Promoting cask beer

The Cask Report, published annually in the autumn, has for several years now celebrated the drink that many readers of this magazine will prefer to buy and offered good advice to the trade on how to succeed in selling it. The 2019 report offers a telling quotation from a Midlands cask ale publican: “Low turnover pubs should be banned from selling cask ale as this is where the problem starts. Cask sitting on the bar is bad for that pub and for those that sell cask fast and fresh, because these pubs drag down the quality overall”. CAMRA would agree; we make the same point in the introduction to the 2020 Good Beer Guide. Back in the late 1970s, many pubs were installing a token handpump but, without the turnover, the ales went off, expensively promoted lagers came in and the rest is history.

Forty years on, as an alternative to or as well as cask ales, pubs can now offer not only bottled but also canned and ‘Keykeg’ beers that will be drinkable for much longer, but generally at prices most drinkers would rather not pay so often. What’s the difference between real ale and craft keg? ‘About £1.50 a pint’ is the usual answer to that albeit rather superficial question: a lot of real ale (live beer) is sold in cans and from KeyKegs. I would suggest that price still matters in ensuring that cask sells ‘fast and fresh’.

The report quotes statistics from market analysts CGA that validate that £1.50 difference, using average price per pint figures, but appears to recommend therefore charging higher prices for cask – ‘the emphasis must be placed on treating cask as a quality premium product’ – at the risk of those prices resulting in lower turnover and poorer quality ale.

Average cask ale and standard lager prices are tabulated in the report for different parts of the country. For London, the most expensive, £3.99 for a pint of cask ale contrasts with £3.78 for standard lager. For Wales, real ale is cheapest at £3.03, compared with £3.17. (Lager is cheapest in the North East at £3.01.) Our £3.99 cask ale is 20p more than a year ago, our lager is 9p more.
Until our volunteer national statistical compiler died a few years ago, CAMRA branches conducted an annual price survey. In early 2009, South West London’s representative 20-pub sample showed cask ales averaging £2.76 a pint and standard lagers £3.16. Conflating the numbers, we find that the average price of cask ale in London has since risen by 45%, compared with a 20% increase in the price of lager. I suppose we may be paying for less lager advertising nowadays, but the cask ale price increase has been well in excess of inflation.

Behind the average figures quoted, the Cask Report does not acknowledge the spread of prices customers may be charged. For a locally brewed session beer I can pay not much over £2 (without CAMRA discount!) in a Wetherspoons but more than £5 when it’s a guest beer in a Young’s managed house. ‘More than half (55%) of committed cask drinkers said it should be pitched at a higher price point’ while ‘31% of the consumers we asked said that they would drink more cask if it was cheaper than other beers’. So it should be costing us more, but preferably if alternative beers cost more still? I struggle with generalisations.

‘More than one in three of the licensees that we asked said that a better profit margin would help them sell more cask. This varies depending on the style of the venue.’ Indeed, but a better profit margin need not mean charging customers more. Tied publicans having to buy through their pub owning business landlords might sell more cask much more profitably if they could buy it directly at less than half the price from brewers of their choice. CAMRA accordingly favours extending the market rent only (MRO) option as a business model conducive to selling cask ale fast and fresh at competitive prices that will keep drinkers loyal and pubs and breweries profitable.
Geoff Strawbridge
CAMRA Regional Director for Greater London