Thoughts on the Cask Report, part 2

Quick recap:

  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.

The fact that cask ale drinking rose in the South-East of England in 2009, while falling in the rest of the country, lends some support to the ‘separate rise’ theory.

And here’s a relevant thought from the Curmudgeon:

In the early 1970s, interest in real ale was almost an archaeological exercise. It was a declining product, produced by old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud breweries, sold in grotty backstreet boozers and drunk by middle-aged and elderly working men. … In the early days of CAMRA, many of its supporters felt that they were just marking the passing of an era, in the same way as steam locomotive buffs were. Possibly in the future there might be the occasional brewpub producing real ale on a cottage scale, a bit like a preserved steam railway, but no more than that.

However, it didn’t work out like that. … the nature of the relationship between producer and consumer has fundamentally changed, and is far more interactive. Brewers and pub operators are far more aware of what their customers want, and responsive to their requirements. It is a very big change from basically exploring a static or declining field of interest. It is almost as if the National Trust, aware of a wide and growing interest in stately homes, had suddenly decided to start building new ones.

I think there’s a lot in that, and it chimes with another aspect of the Cask Report which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. A representative quote:

cask ale drinkers tend to agree with statements that are more thoughtful, inquisitive and curious. They are active in their leisure time, interested in what goes on in the world, and like to stay informed about everything from international events to developments in technology. This attitude is also reflected in the fact that they read a lot of newspapers. They’re twice as likely to read quality dailies like the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent, but more likely to read any newspaper overall apart from the Star, Sun and in Scotland the Daily Record.

We are also substantially more likely than average to “go for premium rather than standard goods and services”; keg drinkers are slightly less likely than the average. Plus we like to try new drinks, we like a night at the pub (duh!) but don’t go out just to get drunk, we think it’s worth paying extra for good quality beer (hold that thought) and, by jingo, we’re prepared to pay more for good quality wine. In short:


No doubt this is connected with another finding:

Cask ale drinkers tend to be upmarket (68.5% are social grade ABC1). They are more comfortable about their financial situation, and tend to be at a life stage with fewer financial commitments. They tend to wear cravats and sit at the bar talking in loud braying voices, before driving home in their red MGs which were actually a bloody good investment when you really look at it.

(OK, only two of those sentences appear in the Cask Report. Full disclosure: I used to live in the South-East. Never regretted leaving.)

All this is partly smoke and mirrors: according to the 2001 Census (with some post-processing), 55% of the working-age population falls into either the AB group (professional and managerial) or C1 (supervisory and clerical). There’s a difference between a 55/45 split and 68.5/31.5, but not a huge one (Fisher’s exact test gives a p value of 0.08, stats geeks). All this statistic is really saying is that a random sample of cask ale drinkers is a bit more likely to include white-collar workers than a random sample of the population as a whole.

Nevertheless, the trend of the argument is clear: put on more cask ale and you’ll attract responsible drinkers who like good quality wine and read quality dailies. Nice people, in short – well, middle-class people, anyway. You know that old bloke who used to be in there every time you went in, sat in the corner with a fag on and an everlasting pint of Tetley’s and the Daily Mirror, and on Friday lunch his son would come in and they’d have lunch together? Not people like him.

The future of cask lies with a different type of customer altogether. Quoth the Report, “cask is enjoying a steady trend towards premiumisation, with people opting for slightly stronger, more expensive beers”. And why wouldn’t they, what with liking to try new drinks, being comfortable about their financial situation, being into premium goods and services and being willing to pay extra for good quality beer. Which brings us to page 11 of the Report, which deserves quoting at some length:
One of the absurdities of cask ale is that, as the most crafted, quality drink on the bar, it is often the cheapest. If we compare premium sausages to mass-produced mechanically recovered meat sausages, farmhouse cheese to processed cheese, real coffee to freeze-dried granules, we routinely expect the premium version to cost more. The fact that cask is cheaper is doubly absurd because cask drinkers actually expect and are prepared to pay more for cask beer – especially the younger drinkers the category is so keen to recruit.

OK, let’s break this down. First point: the statistics don’t say what the Report says they do. They specifically don’t say what drinkers are prepared to pay for cask beer, just what they’d expect to be charged. Moreover, the averaged-out figures for all the over-34 age-groups don’t show much difference from the £2.50 baseline, ranging from £2.62 down to £2.39; the fact that they aren’t any lower probably just reflects a general awareness that £2.50 is pretty cheap for a pint these days. The only striking result is in the under-35 age group – the younger drinkers the category is so keen to recruit, or in other words people who haven’t got much experience of drinking cask ale.

Second point: there’s a reason why cask ale is generally cheaper than the alternatives, and it’s historical. When keg bitter was introduced it was new, different and modern; it had an instant superficial appeal (why, every pint tastes the same! and they’re all fizzy!); and it did well. The breweries took the opportunity to jack up the price, even though the beer was actually cheaper to produce and distribute. When the big push on lager came in the 1970s, the same thing happened: your Hofmeister and your Heineken were new and exotic, so naturally they were priced even higher. Same story with nitrokeg Guinness. In short, there’s a reason why cask ale is generally cheaper than the alternatives, and the reason is that keg drinkers are being ripped off. Since the rip-off has been going on for literally four decades, it’s probably not going to end any time soon – but to see it used as a reason for ripping off cask drinkers as well is a remarkable bit of chutzpah.

Fundamental point: cask beer is not a “premium” product. Ground coffee is not a premium version of instant coffee, it’s the real thing: instant coffee is a cheap substitute for ground coffee. (I drink it all the time, but (with all due respect to Rula Lenska) you would never imagine you were drinking ground coffee.) Sausages made from recognisable cuts of meat aren’t a premium version of mass-produced mechanically recovered meat sausages, they’re the real thing; the nameless-pink-slurry variety are a cheap substitute. What Pete appears to be suggesting here is that lager and keg bitter are cheap, mechanically-produced substitutes for hand-crafted real beer. It’s a point of view that had a lot of currency in CAMRA in the early days, but I understood the debate had moved on a bit.

What’s going on here is, essentially, rhetorical softening-up for introducing the idea of ‘premium’ beer; on the back of bracketing real ale with foods that aren’t cheap and nasty, we’re being asked to bracket it with semi-luxury goods like farmhouse cheese. Like some other bloggers, I like a nice bit of cheese, and I’ll buy the odd bit of Stilton or chèvre without counting the cost too carefully. But when I go to the pub on a Saturday, I do not want to order the beer equivalent of an artisanal Brie. There’s good beer and then there’s New Special Different Original Rare Short-Run Hand-Finished Beer – or novelty beer for short – and never the twain shall meet. I will buy novelty beer from time to time – I’ve got all four of the recent Marble bottlings, each waiting for its own special occasion – but it really isn’t what I want to find on the bar on the average Saturday.

In the previous post I commented on the Report’s use of statistics, as well as the detail of the conclusions it draws from them, and concluded that it’s at least as much a piece of advocacy as an analytical report. I also asked: “if it is trying to influence people, what goal does it have in mind – and is that a goal I share?” My ideal world, as far as beer is concerned, is one in which the decline of cask is reversed: a world where I could go into any pub in town – including the ones where people read the Daily Mirror; including the ones where people drink Vod-Bull, come to that – and find at least one hand-pump on the bar dispensing a beer that’s in good condition, because people have been drinking it. I’m lucky; good, interesting, relatively inexpensive cask beer is part of my everyday life (well, 2-3 times a week rather than everyday as such, but the point stands). My ideal world is one where many, many more people have that experience.

I’m really not sure that that’s the ideal world the Cask Report is envisaging. Rather, I can see a vista of high-priced ‘premium’ and novelty beers opening up, with a new class of beer-drinkers to go with them: ABC1, Guardian and Telegraph-readers, responsible drinkers, comfortable with their financial situation, willing to pay for quality, and so on and so forth. And, perhaps, living mainly in the South-East. The really worrying thought is that the Cask Report may genuinely be reporting the future of cask: perhaps the shift towards “premiumisation”, the prominence of broadsheet readers and the anomalous rise in cask volumes in the South-East are all part of the same trend. Perhaps what’s continuing to decline in most of the country is the world of the pub and club as we’ve known it, and what’s on the rise in the South-East is a new kind of cask drinker: people who are already used to the £3 pint, and can pay more than that without really noticing; people who, as Gazza suggested, come to single-varietal beers knowing all about “the characteristics of individual grapes used in wine production”; people who genuinely see cask beer as a ‘premium’ product, in short, and don’t mind paying a premium for it.

These are not my kind of beer drinker – and I’m not convinced their beer is going to be my kind of beer.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted 1 October, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I’m glad to see someone has picked up on that piece of mine, which I thought was pretty profound, but seemed to fall on stony ground.

  2. Posted 3 October, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink | Reply

    Well I picked up on the cask ale should be more expensive argument and I’ve banged on about it before.

    I don’t see good beer with a future that is purely elite either. I didn’t have time to expand on it as I was going away. Here’s what I said

    “One note of slight displeasure is the assertion that cask ale isn’t expensive enough; that publicans are missing out on margin; that most drinkers feel they should pay more for cask than Carling. This is a complex argument which couldn’t be readily covered in the report I suppose, but I’d suggest that once you add in other factors which affect the price and quality of the pint, the results may be a little different. It’s all in the question you ask.”

    Mind you I’m not at all sure that willingness to pay is causing the rather high rise in cask ale consumption in the South East.

  3. Phil
    Posted 3 October, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t understand the part about “add[ing] in other factors which affect the price and quality of the pint”.

    Not being in the South-East I don’t know what’s going on down there, but I guess I don’t really believe that the rise in cask sales is being driven (like BMW convertibles) exclusively by neckless men in blazers and cravats. It was just a thought.

  4. Posted 4 October, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

    They are many. For example, location, ownership etc. If you pay £3 for a great pint in a well located expensively rented pub, you may feel OK about it. If you pay £3 in a flea pit in the back streets of Grotley and it is shite, you may feel differently.

    • Phil
      Posted 4 October, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I see what you mean. But there’s also a big difference between reporting on “how much we are prepared to pay” and what the Report does, which is effectively to tell the trade “how much the punters already expect to be charged”.

  5. Posted 5 October, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Brilliant Stuff. One for the Guild.

    • Posted 5 October, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I agree, although I’ve already put a fiver on Tandleman winning so I’ve got to be careful.

    • Posted 6 October, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks, gents. But look at the dates! If I combined parts 1 and 2, could it squeeze under the wire as “written in the twelve months to 30 September 2010”?

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