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Cask overtakes keg

By thirsty hack Ignatius Rake

Posted October 19, 2012
the tap and spile in harrogate uk is very good for real ale
Quality: Cask makes the world taste nicer. © Ignatius Rake

Call it real ale, craft ale or just damn fine beer. Either way, cask has overtaken keg as the UK's preferred type of ale. And we think that's worth drinking to!

As previously reported by the Rake & Herald, real ale is finally getting the respect it deserves, with more and more people waking up to the joys of taste, diversity, quality and merriment offered by these living brews.

Like sling ting, as sung by the late Smiley Culture RIP, real ale has "a whole heap of name", including craft ale, traditional beer, cask ale or cask-conditioned ale.

Whatever you want to call it, and for the purpose of this report we'll call it cask ale even though we usually call it real ale, things are on the up for proper beer, as evidenced by the findings of The Cask Report 2012-13, itself written by Pete Brown, the man who among other things penned the fantastic Three Sheets to the Wind, a book we strongly recommend you read if you haven't already.

Essentially, there are two types of draught British ale available in the country's pubs: cask and keg1.

Without getting too wrapped up in the details, the former is produced using only natural ingredients and is delivered to pubs unfiltered and unpasteurised in casks.

This means that living yeast remains in the beer, enabling secondary fermentation to take place, a process that gives the beer a fuller flavour and aroma while also naturally carbonating it.

During the 1960s, however, the larger brewers began eschewing this age-old ale practice in a bid to seek greater efficiency and productivity in addition to longer product shelf life.

Instead of letting the beer age in the cask, they began filtering and pasteurising it, preventing the occurrence of secondary fermentation while simultaneously eliminating the process of natural carbonation.

One upshot of this is that this type beer needs to be dispensed under gas pressure using extraneous carbon dioxide, nitrogen or a mixture of both.

Packaged in kegs designed to enable and withstand the use of pressurised gas, this 'brewery-conditioned' or 'keg' beer has to be kept upright to enable dispensing, something that, as a result of the added gas, can be done 'at the flick of a switch'.

Cask ale, on the other hand, is dispensed either straight for the cask (lying on its side at an angle) via gravity or using a siphoning action via a handpump, or handpull.

By the early 1970s, cask ale looked set to go the way of the dodo.

Until, that is, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was established to save what it termed 'real ale'.

At the time, there were no doubt plenty of naysayers who thought CAMRA was peeing into the wind.

We are very glad to report that such people were talking out of their bottoms.

beer from the cask
Booze from the barrel: Cask beer dispensed by gravity. (Check bottom for credit)

Indeed, so a press release accompanying The Cask Report's recent publication notes, cask ale volumes last year recorded "a 1.6% uplift".

Notching up growth for the first time in 20 years, around 2.2m barrels of the stuff were sold, or, to put it another way, approximately 633m pints.

At the same time, cask also overtook keg as the most popular type for draught ale, increasing "its penetration of the pub market to 56%".

At the same time, real ale also achieved a 53% 'ever tried' rate among UK adults, with existing real ale drinkers also increasing the frequency with which they drank it.

"The Cask Report has been analysing the sector for six years now and while cask has been outperforming the beer market for most of them, this is the first full year of actual growth," Brown is quoted as saying.

"Sales growth during a recession is an impressive achievement, doubly so against a background of declining overall beer volumes and a shrinking number of pubs."

"This excellent performance speaks volumes for the increasing popularity of cask among consumers as well as a growing realisation among licensees that cask, as an 'only in pubs' drink, can help them drive footfall and sales."

"Pubs that sell cask are less likely to close than non-cask stockists – as witness cask's increasing share of the declining pub market."

While community wet-led pubs, the press release says, "still form the backbone of cask's distribution base", it is nonetheless increasing "its penetration in café bars and town centre circuit venues", something that demonstrates "its growing appeal to younger drinkers".

For all types of pubs and bars, though, "the key to a successful cask business lies in stocking the optimum number and styles of ales".

Furthermore, these fantastic beers need to be promoted effectively so as "to encourage existing customers to drink more cask" and attract new drinkers.

"There is no magic formula to tell licensees how many handpulls to put on the bar or what they should be: it's dictated by their pub's location, style and customer base, which are all very individual," he notes.

"However, research tells us that, for most pubs that are serious about their cask ale, the choice isn't about whether to stock 'familiar' or 'unfamiliar' ales."

"Both have their place: even beer 'shrines' with a wide range would do well to have some nationally recognised brands on the bar and equally any pub with more than two or three handpumps should be looking to introduce some less familiar brews to appeal to more adventurous cask drinkers."

In terms of handpumps, the report found that the average number on the bar is 3.1 among pubs that sell cask ale, rising to four for 'cask champions', viz those pubs where cask ale forms the core element of their business.

These cask champions generally rotate at least one of their ales every week and are active stockists of microbrewed beers.

In what the press release terms "mainstream managed pubs", things are somewhat different, with drinkers "looking for some permanency in the cask offer".

As such, stocking too many unfamiliar names and rotating them too often can actually be counterproductive and lead to a drop in cask sales.

real ale in a jar
From cask to jar: Some of that, please. (Check bottom for credit)

While cask drinkers "remain predominantly male and upmarket, interest from younger and female drinkers is holding steady", with 58% of cask ale drinkers surveyed saying they first tried it when they were aged between 18 and 24 thus "proving [cask ale's] appeal to emerging drinkers".

Meanwhile, more than 50% of cask drinkers say they choose to drink it as it offers "more variety and flavour than other mainstream drinks" while also citing "its heritage, natural ingredients and local provenance" as strong influences on their preferred choice of tipple.

Furthermore, the fact that cask ale "appeals to drinkers seeking variety and novelty" means that many of those who choose it "enjoy it as part of their repertoire rather than their main drink".

"The typical cask drinker," Brown says, "is into discovery, diversity, trying new things – so it's not surprising that they drink across a wide number of other drinks categories."

Established cask drinkers, the report finds, are also enjoying more of it, with the press release stating that "around 28% are drinking more cask ale than the previous year, while only 18% are drinking less – and most of these are reducing their overall alcohol consumption rather than cutting [back on] cask specifically".

Among those drinkers polled that have yet to try cask ale, "the biggest reason cited – by 28% of respondents – is 'I don't know'", while a further 16% say they either don't know where to start or need more information.

"This," he explains, "means that 44% of current non-cask drinkers are all potential drinkers: they don't have any dislike or prejudice about cask and are effectively waiting for a reason to try it."

"All we need to do is give them that reason."

Indeed, persuading these drinkers to buy two pints of cask ale per month, the press release says, "would add some 70m pints to annual cask volumes".

Given the broad diversity of ales out there, cask brewers have long encouraged customers to 'try before you buy' as a way of introducing new drinkers to the delights on offer.

"It's a big ask to expect someone who doesn't drink cask ale to choose from a line-up of handpumps that mean nothing to them and spend £3+ on a pint they might not like," Brown reasons.

"A free taster removes the risk factor and starts a dialogue between drinker and bar staff."

Unsurprisingly, the press release states, in 'cask champion' pubs, 'try before you buy' "heads the list of sales-building tactics": over 95% of such pubs offer tasters to new customers while 90% describe the taste of their beers and around 80% use chalkboards or posters to promote their cask offer.

"This year's Cask Report," Brown concludes, "contains much to celebrate: actual volume growth for the first time in decades; continuing evidence of cask's ability to protect pubs from closure; an understanding of how the right range can drive sales; and, perhaps most importantly, insights into how to convert 3m current non-cask drinkers."

"Despite the decline in pubs and pub visits, cask is doing much more than hold its own."

"By taking the findings of The Cask Report and implementing them consistently and with commitment in their pub, licensees should be able to build a thriving cask business, offering our wonderful national drink to a growing number of enthusiastic customers for whom a glass of cask is an integral part of an enjoyable pub visit."

And if you were wondering what Brown looks and sounds like, have a watch of the following vid in which he shares his thoughts with Marverine Cole, aka the Beer Beauty, whose YouTube channel, from which we embedded it, is also well worth a gander.

Now in its sixth year, The Cask Report is backed by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA); the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA); the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB); and the Cask Marque Trust. It is also supported by such brewers as Adnams, Caledonian, Fuller's, Greene King, Marston's and Wells and Young's. The current edition, as well as previous instalments, can be read online here.

See also British brewing goes ballistic!, posted 21/9/12.


1) For a far better yet suitably succinct description by the experts of the difference between cask ale and keg, have a read of this.

Picture credits

Top and thumb: The doors of the Tap and Spile, Harrogate, UK. © Ignatius Rake.

Middle: Beer straight from the cask by SilkTork (we think).

Bottom: A pint of Uley Old Spot real ale in a dimpled jar by Jongleur100.

For licensing information click the above links.

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