Beer Sales Rebounding, But Low Prices Hold Down Cask

On-trade beer sales are returning faster than other alcoholic drinks sectors—but underpricing and quality of serve could be holding back the crucial cask ale category.

Those were among the headlines from CGA’s Jonathan Jones speaking at a recent Cask Marque webinar, which set out the value of ale and beer to pubs’ recovery. CGA’s data shows that while total beer volumes per outlet in the four weeks to 8 August were down by 15% on 2019, they comfortably outperformed wine (down 33%), spirits (down 37%) and cider (down 25%).

Cask ale drinkers have been quick to return to pubs since the end of lockdown, CGA’s BrandTrack survey shows, with 70% of them returning by 3 September—five percentage points more than the all-consumer average. Despite that, cask ale’s year-on-year volumes have lagged behind most other beer categories so far—suggesting that some drinkers aren’t fully satisfied with the range and quality they are getting.

CGA’s data also reveals price-related issues in the cask ale sector. Standard cask ale sold at an average of £3.47 per pint in 2019—well below the total draught beer average of £3.64, and over a pound less than categories including world lager (£4.50) and keg craft (£4.81). Even craft cask, with an average selling price of £3.71, is cheaper than premium lager at £3.73.

But lower prices may not be driving higher volumes—and in some places the reverse is true, said Jones. Outlets where cask ale’s average selling price is £3.70 or above sell nearly a third (33%) more pints per week than venues selling below that threshold. BrandTrack meanwhile shows that cask ale consumers are more likely than average to pay more for a higher quality drink.

Quality is another issue for the category. It is key to the overall on trade experience for cask drinkers yet in the managed market, less than 7% of lines are delivering the throughput recommended by Cask Marque to ensure a high-quality serve. So, while the size and shape of the range is also important, more balance is needed to ensure consumers are not turned off by bad pints, Jones added.

CGA’s data shows that beer accounted for around 41 pence in every pound spent on drinks in the on-trade in 2019, with the volume of year-on-year sales down less than 1%. But while lager sales were level and stout sales up, cask ale was the worst performing major beer category, with volumes down 7%. Much of the downturn has been driven by a fall in distribution of cask ale, in line with the long-term trend of closures of drink-led pubs in Britain. Some cask ale sales have also leaked away to other categories like craft beer and spirits, attracted by product innovation and new brands.

Conditions for pubs, bars and restaurants were very tough in July and August. But good weather, staycations and pent-up demand for draught made it a relatively good summer for beer, and it’s going to be at the heart of the on-trade’s recovery,” concluded Jones. “Ale has been slower to recover, but cask drinkers remain very valuable consumers, and are happy to spend if the quality and range are right. It might seem counter-intuitive, but in many cases cask ale can sustain a higher price point than we’re seeing at the moment.”