Cask ale was already suffering at the hands of its cooler-sounding, easier-to-handle counterparts before Covid came along to give it a good old kicking.
But there will never be any replacement for the gold standard of beer, writes Beer Drive-Thru Director Dave Turner – as he says it’s now up to all of us to pull together to ensure it’s not the end of the line for the world’s best drink.
A brief history of Cask Ale:
During the 1970s, traditional beer varieties began shrinking as big breweries bought out small to medium brewers and pushed keg bitter and mass produced lager into pubs.
At the time, cask ale quality was questionable – and drinkers knew an alternative of crisp clear pint of fizzy lager was essentially guaranteed thanks to the post brewing processing that it went through to kill the beer in exchange for shelf life.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was formed in 1971 and had a stab at rescuing the traditional industry.
It championed the cause of real ale as the ‘gold standard’ of beer, educating the consumer and forcing the industry to step up and produce better beers.
CAMRA’s quest has, in the main, proved successful, sparking a resurgence in the cask ale making industry which means these ‘gold standard’ beers are still being produced today.
But even having effectively achieved its goal of promoting cask ale as the only ‘real ale’, even some CAMRA purists agreed some focus may need to be paid to the booming craft beer market which was turning heads and tastebuds with a stylish image, modern marketing, and weird, wacky flavours that varied radically from the traditional cask ales on offer.
Even for an organisation not known for embracing change, CAMRA shifted a little of its attention to these other beers, such as the craft beer supplied in kegs or cans – some of which, being the sort of drinks CAMRA had sworn to oust. After all, cans and kegs have traditionally been the vessels of choice for Red Stripe, Carling, and other indistinguishable, low-strength lagers.
The meteoric rise in craft beer available in kegs and cans resulted in a 15.4% decline in cask volumes from 2015 to 2020 – a drop that has absolutely been exacerbated with the mass closure of pubs due to Covid-19.
Why is cask ale the best?
Cask ale is the one, single alcoholic drink that cannot be perfectly replicated at home without specialist equipment.
Freshly casked beer is in its optimum state, immediately at the end of the conditioning cycle of the expert brewing process – which itself can take from a week up to a few months depending on the beer.
Beer tastes at its best at this point and can only hold this perfect flavour for a few days after being ‘tapped’.
When you’re at a shop picking up beer, unless it’s specifically ‘bottle conditioned’, remember it’s gone through at least one process to give it that extra shelf life. That beer sitting in a bottle or a can on the shelf didn’t start its life tasting that way and is certainly not fresh anymore.
So how do we ensure cask ale survives?
To coin a famous phrase, “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just realign it.”
As champions of cask beer we need to look at what we can all do to ensure this tradition is one that survives against an increasingly-populated landscape of canned and kegged drinks that are cheaper to produce and last longer on the shelf.
At a time when we are rediscovering and reinventing traditional pursuits, such as home baking and camping, we’ve become more thoughtful about our purchases and, in our food and drink choices, we’re looking for tradition, provenance and wholesomeness – all values that cask ale can provide in spades.
It is up to us as brewers to go the extra mile to maintain the traditions that make cask ale the best – whilst working to enhance offerings with exciting and fresh new beer flavours that tickle the tastebuds of old and young beer drinkers alike. It is up to pubs to step up – when the shutters can open, of course – to ensure traditional cask beer is only served at its optimum. And it is up to you as drinkers to champion the cause and put cask beers to the test.
Breweries need to offer the exciting variety of flavour combinations that beer lovers crave. Historically, cask ale has been an earthy, brown bitter, and while it’s true that there is more variety on offer now than ever, we can – and must – go further.
Craft kegged beers offer even more in terms of punchy flavours thanks to new world hops and other fruity and funky additions – and cask ale needs to catch up.
Just as fashion reinvents itself over the years to appeal to new generations of fans, the dated marketing and image of cask beers – and its association with old men in flat caps in smoke-laden pubs from the 60s – needs a major overhaul.
With an ageing demographic, cask needs to pull in younger drinkers. The fact that many respondents to a recent Cask Marque survey cited ‘fear of the unknown’ and an ‘off-putting image’ as reasons why they wouldn’t order it proves why.
There’s no reason why traditional cask ale shouldn’t be the drink of choice for the discerning younger drinker if only they were educated on the merits and benefits of real fresh beer. So many people don’t understand the difference between cask and keg – and generally they won’t take the time to learn as long as they’re getting a tasty pint!
OK, so there’s little part the pubs can play at the moment in the much-needed saviour of cask ale while their doors are shut. But once those shutters come up, their role is more important than ever.
Whilst there are plenty of ‘cask’ pubs that take pride in looking after their beer to ensure it’s in top condition for the consumer, more care is needed in many of them.
If not, a vicious cycle ensues – poorly kept beer means no-one buys it, meaning it doesn’t sell, is kept on the bar too long and then its quality deteriorates.
A Cask Marque report in 2018 found that despite publicans questioned claiming never to keep a cask beer on sale for more than two or three days, ‘the standard-sized cask is typically on sale for seven days or more’.
Since the report found that customers served a bad pint are more likely to leave and not return (40%) than they are to complain (34%), it suggests that bad practice is at least part of the cause of dwindling sales.
Much greater care in the handling of the beer, an investment in turning round the quality on offer and active marketing by the bar team will all help. A knowledgeable bar team can do wonders to the encouragement of a consumer to sample the traditional tipples on offer.
You – the drinker:
And then we come to you – the most important factor in the survival of cask beer for the future.
Thanks to its somewhat chequered history, it’s all too easy for a beer drinker to assume they won’t like the taste of cask beer, or believe it’s an ‘old man’s drink’. On average, approximately 26% of beer drinkers have never even tried it.
As champions of cask beer we’d urge our fellow beer drinkers to give it a go. Science-backed evidence shows just how much more flavoursome cask beer is thanks to its temperature, coupled with its easy drinking, natural carbonation and its ‘pure’ make up (generally just the four basic ingredients aside from any other flavour additions).
Its beauty is often in its simplicity of construct – which is why it will always be the best.
Despite the changes that have shaped the past decade of cask ale – and threatened its future more than once – its tight interconnection with people and communities is still unmatched in today’s remarkably wide, premium drinks offering.
With pubs remaining shut for the foreseeable, here at the Beer Drive Thru we’ve turned our attentions to providing freshly tapped, high quality cask conditioned beer to all you discerning beer drinkers who recognise the far elevated qualities of such a drink.
We can’t let Covid be the last nail in the coffin of cask ale. By pulling together, we can ensure it weathers this latest storm.