Why “premiumisation”might be cask ale’s blessing in disguise

Steven Lyne of the Royal Blenheim asks where cask ale currently finds itself in the post-pandemic recovery

What do we all look for in a cask ale these days? It’s a burning topic asked on both sides of our bars at the moment and fascinating to see how varied an answer you can receive. Price, quality, and consistency seem to appear relatively often, as you would expect. However, you would never believe some of the answers, such as “I quite like the sharp metallic taste of that brewery” or “It’s brewed near where I live,” not realising it’s from the opposite end of the country.

This highlights an interesting problem for us. With everyone taking such different approaches to what they like, how do we get our cask offering right? Maybe we must look at why people have become so particular about what they’re drinking. Where is cask ale going in the post-pandemic environment, and is it heading in the right direction? I believe it is and bizarrely, those very difficulties that the industry has been facing might just be the shake-up that everyone needed to see.

The quality of the Royal Blenheim’s cask ales makes it our City Pub of the Year

The drinks industry has had to overhaul its entire operations to tackle the immense challenges since 2020. Some businesses have adapted better than others, some we’ve sadly lost. However, we are thankfully starting to feel a little bit normal again trading-wise. That’s not to say we haven’t seen our fair share of surprising trends popping up. One set of data I’ve found interesting is how the attitude to drinking has changed, and the volume consumed is still well below what we used to see while prices are going up. People are starting to pay a lot more attention to what they are consuming and a fantastic term is now more prevalent than ever: “premiumisation”.

Premium beers have been available for decades with snazzy marketing, elegant glasses and bigger numbers flashing up on the tills. It’s mostly been dominated by world lagers, and drinkers have often been choosing them as the market becomes saturated by “better versions” of strong selling classics. Whilst their prices have always been north of the £5 mark, those prices have now been pushed up even further but that hasn’t stopped people from drinking them! So what is premiumisation doing to the cask ale market?

Cask ale seemed to have this weird reputation when I first moved over here from Ireland. Students drank it because it was the cheapest drink while purists jotted down in-depth tasting notes, and someone like myself fell somewhere in between. I started to find it baffling that cask was always so affordable compared to other offerings, as an enormous amount of work and skill are poured into making cask ale. It almost felt nonsensical how some people would pay £6+ for a keg IPA but turn their nose up at an exceptionally made cask IPA for less than £5. But flash forward to the present day and the price of cask is playing catch-up. And this is a good thing, I promise. 

Steven Lyne: Premiumisation could be a good thing for cask ale

The surge in prices across the board is forcing people to pay more attention to what they’re purchasing, while publicans are having to change their perspective on how cask ale is sold. To justify the costs involved, pubs are now having to place cask ale prices into a range normally reserved for more “premium” products. And suddenly people that once turned their noses up at cask are starting to notice it. Places that do their cask ale range properly and highlight the hard work that goes into keeping it in such good condition are showing people that when done well, cask is just as premium a product as any other. And they are selling more of it! 

With more venues realising that cask ale can now be promoted as a more premium product, the once die-hard craft ale/keg consumer is starting to cross over just that little bit more. Cask ale can now be placed on a little pedestal of its own so that it more than justifies the true cost of what it is worth, unlike larger corporations putting up prices on products courtesy of their newfound popularity. If more of us can tackle these new trends correctly, we might just see people drinking their beer for its true quality, and not just blindly placing faith in its convenience.