I find it perplexing what has happened to cask ale. Its reputation should be better. And I wish it was – much better. Not just because I am a fan. But because, I think, cask ale is – done well – a pretty wonderful thing. It is part of national heritage. It is part of pubs.
Cask ale volume sales dipped slightly back in 2015. But this was at a time when all beer was experiencing year-on-year decline and, despite concerns for the future of the beer category as a whole, there wasn’t any big reaction from the cask sector. Sure, things looked a bit bleak. Pubs were continuing to close. People were going out less. But there was no game plan. Not really.
For a time, it looked like the downside was affecting the big mass corporate beer companies and not too many others. Microbreweries had been cropping up all over the country and people were interested in beer more than ever before. This was, surely, a good thing. Or so we thought.
Over the course of the next three years, cask ale gradually declined in both volume and value. Overall beer sales also nosedived until this year where, despite not shifting the amount of beer it was used to, the category began to, at the very least in value terms, inch its way back into favour.
And yet so much has changed in the past three years.
Indeed, the word ‘craft’ came into circulation and was now being bandied around by breweries and bars. Nobody knew what ‘craft’ really meant, but they liked it. It seemed to epitomise worthiness. It sounded ‘earthy’, ‘organic’ and ‘small-batch’; it chimed well with all things ‘local’ and ‘authentic’. ‘Craft’ became an oft-used buzzword to sell things to people who cared to think about how they came to be.
We already knew from trends within the food industry that consumers were growing increasingly conscientious about ingredients and traceability. As such, companies and products more honest in their approach touting unprocessed goods were suddenly in high demand.
At the height of the trend, a survey conducted by Statista identifying 2015’s consumer considerations when buying food in the UK. It revealed how 69% of people sought products with “minimal processing.” It was a new dawn for food and drink.
Yet cask stayed silent.
This might have been the pivotal point where cask appreciators repositioned ale. Effectively, reminding how it is naturally flavoursome, freshly created and diverse in its myriad of varieties. All of this would have been compelling; as would flagging up the trend for probiotics and natural ingredients.
But the vernacular surrounding cask ale lacked something else: sheer excitement.
Nobody ever seemed to describe how delicious it was – and where you could try it. No one made it aspirational.
Really, CAMRA sung its praises to its hard core audience of already-into-real-ale groupies. But did its descriptions about one of the best drinks in existence, seduce anyone’s taste buds? Did it harness any of the frenzy or take anyone on a flavour adventure?
It just kept banging on about dispense and what was or wasn’t worthy enough to be considered.
Or, seen from another perspective, it looked its gift horse in the mouth. Then, it placed its hoof firmly between its jaws. CAMRA neglected to acknowledge the craft beer revolution as a boon. It was more interested in reasserting its meliority.
All the while it continued to bang its drum (to the beat of Morris men clanking pewter tankards and the bellows of rotund men in horn-bearing hats) and it asked: “Why wasn’t beer more appealing to women?” Without a hint of irony.
Most women presume cask ale isn’t for them. Or even beer. But it has nothing to do with differing tastebuds. Or that beer is a product that requires any engendering. It’s a liquid. Beer isn’t only for one type of person. Nor is cask ale, despite its historically sexist pumpclips or any of the macho posturing evident in many of its discussion forums and festivals. It’s a drink. For everyone.
Millennials and Gen Z beer fans just want to drink tasty beer that is – to coin a phrase – “smashable”. They want beer that’s stylish, full of flavour, refreshing and fashionable.
And over the past few years beer has become more appealing. And all the while, it was saddening that, for so many, cask ale, at the same time, was perceived as the opposite.
Perception is everything, isn’t it?
At the time when cask ale might have had the truest of beer fans in its palm, it was barely mentionable as significant.
While the humble hand pull became more invisible, smart phone apertures became increasingly focused on tap walls and Insta-friendly 330ml can vogue. Packaging began to emblematise artistic brand savviness. Idiomatic terms, like “juice bomb” crept onto both cans and the scene in general.
Despite this, beer excitement continued elsewhere. In cans, in bottles and in keg. A variation of styles and flavours created much conversation and intrigue. Add in a bit of independent spirit from founders (who had quit the rat race to follow their dreams) and there was an anti-establishment edginess to this new kind of beer too.
Brewers stopped being identified as just the fleece-wearing kind. It wasn’t long before they became the modern celebrities of hipster culture. Tattooed arms were photographed over mash tuns.
The importance of all of this was huge in terms of what it meant for cask ale – because, by displaying discernment for this new next evolution in beer, a new breed of craft beer geek emerged.
This time, not just the CAMRA member kind. Social media played a part.
Nationally, we began to adopt new ways of learning about current affairs and topical trends. Amidst the height of the craft beer revolution, Ofcom released a report entitled ‘News Consumption in the UK: 2016’ in which it identified that nearly half (48%) of adults said they now used the internet for news, trends and information – a lift from 41% in 2015. Throughout 2016, “one in five (19%) of people aged 16-24 nominated Facebook as a favoured source for news and, according to Ofcom’s findings it was summarised that “online, intermediaries such as Facebook and Twitter” were “highly rated by their users for providing a range of opinions.”
And (as seen by hashtags such as #CraftNotCrap on instagram) beer nous became a form of virtue signalling. People wanted to be in the know. They wanted to be seen to reject what was bad and, as a result, appear more righteous.
Even though the beer industry resided in its echo chamber of knowingness about how cask ale was made, the average pub customer has stayed in the dark for a long time, not knowing or caring about this kind of beer.
And that’s the bit that’s really sad.
People who walk into bars, presented with an array of drinks from which to choose, invariably select something that isn’t cask. It just hasn’t illustrated its relevance.
Despite having all the cues of a drink that is fresh, natural and flavoursome. None of these credentials have been described in an appealing way to pub goers.
Instead we hear cask ale hand pulls being referred to as the “old man pumps” and a drink that’s “warm” and “flat” – each descriptor a barrier and a learnt assumption.
I want us to change all of this together. I want to help. Because I love cask ale.
And because I don’t own a fleece. I’m just a woman who loves good beer.