Cask beer bounces back on nation's bars
Added: Friday, September 28th 2012
Cask ale volumes grew in 2011 for the first time in 20 years, recording a 1.6% uplift, says The Cask Report 2012-13, published today. Around 2.2 million barrels of cask, equating to some 633 million pints, were sold last year. Over the same period, cask also overtook keg as the most popular format for draught ale, increased its penetration of the pub market to 56%, achieved a 53% "ever tried" rate among UK adults and increased the frequency with which it is drunk by existing cask customers.
Report author Pete Brown says, “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. 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.”
This year’s Cask Report is published at the start of Cask Ale Week (28 September -7 October). This celebration of cask ale -- often called real ale -- is focusing on "Try Before You Buy", which was highlighted in the report as the single most effective way of introducing new drinkers to cask. Some 8,000 pubs will be offering free tasters during Cask Ale Week, which is also being supported by a national newspaper offer and an "introduce a friend to cask" promotion.
Right range key to driving sales
Community, wet-led pubs still form the backbone of cask’s distribution base, but it also increased its penetration in café bars and town centre circuit venues, demonstrating its growing appeal to younger drinkers. For all pubs and bars, the key to a successful cask business lies in stocking the optimum number and styles of ales and promoting them effectively to encourage existing customers to drink more cask, and bring new drinkers into the category.
Pete Brown says, “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. 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.”
The average number of handpumps on the bar, among pubs that sell cask ale at all, is 3.1, rising to 4 for "cask champions" – a research group of licensees for whom cask ale forms the core element of their business. Cask champion pubs rotate at least one of their ales weekly, and are keen stockists of microbrewer beers, but crucially they also recognise the need to offer well-known names.
In mainstream managed pubs, drinkers are looking for some permanency in the cask offer, and too many unfamiliar names on the bar, rotated too often, can lead to a drop in cask sales.
Trial key to winning new cask drinkers
While cask drinkers remain predominantly male and upmarket, interest from younger and female drinkers is holding steady after significant recruitment from these groups. 58% of cask ale drinkers say they first tried it when aged 18-24, proving its appeal to emerging drinkers. Over 50% of cask drinkers choose it as it offers “more variety and flavour than other mainstream drinks”, while its heritage, natural ingredients and local provenance are also cited as strong influences.
The fact that cask appeals to drinkers seeking variety and novelty means that many of those who drink it, enjoy it as part of their repertoire rather than their main drink. Pete Brown says, “The typical cask drinker is into discovery, diversity, trying new things -- so it’s not surprising that they drink across a wide number of other drinks categories.”
Despite this, cask drinkers are drinking more cask: 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 cask specifically. Among drinkers who have never tried cask ale, the biggest reason cited – by 28% of respondents -- is “I don’t know” . A further 16% “don’t know where to start” or say they need more information.
Brown says, “This 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.” Persuading these drinkers to buy two pints of cask ale per month – a conservative estimate -- would add some 70 million pints to annual cask volumes.
"Try before you buy" has long been encouraged by cask brewers as a way to introduce new drinkers to cask. Pete Brown says, “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. A free taster removes the risk factor, and starts a dialogue between drinker and bar staff.”
Unsurprisingly, in those "cask champion" pubs, "try before you buy" heads the list of sales-building tactics. Over 95% of these pubs offer tasters to new customers, while 90% describe the taste of the beers and around 80% use chalkboards or posters to promote their cask offer.
Brown says, “This year’s Cask Report 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 three million 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.”