Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September 2008

* Gold Amongst the Dross *

The decline of draught beer sales is a fact of life, but cask may be the only salvation

I recently saw a sobering statistic that, in the thirty years from 1977 to 2007, the amount of beer sold in the on-trade in Britain had more than halved from 37 million barrels to a mere 17 million. It was forecast to fall yet further to 10 million barrels over the next ten years. Against this background it is easy to understand why so many pubs have closed and so many of those that remain are often very quiet.

There are many reasons for this, most of which have been discussed in this column over the years, but it has to be accepted that it is the result of deep-seated social changes that cannot be reversed by one or two simplistic policy measures. In particular, the routine session drinking that used to be a feature of many urban pubs has, as far as it survives at all, largely moved from the pub to the home, and isn’t ever going to come back.

On the face of it, that may seem a pessimistic analysis, but there will always be a demand for pubs or something approximating to pubs, and there is another statistic that looks rather more positive. In the past year, total draught beer sales in pubs fell by 9%, but cask beer sales only fell by 1.3%. That’s a large rise in market share and, if you strip out the impact of pub closures and pubs where cask beer has been taken out, probably an actual increase on a like-for-like basis.

People need a positive incentive to visit the pub rather than just seeing it as a default option, and offering cask beer, the one drink that can only be experienced in the pub and can’t be replicated at home, is the most effective way of providing that. In the future, it is more and more likely that those pubs which succeed in a difficult market will be those putting cask beer at the heart of their drinks offering.

* A Better Class of Dead Horse *

New so-called premium products are unlikely to revive the moribund standard lager category

It has been reported that InBev, the makers of Stella Artois, are launching a 4% ABV version of it in the UK. Obviously this is an indication that Peeterman, the existing 4% beer intended to be a little brother to Stella, has proved a failure. On the face of it, this seems like diluting the brand, although given full-strength Stella’s unfortunate nickname of “wife-beater” it may be doubtful how much reputation there is left to dilute.

There can be no doubt, though, that the “standard lager” category is one of the dullest and most jaded in the entire drinks market. Brands such as Carling and Fosters are looking very tired indeed nowadays, so you can understand the brewers’ desire to stimulate interest in it and introduce products with more of a “premium” cachet. However, you have to wonder whether they might be flogging a dead horse.

A few years ago I was in a pub in the Midlands and saw five working-class, middle-aged blokes in succession come in and order a pint of Carling each. This really underlined how standard lager has usurped the position of “ordinary” bitter as the default choice for the undiscerning drinker. In contrast, more and more, those choosing lower gravity cask beers will be offered an ever changing variety of products and will take an active interest in what they’re drinking. Throwing the marketing budget at them is not the way to increase consumers’ interest in beer.

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