There’s been quite a bit of worry recently about the future of cask ale – or real ale, as many prefer to call it. Cask’s share of the beer market has declined in recent years and then it took another big hit from the Covid-19 lockdowns. That’s because almost all cask ale is sold via pubs, and they were closed.
|Wild Card's hazy cask Pale|
Even before the pandemic, some brewers had been talking about the need to increase the price of a cask pint to restore a bit of profit margin. Others had largely or wholly moved to keg as it was the only way they saw to make a decent return – and of course the pandemic-driven move to selling bottles and cans, instead of draught beers, has accelerated that shift.
Similarly, the uncertainty involved in the post-lockdown reopening of pubs seems to have encouraged many to reduce the number of cask pumps in use – and some to drop cask altogether. Pub visitor numbers are both down and unreliable, by all accounts, so I can see it’s a risk – after all, once you tap a cask, it needs to sell within days, whereas a keg can stay good for weeks.
The paradox is that demand for cask doesn’t seem to have fallen as much as the more pessimistic brewers had feared or expected. Twice recently, I’ve spoken with London-area brewers who say their cask sales are up, in part because others have dropped out of the business.
|'Small pack' at Brockley|
Wild Card co-founder William Harris said that although the majority of each 20hl cask brew is sold via The Tavern on the Hill, “people really want cask from us, partly because a lot of firms have pulled out from it. Mostly it’s cask-led pubs looking for suppliers, and it’s mainly a London issue – outside London there’s still plenty of cask around.”
And then on a visit to Hither Green, near Lewisham, I discovered that Brockley Brewery was also nearby. In the brewery taproom I was surprised to find that as the (inevitable, these days) cans on sale, they had four cask ales on draught, all dispensed by gravity from casks in the coldstore, and to learn that Brockley's production is now around 50% cask. The story was similar – it’s picked up cask sales volume from other breweries who have dropped out of the business.
Is all of this good news or bad? I’m not really sure, but I do find it interesting – as in the apocryphal ‘curse’, “May you live in interesting times.”