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'Ale and hearty

Today’s publicans have been experiencing a very rough ride courtesy of the smoking ban, crippling tax hikes, ludicrously cheap supermarket drinks and meal deals, and the fact that customers generally have less disposable income than they had a few years ago. However all is not doom and gloom. James Clarke*, managing director (brewing) at Hook Norton Brewery, rejoices in the resurgence of cask ales and explains why they are a lifeline for the 21st century pub

Main image courtesy of The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA)

Pint of aleEnjoyed for one thousand years, and with decades of brewing and perfecting techniques, the cask ales of today are very different from those of our ancestors. The 19th century was a particularly important time, with many breweries starting up in response to a growing population and industrial boom. For Hook Norton, success was founded on the arrival of civil engineers to the area, working on the Banbury to Cheltenham railway. Four hundred Navvies created extra demand, and once the railway opened, much wider distribution of our beers was possible.

Over time, more and more techniques have been introduced that have improved the production process and increased the variety of ale on offer. The bottom line, however, remains the same; brewing is a complex process, requiring constant care and attention. Moreover, as cask ale is a living, breathing product, it requires not just a skilled brewer, but a skilled cellar person as well. Unfortunately, in the early 1970s this requirement prompted many breweries to produce beers that required no cellar skills and that could leave the brewery in a ready-to-drink condition. The level of effort involved, along with pressure from big companies selling lager and keg beer, led to the downturn of cask ale at this time.

Inspecting a pint of aleImage courtesy of the Cask Report


Luckily for all real ale fans, the public became bored with these bland, mass-produced beers and let it be known that cask ale was desired, resulting in the popularity we see today. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has to be the biggest influence on the resurgence of cask ales. Launched in 1971, CAMRA’s mission was to revive interest in real ale while protesting against the uninspiring beers that were taking over the market. The campaign made a real difference, boosting sales and drawing attention to traditional brewing practices and regional brewers. Today, CAMRA is a huge organisation with over 135,000 members and it is largely thanks to them that we can celebrate the Great British Beer Festival every year.

This increase in consumer interest, coupled with the Government’s introduction of progressive beer duty in 2002, designed to encourage the creation of smaller breweries by allowing them to pay less duty on their beers, led to an increase in the amount of cask ale being consumed as the number of brewers – and particularly the number of brands of cask ale on offer – increased. Forty years ago Hook Norton only produced two different ales, now there are a dozen or more.


These initiatives have all kept cask ale alive, but the resurgence in popularity has been greatly helped by provenance. People want to be able to trace what they are eating and drinking back to the very place of its origin. At Hook Norton Brewery we regularly visit our hop suppliers, even arranging tours of the hop farms for people to see exactly where our ingredients are from. We know where our malted barley has been grown, and we use water from our own wells.

Currently cask ales are tremendously popular in the choice, style and range they offer, from light and hoppy pale ales right through to dark stouts. Strong sales continue to outperform the on-trade beer market and recent figures published by the British Beer & Pub Association show that cask ale has now overtaken keg, holding a dominant share in the UK draught ale market.

Cask ale drinkers in pubImage courtesy of the Cask Report

Point of difference

Research indicates that there has been an increase in the number of young people and women drinking cask ale and the fact that this now appeals to such a broad demographic is a real benefit to pubs, proving to be a crucial lifeline to those struggling in the current recession.

For the pubs in our estate, cask ale offers a real point of difference, which is vital. Total on-trade beer volumes may be falling, but we are still seeing an increase in the number of people drinking cask ale.

There has been a lot of research into ale drinkers and their consumption habits, and findings continue to show that they are more likely to visit pubs and to spend more while they are there. It’s a no brainer; cask ale is the way to go in such a tough operating environment.

Pub food and cask aleImage courtesy of the Cask Report

Good with food

No one can dispute the tough economic times we are living in and the impact it is having on the pub industry. Pubs continue to close but at no more of a rate than, for example, convenience stores. A range of social factors, from super-market pricing and drink driving policies to the smoking ban and government policies make drinking at home more preferable for some, and yet cask ale’s popularity continues to rise.

There is a lot more competition for the leisure pound today and that does not have to be a bad thing. There has been an increase in dining out and food-led pubs, and cask ale can really help pubs capitalise on this trend, with customers beginning to choose ales in preference to wine as a meal accompaniment.

Times have changed and so have consumers’ tastes. The return to cask ale is providing new opportunities for pubs to survive and thrive in a difficult trading environment. Cheers.

Cask aleSad but true

Beer duty has risen 42% in the last three years. Today’s drinker pays 35.1% tax on a pint of 5% beer in a pub (55.4p on Excise Duty, 50p on VAT). CAMRA says that enough is enough and is campaigning for a long-term freeze on beer duty.

If you would like to sign the e-petition, visit CAMRA's website

Hook Norton Old HookyHook Norton Brewery

Established in 1849 and one of only 32 independent family-run breweries left in the UK, Hook Norton Brewery in the Cotswold Hills produces a wide range of award-winning real ales and bottled beers and has a tenanted estate of more than 40 pubs. The brewery also offers a selection of seasonal ales that complement the established portfolio, creating complexity with naturally grown ingredients and water drawn from the wells beneath it.

* James Clarke is the great-great grandson of John Harris, the brewery’s founder.

Hook NortonImages courtesy of Hook Norton Brewery

Looking good

  • Cask MarquePub closures are down to 12 per week compared to 50 a week when the recession first hit about three years ago
  • With cask continuing to prosper, in 2011 the number of breweries increased by 122 to 946
  • The number of pubs with the Cask Marque quality award stands at 8301, a growth of 10.3% over the last 12 months. Over 20,000 pub visits are made during the year by 45 qualified assessors
  • Training in cellar management booms with 465 courses booked so far this year
  • The Cask Marque app CaskFinder is used over 50,000 times every month by people looking for Cask Marque pubs.

Source: Cask Marque
For further information visit

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