Cask ale ‘is unique to the pub’? Don’t bet on that

Beer Is Best Autumn nightsI’m as keen to big-up the attractions of the pub as anybody. But there was a big pull-out quote in the latest Cask Ale Report from a cask ale-selling publican in Bristol that “there is no future for a pub without cask ales. It’s the only thing in the pub not being taken by the supermarket trade.” For the day job these days I often write opinion pieces on the state of the pub and beer market, and here’s what I said last Friday on that particular claim: don’t bet on it. Because if anyone thinks cask ale will always remain the pub’s great usp, another think has already driven into your car park.

Despite the Cask Ale Report proclaiming (p5, column 2) that cask “is only available in pubs”, cask ale is in the British supermarket right now, albeit in the distinctively top-end Whole Foods Market, which is to Asda or Aldi what the American Bar at the Savoy is to a corner boozer in Balham. A number of the chain’s outlets in Britain sell draught beers and ciders to take away in “flagons” with resealable porcelain lids. The chain has even entered the UK on-trade: three months ago, the big Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street was home to a week-long pop-up pub organised by Craft Beer Rising, which featured beers from Hogs Back and Otley Brewing, among others.

Whole Foods Market’s American origins made it open to the idea of a pop-up pub, since at least some of its stores in the US already have bars inside where you can settle down for a glass of draught beer. I first came across the idea of an off-licence (to use a British term) with a bar inside serving draught beers in Sonoma, California, nearly 20 years ago, and thought it an excellent idea. Try a brewer’s beers, and if you like them, buy a few bottles to take home.

That never caught on in the UK, for a range of reasons: licensing laws, drink-driving laws, the nature of British pub culture, the lack of space in most off-licences to install a bar and the other necessary facilities, and the conservatism of the British drinks trade. But today on the Venn diagram showing the drinks retailing market, the circles showing the on and off-licence sectors are slowly beginning to overlap. Many craft beer bars now have tall fridges on the customers’ side where they can take out bottles to drink there or go home with. Where I live in leafy West London, there are two off-licences nearby, Noble Wines in Hampton Hill and the Real Ale Shop in Twickenham, that each sell beer straight from the cask for customers to take home, an idea that has been around for decades, but which finally seems to be flying. I’m not aware yet of an off-licence with a bar, either regular or pop-up, in Britain yet. But it can only be a short while before they start to appear.

Meanwhile, if you’re calling in to your local offie to buy four pints of draught ale to take away, of course, you’re likely to pick up a bottle or six of beers for later in the week as well, and some wine, too, while you’re there. Don’t think Sainsbury’s and Tesco and even Waitrose haven’t noticed that phenomenon, don’t worry about people having a reason not to visit their own off-licence sections and aren’t wondering whether they can capture some of that take-away draught market themselves. We could, in what would be a hugely ironic move, see some of the pubs that have been converted into supermarkets selling cask ale again, albeit to take-away customers, rather than ones who hang around drinking.

Of course, the argument will still be that cask ale you take away even in a sealed container is not going to be as good as a pint freshly poured in a pub. The take-home beer loses carbonation, and starts to stale – though not, in my experience, as quickly as you might think. And it can still be a much better pint than is found in too many pubs. This is both a threat and, like all threats, an opportunity for pubs and brewers alike. Brewers, if they aren’t already, need to consider how they will cope with the inevitable request from supermarket chains for assistance in setting up take-away draught beer operations. Pubs need to consider how they are going to compete with an increase in the number of off-licences selling cask ale, by offering an easy take-home option themselves and/or by pushing hard on the superiority of the pub pint. And the authors of the Cask Ale Report need to include a look at the take-away cask ale scene in the next report.

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22 thoughts on “Cask ale ‘is unique to the pub’? Don’t bet on that

  1. It reminds me of legendary ‘Legendary Yorkshire Heroes) in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne and that must have been over 20-30 years ago, which was an off-license with real ales. There’s now a (renamed I believe – when I knew it it was the Archer) pub in Archbold Terrace Jesmond of the same name. A farm shop on the A21 near to Hurst Green sells Harveys Sussex Best to take away in 3 pint jugs, and has done for several years. The micro-pubs do a lot of take out beer. And a long time ago at the Fed Brewery behind Central Station Newcastle you could get the beers and wine by the jug :-)

    Camden Town Brewery offers their beers to take away in U.S. style growlers (and discounts to local Camden residents) ……

  2. Surely the USP of a pub is it’s ambiance rather than the beer per se. You go there because it is nice place to meet friends or just read the paper over a pint. There are no other place like it. As a goodly proportion of pubs make it as difficult as possible to enjoy oneself – either through being really a restaurant or providing loud music, TV sports etc etc – that it is surprising that so many remain open.

    • Simon is absolutely right. Beyond a few nerdy CAMRA types no one really cares whether beer is cask or keg anyway: they only care that it’s good beer, and served in a pleasant environment.

      So it’s a complete myth that supermarkets compete with pubs in this respect: it’s an entirely different, non-interchangeable mode of drinking, and them selling you a growler to take away (which. let’s not overlook, is the entirely theoretical premise of the article) won’t change that.

  3. The Waen Brewery are opening a venue in Cardiff which aims to be a bar and bottle shop, with the opportunity to take-away keg and cask ale. The bar/shop is due to open imminently. So yes, it’s already happening.

  4. Sorry, that ‘old’ Jesmond pub was the Royal Archer dating to c. 1972 when the office complex (that included Tyne and Wear Council offices and a branch of Williams and Glyn’s Bank where I worked) was built.

  5. is hand drawn monkey what you were thinking of for “off-licence with full bar”? https://www.facebook.com/HDMBeerShop?fref=ts&rf=218725284917106

    As Dave said, a number fo specialist offlicences have had cask beers available alongside a bottled range for years and more bottleshops in big cities are starting to install kegarators for growler fills (e.g., stirchley in birmingham, great grog Edinburgh) would love to see the likes of regional wines in wellington with 18 take home draught lines…cheaper prices and useful for the likes of days out/ camping trips but I think these will complement pubs rather than competing directly with them. There will still always be people wanting to go to the pub for a more sociable, get out of the house event.

  6. Here in Michigan, in addition to spots inside high end grocery and specialty shops selling draught beer in “growlers” (our term got the glass jugs used for takeaway)- we also have some multi-tap bars selling and filling them. Many worry about the sanitation issues involved in customers bringing back the growlers for refills.

  7. Off license cask ale is catching on here also, America’s East Coast. (Maryland is not as liberal with take away sales as California, Florida, Texas, or North Carolina- super markets for the most part are prohibited by law from selling alcohol) Many existing off-license liquor stores now have “growlers” for sale. They are 1 gallon bottles with resealable caps that can be taken home. It is reminiscent of the “old days” when a good son could go to the corner bar and bring back a bucket of beer for Dad, (presumably). The beer is good for two or three days. With the advent of “septels”, 7 gallon mini-kegs, a variety of craft beers can be offered, despite the limited space in most stores already cramped by the explosion craft beer offerings. This has opened up a whole new market for some small craft brewers who cannot bottle their beer. Many breweries hoping to capitalize on this phenomenon also offer growlers of their beer for sale. This is all good for those of us enjoy good beer. State laws are beginning to get realistic. Perhaps some pressure from large Gucci food stores like Whole Foods who want to sell alcohol like they can in other states will loosen the death grip that the retail beverage distribution lobby has on our State Legislature.

  8. I’m not aware yet of an off-licence with a bar, either regular or pop-up, in Britain yet.

    Here’s one. I haven’t been (Heaton Mersey isn’t really handy for anywhere that doesn’t have a Stockport post code), but that’s not a bad list.

  9. Take away keg beer is a traditional thing here that almost died out. My company was a trail blazer in selling ‘craft beer’ (in our new world context) this way. It is our largest retail category.

  10. Legendary Yorkshire Heroes (LYH) in Heaton, Newcastle, did such a thing in the early Eighties. It was terrific. We cycled from Carlisle to Gateshead (65 miles) in 1983 and celebrated with some booty from there. The LYH off-license business morphed into the Head of Steam group (still run by Tony Brookes) with pubs in Newcastle, Gateshead and Huddersfield. Great pubs too.

  11. Our village grocer/wine merchant always had a wooden cask of Shipstone’s Bitter behind the counter and obviously sold enough of it to make it worth his while.And of course pubs have always in my experience been happy to fill a vessel with beer for you to take away.
    Non-pub retail cask outlets are really an alternative to bottled and canned beer rather than to a pub visit. Because of overheads the outlet can charge less than a pub for a pint but that’s already true for brewery packaged beer.

  12. There was also a Legendary Lancashire Heroes; they had a branch in Withington (south Manchester) when I moved there in 1983. I don’t know how long it had been there, but it had closed by the time I left in 1985. This was strictly draught beer to take away, though; no ‘on’ sales.

  13. there was a legendry lancashire heroes in waterloo, liverpool as well, when that changed hands the ex owner peter eventually set up inn beer in southport, an off licence with a bar….

    its at the top of lord street in southport and in the good beer guide

  14. There are two off-licence/on-licences in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I have been to one of them where you can buy a pint of any of the four or five draught beers that are for sale and drink it on the premises. It is quite cosy with a little bar, a table and a few stools and shelves full of bottled beer lining the walls. No toilets but it is meant for civilised tasting before you buy. The web site is http://the-beer-parlour.co.uk/

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