Page last updated at 02:20 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 03:20 UK

Cask ale seeks to beat beer hangover

By Simon Atkinson
Business Reporter, BBC News, Great British Beer Festival, London

Beer drinker
UK drinkers have increasingly drunk wine and cider as well as beer
The bars inside the Earls Court Exhibition centre - complete with the heavy branding of a well-known lager brand - doubtless do well during concerts and trade shows.

But this week they looked like being home to the most deserted bars in Britain.

There was certainly little demand for their pale fizzy liquid served in plastic as the Great British Beer Show kicked off - even if a few of punters were happy to use its high stools to rest as they put down their pint glasses and tucked into pork scratchings.

Alligator Ale
Dancin' Hen
Cherry Popper
Mother in Law
Bede's chalice

Indeed the real ale aficionados - about 60,000 of who are expected - can afford a gentle snigger, as they look across to the brightly-lit but empty bar.

For while overall pub beer sales have sunk to their lowest level since the 1930s, real ale has weathered the storm a little better.

'Very active'

Beer sales in pubs fell 10.6% between April and June compared to the same quarter a year ago, according to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) - a drop of about 1.6 million pints per day.

Pub generic
Pub sales are falling, but cask beer is doing better

Meanwhile Nielsen research suggested that beer sales in pubs are 9% lower than a year ago - while they remained steady in supermarkets.

But cask ale sales dropped only about 1.3%, with some brewers, such as Fullers, reporting a slight increase in demand

"The only breweries that seem to be brewing more beer now than before, that are seeing their sales rise, are the smallest breweries," said Iain Loe of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) which organises the festival.

In many ways you've got the perfect storm for pubs
Graham Page, Nielsens

"There are 600 microbreweries in the UK and 35 family brewers. This sector of the market is very active."

The new tobacco?

However times are tough for the industry as a whole.

"In many ways you've got the perfect storm for pubs," says Graham Page of Nielsen, pint glass in hand.

Annual Beer Sales in shops
Lager - 2.76bn
Ale - 443m
Cider - 572m
Stout- 115m
year to May 2008
source: Nielson

"There are the supermarkets selling alcohol very cheaply, while in the pubs it is relatively expensive and you can no longer smoke.

"Then you have got an economic situation with everybody having to adapt to the lack of credit and spending power, and a government which is upping the duty on alcohol and making it the new tobacco in terms of the damage they say it is causing to our health."

And for real ale firms, there is the battle of getting a pump onto more bars, he said - with many several pubs tied to either a chain or a brewing giant, he adds.


It is a situation that means that even amid falling demand, the 10 top selling beers - led by Carling and Fosters - have more than two thirds of total sales, a market share predicted to rise to 80% by 2015 as the brewing giants flex their muscles.

But Mr Page, who has been in the industry for 40 years, said that he felt there was a reason for cask ale holding up so well.

"It has provenance, it can be organic, it can be green, it can be local - all things that people are looking for these days," he says.

"So for pubs it's something that looks good to have on your bars, and it can drive traffic."

There are pubs closing which is worrying - but it tends to be the less well-run pubs that do shut
Steve McDonald, Brewer

The same traits meant that supermarkets were happy to stock an increasingly wide range of bottled ale.

"It fits in with the pressure that they are under to offer variety and to be more local," Mr Page says.

'No downturn'

Over by the tombola stall, the prizes are mainly good pub guides, beer glasses and bottles of ale.

Nobody is going to buy a beer just because it is organic. It has to taste really nice
Andy Mitchell, brewer

Then there are the T-shirt stalls - with odes to legendary drinkers such as Oliver Reed and a parody of Lord Kitchener war recruitment posters - "Are You a Draught Dodger".

But despite the distractions, there does not seem to be much talk of anything other than beer and the industry's prospects.

After just a couple of hours, Steve McDonald had sold out of his limited supply of his award winning Severn Sins - made at his Severn Vale Brewing Company, which produces about 15 barrels of beer (approximately 4,300 pints) a week.

And he argues that those who made "decent beer" would manage to stay afloat.

"The market might be getting quieter overall but we've not noticed a downturn in business at all

"There are pubs closing which is worrying - but it tends to be the less well-run pubs that do shut," he says.

"And while the supermarkets sell drink cheaply it's a different market. If somebody wants a nice ale, perhaps something different, they will seek it out in a pub."


Over at Bar UnusuAle, there is a collection of beers including those for vegetarians and intolerance of wheat or gluten.

The bar's manager Andy Mitchell agrees that brewers need to offer something more innovative.

Mr Mitchell, has two of his own Spectrum Brewery beers at the show including the vegan Old Stoatwobbler, made at his carbon neutral brewhouse in Norfolk.

"It's something different and people like the idea of time but it has to taste good. Nobody is going to buy a beer just because it is organic," he says, wiping a wisp of froth form the edge of his moustache.

"It has to be organic and be really nice."

And judging by the volume of customers trying the Ginger Marble and Bezants ales drinkers are happy to give things a try,

In demand

Indeed the only place with bigger queues is the cider and perry section.

It has been a good few years for small cider producers
John Lewis, manager of cider and perry stall, Great British Beer Festival

And while bar manger John Lewis while he makes clear his distaste for Magners and rival mass-market ciders, he is grateful for the way they have boosted the profile of the drink.

In 2002 the bar sold 1,200 gallons of ciders and parries (cider made form pears rather than apples). This year there are 2,800 gallons available across 110 different brews- with an average strength of about 6.5%.

"When Magners advertise, they don't just advertise Magners, they advertise cider and that has been great for us and certainly the cider producers that I know are not complaining about falling sales. What we don't know yet is what effect any recession will have."

And he is praying that there will not be a repeat of last year's event which saw the cider run out at 10pm on a Friday night.

"I just called suppliers and asked them to get whatever they had up to London straight away. We sorted out the invoices after it had al been drunk.

"It has been a good few years for small cider producers. We're just hoping it can continue."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific