Cask is in serious trouble. As an avid cask fan, lifelong CAMRA member and chief exec of the Society of Independent Brewers it brings me great pain to say that. Cask keeps me awake at night, rather than as it should, helping me unwind.
As What’s Brewing readers will know, cask is experiencing consistent double digit year on year decline. This has serious implications for the nation’s brewers, publicans and drinkers. Without collective action, I think cask could be dead in the next decade. This year’s Cask Report, and those that have gone before it have successfully identified the reasons for this decline and what we need to do to reverse it.
One taking action and making a success of Cask is London’s Five Points, which as Pete Brown recently wrote on his blog, has doubled its output of cask in a year. As Pete said “…there’s no mystery to making a success of cask. All you need to do is give enough of a **** about it.”
What is frustrating, from my perspective is that too few have taken the lessons from successive Cask Reports and put them into action. Too little is being done, cask is being allowed to slide and that’s an abdication of our collective duty.
If we know all the issues and what publicans, operators, brewers and consumers want and need, why haven’t we taken any real, meaningful, collective action? Why are we still seeing year on year decline?
What I think should happen, and I am committing SIBA’s support for, is that we should convene a forum that brings together industry leaders and those who hold the purse strings across brewing, pubs and distribution to commit to invest and think positively, like Five Points has, in cask. I am working with the Cask Report group to try and make this happen. The reason we continue to see the decline we do across the industry is this lack of action and that ‘it’s someone else’s responsibility’. I think the Cask Report and the lessons it brings are being ignored because of this mindset. Five Points have taken responsibility and the results show for themselves.
I see three key areas that all rely on each other, that we all need to get right.
First, we need widespread investment in training and quality control, all the way from grain to glass to ensure that every pint is at its best. A lot of this is happening already through brewer audits like SALSA+beer, SIBA FSQ and through inspections done by Cask Marque and Beer Marque. But we need better strategic co-ordination and greater investment in people, beer, cellars and lines. Many reading this will say that ‘we can’t afford to do this’ because of falling trade, burdensome business rates and beer duty. They are certainly big elements and are linked to the decline of cask, but I would say ‘we can’t afford NOT to’.
Secondly, what helps make this investment possible is the need to premiumise cask beer so it pays its own way for everyone involved. There remains on average a gap of more than £1.20 between a pint of cask ale and a pint of craft beer. Cask beer lags behind standard lager by 20p-30p on average. Why is this the case when if right, cask is an objectively a better experience? Why, when it is harder to keep, make and serve correctly than other formats? 55% of drinkers would pay more for a pint of cask. Basic economics says if you put the price of something up, then people will buy less. But if people are drinking less, less often, then they should be drinking better. People will pay more for something that is better. Lager brands have successfully premiumised their offerings, so why can’t cask?
Thirdly, if we get the first two right, we change the perceptions of the consumer that a cask beer is the best. This is supported by a national campaign, supported by all the big players about cask. That means more throughput, higher sales and a new set of consumers attracted to cask – and that it isn’t solely the preserve of CAMRA members like us.
It won’t be easy, but we need to bring key decision makers together to care about cask, to invest and take collective action to commit to saving our national drink.
James Calder is Chief Executive of SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers. He has a background in Government lobbying, communications and accountancy. SIBA represents 750 small independent brewers and was responsible for the introduction of progressive beer duty in 2002, which it is campaigning to positively reform ahead of the Budget.
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