Sales of real ale in freefall

The situation locally is improving but major concerns remain

In the final (so far) printed edition of the Oxford Drinker, published just before the pandemic hit, we reflected on a survey of all pubs in the city centre to see how many real ales were available and the average price. Reading this nearly two years on from when the survey was done one Saturday lunchtime in November 2019, it’s easy to become nostalgic. In the 29 pubs visited we found 89 real ales from 46 breweries, the average price of a pint – leaving aside the two Wetherspoon pubs where beers cost from £1.69 – being £4.19. We were shocked to find one pub selling real ale for £4.90, when that would be unremarkable today. But the biggest change in two years is the much reduced choice, which will be confirmed when we do another survey. Back in November 2019, we had never had it so good.

No-one saw the pandemic coming, of course, and the forced closure of all pubs in March 2020, just four months after the survey, would have been unthinkable. You could of course argue that we are lucky to have nearly all pubs open again after all the closures and restrictions they endured, and also lucky that few brewers have gone under, and none at all around here. The availability of real ale is now improving following the return of students to their universities, but at many pubs, such as those run by M&B, the range is predictable. The Royal Blenheim has confirmed its position as Oxford’s Real Ale Central, putting on a full range back in the summer and with keen prices as well.

Let the good times roll….. the Royal Blenheim soon returned to a full range of well priced real ales

But the reality is that real ale sales had been in decline long before the pandemic, with Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz, in a recent post on What’s Brewing, quoting British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) figures indicating a 17% drop in real ale sales between 2014 and 2019. What has really got Roger and other commentators concerned, including me, is that the BBPA now says that real ale sales dropped by 40% from April to July 2021, after re-opening was allowed, compared to the same months in 2019. Part of that period was for outdoor only sales, of course, but it is still a shocking figure and equates to 76 million fewer pints sold compared to the April-July figure back in normal times – a loss to the pub and brewing industry of £243 million.

“Many pubcos have little interest in cask and don’t teach publicans or staff the skills of looking after a perishable product with a short shelf life,” writes Roger on What’s Brewing. “The result, all too often, is cask ale served before it’s properly dropped bright in the pub cellar, or after its sell-by date. Brewers and pub owners must make small casks available. There’s no point delivering nine or 18 gallon casks to pubs where turnover is low and beer goes out of condition – smaller 4.5 gallon pins are essential. One poor pint of expensive real ale can mean a customer lost forever.

“The government must be urged to permanently cut VAT on beer sold in pubs. It’s nothing short of an outrage that supermarkets don’t pay VAT on food and drink but pubs have to fork out top dollar for beer, forcing drinkers on low incomes to buy cheap brews for home consumption. And we must step up the campaign to give draught beer lower rates of excise duty. As CAMRA’s 50th anniversary year draws to a close, the ale we nurture and cherish faces its biggest crisis since the 1970s.”

Hook Norton boss James Clarke with a pint of real ale — but it also produces craft keg and lager

Ahead of the Budget on October 27 CAMRA is mobilising pub goers up and down the country to get behind the campaign for fairer tax on beer in pubs by using their template email to contact their local MP. The “email your MP” tool is available at:  

Emma McClarkin, Chief Executive of the BBPA, said: “The plight of cask beer is a huge concern for our sector. Pubs are the home of cask beer so if sales of it are declining then it means the viability of our pubs is reducing too. We all missed a proper pint of cask ale in the pub during lockdowns. We cannot take cask beer for granted anymore.  It is vital we promote our pubs and the range they have on cask, which they so expertly keep and serve.”

What neither Roger nor the BBPA mention in their recent posts is that the decline of real ale has coincided with the rise of craft keg, which many real ale drinkers are also happy to drink and bears no resemblance to the mass produced keg beers of yesteryear or indeed the present day. If you buy a beer made by Tap Social or BrewDog, for example, you are virtually guaranteed a quality product even though you might find it too cold and gassy. It’s interesting to see that Tap Social is now brewing real ale for its own pubs in Oxford and Banbury, while other keg- or bottle-led breweries such as Church Hanbrewery also brew real ale for their own outlets. On the other hand, look at the two newer pubs in Witney, where the emphasis is more on keg at Drummer’s Bar (formerly Oxbrew) and the recently opened Part & Parcel.

The wind does appear to be blowing only one way, as you can tell by how nearly all local breweries include craft keg and possibly lager within their range, while deliveries of bottled or canned beer kept them ticking over nicely during the periods of pub closures. You could argue that a cut in real ale production would suit many breweries, but I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theory that this is what they have wanted all along. There’s no doubt that a cut in duty on real ale would be a massive win for pubs, but what else can we do except champion real ale and the wider role of pubs in society whenever we can? We need to stop any further decline in real ale consumption, but to be realistic craft keg is here to stay. If it’s a quality product, does it matter so much how it is dispensed?

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CAMRA launched a “Cask is Back” campaign earlier this year but sales slumped