XT Brewing’s Russ Taylor gives his views on the current state of the market
Back in 2019 the future of cask beer looked bright. CAMRA’s job was done, find a new cause! Things are a little different these days with attack from all sides with Covid, Brexit, Ukraine, Inflation and the Energy Crisis.
Sales of cask beer have taken a battering over the last two years and are still short of recovering to levels last seen in 2019. However, so far in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire region, we have not seen pub closures at anything like the level of decimation anticipated back in 2020. Indeed, many of our local customers have survived and thrived. There are many and various reports telling of the fall in sales of beer and cask in particular. I won’t start quoting statistics, but it is true to say that the market has seen a significant loss of trade in the last two years.
The long-term effect of businesses losing income and having to take on debt will take time to show through. During the pandemic you could slash costs, put staff on furlough and hold your breath. Coming out the other side is when the cash flow issues bite; taking on staff in an uncertain market, buying raw materials or new stock to replace out of date stuff, and sales are building up your debtor’s book. Many pub and brewing businesses that woke up blinking into the light after the lockdowns will be suffering the effects of that cash flow crisis now.
Into the mix we now also have significantly rising costs. Raw material prices for brewers always fluctuated to a degree, as we use natural products affected by weather and international trading. The price rises we have seen this year have far exceeded anything this century. Prices of everything from pump clips to glass bottles have risen faster than ever. Throw in fuel costs rising; and brewing uses a lot of energy for production, malting, transport and deliveries; and there is no option but to increase wholesale beer prices. At the same time consumers have also seen their incomes squeezed, so discretionary spending on going out, combined with a changing lifestyle habit post-Covid, means that less is being spent in pubs on beer and eating out. Public transport use has fallen indicating that many people are still not returning to the office for a full week, which has eaten into the “after work” pint. Pub sales in larger towns and cities have still not recovered.
Then the “price at the pumps” hits the consumer. Pubs have seen input prices rising, have debts to service and they need to boost income. Ever rising costs per pint are going to be a problem for cask beer. Many pubs work out their retail price based on a percentage formula; this works fine in a relatively stable economy with low inflation, however if input prices rise rapidly and the same formula is applied, we can see pump prices rise exponentially. High prices may result in lower sales, and for cask beer a slower turn around is bad news for quality.
Cask beer when it is fresh, well brewed, well served and with a decent turn around is the finest drink in existence. But the quality can quickly be lost to penny pinching at all stages, and holding out too long to change the cask. Turnover of stock is vital for cask beer, and even subtle drops in quality will increase the drift away from independent producers towards “safer” national keg brands.
The pandemic has disrupted employment in the hospitality sector and increased staff turnover rates thereby pubs lose staff with cellar experience and cask beer knowledge. The situation is even more disappointing as when pubs re-opened after the various lockdowns, the beer that many drinkers had hankered for was cask because of its unique nature and its umbilical-chord-like link to pubs.
Beer guru Roger Protz explains: “Compared to keg beer and lager, [cask] is a low profit beer. It has a short shelf life. Once a cask has been tapped in the pub cellar, the beer has to be served within two or three days or it will oxidise and take on unpleasant off flavours. Cask beer is not unique in having a short shelf life: it is equally true of good bread, cheese, milk and other high-quality comestibles”.
Cask beer should of course be celebrated: a beer as British as Champagne is French, Chianti is Italian or Port is Portuguese, for example. Beer writer Pete Brown suggests that cask beer producers should give the category “scarcity and mystery”, allowing it “to become the premium product it should be, and slowly build back from there”.
So, cask ale by its very nature is something unique and very special to this country. It should be protected by government (a significant cut in duty would help), and more financial support for the industry as a whole is needed from brewers to pubs. CAMRA has a renewed part to play in the support of cask beer, as important as it has ever been.
Across the pubs and brewing industry there is a great deal of optimism and confidence, as nearly everyone I speak to is looking to the future, investing in infrastructure, staff and new products. Indeed, here at XT we are about to launch a new range of keg and canned beers to work alongside our successful cask beers, which are and will remain the most important part of our business. There are a lot of passionate and innovative people working away to ensure you keep getting interesting, quality, independent beer. You just need to play your part and drink it!