Cask beer is in decline – and the on-trade’s not helping

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

27 September 2018

This year’s Cask Marque report made grim reading for brewers and servers of traditional cask beer.

The annual study of pub trends pulled no punches, showing a product in decline, that struggles to attract younger drinkers and where too many venues fail to get the basics right.

While overall beer sales in the on-trade are down 1.8%, cask – which accounts for one in every seven pints served – has fared far worse, with sales down 6.8% over the last year. And though golden ales have seen a rise in sales of 6%, traditional amber ales have been hit hard.

The continuing closure of pubs is definitely an issue – the report estimates that numbers have tumbled from 60,000 at the start of the century to 48,000 now. Cheap supermarket beer, high rents and increased costs are all factors.

But it is also damning about publicans failing to get the basics right and give their customers what they want.

Research for the report found that almost 70% of cask serves were warmer than the suggested temperature band of 11-13 degrees Celsius.

However, it also revealed that two-thirds of customers would, in any case, like their beer served below 11 °C, putting pubs serving cask beers significantly at odds with what their customers are looking for.

‘Cask beer is served far warmer than the vast majority of drinkers would like,’ concludes the report.

There were issues with freshness, too. Despite publicans questioned claiming never to keep a cask beer on sale for more than two or three days, the report found that ‘the standard-sized cask is typically on sale for seven days or more’.

Since the report found that customers served a bad pint are more likely to leave and not return (40%) than they are to complain (34%), it suggests that bad practice is at least part of the cause of dwindling sales.

With an ageing demographic, cask needs to pull in younger drinkers. But many respondents to the Cask Marque survey cited ‘fear of the unknown’ and an ‘off-putting image’ as reasons why they wouldn’t order cask ale.

The report suggests giving customers small shot-glass tasters and pushing serves in smaller measures to encourage trial.

But it also points out that high quality staff training is key, to ensure best practice and informed conversations with hesitant customers.

‘Whether licensees admit it or not, training around cask is crucial to its future,’ it concludes.

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