I’m as keen to big-up the attractions of the pub as anybody. But there was a big pull-out quote in the latest Cask Ale Report from a cask ale-selling publican in Bristol that “there is no future for a pub without cask ales. It’s the only thing in the pub not being taken by the supermarket trade.” For the day job these days I often write opinion pieces on the state of the pub and beer market, and here’s what I said last Friday on that particular claim: don’t bet on it. Because if anyone thinks cask ale will always remain the pub’s great usp, another think has already driven into your car park.
Despite the Cask Ale Report proclaiming (p5, column 2) that cask “is only available in pubs”, cask ale is in the British supermarket right now, albeit in the distinctively top-end Whole Foods Market, which is to Asda or Aldi what the American Bar at the Savoy is to a corner boozer in Balham. A number of the chain’s outlets in Britain sell draught beers and ciders to take away in “flagons” with resealable porcelain lids. The chain has even entered the UK on-trade: three months ago, the big Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street was home to a week-long pop-up pub organised by Craft Beer Rising, which featured beers from Hogs Back and Otley Brewing, among others.
Whole Foods Market’s American origins made it open to the idea of a pop-up pub, since at least some of its stores in the US already have bars inside where you can settle down for a glass of draught beer. I first came across the idea of an off-licence (to use a British term) with a bar inside serving draught beers in Sonoma, California, nearly 20 years ago, and thought it an excellent idea. Try a brewer’s beers, and if you like them, buy a few bottles to take home.
That never caught on in the UK, for a range of reasons: licensing laws, drink-driving laws, the nature of British pub culture, the lack of space in most off-licences to install a bar and the other necessary facilities, and the conservatism of the British drinks trade. But today on the Venn diagram showing the drinks retailing market, the circles showing the on and off-licence sectors are slowly beginning to overlap. Many craft beer bars now have tall fridges on the customers’ side where they can take out bottles to drink there or go home with. Where I live in leafy West London, there are two off-licences nearby, Noble Wines in Hampton Hill and the Real Ale Shop in Twickenham, that each sell beer straight from the cask for customers to take home, an idea that has been around for decades, but which finally seems to be flying. I’m not aware yet of an off-licence with a bar, either regular or pop-up, in Britain yet. But it can only be a short while before they start to appear.
Meanwhile, if you’re calling in to your local offie to buy four pints of draught ale to take away, of course, you’re likely to pick up a bottle or six of beers for later in the week as well, and some wine, too, while you’re there. Don’t think Sainsbury’s and Tesco and even Waitrose haven’t noticed that phenomenon, don’t worry about people having a reason not to visit their own off-licence sections and aren’t wondering whether they can capture some of that take-away draught market themselves. We could, in what would be a hugely ironic move, see some of the pubs that have been converted into supermarkets selling cask ale again, albeit to take-away customers, rather than ones who hang around drinking.
Of course, the argument will still be that cask ale you take away even in a sealed container is not going to be as good as a pint freshly poured in a pub. The take-home beer loses carbonation, and starts to stale – though not, in my experience, as quickly as you might think. And it can still be a much better pint than is found in too many pubs. This is both a threat and, like all threats, an opportunity for pubs and brewers alike. Brewers, if they aren’t already, need to consider how they will cope with the inevitable request from supermarket chains for assistance in setting up take-away draught beer operations. Pubs need to consider how they are going to compete with an increase in the number of off-licences selling cask ale, by offering an easy take-home option themselves and/or by pushing hard on the superiority of the pub pint. And the authors of the Cask Ale Report need to include a look at the take-away cask ale scene in the next report.