Handcrafted, fresh, storied and most often locally made; cask ale should be the toast of beer lovers and regarded as the epitome of the art of brewing. Yet, it’s tanking. Again. With more ups and downs than a soap opera plot line, the story of boom and bust in the brewing world is once again on a downwards trajectory. More than 15 years after a rebrand to ‘craft’ beer peaked the interests of a new generation of drinkers, we ask, could yet another rebrand save it?
Cask beer; what is it? A product that requires expertise and skill, knowledge and care, cask conditioned beer is a living, breathing brew that reaches its peak via a secondary fermentation in the barrel. Made from a limited number of long defined ingredients and served without the use of carbon dioxide to ‘liven’ it up, it should appeal to a market driven by a fondness of all-natural claims and long held traditions. Not to mention the plethora of small, local producers still churning out the stuff. We still all love supporting the little guy, right?
And yet, it is tanking. And not just a little bit either. According to CAMRA National Chairman Nik Antona, cask is in fact in a “steep, sustained decline” and is at serious risk of failing. Cask volumes have declined by 37.1% over the past two years. And yes, you should factor in the effects of the pandemic; cask has to be served in the on-premise after all. But cask was in decline long before 2020, when the forced closure of pubs in the UK really gave it a kicking. It’s estimated the number of venues now serving it has fallen by 20%, again over the past two years.
While part of that decline is down to outlets – poor quality beers that aren’t looked after correctly don’t sell, and a short shelf life means many operators unwilling to gamble with what will sell, are reducing their range amidst unpredictable business conditions – a substantial part of the blame also lies in cask’s dwindling image.
Controversial opinion incoming… a full 15 years after ‘craft’ beer repositioned this traditional brew from preserve of the bearded and portly, to the bearded and gym-bound, the craft beer movement has actually done little to modernise and broaden its appeal since. From bro-esque branding to minimalist, industrial chic tap rooms, not-so-suddenly the whole movement and the brand worlds surrounding it is beginning to look a little dated.
And surprisingly, even CAMRA (which doesn’t have the most cutting-edge image) agrees. “The sector needs a complete makeover to excite a new demographic of consumers to give it a chance and help it compete commercially with other products on the bar,” highlights Nik Antona. “We need an industry-wide movement to boost the category and give it the prominence it deserves as the original craft beer.”
Burn it all down
Firstly, let us acknowledge there is a subtle but definite distinction between cask and craft; not all brands abandoned their burgundy, navy blue and gold livery, sweet shoppe fonts and heraldic logos in favour of typewriter fonts and images of tractors, trucks and weirdly, a propensity of boats. However, while many new cask brands that were birthed of the craft movement have failed to evolve alongside the changing demands of consumers, a number of traditional brewers have also been left behind. For those that took an ‘if you can’t beat them approach’ and aligned their long-established brands with the new visual and marketing language adopted by craft, they have in the process erased a part of their own identity. Meanwhile, the staid and traditional have failed to reach outwards in their marketing, to attract new blood to their brands. Checkmate.
And though craft ale was initially lauded for being much more unisex in both its marketing and branding than more traditional ales – a statement that was undoubtedly true – it did so merely by not actually being sexist. Whereas some traditional brands – we’re looking at you Young’s with your ‘does my bum look big in this?’ Courage advert – were still very much existing in and shaping a vision of a ‘man’s world’ back in the mid noughties, craft upon its emergence claimed more unisex appeal simply by not doing that.
However, now we find ourselves in the midst of a me-too movement among craft brewers (all the tawdry details are just one depressing Google search away), where female employees have called out the sexism they have experienced while working for some of the industry’s biggest brands, this stance has been shown to be as dated as its predecessors.
What’s more, the lack of any evolution in the category at all, means that although the movement did a good job of capturing new consumers buoyed by this progressive, new alternative, in its first wave where it defined itself as the David-like antidote in a world of beer Goliaths, it has by virtue of failing to evolve, ceased to pick up any more since.
So what to do? Can creative branding agencies create new, more modern branding for existing brands, to rejuvenate their image? Are there new cues, new social and environmental causes brands need to authentically champion and speak on if they are to have relevance to new consumers? Or should smaller brands simply champion the people behind them, to tell new, relatable stories?
Walk the walk
Yes, but only if brands actually walk the walk. Craft beer, cask beer, has found itself in such rapid decline by failing to fit into consumer’s lifestyles with its branding. The quirks of the liquid itself – bound to the on-trade and in need of care to be served well – have made its battle harder, but in truth are its key selling point in a world looking for true craft and authenticity.
Brands need to tear up the staid and boring visual language craft has developed – no more rock and roll grunge, no more brown paper bag backgrounds, or stencilled fonts – to disassociate itself from everything that has gone wrong with the movement, which is most notably, its deep hypocrisy.
And though the new wave of craft brands favour bold prints of pastel-hued clouds or paint splashes, these abstract wraps on cans have themselves become ubiquitous and lack brand recall for consumers, when they al simply merge into one. It's time for brands to stop looking inwards towards the marketplace, and be bold enough to take their own path, and forge their own, brand new visual identity.
However, this will only work if they finally and simply stand for something. With consumers acutely aware that many craft players have been bought up by the Goliaths they once claimed to be the antithesis of, continuing to play the rebellious small guy now not only looks deeply out of touch, but against the background of a sexism scandal, looks incredibly toxic too.
Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?
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