Thoughts on the Cask Report, part 1

I’ve been browsing the Cask Report. It’s well-written and well-presented, and will probably do more to help the spread of real ale than any number of well-meaning but patronising columns aimed at the punters (here’s one I read earlier). So I apologise in advance to Pete if my comments seem unduly negative.

I had two big problems with the Report. Firstly, what is it – is it an analytical report on recent trends in the cask beer market (as the name implies) or is it an elaborate piece of advocacy, a public information message from the Cask Marketing Board? (They’re happy, because they drink cask!) The problem here is that the two types of document would approach the evidence in very different ways: a marketing ‘report’ might skate over results that an analytical report would highlight, while putting a lot of weight on findings that can’t necessarily bear it. And secondly, if it is trying to influence people, what goal does it have in mind – and is that a goal I share?

I’ll deal with the second point in a separate post. The first point can best be illustrated by pulling out a couple of graphs. First, here’s cask volumes vs the overall beer market:

Or rather, here’s the annual rate of change in cask volumes vs the annual rate of change in all beer volumes. If you look at it that way, that upward trend starts to look a bit less hopeful: remember, the 6% decline in 2001 was on top of the 8% decline in 2000, and the great leap forward of 2009 represents a change from a decline of 2% in 2008 – on top of all the previous declines – to an increase of 0%. If you plug in the figures and multiply it out, assuming 1999 as a baseline, you get this:

It’s much clearer from that graph that we’re looking at the back end of a long period of decline. Two periods, to be precise: from 1999 to 2006 overall beer volumes held more or less steady, ranging from 97% of the 1999 volume to 102%. Meanwhile, cask volumes declined steeply and steadily: 92% of the 1999 figure in 2000, 83% in 2002, 73.6% in 2005. (The fact that this downward curve gets shallower as it goes on is what creates that upward line in the published graph.) From 2006 to 2009 the trends were reversed, with overall volumes dropping year by year while cask volumes held more or less steady – but at a level far, far below the level of 1999, which was scarcely the Roaring Twenties in the first place.

How to interpret these trends? The simplest interpretation of the 1999-2006 figures for cask would be that this is the latest stage in the long decline of cask from its historic pre-eminence. I’m doubtful that this long, well-established and profitable trend in the pub industry came to a halt in 2006; I think it’s more likely that it’s continued, but been offset by a separate rising trend in cask ale drinking (on which more later). Rather more striking is the downward trend in overall beer volumes from 2006 on. What’s going on here is unclear, although the fact that the smoking ban in England became law in 2007 can hardly be ruled out as irrelevant. But we should be clear on a few points:

  1. Cask ale sales aren’t rising, they’re holding steady.
  2. They’re holding steady at a low level, having dropped by 30% since 1999.
  3. If cask appears to be gaining market share, this is the result of cask sales holding steady while overall beer sales fall.
  4. This fall in overall beer sales is an established trend, but a new and worrying one.
  5. It is not clear whether cask is actually immune to this trend, or if its effects are being cancelled out by a separate rise in cask drinking.

One clue is provided by this graphic, which I found both informative and infuriating.

What’s infuriating is that massive block on the right – a THIRTY-ONE PERCENT increase OMG!!!1! Except that (as the report acknowledges) all this really means is that Scotland accounted for about 3% of UK cask sales in 2008 and about 4% in 2009; it’s a huge relative increase, but in absolute terms it’s just not that significant. (This kind of thing is a recurring irritation in this report: too often we’re presented not with absolute figures but with proportions, or changes in proportions, or rates of change in proportions, or (as in this instance) proportionate changes in proportions. The numbers are a bit too thoroughly crunched, in other words – it’s hard to verify the claims that are being made, or even to work out precisely which claims are being made.)

The point, anyway, is that the North-East (for example) is a big cask-drinking region while Scotland isn’t, so the 6.6% decline registered in the North-East for 2009 almost exactly cancels out that seemingly huge 31% rise. Which still leaves substantial drops in just about every other part of England and Wales to account for. (We know in this instance that the UK’s total cask ale consumption hasn’t changed, so a fall in one area has to be matched by a rise in another.) The answer lies in the South-East – although oddly enough not in London itself – where a 7.5% year-on-year rise in cask consumption was sufficient to offset declining sales in four other regions. This lends some support to the speculation that downward pressures on beer consumption may be being cancelled out by a separate rising trend – a geographically separate trend, apparently.

I’ll say a bit about what that trend might be in part 2. (Clue: I’m agin it.)

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 1 October, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink | Reply

    A further point is that at times the report is comparing apples with oranges, and confusing on-trade beer volumes with total beer volumes. Cask has held steady (and even last year slightly improved) as a proportion of on-trade volumes, but the on-trade has lost a considerable amount market share to the off-trade. I was actually trying to interpret some of these stats in the pub on Monday night (maybe not a good idea) and reached the conclusion many of them were far too derivative for their own good. I would say overall it’s 75% advocacy, 25% analysis.

  2. Posted 5 October, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The devil is in the detail. How do I crunch these numbers to prove lovely cheap lout appreciation is booming?

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