Good Beer Hunting

No Time to Chill — Dissecting The 2018/19 Cask Report

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As interest reportedly wanes, the end of 2018's Cask Report, an annual action plan designed to try and boost cask beer's trajectory, focused on a new way to change course: temperature.

Attendees were handed a digital thermometer with the intention to encourage each person to check the temperature of their pints the next time they decided to enjoy cask ale. The report’s key message—in which it was revealed that cask beer within the U.K. had seen a 6.8% decrease in sales by volume over the past 12 months—is that this dip is due to the format too often being served overly warm.

According to writer Pete Brown, who led this year’s report, along with a collection of journalists, the 2018 edition is “the biggest piece of research we’ve ever done in the history of the cask report.” Findings reveal that, although the optimal serving temperature for cask beer is 11-13°C (51.8-55.4°F), 70% of consumers would prefer it served cooler. Conversely, 70% of the on-trade outlets surveyed for the report are reportedly serving it warmer. Could it be that the rise in keg-dispense craft beer within the U.K. over the past decade—typically served between 6-10°C (42.8°F-50°F)—has shifted the preference of the British ale drinker towards colder pours?

The report also found that despite the recommended shelf-life of a freshly tapped cask being 72 hours (an ideal situation would be shorter), many businesses will leave the beer on the bar for up to eight days. As a cask is exposed to oxygen when it is tapped, this is far from ideal for the beer.

“Quality is the biggest challenge faced by cask ale at the moment, but quality as seen by the consumer is seen in quite a different way by the industry,” Brown said in a video message aired during the report’s launch. “The occasional, or non cask drinker is not interested in cellar conditioning. When we are talking about a reduction in gravity, we are genuinely confusing, and alarming people as to what the hell we’re talking about.”

But are these things really the hottest topics in cask this year?

While the temperature and quality of cask beer formed the center of discussion at this year’s Cask Report, it neglected to address the often discussed topic of margin and profitability, both of which were not included within the presentation. One thing that was highlighted at the report’s launch during a presentation by Heineken U.K. on-trade category controller Andy Wingate, however, is how cask ale is now often the cheapest option on the bar. A far cry from the premium product the Cask Report, and the organization behind it, Cask Marque, herald it as.

In his presentation, Wingate revealed that the average price of a pint of craft beer (as defined by CGA) is £4.61 ($6.08.) Conversely a pint of standard lager averages out as £3.52 ($4.65,) while a pint of cask ale sits in the lowest position at just £3.43 ($4.53) per pint. This demonstrates, that while the report cites poor quality at the point of dispense—with too warm temperatures and slow throughput given as the causes for its current decline—it fails to recognize that cask is still seen as the lowest common denominator product by many, including retailers.

This low price point could also be an indicator that there is a lack of margin in cask ale when compared to other products on the bar. In his video, while commenting on cask’s overall decline in sales, Brown spoke of what he sees as a “lack of passion, despite lots of knowledge within the trade” and what he sees as a dearth in pub owners who are not personally passionate about cask. However, could it be that this lack of “passion” stems from cask ale being able to provide publicans with sustainable margins?

According to the data within the report—compiled by data firm CGA—cask ale represents 13% of the U.K. on-premise market. That could be almost twice as much as craft beer—which remains undefined by a trade body within the U.K.—that reportedly occupies 7% of that space according to the British Beer & Pub Association. Cask beer’s 6.8% decline in sales volume is the seventh consecutive year in which is has seen a slump. In 2017’s edition of the report, the figure was a less worrying 3.8%, and the five years previous to that saw a total cumulative decline of 5%.

The added decline in this year’s report could be of particular worry to those parts of the industry that rely heavily on the cask format. The reduction in cask volumes matches industry trends, but is currently in a faster rate of decline, with total beer sales in the on-trade down 1.6%. However, not all categories within the on-trade (ie sales within premises where alcohol is consumed exclusively on premise) are seeing the same decline. According to data firm CGA, beers categorised as premium lager saw a 2.2% increases in sales volume last year. Meanwhile, what the firm categorizes as craft has seen a 16% increase over the same period.

It’s not all bad news for cask, though, as the report also shows that what it categorises as Golden Ale (essentially the palest and hoppiest cask beers) have seen 6% growth. One example of this is Proper Job, from regional brewer St. Austell. According to information shared with GBH by the Cornwall-based brewery, the 4.5% ABV cask version of this beer saw its sales grow 6.3% over the past 12 months.

This also demonstrates that the data within cask report is not split regionally. As a result it’s immensely challenging to tell which areas of the U.K. are seeing the most decline, and which are in growth.

Another brewery that has seen a huge upturn in its cask volumes is Berkshire’s Siren Craft Brew, which was founded in 2013. According to internal reporting, sales of its cask beer have seen moving annual total growth of 31% in the year up to September 30—not far off its overall year-on-year growth of 36%. The brewery also reports that this is in spite of its flagship Broken Dream breakfast Stout winning the coveted Champion Beer of Britain Award at CAMRAs annual Great British Beer Festival in August 2018.

Siren sales manager Patrick Thompson cites the closure of 10,200 licensed and tenanted (L&T) pubs (essentially tied estates that breweries such as Siren could not sell into without being a part of said tie) as being directly responsible for the decline shown in this year’s cask report. However, there are now also 3,600 more free-of-tie public houses within the U.K. than there were six years ago. Something that Thompson feels has given smaller producers an opportunity to grow against the tide.

“A lot of big cask beer producers have collectively lost 40% of their stronghold distribution points within the L&T pub trade, that’s a huge amount of pints of cask beer not being served,” Thompson tells GBH. “However, smaller producers such as ourselves have had never had as much access to cask beer pumps [as they do now.]”

Exceptions, such as the fortunes of younger brewers of cask beer like Siren, and the growth of the Golden Ale category, could prove that there almost certainly is a future for the format. There’s certainly enough hope to give the likes of Manchester’s Cloudwater the impetus to return to it, as announced in October 2018, despite having abandoned it just 20 months previously.

But one U.K. brewer in 2,500 is hardly trend worthy, and cask has an immense amount of work to do if it is to claw back both declining sales, while finding a way to become appealing to a new generation of drinkers. Improving quality would be a good start, but ensuring that it’s a profitable format for both producers and retailers could perhaps be an even better one.

—Matthew Curtis