Bars help cask ale into growth

Cask ale volumes are back in growth in the UK, partly driven by increased penetration into the bar sector, according to the latest Cask Report.

Volumes increased in 2011 for the first time in 20 years, rising by 1.6 per cent to 2.2million barrels of cask, equal to about 633million pints.

The Cask Report’s author, Pete Brown, said the growth was partly due to an increase in penetration of cask beer into bars – a segment dubbed “café bars and town centre circuit venues” – demonstrating its growing appeal to younger drinkers.

While cask drinkers remain predominantly male and upmarket, interest from younger and female drinkers is holding steady after significant recruitment from these groups. The Cask Report found that 58 per cent of cask ale drinkers said they first tried it when aged 18 to 24, proving its appeal to emerging drinkers.

Over the same period, cask also overtook keg as the most popular format for draught ale and increased its penetration of the pub and bar market to 56 per cent.

Pete said: “The Cask Report has been analysing the sector for six years now and while cask has been outperforming the beer market for most of them, this is the first full year of actual growth. Sales growth during a recession is an impressive achievement, doubly so against a background of declining overall beer volumes and a shrinking number of pubs.

“This excellent performance speaks volumes for the increasing popularity of cask among consumers, as well as a growing realisation among licensees that cask, as an ‘only in pubs’ drink, can help them drive footfall and sales. Pubs that sell cask are less likely to close than non-cask stockists – as witness cask’s increasing share of the declining pub market.”

This year’s Cask Report was published at the start of Cask Ale Week, running from September 28 to October 7. This is focusing on “Try Before You Buy”, which was highlighted in the report as the single most effective way of introducing new drinkers to cask.

For all pubs and bars, the key to a successful cask business lies in stocking the “optimum” number and styles of ales and promoting them effectively to encourage existing customers to drink more cask, and bring new drinkers into the category.

Brown said: “There is no magic ‘formula’ to tell licensees how many handpulls to put on the bar, or what they should be: it’s dictated by their pub’s location, style and customer base, which are all very individual.

“However, research tells us that, for most pubs that are serious about their cask ale, the choice isn’t about whether to stock ‘familiar’ or ‘unfamiliar’ ales. Both have their place: even beer ‘shrines’ with a wide range would do well to have some nationally recognised brands on the bar and equally, any pub with more than two or three handpumps should be looking to introduce some less familiar brews, to appeal to more adventurous cask drinkers.”

The average number of handpumps on the bar, among pubs that sell cask ale at all, is 3.1, rising to 4 for “cask champions” – a research group of licensees for whom cask ale forms the core element of their business. Cask champion pubs rotate at least one of their ales weekly, and are keen stockists of microbrewer beers, but they also recognise the need to offer well-known names.

In mainstream managed pubs, drinkers are looking for some permanency in the cask offer, and too many unfamiliar names on the bar, rotated too often, can lead to a drop in cask sales, The Cask Report advises.

It also found that 50 per cent of cask drinkers choose it as it offers “more variety and flavour than other mainstream drinks”, while its heritage, natural ingredients and local provenance are also cited as strong influences.

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