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Guest Column

Nunny: time to stop knocking cask ale

Added: Thursday, January 26th 2017

Paul Nunny

By Paul Nunny of Cask Marque

Over the past few weeks I’ve read with interest a raft of articles responding to Cloudwater’s decision to cease cask beer production. Its announcement was met with a flurry of articles (few of them written by brewers) that all seemed to applaud, congratulate and condone this “brave” direction. Its declaration, which was massively publicised, served to open the floodgates to a huge amount of “cask beer bashing” in the media, which has turned quite vitriolic and nasty towards various organisations that have campaigned for years to establish cask as a unique and valued part of the British pub industry.
 
Cloudwater stated two primary reasons for its decision. Firstly, the shrinking margin associated with cask beer pricing and how it had become unprofitable to continue investment in this category. Secondly, and perhaps more pertinent, its declaration it could not be confident in the quality of its product at the point of purchase. Therefore, it would not be producing its beers in cask for the foreseeable future.
 
Let’s take each issue in turn. Pricing, from both the brewer and at the pump is a self-inflicted wound. For the brewers there is a major issue of supply and demand. Too many brewers are competing in a market that is experiencing declining barrelage. The latest figures show a decline in total on-trade beer sales of more than 2% balanced with a growth in off-trade with cask maintaining market share. Therefore brewers are using price to gain market share, particularly the small brethren who have the benefit of progressive beer duty.
 
When it comes to the price of beer at the pump, cask is almost always the cheapest product on the bar. Yet it is the most premium in terms of providence – it takes time and skill to manage, and is frequently cited as the original “craft” beer. This is where the second issue plays a key role. Knowledge, patience, and expertise are the vital elements required to get the quality right.
 
Cask Marque has always recognised the intrinsic link between good quality and sales, and it has hard evidence to back up this theory. Enterprise Inns pubs with the Cask Marque plaque are growing total beer sales by 4.4% over their non-Cask Marque pubs. A regional brewer can prove a growth of 6% in sales in Cask Marque-accredited pubs.
 
More recently, Cask Marque carried out a piece of research on the quality of cask in non-Cask Marque pubs by auditing the pubs closest to an accredited pub. This showed where 90% of Cask Marque pubs pass their quality assessment only 51% of non-Cask Marque pubs met the quality standard. This shows there is certainly an issue.
 
So both pricing and quality need to be addressed – but how? Pricing is perhaps the most difficult. In a free market, supply and demand should balance itself and I am sure we will find a number of brewers struggling to survive particularly when they have no USP. Those brewers with poor quality at the brewery gate will fail as more retailers demand brewers gain the Salsa + Beer accreditation. This is already required by Mitchells & Butlers, Enterprise and Punch on new listings. Waitrose is the champion of this beer quality standard in the off-trade. The Society of Independent Brewers also endorses the scheme.
 
Retailers need to be brave, and address pricing at the pump. Ok, have the session beer at a fixed price point but stop underselling brands that are aspirational. Have a fair pricing policy based on ABV and brand values. Learn from the grocers where normally brands are premium priced. On quality of beer in the glass the solution is simple. A trained cellar manager can improve yields by more than 7% and, as illustrated above, enhanced sales (4%-plus), of which both lead to increased bottom-line profitability. 
 
The cost of training is approximately £100 per site. This can be done off-site or in the pub itself. The return on investment is realised in a matter of a few months and has the added advantage of attracting – and keeping – satisfied customers. Cask beer has enjoyed a phenomenal rise in popularity and now represents more than 16% of on-trade beer sales. Pubs that focus on cask as part of their retail proportion grow their total beer sales. The category is far from dead. Cask has led to the revival of British beer. Long live the king of beers! (Sorry Budweiser, but you have been superseded!)
 
I have every respect for Cloudwater’s beers and its views – but please, don’t bite the hand that feeds you. If it wasn't for some of our long-established brewers and their commitment to quality, growth and accessibility, you might not have a market place in which to exist. This has been a long journey, and with all due respect, you could have helped address the quality issue yourself. Focusing on keg will not make these issues go away as you still need pubs to clean their beer lines, operate good cellar management and bar staff to pour the perfect pint.
 
Lastly addressing Pete Brown’s outburst [in the Morning Advertiser]. Like any good journalist he qualifies his headline with the real truth. He says if the pub has a solid cask ale reputation there is no better beer to drink. I suggest he uses the Caskfinder app, which maps out the 10,000 pubs with the Cask Marque award and he can then continue to drink his favourite beer.