“Male, pale and stale”: changing the image of real ale

Younger audience key to future of real ale according to cross-industry campaign

As we have reported before, sales of cask or real ale are in deep decline with a survey by independent brewers organisation SIBA released in March showing that it had slumped from 67% of total production before the pandemic to 46% — less than half. The picture locally seems to be of a less dramatic falling away, while some pubs are back to their normal full range. But there is no doubt that pubs generally are selling less cask ale and more craft keg – a situation mirrored by local brewers.

A more recent report, by hospitality industry consultant CGA, finds that cask and craft keg sales are roughly equal, but both are very modest compared to sales of lager with the top lager brand outselling the top cask ale brand (Sharp’s Doom Bar – what else?) by a factor of 13. After Doom Bar – owned by a multi-national – the top 10 cask ale brands are Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, Greene King IPA, Fuller’s London Pride, Greene King Abbot, St Austell Tribute, Marston’s Wainwright, Marston’s Pedigree, St Austell Proper Job and Wadworth 6X.

Doom Bar was again the top selling cask brand, with the global heft of Molson Coors behind it

Everybody – even the big brewers – has a vested interest in re-invigorating the cask ale sector, which is why various campaigns are under way with 2023 identified as a possible “make or break” year for cask. CAMRA has joined an industry-wide campaign called Drink Cask Fresh along with SIBA, Cask Marque and a range of brewers including Asahi (owner of Fuller’s and Dark Star), Greene King, Hog’s Back, Timothy Taylor, Arkells, Harvey’s, Shepherd Neame and Wadworth. Meanwhile trade online portal the Morning Advertiser has launched the Cask Project, highlighting how cask ale can be restored to its rightful place.

The Drink Cask Fresh campaign uses a range of point-of-sale materials to modernise the look of cask beer in pubs, such as hand pump wraps, glassware and promotional materials. This is accompanied by a digital experience to help customers learn about cask beer’s USPs – artisan, fresh, hand-made and often locally produced.

Organisers hope a successful pilot scheme will encourage significant backing for the campaign across the industry, with a national launch planned in June 2023. Co-founder Katie Wiles, of CAMRA, says: “We know from our research that the unique selling points of cask beer really resonate with young, discerning consumers – the challenge is getting them to try cask for themselves. We believe that by catching consumers’ attention at the point-of-sale we have a real opportunity to change cask’s perception and help people discover a new love for fresh, cask beer.”

There’s always a good choice of cask at Oxford’s Royal Blenheim, led by Titanic and White Horse beers

Social and cross-media promotions will aim to capture the attention of consumers before they step through the pub door. Once they reach the bar, an AR-scannable pump clip will help beer drinkers learn more about the real ale, how far it has travelled to the pub and when the cask was freshly tapped. To ensure the quality of beer across pubs participating in the campaign, they will be asked to sign up to the Fresh Beer Promise. Alongside displaying campaign materials in their pub, they will commit to stocking at least two cask ales with a rotating third cask on tap, and ensure a high standard of freshness by promptly replacing barrels and take part in initiatives to improve quality.

Some of the contributions to the Morning Advertiser’s Cask Project are thought provoking, including one concerning our very own Witney-born Hobgoblin, by Wychwood Brewery, although some of this is now produced at other sites belonging to owner Carlsberg-Marston’s. The original dark ale is now branded as Hobgoblin Ruby, and the addition of Hobgoblin Gold a few years ago has now been joined by Hobgoblin IPA and Hobgoblin Session IPA – proof that a successful brand can go a long way and far from its roots.

Quoted in the Morning Advertiser, Carlsberg-Marston’s director of marketing, Miranda Osborne, says the success of the Hobgoblin brand – now accounting for one of every ten pints sold in supermarkets and other off-trade venues – can help the re-invigoration of cask ale in pubs. A separate survey shows that 81% of purchasers would buy Hobgoblin if it was available in a pub.

Hobgoblin has 24,500 followers on Instagram and 211,000 on Facebook, and the brewer has produced a branded glass – the Hobgoblet – to join its long established and instantly recognisable pump clips.

“Male, pale and stale”?! This local minibus tour of village pubs at least had some ladies present

“I’m a really big believer that the quality of beer is not just the liquid,” says Miranda. “It’s everything you put around it, and that experience of holding a really beautiful pint glass and having sensorial elements means that it feels really nice to hold, it’s really comfortable and you will absolutely know this is a Hobgoblin glass from the other side of a bar.”

You may or may not agree with that, but if you are a regular cask ale drinker then the chances are that you are over 50 (as are 71%, according to research) and male (93%). However much CAMRA and others might try to present a younger, more inclusive image, many regard the image of cask ale as “male, pale and stale”, according to Drink Cask Fresh publicity.

What the new campaign mustn’t do is alienate the core supporters of real ale – we know who we are! Some interesting times are ahead, but any initiative to support cask ale must be applauded. Not everybody supports it, as some large pub chains in particular would rather sell more expensive, more profitable keg lines, cocktails, gin, etc. hard times are ahead as consumers cut back and the energy crisis bites, so whatever you drink get out there and support pubs, and let’s hope that real ale weathers the storm and comes out stronger.