Friday 9 February 2024

Let's Pay More for Cask?

Now we all know that the way to save cask beer from its inevitable demise is to charge more for it, don't we?  Well no. Of course not. Well, not in the general sense anyway, though of course there are exceptions.

A couple of weeks ago I read with a sense of disbelief that yet again this daft idea gets prominence in trade news, this time as it often is, in the good old Morning Advertiser. Georgina Young, Head Brewer at St Austell, in an opinion piece, tells us that a "dedication to quality would mean less chance of a poor pint". Well, that is surely obvious, but we all know that's not how it is, don't we?

Georgina doesn't expand her arguments much in the article - though that may well be due to editing - but let's rehash some of them. These are based on various open sources about premiumisation, adapted to the cask conditioned beer situation:

* premiumisation could be a strategy to enhance the perceived value of this traditional form of beer, potentially leading to increased sales 

*cask conditioned beer is typically associated with craftsmanship and authenticity. Highlighting the artisanal nature of the brewing process, the use of traditional recipes, and the dedication of skilled brewers can create a narrative that appeals to consumers seeking authentic and unique experiences
* using premium and locally sourced ingredients or speciality malts and unique hops, can set cask conditioned beer apart from mass-produced alternatives
* educating consumers about the distinctive characteristics of cask conditioned beer, such as the live yeast, natural carbonation, and serving methods, can enhance their appreciation and educating consumers about the unique aspects of cask beer can create a premium perception

The theoretical outcome, in this scenario, is that by employing these strategies, breweries can enhance the premium image of cask conditioned beer, attracting consumers who are willing to pay more for a unique and high-quality drinking experience.

On the other hand, there are decent arguments against: 

* if the cost of cask conditioned beer becomes significantly higher, it may alienate a portion of the consumer base that is price-sensitive. This could limit the accessibility of cask conditioned beer to a broader audience

* some enthusiasts and traditionalists will argue that the essence of cask conditioned beer lies in its historical roots and accessibility. The perception of exclusivity and high prices may be seen as contrary to the traditional values of cask ale, potentially leading to resistance from those who appreciate its historical and communal aspects

* the existing consumer base for cask conditioned beer often values its affordability and accessibility. If premiumisation strategies are not carefully managed, there is a risk of alienating loyal customers who appreciate cask ale as a traditional, everyday drink

* premiumisation relies on creating a perception of higher quality, but there is a risk that the perceived value may not align with the actual improvement in quality. If consumers do not perceive a significant enhancement in taste or brewing craftsmanship, they may feel that the premium pricing is unjustified

Now, you won't have to be that astute to guess that my sympathies, by and large, lie with the second set of bullets. It is perhaps the last of those, though, that really hits the nail on the head.  You have to get the quality right, and really there is a fat chance of that given that there is a wide and diverse range of outlets for cask beer, from the specialist supplier to the lone dusty handpump sporting a Doom Bar pumpclip. You have token cask beers, indifferent cellar keeping, differences between brewery outlets and those of pub companies and more. In the diverse pub market we have, you can't simply wish premiumisation upon it, bump up the price, and hope people will cough up.

Already in some specialist outlets that premium does apply, and it applies for the simple reason of trust. People will pay more for the certainty, especially if quality is poor elsewhere.  The other point that should not be forgotten, is that cask beer is a live product. Usually in premium situations, you price an object higher, but sell less at a greater margin. But pesky old cask doesn't lend itself to this arrangement. It goes off if you keep it hanging around.

So, is premiumisation dead in the water? Will cask continue to be the cheapest beer on the bar? It kind of depends doesn't it. In theory, quality always sells, but implying that premium pricing can apply to the whole market is misleading. Nobody really wants to spend top dollar on a gamble. Georgina agrees with this, but draws a different conclusion as to the solution. Baffling really as you have to achieve the quality. If you have the market, skills, quality and turnover, by all means bump the price up. In fact, why aren't you? Probably because you realise the beer has to shift. It is a kind of circular argument.

As I see it, logically, with minor variations, the old rule still applies. Cask beer has to be priced to go. That rules out premiumisation in very many cases.

Of course, prices of cask beer vary. Competition, and quality, make for cheaper beer in the parts of the North still  dominated by cask. The market still decides.

London has bumped up all beer to an eye watering extent, such that even Wetherpoons are now offering £7 pints, albeit, not cask. Well over a fiver is very common and over six not rare.  Not sure that's premiumisation though.