Taking pubs to task on cask

Ordering a pint of Outer Haze from Dark Star Brewery at The Globe Pub in London’s Moorgate resulted in an attractive looking pale beer placed on the bar. It was also sufficiently cold to the touch that I was very pleased with my selection.

I need not have worried on this occasion, because I was at the post-drinks reception of The Future of Cask Seminar, the annual event held nearby by Cask Marque, which monitors beer quality for cask ale around the country. If my Outer Haze had been warm and flat, then we might as well all give up on this quintessential taste of Britain that is going through some very tough times.

 The problem is that even Cask Marque-accredited pubs aren’t great at delivering the perfect pint. Only 68% achieve a four or five-star rating when the inspectors turn up and do their testing. Don’t forget these are the best pubs in the business of serving real ale, but even many of them continue to suffer from the three key problems – incorrect temperature, insufficiently fresh beer and a poor level of glass care/washing.

This inability to deliver the product from the cellar to the customers’ glass in the quality expected is the fundamental problem behind the product being replaced on bars by less sensitive lager and keg beer. These competitor drinks are not live, fresh products and therefore so much easier to deal with than cask ale. Consider food being thrown on a plate and served at the wrong temperature in a restaurant, and I reckon we’d all find that unacceptable. It would certainly affect our future purchasing decisions.

The post-covid-19 sales figures show a poor situation for what many people (especially visitors to the UK) would describe as the national alcoholic drink. It is currently achieving only 78% of its 2019 volumes compared with the likes of premium lager at 111% and Guinness at 112%, according to the British Beer & Pub Association. This simply highlights the continuation of the ongoing poor sales performance of cask, which are 50% smaller than in 2007, when the first Cask Report was published. If we play this trend forward, then within five years, sales of Guinness could well be larger than the whole of the cask category.

Such is the concern for the survival of cask in any meaningful form that there is the possibility that its future existence might only be secured by a focus on its presence in specific regional strongholds, where demand is high and in pubs that actively champion the product. For me, the latter specifically means training staff in pubs to handle the product correctly. The fact is it is hardly rocket science. 

The biggest champion is JD Wetherspoon, and the driving force behind cask remaining a significant feature in its pubs is founder Tim Martin, who has worked with Cask Marque since 1999. The company is certainly zealous in its efforts to train its bar staff to deliver cask at the optimum condition to customers.

According to James Ullman, personnel and retail audit director at Wetherspoon, it is proud to have earned an average 4.99 score across its pubs on its food hygiene rating (from the Food Standards Agency) and probably wins more awards than any business for the quality of its toilets. He says it has the same focus on its beer quality, and a drive this year has pushed the number of its pubs hitting four or five stars from Cask Marque from 72% in April to 95% in July. This is an incredible performance when you consider this encompasses 830 pubs.

Such is its focus on cask that the aspiration is for every pub to hit a target of selling 2,000 pints of the beer every week. Ullman acknowledges this is “aspirational” for many pubs, but at the very least, they are all typically achieving a third of beer sales from cask. Its efforts ensure that I have every confidence that when my hand touches that pint glass in any Wetherspoon pub, it will be sufficiently cool and will also be in good condition.

Its ability to deliver something that so many other pubs in the industry fail to do – despite it suffering from exactly the same high levels of staff turnover as others – sets the benchmark for other pub companies to follow. The big question is, do they really want to follow? The answer to this might just well determine whether cask drinking remains a mainstream activity or, sadly, becomes a minority sport.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.