Phil has recently made some interesting comments about Pete Brown’s Cask Report on his Oh Good Ale blog here and here. One of the points he addresses is that raised by Pete that cask beer should be able to command a price premium over kegs and lagers (or at least not sell at a discount to them) as it is a higher quality product. On the face of it, that seems a reasonable enough proposition, and something that applies in many other consumer markets. However, it is likely to run into a number of practical difficulties.
The first problem, of course, is that “cask” is merely a method of storage, maturation and dispense, which says nothing about the inherent qualities of a beer. The idea that cask beer is lovingly crafted from traditional, natural ingredients, while keg is made from chemicals in somewhere resembling an oil refinery has always been largely a myth, and is no less so in 2010 than it was in 1972, despite the Cask Report describing it as an “artisanal” product. Many individual cask beers are of much higher quality than most kegs, but cask as a generic category isn’t. There are plenty of cask beers such as Pedigree and Old Speckled Hen that are also available in keg form. While serving them as cask is likely to result in more depth and complexity of flavour, at least when well-kept, they’re still basically the same stuff.
We also shouldn’t forget the long tail of fly-by-night micro-breweries who often haven’t fully mastered the art of brewing and produce wildly inconsistent and often revolting slop. If you went in a pub and saw a pumpclip for Old Scrotum from some brewery you had never heard of, would you really be happy to pay a price premium for it? In contrast, if you saw a Thornbridge beer on keg, you might.
When keg beers and lagers were first introduced in the 1960s, they sold at a higher price than cask beers as they were something new and different, required an investment in refrigeration equipment and CO2 cylinders, and held out the prospect of more consistent quality. That pretty much remains the same today, even though the marketplace has changed beyond recognition. Even bog-standard cooking lager like Carling is 20 or 30p a pint more than cask bitter. There is a lot of history to overturn.
It is also still the case that, where keg ales are sold alongside cask of a comparable strength, the keg generally sells for more. Clearly the keg drinkers see it as worth paying a price premium for over cask, not the other way round. We have also seen in recent years the growth of “smooth” as a distinct category, whereas in the past there would just be “bitter”, which could be either cask or keg. I’ve seen groups come into Holts, Hydes and Robinsons pubs and ask “have they got any smooth?” Does cask premiumisation ultimately lead to it becoming an entirely separate, and more expensive, beer category from keg – and thus inevitably one perceived as a middle-class drink?
Traditionally, price premiums in the on-trade have been associated with specific pubs and areas, not specific beers. If you are in a prosperous area, offer a smart atmosphere and want to keep out the riff-raff, then you may feel justified in charging more for your beer. But in the individual pub the pricing structure across the draught beer range remains much the same, typically with Draught Guinness at the top of the tree in terms of pence per unit, and cask down at the bottom. There is still little evidence of particular beers being able to command a price premium within their own category, although maybe Beck’s Vier and Stella 4% do to some degree over Carling and Fosters. The culture of seasonal ales and rotating guest beers also tends to militate against any cask beers gaining the long-term reputation that may justify paying more in the customer’s mind.
And, of course, there is the “quality lottery” that I have alluded to before here. By definition, cask beer is a product that will vary somewhat from pint to pint due to the stage of secondary fermentation it has reached, and various factors in cellarmanship. Even in the very best outlets, you will occasionally get a pint that is no better than indifferent; if you drink it in random pubs at least one in ten is likely to be pretty poor. That factor alone makes it harder to justify charging more for it, and probably always will – in a sense it’s part of its appeal.
Some establishments will continue to seek to charge a premium over others for draught beer that reflects their location, ambiance and aspirations. But there is a very long way to go in terms of both public perception and consistent quality before cask beer can command a premium over kegs, and that of course begs the question as to whether that’s a desirable aim in the first place. To my mind, the concept reflects a somewhat half-baked and perhaps rather London-centric view of the draught beer market.
If you are a brewer of cask beer and want to establish a premium perception in the marketplace, you need to gain more control over the distribution chain by determining where it is sold and how it is presented. Not to mention having a high-quality product in the first place. The history of business is littered with companies who have tried to go for a premium image and pricing but haven’t had the quality or consistency to back it up. Securing a price premium depends on long-term reputation – the challenge is how to build that up.