Opinion: Will cask beer be our lipstick of choice in the post covid-19 recession?

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

01 May 2020

My parents live 900 miles south of their nearest pub, and grew up even further away than that. They only discovered cask ale in their early sixties, when, for the first time, I took them to my favourite country pub. The perfect combination of amazement, wonder, and joy developed on their faces as they took the first sip of that malty, gently hoppy liquid oddity.

The New Forest National Park’s fairytale atmosphere, its tranquil-looking villages, ponies and cows roaming free across the bucolic surroundings, and the pub’s worn-out sofas cozily embracing the venue’s central fireplace, all contributed to turn that first pint into a wonderful memory. 

But there was more to that beer experience than the wonders of the Forest. On every sip, it seemed as if that fresh brew could paint a picture of the local community, narrate its history, its struggles and how it managed to overcome them. There was a certain uniqueness to that beer that just kept us talking for hours.

Cask ale is the one, single alcoholic drink that can’t be replicated at home, and the covid-19 pandemic has taken that unique experience away. 

On every sip, it seemed as if that freshly brewed beer could paint a picture of the local community, narrate its history, its struggles and how it managed to overcome them

With pubs likely to remain closed for an extended period of time, the very survival of cask beer might be on the line. Are people going to have an appetite for it once the lockdown is lifted and the country’s economy is hit by a much expected recession?

An affordable luxury

It’s not all doom and gloom, believes Cask Marque’s Annabel Smith. She expects that cask beer is likely to replicate the success it experienced following the latest recession. ‘Post 2008 recession,’ she points out, ‘Cask Marque accreditation saw a rapid upward trajectory, despite the economy being so badly bruised… Consumers had very little expendable income. Large ticket items went out of the window and spend in the leisure and hospitality industry was carefully considered. Quality was king – why should they spend what little spare cash they had on poor quality consumables? Good quality beer and experience-rich pubs benefited.’

Indeed, in line with Cask Marque’s positive results, Cask beer did experience an unexpected - although timid - growth in 2009. According to the 2010 Cask Report, in the first half of 2009 cask ale volume had grown by a remarkable 1%, outperforming premium lager (which instead had declined by 15% year-on-year), wine (down 9%), and spirits (down 8%).

‘Post recession people are searching for simple pleasures and new “frugality”,’ said the report. ‘We are rediscovering and reinventing traditional pursuits, such as home baking and camping, leading to huge growth in many craft, artisan and traditional products… We’ve become more thoughtful about our purchases and, in our food and drink choices, we’re looking for tradition, provenance and wholesomeness – all values that cask ale can provide in spades.’

Beer drinkers found in cask ale the ‘affordable luxury’ that could get them through the [2008] recession

Beer drinkers found in cask ale the ‘affordable luxury’ that could get them through the recession – a common phenomenon referred to as the ‘lipstick effect’, using a term coined by Estée Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder in 2001, after he noticed that lipstick sales tended to be inversely correlated to economic health. 

The 2010 Cask Report offers a comfortably promising comparison. Yet, would 2020 drinkers too, understand cask beer as an affordable luxury? That’s up for debate, as the ‘lipstick of choice varies with time and geography’ (Euromonitor International, 2013).

The beer, and wider drinks industries, have changed significantly since 2008. ‘Craft beer’, barely talked-about in pre-recession Britain, literally exploded over the course of the past decade, no- and low-alcohol drinks have carved their own powerful category, and consumer behaviours have become fluid, with people shifting across categories more often than any previous generation of drinkers ever did.

An ace up cask’s sleeve

Despite the changes that shaped the past decade however, cask beer’s tight interconnection with people and communities is still unmatched in today’s remarkably wide, premium drinks offering.

With most pubs closed, many cask ale breweries have upped their B2C (business to consumer) game to make up for the loss of sales and the public’s response has been striking.

Cask beer’s tight interconnection with people and communities is still unmatched in today’s remarkably wide, premium drinks offering

Although direct sales aren’t comparable to the revenues a brewery would get from selling to venues, these still help tighten the bond with local communities. In such a dramatic situation, it’s an upside that will pay back in the longer term, especially when breweries aren’t making any profit from leftover beer.

Rather than ‘tip [the beer] down the drain’, East Anglia’s Lacons Brewery has been giving away some 20,000 pints of beer, aptly re-named Stay at Home Brew, for free, simply asking people to #PayItBackAtThePump when pubs re-open.

Like all good pints of cask beer, the Stay at Home Brew tells the story of a community, of its struggles, and of how it will, inevitably, manage to overcome them. It’s this uniqueness that, once the lockdown is over, will turn cask beer into our lipstick of choice.

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