ale being sold to customers, many of whom have sadly switched over the years to the guaranteed freshness that comes with keg products.

What’s also needed is decent training in the cellar to handle cask. Needless to say Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on employment in the hospitality sector and boosted staff turnover rates. Thereby planting yet another potential nail in the coffin of cask ale. What makes this situation so disappointing is that when pubs have reopened after the various lockdowns the beer that many drinkers have sought out first has been cask because of its unique nature and its umbilical-chord-like link to pubs.

It’s also the beer that visitors to the UK invariably want to try because it is not available in any other country around the world. You don’t need me to tell you there have not been many of these tourists around over the past 18 months. Although this has made very little difference to cask sales volumes, it does highlight just how important cask ale is to the UK and its place in the world of beer.

Keep the cask: Great Northern Railway Tavern

Few things have escaped the impact of the pandemic and although cask ale is only one very small piece of the overall hospitality puzzle its accelerated demise represents a sad situation for the industry as it is part of the fabric of the British pub. I’m hoping the GNRT and other pubs champion more cask ales and that I’m not alone in being increasingly thirsty for this unique product before it becomes another victim of Covid-19.

Glynn Davis, edtior, Beer Insider