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.


retiredmartin said...

Agree entirely.

Just had 3 pints in Rotherham, which isn't London, or even Sheffield
£3 a pint average, all cool and rich, NBSS 3.5+. Priced to sell, and shifting fast. Make it £4 and kill trade entirely.

Cookie said...

You can't premiumize a category. It's not a secret cabal of brewers all agreeing a price and strategy. That would be illegal. It's a competitive industry and there is always a value supplier trading on price.

The route to premiumize is creating strong brands that command a loyalty based on customers appreciating the quality deserves the price.

All products have a value, regular & premium tier. From ping dinners to cars. So do beers. Packaged and keg beers have strong brands. Fancy a lager? You can get a fosters or a peroni at 2 price points. You pay your money, and take your pick.

Cask beer has some strong brands. They also sit in Tesco as premium trade ales. You pay more for a London Pride than you do a Ruddles.

A 1000s of breweries micro brew market create a largey commodity product. Difficult to create strong brands in that market. CAMRA micro bitter will always be a cheap commodity. Some of it is alright, especially the 6% bitter that turns up in Spoons.

Tandleman said...

Wot I said!

Alan said...

Entirely agree - and note that it is a very similar conversation to US craft beers premium aspirations which has not served them well. So many of the innovations like adding fruit sauce, kettle souring or barrel aging were geared to hold up price beyond the cost of the specific input. In the end it did not make the product interesting enough long term to maintain the customer base. Result? People moved on to other beverages selling less for value.

Curmudgeon said...

What Cookie said. You can premiumise an individual brand, or an individual pub, but you can't premiumise an entire category made up of many disparate products and producers.

It's a bad idea that stubbornly refuses to die.

And imagining that simply increasing the price will improve quality and perception is magical thinking. It's putting the cart before the horse.

Kernow Calling said...

I agree

Regards St Austell. Just have a look at the employer reviews on the Indeed job site. They look far off the old traditional family brewer I presumed they were. They seem a long way from Kernow now.

Paul Bailey said...

The argument that cask is under-priced keeps rearing its ugly head, despite the continual debunking of the points put forward in favour of this idea.

You would have thought that as a brewer, Georgina Young would know better, but here she seems in danger of allowing her superior knowledge of the brewing process to cloud her judgment.

I doubt for one minute that your average consumer is going to be impressed with over-used terms such as craftsmanship, artisanal, authentic and unique, as these adjectives crop up all the time in the colour supplements, and even in the glossy, supermarket giveaways.

As RM points out, cask will not get the sales it deserves, and needs, if it is priced out of the market, so please can we knock this ludicrous idea on the head, once and for all.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

Of course it irks me that I pay more than a fiver for a pint of cask ale.
But it pisses me off even more when it's a lacklustre pint that has been badly kept which is more often the case than not these days.

Cooking Lager said...

You've also got the market outcome that some of the best cask beer quality is where the bitter is cheap, due to low price attracting high turnover.

The old CAMRA message that the reason for Keg being pricier was you paid for the advertising, not because it was better, had logic but never really cut through.

If only you lads could think of a way of convincing people that cheaper can also equal decent.

Rob Sterowski said...

Well, we have reached £6 pints in some places here in Scotland and the quality of the beer has not improved. In fact, it is better in the cheaper pubs, as a general rule.

Beermunster said...

The price difference across the country seems to be growing. Coyuple of weeks ago I was in Huddersfield, viisited 4 different pubs and never paid more than £3.60 for a pint. This weekend in London I had the misfortune to discover my first £7 cask pint. Bonkers.

Cooking Lager said...

Thing is, people think the price of a pint is a price for beer. It's a price for hospitality and beer is only one factor. The biggest single reason for regional retail price difference is real estate prices.
Providing a return on capital employed when your capital is either a 200k pub or a 2mill pub churns out different numbers.

Stafford Paul said...

I wonder if Georgina Young is related to the late John Young. Fifty years ago Londoners were realising that his beer was the best and the cheapest because they weren't paying for it being processed and marketed.
The nearest to that now is Bathams ( £2.60 Mild, £3.70 Best Bitter ) and Holdens ( slightly dearer ) pubs which are busy with nearly everyone drinking the cask beer.
I blame the 1989 Beer Orders.

enrvuk said...

We complain hat beer is too expensive.

We also complain that running a pub is uneconomical

It's hard to have it both ways.

BTW, you can pay. less than £5 a pint for fantastic small brewer cask beer, if you know where to go.