Wednesday 28 September 2022

Swimming against the tide?

Cask ale, or “real ale” as the Campaign for Real Ale likes to call it, has been in the news recently, but for all the wrong reasons. Even before the pandemic sales of the type of beer which CAMRA describes as “the pinnacle of the brewer’s art,” were in steady decline. Now, cask sales seem in a terminal tailspin, after the effects of various Covid-lockdowns, the largest, and most serious conflict in Europe, since World War II, plus a tanking economy.

The latter of course, is thanks to a Tory administrations that surely ranks amongst the most inept in living memory, after all, what sane government would offer tax cuts for the super-rich, that are funded by a massive increase in borrowing? All this comes on top of a damaging, ultra-hard Brexit, that has led to a massive fall-off in trade with our nearest neighbours, who make up the world’s largest trading block. With interest rates set to rise, in a forlorn attempt to reel in the rapidly soaring rate of inflation, consumers and businesses alike are really feeling the pinch, and I haven’t even mentioned the price of energy, which has reached astronomical levels. 

The end result, less disposable income, even for those who, not that long ago, could describe themselves as “comfortably well-off.” With less money to spend, eating out and even the odd pint or two down the local, are pleasures which are becoming less affordable for many, and just distant memories for others. Viewed against this backdrop and coupled with the poor keeping properties of cask ale, it’s small wonder that many pubs are either cutting back on the range of cask beers stocked or, even dropping “real ale” altogether.

The fall-off in cask sales has another underlying issue, which is partly due to the image of the beer itself, but more importantly, that of those who drink it. You see, despite decades of campaigning and various promotions from CAMRA, all with the lofty aim of trying to persuade drinkers of cask’s undoubted merits, the fact remains that its core audience consists largely of men (93%), age over 50 (71%). This market has been described as “male, pale and stale,” rather unfairly, in my view, but probably accurate if the statistics are believed.

So, for all those amongst us who appreciate and enjoy cask, what’s to be done about this image problem? Enter, stage left, a new marketing campaign, launched last week, with the express aim of modernising cask ale’s image, and making the drink more attractive to younger drinkers. “Drink Fresh Beer” is headed by Katie Wiles from CAMRA and Neil Walker from the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA). Their campaign plans to raise cask’s profile by making it the modern and more relevant choice at the bar and intends to achieve this by highlighting the things that make cask special.

These attributes include being fresh, artisan, handmade by skilled brewers and offering a diverse range of flavours and styles, and to back up their message, Drink Fresh Beer has produced a series of “eye-catching” visuals to help cask compete on the bar. New cylindrical hand pulls, tulip glassware, table talkers, posters, beer mats and staff t-shirts, will push the message at the bar, whilst social and cross-media promotions will aim to capture the attention of consumers before they step through the pub door. A scannable pump clip will help beer drinkers learn more about their chosen beer, how far it has travelled to the pub and when the cask was freshly tapped.  

Speaking last week, at the campaign launch, Katie Wiles said: “The qualities that make cask beer special, are qualities that young consumers really care about when they are making purchasing decisions. The challenge has been how to convey these qualities without stepping on the toes of “craft beer” or using alienating jargon - such as fermentation, conditioning, or yeast.”

She went on to say that “The vibrant visuals and tone of this campaign help get this across, and that by actually re-designing the look and feel of cask beer in the pub - from the hand pulls to the glassware - we have a really good shot at changing consumer behaviour.”

Neil Walker added: “This campaign isn’t just about dressing up a few hand pulls – we’re looking to connect the dots across the industry, and completely change the public’s perception about cask beer. This isn’t just an “old man’s drink” hidden in a dark corner of the bar - cask is the pinnacle of brewing, the freshest, most handcrafted product on the bar.”

“We want to tell this story not just in pubs, but also by creating an enhanced digital experience that allows drinkers in a variety of venues to learn more about their drink by watching interviews with brewers, discovering where the beer was brewed, or when the beer was freshly tapped.”

To ensure the quality of beer across the venues involved, pubs participating in the campaign will be asked to sign up to the “Fresh Beer Promise.” Alongside displaying campaign materials at the POS in their pub, they will commit to stocking at least two hand pulls with a rotating third cask on tap and ensure a high standard of freshness by promptly replacing barrels and take part in initiatives to improve quality. The activity would be supported outside of the pub with a dedicated PR, social media, and advertorial campaign to keep cask beer at the forefront of the consumer’s mind inside of the pub and out. It all sounds good on paper, but how will these laudable aims actually be implemented, monitored maintained and, is necessary, enforced? 

More to the point, I can’t help thinking it will take a lot more than a few fancy glasses, hand-pull handles, paper trinkets, electronic gimmickry, plus an unashamed, and almost cringeworthy attempt to “get on down with the kids,” to turn around decades of decline in cask ale’s fortunes. I don’t want to knock the effort that has gone into the Drink Fresh campaign, but it’s almost as though the people behind it have tried too hard. The whole thing smacks of focus groups, consumer surveys, coupled with the rather naive belief that “in one’s face” promotions can change not just drinkers’ perceptions, but the way they think and behave.

Fresh is obviously best, but a freshly tapped cask of a bland and mediocre beer, isn’t going to win many converts, especially when up against a fresh keg of well-crafted craft – if you’ll excuse the pun. The unfortunate truth is that many of the accolades attributed to cask apply equally to craft, a style of beer that is actually modern, and one much more likely to appeal to and attract younger drinkers.

Despite these observations, I wish this latest attempt to revive cask’s fortunes, well and will be keeping a close eye on the roll-out of the “Fresh Beer Promise” along with the type of pubs that will be signing up to it. However, set against the deep economic gloom the nation finds itself facing, is this really the right time for a campaign such as this?








Dave said...

Trickle down Paul. Been a great success over here. Look at the last 40 years...How long can they keep believing it?

paul said...

As I'm not a brewer by any stretch of the imagination, I am unable to comment on whether cask ale really is “the pinnacle of the brewer’s art”. To my mind, the method of dispense is less important than the technicalities of the brewing process (is a 12% Baltic Porter served on keg easier or harder to brew than Doom Bar?).

Anyway, that's me side-tracked. I came here to say that CAMRA would do better to describe cask as "the pinnacle of the cellar-keeper’s art”, as it seems to me that it's in the pub where things mostly go wrong. CAMRA should be looking to promote the skill and care involved in delivering top-quality "real ale" (not a fan of the phrase either) to the drinker at the bar.

Once the beer's left the brewery, the brewer is wholly unable to guarantee that their art can best be appreciated by the customer.

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Dave, didn't they call the US version of "Trickle Down", Reaganomics?

I'm not sure if there are any polite words to describe the new occupants of No. 10 and No. 11 Downing Street, but when there's evidence of leaking their budgetary plans to friends in the City, in order to allow them to make money by betting against their own currency, the word criminal springs to mind.

I believe in the US, this unhinged pair would be described as "felons!"

Paul Bailey said...

paul, I wholeheartedly agree that the skill and care, lavished on cask ale during its time in the pub cellar are of the utmost importance to the quality of the final product.

CAMRA, to its credit, did publish a couple of books on cellarmanship, which must have helped in the early days. Things have moved on since then, and we now have improvements, such as temperature-controlled cellars, narrow-bore beer lines (less wastage, and easier to clean), gas-assisted pumps, and even the dreaded "cask breather," long proscribed by CAMRA, has now been accepted.

These developments should all be making it easier, to look after cask beer, but they are up against pubs stocking too many beers, the temptation to start serving a beer before it has had time to condition properly, returning stale beer, from drip trays, back to the cask (I'm sure it still goes on), and greedy, or cask-strapped licensees (you decide which is more accurate), keeping a beer on sale when it's way past its best.

Fresh beer is a great concept, but as I said in the post, how will pubs be persuaded to sign up to it, and how will their performance be monitored and assessed?

john lamb said...

This campaign is yet another example of an attempt not to focus on its core market and indeed,insult its core consumers by calling them 'pale male and stale'. It would be better if steps were taken to support the core market,for example by supplying cask beer in smaller containers which would allow variety to be maintained,rather than attempting to grow market share by attempting to attract younger drinkers. People grow older and their tastes change and a properly targeted cask beer marketing campaign would yield dividends for years in the future.

Paul Bailey said...

Agreed john, it makes little sense to turn your back on your core market, and even less sense to insult your core customers. Surprised that CAMRA has been taken in by this, and gone along with it - oh perhaps, not!

retiredmartin said...

Excellent points Paul