Cask ale in deep decline: Reasons to be fearful?

SIBA report says pandemic has accelerated slump in demand

It’s time to take notice of some very worrying trends in brewing, as independent brewers have cut the proportion of cask or real ale to only 46% of their total production, compared to 67% in 2019 before the onset of the pandemic. One way of interpreting this is that cask ale is under serious threat again as when CAMRA was set up over 50 years ago, although for very different reasons.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however, and if you go in a pub such as the Royal Blenheim or Masons Arms in Oxford then it would seem that cask ale is really thriving. But the pandemic has hit cask ale very hard for the reasons described below and in Russ Taylor’s thought provoking article published here. It would seem that 2019 was the high water mark for cask ale, with a spiral of decline ever since.

XT vans serve pubs and make home deliveries too

But unlike in the 1970s, when CAMRA set out to change things with considerable success, there are now high quality alternatives – they just happen to come on keg, in cans, or in bottles. While pubs can adapt easily to sell more quality keg beers, they are still too cold and gassy for many people’s taste. Pubs can also sell more quality beer in bottles or cans, but they are impacted by the rising trend for home delivery – a trend that accelerated rapidly during the pandemic.

Many local breweries started home deliveries during the pandemic, while others have opened or expanded their own tap-rooms to sell more direct to the public. Most local breweries now produce quality keg beers and lagers alongside their cask products, while Tap Social sells only in keg and can although guest cask ales are available in its Oxford pub, the White House. BrewDog has set up camp in a former pub on the Cowley Road selling no cask ale, and the cask ale range has diminished in many pubs. One micro-pub in the 2022 Good Beer Guide, the Siege of Orleans in Carterton, has got rid of cask ale altogether. As per CAMRA rules, it won’t be appearing in the 2023 edition.

The SIBA Craft Beer Report 2022, produced by the Society of Independent Brewers, can be viewed free online. SIBA says there has been “a seismic shift in the UK Brewing industry over the last two years, with traditional cask beer under serious threat as consumers order more online and drink more at home”. Based on surveys of its members and consumer polling, it claims to be the most authoritative report on the state of UK craft beer in 2022, however that is served.The report found that whilst overall beer sales in 2021 were down 14.2% on 2019 pre-pandemic figures, the picture was much worse for small independent breweries, who saw production levels drop by an average of 40% in 2020 and 16% in 2021 when compared to 2019.

Keg lines dominate at Dodo’s new Part & Parcel pub in Witney

“Cask beer was sadly a casualty of the pandemic, as when pubs close small independent breweries lose the only place they can sell traditional cask beer,” says James Calder, SIBA Chief Executive. “Because of this we have seen a huge wave of breweries creating web-shops and on-site brewery shops, and many putting their beer into bottles and cans for the first time.”

Cask beer now makes up just 46% of small brewers’ production, compared to 67% in 2019 – a huge 21% drop over the last two years. A third of SIBA member breweries launched an online shop during the pandemic, and 40% now have a bricks and mortar shop.

However the report did also find a consumer thirst for craft beer (however served) in their local pub, with three quarters (75%) of beer drinkers surveyed in 2022 saying they thought it was important that their local pub offered a range of craft beers from small breweries. That figure rises to more than 8 in 10 (81%) among the women surveyed.

“This shows the growing emphasis consumers place on the provenance of the beers they buy,” says Caroline Nodder, Editor of the SIBA Craft Beer Report. “This is a trend that has certainly been accelerated by the pandemic. Consumers are increasingly seeking out smaller artisan producers, and expect their products to be available at retail.”

Consumers also continue to hold the view that genuine craft beer should be hand-crafted by a small independent brewery, with 50% saying the producer should be small and 48% that it should be independent. Only 3% believe craft can be made by a big global brewer.

There’s no doubt that cask is king at the Royal Blenheim in Oxford

“It is clear that over the last two years people across the UK have sought out local producers – whether that means supporting their local butcher, baker or brewer,” adds James Calder. “More and more people are discovering the amazing range of beers now being brewed locally, and increasingly hold the view that a craft beer should be made by a small independent brewery. Hopefully as the industry begins to get back up to full steam we will see more pubs and retailers stocking the independent craft beers consumers have discovered over the last two years.”

There’s little of comfort in this report if you only drink cask ales, but the more we support independent breweries, the more likely they are to continue brewing cask and developing the range. No-one can blame them for responding to market trends, and we can’t rely on the big brewers to keep cask production up if the market is in decline for them too. We live in interesting times, and while we shouldn’t get too alarmed by current trends, we need to keep a watchful eye and enjoy and promote cask ale whenever we can.

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