Friday 21 October 2022

How Much for a Pint of Cask?

We are, it seems, back with the same stuck old record that some trade observers think is still a whizz idea, even though, all things considered, it most likely isn't. Yes, Folks, to solve the problem - more of which in a moment - of how to sell more cask beer - aka real ale.  You know, that stuff - dispensed from a handpump - that is often served badly, being variously too warm, too flat, too vinegary-  and just plain not as the brewer intended. That stuff that experienced advocates of the style rarely purchase in an area or pub they don't know well, for fear of disappointing quality. That's the one. And their solution to declining volumes and poorly presented pints? Charge more for the real ale lottery, but keep the likelihood of winning a prize just the same.

We are told by advocates of this theory, the hoary old myth, that it is so difficult to keep cask beer that it needs the skill of the landlord to be recognised by charging more for it. We are also asked to think that there is little point in selling the stuff when you can make more from other products on the bar - a somewhat unsophisticated argument given the variables involved.  Selling in scale - although specialisms exist - is generally a diverse business, and those selling "things" generally take the view that you can't make the same profit margin on everything you sell, but need to have as broad an offer as possible to attract the widest customer base you can.

In cask beer, the elephant in the room, which is actually as big as the room itself, is that if you cannot guarantee the quality of the product, then you cannot charge more for it.  If you can and your customers will stand for it in these straightened times - then maybe you can up the price a bit, but be aware that even the best have to be careful not to overprice such a short-lived product. Every pint lost, will eat into your profit, so it has to be a careful balancing act.

Beer is such a broad church, and cask beer is one of the most diverse parts of it.  All beer relies on turnover, but cask much more so, as it is fresh and very perishable.  At its best you will get 3 days out of it, so those in the know don't overprice cask beer, as the chances are you won't be able to sell it in good condition.  Cask beer has to be priced to go. Even if you have a more affluent clientèle, paying more than average, you can't overprice it for the reasons stated. That results in poor quality and declining demand as trust goes.

It is odd, too, that while cask volumes may be down, there is still plenty of cask beer in top form available. Specialist pubs, the tied houses of Family Brewers and many more, all supply reliable quality cask beer, often at remarkably competitive prices. In areas that have such competition, you will often find the non-mainstream sellers of cask, have better quality too. They have to compete. There isn't one size fits all where cask is concerned.

This does not even take into account some of the other variables, such as the current cost of living crisis.  Can we really believe those who would tell you that cask ale drinkers will pay more for cask beer as an occasional treat, in the full knowledge if the beer is only occasionally drunk, then it will likely not be a treat at all?  

A final point. Cask ale still costs, on average, less to produce than keg, which relies much more than cask on expensive CO2 in both production and dispense.  The margins aren't likely to be decisive if you turn beer over quickly. Not exactly "Pile it high and sell it cheap", but certainly it needs to shift much more quickly than other draught stock.

Of course, everyone from brewer to publican deserves a decent return on investment, but forget this at your peril. Cask, as a fresh and perishable product, must be priced to go.

I commend to you also recent posts by Pub Curmudgeon on this subject.  He has gone into the figures much more deeply than this dashed off piece allows.

And let's stop this idea that cask is hard to keep. It isn't, as I (and Greene King) point out here, but it does need a little (easy to learn) knowledge.  There isn't in most cases any reasonable reason to sell poor cask beer, but a bit of pride in what you sell wouldn't harm either.