Cask Beer - A National Treasure under threat?
I was recently involved in an inquiry into cask beer led by the All Parliamentary Beer Group (link here).
The inquiry was launched as a result of the declining (pre-covid) sales of cask beer, it's purpose is to discover how/if the decline can be reduced or even reversed.
Though I was really pleased the inquiry had been launched and was more than willing to offer evidence and support, I found the evidence provided quite frustrating in that most of the solutions suggested were focussed around financials, government policies and duty cuts. There was little to no inward evaluation on how we as an industry could improve. The most obvious issue within the cask industry in my eyes is that cask beer is being sold to any establishment who will buy it, regardless of how well they keep and serve it.
Too many brewers are selling their casks seemingly without a care for where and how the beer ends up being served. There seems to be no link between how well a publican keeps their beer and their allure as a customer to a brewer. Is it fair that a publican who keeps incredible cask beer has access to the same variety of cask beer as a publican who doesn't? Cask beer is one of a range of products a publican sells. Often if the cask beer isn't up to scratch in a pub, the sale isn't lost to the publican as the customer will buy an alternative product however the sale is lost to the cask brewer, who who should be more concerned about poor quality cask on sale?
It's great to see cask beer from a brewery from the other side of the country at your local, but honestly how aware of the pub's serving standards is that brewer? Sure some brewers have good healthy relationships with pubs across the UK, and they know their beer is kept well however this is often not the case, and when you add wholesalers into the equation the brewer surrenders any say on where or how that beer ends up being served.
The rise in brewery taprooms recently has been a blessing for well-kept beer and certain regional brewers with managed pubs generally, in my experience, do a great job at maintaining cask standards. I worry about larger brewers without that direct control however as the footprint of where their beer is being sold is so vast it's impossible to keep an eye on serving standards without a dedicated team. Almost all of these brewer's relationships with pubs are managed by sales teams - would you pull a product from a pub if it meant you'll lose commission and miss your sales targets in the name of well-kept beer? I'd struggle with that too.
A part of me wonders if the decline in cask beer sales is a much needed natural balancing, maybe it's exactly what we need - a smaller market consisting of less brewers, but ones who take pride in every pint served. 'High volume for peanuts' cask sales may become a thing of the past, with those brewers focussing their efforts on other styles.
I don't see the fact that cask doesn't travel well, and that it takes time, effort and skill to serve well as being negatives like most do. Cask has traditionally been time intensive, but the product is all the better for this reason - especially when you sit down with a well-conditioned pint of cask in its natural surroundings. It's refreshing that you can usually only find Batham's in the Black Country or Holt's in the North West. Terroir should be celebrated. Scaling to national sales and industrial volumes will inevitably demand compromises, all of which are felt by the consumer.
It seems efforts in the cask industry lately have gone into overcoming these 'problems'. Time saving innovations such as 'fast cask' - reducing the yeast count to a point where it's still technically considered 'live' but will drop bright in hours instead of days, and serving 'extra cold' versions of cask beers are efforts to replicate the less time intensive keg beer industry.
Instead shouldn't we focus on celebrating what makes cask great? A well-conditioned, live pint of cask is one of a kind and there's nothing quite like it. Drinking a cask beer in the homeland of a brewery is always a pleasure, and the fact you can't emulate that feeling back home is exactly what makes the experience all the more special. The maturation and development of flavours, even whilst on tap, make this style truly unique. Longer maturation times in the whisky industry are applauded, is it that far of a stretch to market a similar approach?
It'd be amiss not to mention the price and perceived value of cask. It seems over the last few decades, cask has been caught up in a race for high volume, low value sales and the perceived value has suffered dramatically with the price for a pint as little as £1.10. Given the time and attention cask beer requires over other beers, especially from the publican’s point of view, this just doesn’t add up. Something has to give.
So what has to happen for cask to survive? I think cask should be regionally focussed, and the time it takes to condition properly should be celebrated. Beer swaps, wholesale cask sales and sending cask across country dilutes and dangers the impact and quality of cask beer, and brewers should take responsibility for where their cask is served, and the condition it is served in. There are already many brewers who exemplify this, and I'm quietly confident any decline in cask sales will not impact them one bit. I'm excited for the future of cask beer, and maybe a distillation of the market is exactly what we need to shake off the dust and once again begin to celebrate what I feel is a national treasure.