From freak to chic – Cask ales, they’re complex, food friendly and great for when it’s cold

Drinks: Beers

Forget their weirdy beardy reputation, now that the nights are drawing in, cask ales offer real opportunities to trade up your customers to something genuinely excellent. Melissa Cole wields her clippers and goes in search of facial hair

All right, we all know that the beer market isn’t in the best place right now; but then again neither is the stock market and we’re expecting that to bounce back, so why treat beer any differently? I say this because while it’s true that cask ale is currently in decline, it is doing significantly better than beer as a whole in the on-trade and, actually, it was in growth until about Easter time this year, in total contrast to lager in general and premiums in particular.

According to figures from the British Beer & Pub Association, cask ale was in growth between August 2007 and May of this year, sometimes by nearly 2%. OK, so 2% doesn’t exactly sound like much on its own, but when you consider that on-trade sales of premium lager declined by 12.1% year-on-year in April, you start seeing why cask ale is worth considering as a money spinner. And seasonal beers can be a great place to start.

‘While I think seasonal ales started off as a bit of fun years ago, seasonal beers have now become a margin driver for pubs,’ says Rick Payne, from Dorset brewer Hall & Woodhouse. ‘Seasonal ales in our tied houses, overall, have risen 13% year-on-year and in our managed houses, where normal cask ale sales are flat, our seasonal offerings are up 27%, so we’re quite confident that there is a very good business case for not only brewing these beers, but for stocking them as well.’

Seasonal comforts

But won’t the credit crunch really hurt what are, after all, normally more expensive products? Payne thinks not: ‘People are willing to spend on small indulgences to cheer themselves up during challenging economic conditions,’ Payne says. ‘Basically, consumers justify buying premium indulgences like chocolate to keep their spirits up because they aren’t going on holiday and they aren’t getting a new car – and cask ales and seasonal beers fit into that category.’

People are willing to spend on indulgences

to cheer themselves up during economic challenges

It’s also worth noting that most cask ale drinkers (78% are ABC1s) tend to nearly always have a bit of cash in their pockets.

‘Drinkers are willing and able to pay for quality and choice, so this is a great opportunity to command a price premium for a well-kept pint of cask ale,’ says Chris Lewis of Bedford’s Wells & Young.

And, as Payne adds, it’s important to entice them in with quality cues about
the product too: ‘We provide quality stemmed glassware and PoS that clearly highlights just one unique aspect of the beer; for example pointing out that Hopping Hare is a thrice-hopped beer, and we do the same with our other brews.’

Jaclyn Bateman, of Bateman’s Brewery in Lincolnshire, knows that not only is the quality of her popular Rosey Nosey beer important, but the fun pump clip that comes with it is all part of the appeal as well: ‘Licensees and customers both like something a bit different, and gimmicks like the flashing nose on our Rosey Nosey means it’s been getting more and more popular every year.’

But if you’re still struggling slightly, it’s important to drive a trial of the product and ensure that customers get a taster, it’s more likely to drive sales of full pints of your premium products, rather than them defaulting to less profitable ones.’

Lewis also believes that seasonal beers have a big place in the drinking public’s heart: ‘We get a lot of correspondence, asking about certain beers and when they will become available again.

We brew seasonally because there is a trend for different styles of beer at different times of the year.’

This is a sentiment echoed by Roy Silsby, cask beer manager for Waverley TBS: ‘Autumn and winter see a great resurgence in cask ale as the cooler temperatures lend themselves to some of the nicest beer styles around.’

For Silsby, this means ruby and dark warming beers. Not only are they perfect for pubs with roaring fires, they also makes a nice switch from the blonder beers of the balmier months.

Paul Kenchington of Bath Ales concurs: ‘Real ale drinkers are interested in variety and choice, and we definitely see fluctuations in figures across the year with lighter beers in the warmer months and darker beers when it’s time to sit by the fire.’ 

Lighten up…

It’s also worth bearing in mind that autumn and winter beers don’t have to be about the deep, dark and mysterious. Justin ‘Buster’ Grant of Breconshire Brewery believes that if you only offer darker beers in the darker months then, of course, that’s all people will drink, but there’s no harm in lightening up.

‘The fact that both our Christmas and winter beers are unusual, in that they’re golden, makes them stand out from the crowd,’ he says. ‘However, we still sell plenty of our darker beers – Red Dragon and Ramblers Ruin – because it’s what people expect. But there’s no harm in experimenting with different breweries and types of beers at any time of year.’

It’s obvious that the figures prove cask beer is not necessarily as unwell as the press and certain trade bodies would have us believe, and it’s also quite clear that seasonal beers are a very important part of the British drinker’s year. As we become ever more interested in seasonal food and local provenance, it’s likely that they will play an increasing role in the success of the on-trade in particular.

Dates and ale

Get the right beer with the right occasion and see your sales rocket!

Halloween, 31 October

Moorhouse’s, Lancashire

Choose from an epic portfolio of special brews for this spooky day: Broomstick Bitter, Witches Cauldron, Witchfinder General, Witch Hunt and Black Witch.

RSP £2.40-2.50 per pint.

Wychwood, Oxfordshire

Hobgoblin, 4.5% in cask and 5.2% in bottles, is a luscious ruby ale with real character. RRP £1.75/50cl

Green Goblin 6% abv cider
shouldn’t be served over ice. The complex tannins and dryness are intriguing. RRP £1.50/50cl

Bonfire Night,
5 November

Harvey’s, Sussex

Bonfire Boy is a smoky, but pretty pokey, 5.8% abv beer.
RSP £3.20 per pint

Remembrance Sunday, 11 November

Shepherd Neame

Spitfire is the traditional style
4.5% Kentish ale that supports
the Help for Heroes campaign.

RSP £3-3.50 per pint


Wye Valley

Fallen Hero is an easy-drinking 3.8% abv beer that donates 5p to Combat Stress for every pint sold. RSP £2.20-2.60


Christmas Day,
25 December


Samichlaus (‘Santa Claus’ in Zurich’s Swiss-German dialect) is only brewed once a year on 6 December, then matured for over 10 months. The 14% abv brew is a rich, sweet, dark sticky beer that complements salty cheeses perfectly. RSP £4.30 per pint


Ola Dubh is not strictly a Christmas beer but is a winner after a festive feast. Serve in a big tumbler and let the cask vanillins and chocolate from the beer, wash over you.

Not yet available in the UK.

Pie and a pint…

Food and beer matches for when it’s a bit parky oot…

Ben Lockwood, The White Horse, London

‘Milds go well with rabbit stew, while Westmalle Dubbel works perfectly with venison. On the flip side, barley wines work wonders with cheese and one of the more common beer and food matchings is oysters and stout. If you match rich, heavy food with a darker beer, chances are it will work a treat.’

Justin ‘Buster’ Grant Breconshire Brewery

‘Brecon County Ale is the perfect choice for a ploughman’s, Golden Valley is an excellent accompaniment to cold smoked trout, Cribyn is wonderful with spiced foods or barbecues, Red Dragon works perfectly with, or in, steak and ale pies as well as with game, and Rambler’s Ruin is fantastic with venison or strong cheeses.’

David Spencer, Fuller’s

‘I would have to say that the best food matches for our seasonal beers at this time are London Porter and oysters, Golden Pride and Christmas pudding or Vintage Ale and crème brûlée.’

Paul Kenchington, Bath Ales

‘Sausages and leeks in white sauce with mashed potatoes, roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, slow-cooked lamb shank or any stew with dumplings would all benefit from a pint of Festivity.’

David Grant, Moorhouse’s

‘Pendle Witch is especially good with Italian food – it stands up to strong garlic flavours exceptionally well.’

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – November / December 2008

About Author

Leave A Reply