Steven Brown: Join the cask beer bandwagon

Emma Williams
By Emma Williams November 13, 2011 16:33

Steven Brown: Join the cask beer bandwagon

Now I can’t quite remember back in the day to Roman times when a new alcoholic beverage hit our shores that was to make such an impact on the world of brewing that it left an indelible mark that lasts to this day.

When I was a lad all pubs and bars sold cask ales and a range of bottled beers. In the swinging 60s we saw the introduction of keg, chilled and filtered beers, while cask sales declined. In that same era we saw the rise of draught lager that was to eclipse all draught sales, and watched as cask beer continued to decline!

The product had an old man’s image that simply didn’t fit with the youth of the day. It wasn’t trendy unless you wore a flat cap, had a whippet as a companion and played dominoes three times a week! As if that wasn’t bad enough, a group of anoraks branded together and formed an association called the Campaign for Real Ales (CAMRA) and then proceeded to deliberate quite vocally on the merits of the product for hours on end. Their argument was simple. Cask beer is quintessentially a British brew (conveniently ignoring the Roman and Asian origins, that is), it encapsulates all of the finest traditions, values and standards of everything that is great within Britain. It does not have a loutish image, but is rather associated with a more mature, sober (if that’s the right word) intelligentsia that hold the product in great reverence, unlike any keg beers or lagers for which there is no such support group.

Well that’s it then. Nice people drink cask beers and louts drink keg! If that’s the case then there are an awful lot of louts about!

The problem with cask is that until very recently it seemed as if the product was in terminal decline.

Modern production methods, the customer’s demands to be served instantly and the difficulty in keeping products together with a change in trends has meant that cask beers, once the king of the bars and beers, has been relegated to a supporting role. Well, think again. A cross industry report for 2009 reveals the following facts:

• The overall beer / lager / cider market declined by 8.7 per cent. Draught beer sales and consumption have been falling over many years and the introduction of new products such as alco-pops, shots and many other similar products aimed at the younger drinkers has had a dramatic impact upon ale sales.

Now compare that decline to the latest data relating to cask beers.

• A volume growth of one per cent in the first six months of 2009, bucking the trend of decline;

• Cask beer ales are increasing and now represent 13.5 per cent of total beer sales;

• 8.5 million people regularly support the product and 1.3 million of those are females who represent a 16 per cent rise in interest within the draught beer market. Over 400,00 new real ale drinkers have converted to the cause since 2008;

• CAMRA (no longer the anoraks of old) now boasts a membership of 100,000 and growing;

• 31 per cent of beer drinkers are cask ale enthusiasts;

• The typical cask ale drinker is more affluent, spends more when out socialising and dines out more often than his or her keg counterparts.

Has your club bar recognised the latest trend? Many of my clients now swear by the product.

When we think of France’s national alcoholic beverage we think of wine. When we think of the UK’s national brand we think of cask. Where else in the world is this product held in such high esteem, despite the bashing it gets from non-believers around the world of a warm, flat and insipid pint that can lead to a severe attack of wind on occasion?

Cask beers have changed their image at a time when major brewers of keg beer are closing brewing plants and micro brewers and small family brewers of cask beers are seemingly thriving – and indeed expanding – at a surprising rate.

So what is the benefit for you, the retailer?

Let me illustrate some of the plusses of installing cask beers that have made themselves apparent to me over the past 18 months and that have, in my humble opinion, lead to the re-establishment of the typically British pint:

1.         In a world of healthy eating and drinking, what could be more natural than consuming a product made of hops, malted barley, live yeast and water, but, more importantly, that is a live, growing product and not a ‘manufactured’, ready to serve beer that is made for the mass market who will apparently drink anything if it is ice cold?

2.         The product range currently available is quite breath-taking. Take a look at just some of the well-established brands and the not so well-known brand names in the table (below left). I have no doubt that those of you that have dipped a toe into the cask ale market have some equally bizarre-sounding named product on your bar as we speak.

My point is that for you, the retailer, the choice is seemingly unending, leaving you to rotate guest beers on an almost weekly, if not fortnightly, basis, as a number of golf clubs do.

3.         The product range gives you a great opportunity to create debate and discussion among customers, culminating in the compilation over, say a year, of their top ten favourites, some of which you can then install as your ‘cash cow’ range.

4.         ‘NEW’ is one of the most powerful advertising words in existence. Customers do like to experiment and the diversity of cask products enables that to happen on a regular basis, giving the customer an additional reason to visit, to contribute in helping you to decide on your product range and to discuss with like-minded companions the pros and cons of each product. This detail is great market research data for you.

5.         The retail price of cask beers throughout UK pubs is generally held to be lower than kegs, and so is the cost price in many cases. So here’s an opportunity for you – especially with lesser-known cask beers – to inflate the retail price to keg levels and thereby generate extra income. If challenged about why is, say, India Pale Ale (a product badged under my old but beloved Phipps NBC of Northampton and brewed by Grainstone) as expensive as your keg beers, then your response is quite simple, “compared to what?” All I am saying here is that the uniqueness of each product gives you an opportunity to maximise your net contribution that rarely exists with the better known keg beers that can be directly compared to competitor’s prices.

6.         Product matching is the art of supporting the sale of one product with another product that will enhance the overall enjoyment. Rick Stein has introduced a fish dish in tandem with a local brewer’s new beer, Sharps of Cornwall, to complement the dish, thus providing two sales, not jut one. Is that something you could do? By comparison it is difficult to envisage advertising a pint of Carlsberg with a steak and kidney pie at an all-in-one price. Marston’s brewery has now got in on the act by producing a new guide to food and cask ale called ‘from the pub kitchen’.

7.         Consider products that are seasonal, for example summer brands such as Young’s (lighter and fresher); to winter brands such as Old Perculair, which is stronger, darker and more full-bodied.

8.         New innovations, such as Charles Well’s backlit font on Bombadier, is claimed to have increased sales by 20 per cent due to it being more high profile and visible to the customers. Greene King has also introduced the ‘Revolution font’ which allows the customer to decide if they want a ‘northern’ or ‘southern’ head on their beer.

Now, it would be remiss of me not to mention the perceived downsides of stocking cask beer, so here goes:

1.         The product cannot be dispensed immediately. The recommended standing time alone with some brewers is up to 35 hours, although I have experienced a good pint after only eight hours.

2.         The lines, dependent upon the rate of sale, may need to be cleaned more often or after every cask has been emptied due to the build up of yeast.

3.         The ‘best before’ scenario kicks in with cask beer being saleable still after a week or ten days (that’s not a recommendation by the way, merely a fact of life) but in absolute prime condition for only three days.

4.         You will experience a loss called ‘heavy bottoms’, (not a personal slight on anyone out there I hasten to add) but merely the sediment left in the container when the beer has ‘dropped bright’. (Speak to your stock taker).

5.         You will need to take more care of the product both in preparation and during the on going sale. Once racked, do not move, knock or jiggle it about, and remember your soft and hard pegs.

Well, there is the case for and against my learned friend, but do not be put off by the cons. For my part I, being a commercial animal, am seeking ways of turning a profit in times of extreme difficulty for the golfing industry. Any product out there that is showing signs of reversing a downward trend cannot be ignored. Is it right for you? I cannot say but I will say this: ignore the re-birth of cask ales at your peril. Weigh up the pros and cons carefully and speak to your suppliers as to how to best go about it.

What did the Romans ever give us (apart from roads, the viaducts, governmental models and so on)? A damn fine product that has stood the test of time and one that might just make your bottom line ‘ale’ and hearty!

Emma Williams
By Emma Williams November 13, 2011 16:33
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