Cask ale ‘is unique to the pub’? Don’t bet on that

Beer Is Best Autumn nightsI’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.

A few fascinating cherries from the 2014 Cask Report

Cask ale reportThe seventh edition of Pete Brown’s yearly investigation into the state of cask ale in Britain, the Cask Report, came out this afternoon in time for Cask Ale Week, and as usual it’s full of fascinating cherries of information. Here’s a selection of random titbits you might miss in other stories about it:

● The report found that while cask ale drinkers wanted choice, licensees were changing their cask beer ranges quicker than drinkers liked or wanted. One in three cask ale drinkers thought a guest ale should be on the bar for at least a month, against only one in 12 licensees who would keep a guest ale on that long. Conversely, half of all licensees thought a guest ale should be on the bar a week or less, against barely one in five drinkers.

● Nearly one in five cask ale drinkers only tried it for the first time in the past four years.

● More than 10,000 pubs held beer festivals during 2012 – that’s getting on for one in six of all pubs, and one third of all pubs that serve real ale.

● Almost two thirds of licensees (63 per cent) who sell cask ale say cask ale is starting to attract younger drinkers into their pubs, and 61 per cent say cask ale is attracting women customers.

● One in five (20 per cent) of cask drinkers are aged under 35, only fractionally lower than the percentage under 35 for beer drinkers as a whole (21 per cent).

● Among people who have tried cask ale, the number who say it is their main drink has gone up by two thirds in the past year, from 6 per cent to 10 per cent.

● Two thirds of men have tried cask ale, and one third of women. Nearly six out of 10 – 58 per cent – tried it when they were under 25. When non-cask drinkers were asked what would make them try cask ale for the first time, 55 per cent said “nothing”, though 25 per cent said “free samples”. Not one person answered “stylish glassware”.

● On average, cask ale pubs stock 3.8 brands.

● Of all those who have tried cask ale, 90 per cent had heard of stout, although only 68 per cent had tried it. The most popular style was bitter, with 75 per cent having tried it out of 88 per cent who had heard of it. Only 72 per cent had heard of IPA – fewer than had heard of mild (75 per cent), though the same number had tried both drinks, 56 per cent. Half of cask ale drinkers had heard of Golden Ale, and 32 per cent had drunk it.

● Golden ale is the fastest growing cask ale style in the country, more than doubling its share of the market since 2008 and gaining 6,000 new stockists in the past year alone.

● Willingness to try new beers drops with age: on average, 18to 24 year-olds are likely to choose a beer they have never seen before 24 per cent of the time. This falls to just 10 per cent of the time for those aged 55 or over.

● “Craft beer” as a term is much better known in the trade than outside it: while 77 per cent of cask ale stockists have heard the term “craft beer”, only 37 per cent of all pub-goers are aware of “craft beer” as a concept, and 47 per cent of cask ale drinkers.

● Established cask ale brands from regional brewers are considered to be ‘craft’ by drinkers as much as if not more than newer breweries and imported beers.