With the fantastic news that brewers are getting back to production, and the likelihood that we will soon be able to go and enjoy a proper pint in a proper pub, albeit in very different circumstances. There are few finer things in life than a pint of cask ale which has been skilfully brewed, lovingly looked after and perfectly served. But cask is still suffering from numerous image problems and sales are struggling because of the huge popularity of small, cool, independent craft brewers.
FIRSTLY, WHAT EXACTLY IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CASK AND KEG?
If you don't know. Cask ale, also known as cask-conditioned beer or ‘real’ ale, is beer that undergoes secondary fermentation in the barrel. Brewers of cask ale don’t interfere with it, they don’t filter it and they don’t pasteurise it. All they do is put fresh live beer straight into the barrel where, still in unfinished form containing lots of lovely fruity residual yeast, it remains alive and kicking until it lands in your glass.
Just as Champagne evolves in the bottle, cask ale matures and ripens in the barrel. The live yeast not only nibbles away at the sugars, turning them into alcohol and creating soft carbonation, it also rounds off rough flavour edges and brings greater depth of flavour.
Publicans often have a lot more freedom with their cask lines so they can offer a much more varied range.
A keg on the other hand is like a giant can of beer. The beer is filtered and generally made sterile before going into the keg so its contents are ready to drink. Kegged beers are brewed in exactly the same way as Cask. However, casked beer is only partly ready before it goes into the cask.
“Keg beers” had become a derogatory term for inferior ales served using cold conditioning, pressurised tanks, filtration and the use of extraneous carbon dioxide techniques that, ironically, had first been used to produce the lovely legendary lagers brewed in mainland Europe back in the late 19th century.
Today, however, this is not the case. Keg beer has shed its shameful past. Keg beer has discovered a new lease of life and become integral in the thriving craft beer scene in this country and beyond.
Pubs have restrictions on their kegs since big lager brands use kegs lines and therefore want to control what goes on them.
SO WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS
The rise and popularity of Independent Brewers
The last decade or so has seen a huge upsurge in the popularity of independent breweries and their cool and millennial friendly golden ales, IPAs and lagers. The craft beer boom has given the hipster crowd more choice in the market but this has impacted on the popularity and perception of the traditional Cask sector with sales dropping. These start-up style brewery businesses are quicker and smarter in actively engaging with their customers on social media and collaborating with UK pubs and other brewers. Many of the larger traditional, family run brewers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up and engage with a younger drinker, an audience that is the opposite to the traditional, older, male real ale drinker.
Several high-profile UK craft breweries have recently turned their backs on Cask. For some, cask beer is the height of the brewing art, a skill that requires attention and care from the brew right through to serving. For others it's a thankless task with scant reward with the perception from the drinker that cask should be the cheapest beer at the bar.
Younger drinkers are visiting the pub less often than others, going to the pub as little as once a fortnight, usually either for a meal with family or friends, or for a special occasion. The rise of home drinking also has the obvious impossibilities when it comes to Keg.
The quality of your Cask pint depends hugely on how well the pub looks after it. There’s a real art to it, publicans need to ensure that the cellar is spotless and that the beer is stored at the right temperature and pulled through pristine pipes with rapid regularity – which it will if the beer tastes bloody lovely. Casked beer should also really be drunk within a few days of opening as oxygen is beer’s worst enemy and causes the flavour to change very quickly.
If a pub doesn’t adhere to these important factors, the casked beers won’t taste right, so there’s a lot of onus on the pub to make sure the beer they pour reaches you in the condition the brewer intended it to!
Cask beer branding problem
But the main problem with cask is the way it is marketed. Manufacturers need to rid cask of its image as the “sup of choice” for the non-aspirational old man. Still, most real ale branding seems to be done in a very outdated fashion, using stock themes of tradition and heritage. There are still cringe-worthy sexual references, out-dated poor design sadly dominate real ale branding.
Contrast this to craft beer’s slick packaging which is both relevant and charismatic with emerging UK craft brewers. Keg really needs to shout how amazing it is, made with with care, served fresh, with a sell by date. How delicious does that sound?
Big cask opportunity for traditional brewers
Cask beer does have plenty of reasons to be popularity among women and younger, 25 to 34-year-old drinkers, and the negative stereotype of cask ale and cask ale drinkers is slowly disappearing but there is still a huge opportunity for the traditional brewers.
Big brewers need create dynamic contemporary brands, communicate them in the same way small craft brewers do, reaching out to younger male and female drinkers. In a nutshell, make cask beer "a bit cooler”.
Also with research suggesting that post Covid, people will be hankering for quality products, made with care, and the comforting feeling that the product is part of a rich heritage etc then that is a huge opportunity for cask.
Sheepshagger’s Gold? Ginger Tosser? No thanks.
Progressive attitude Progressive brewers like Black Sheep are following the current marketing methods of some of the new kids. In addition to brewing their core products, they also produce seasonal, limited edition or event related brews like Monty Python’s Flying Circus Very Silly IPA, Velo Pale Ale or My Generation Session Pale Ale.
There’s no reason why cask can’t keep up. There are a number of similarities between the descriptions drinkers attribute to both cask and keg-conditioned craft beer (“handmade, “diverse”, and “local” – to name a few). Breweries need to shift away from negative perceptions and focus on how cool cask can be. Many large family brewers - and it has to be said, CAMRA - are being far to slow to try and cultivate the next generation of real ale drinkers in a credible and and intelligent way. Mid-sized regional, family breweries who, broadly speaking, are still brewing boring brown bitters for old men. They can't transform themselves into hip brands overnight, but they need to do something to revitalise their pubs, their beers and the public's perception. Otherwise, they will die out with their current audience. Call it natural wastage.
So what are the key area to look at?
Shed the old man image. Change perception. Educate the consumer and trade about cask
Contemporary design is crucial in not only attracting new drinkers, but also attracting younger venues to take the products seriously, and getting those trendy pub groups to list beers
Comms. Build on key facts, So fresh it has a limited life span, craft, heritage, natural ingredients are all incredibly appealing messages to attract a younger drinker, both male and female.
Large traditional family run brewers need to address how they communicate their brands better, engage with customers on social media and create engaging activations. Tell people about your products!
Attend urban based food and beer festivals, look at the music and art scenes. This targets the right demographic of younger drinker and venue
Food matching evenings and adding serving suggestions to menus
Address the seasonality issue and introduce lighter, hoppier pale ales
So there is real opportunity for Cask to appeal to a new, younger audience. The brewers just need to be more confident about how great their cask products are for a younger, newer audience. Be bolder, throw away the old ways of doing things, create branding, marketing activations that connect with a younger audience, who have more choice than ever, but still want to drink a quality product and who will pay a premium for it. I for one don't want to see Cask slowly disappear.