I was talking to Pete Brown, author of the annual Cask Report, at the launch of Cask Beer Uncovered, the £2m e-learning initiative for bar staff launched this week. His favourite local, Brown said, had a licensee who was fanatical about his cask ale, and looked after it scrupulously. Unfortunately, the licensee has failed to pass on the skills he has to any of his staff, with the result that if he is off on a busy Saturday evening, there might be a cellar full of different cask beers ripe for the serving, and only one actually available upstairs in the bars, because none of the bar staff knew how to change a cask that had run out.
It can only be hoped that Cask Beer Uncovered, and the other e-learning courses available, such as Greene King’s Beer Genius, launched last month, will end this sort of egregious fail, and ensure that all bar staff know as much about the products they serve, and how to ensure they are served in as perfect condition as possible. Cask Matters, the organisation behind Cask Beer Uncovered (and the Cask Report), wants to see 100,000 bar staff put through the Cask Beer Uncovered programme over the next three years. That’s scarcely two people per pub, however. If you go through the five modules in the (entirely free) programme, and get right at least 75% of the 15 questions you will be asked, then you can print yourself off a personalised Craft Beer Uncovered certificate. Pub owners should be telling their staff that if they can show one of those certificates, that will be an immediate payrise.
It is a puzzle, nearly 45 years after the Campaign for Real Ale was founded with the specific aim of improving the quality of the beer served in British pubs, that something like Cask Beer Uncovered is still needed. Cask Marque, the sister organisation to Cask Matters, is doing a tremendous job in seeking to ensure quality beer on the bar, with more than 20,000 pub inspections a year. But with the number of pubs signed up to the Cask Marque scheme now approaching 9,500, that still represents only about one outlet in five. Not all of the remaining 40,000 or so pubs will sell cask, of course – only around 60% or so of all pubs do. But that still suggests drinkers could be risking a murky, warm, badly kept pint of cask ale in 40% of all the pubs they visit, as well as not finding cask ale at all in another 40%. As every report on the cask beer market says, if customers are served a poor pint, they are likely not to come back for another.
The surely obvious fact is that a well-kept pint of cask beer is not just a joy, it’s the licensee’s best weapon in the fight to lure people out of their living rooms and down the pub. You cannot get it as fresh, as perfect, as it is anywhere else outside the bar of a well-run public house. Punch Taverns’ external affairs and central operations director, Andy Slee, who was at the reception at the Morpeth Arms on Millbank in Westminster attended by the community and pubs minister, Kris Hopkins, that launched Cask Beer Uncovered, said Punch was one of the dozen or so companies that have funded the Cask Beer Uncovered initiative because of the importance of cask beer to the company: “We see cask beer as a competitive advantage for our pubs, not just against drinking at home, but also against managed houses, which are often very food-focused,” Slee said. “One in five pints sold in Punch pubs is cask beer, as opposed to one in eight nationally. We put a lot of time and effort into working on the quality. We’re the biggest pubco in Cask Marque, and to encourage our licensees to be members of the Cask Marque scheme we pay for the first 18 months of their membership. We see it as a critical signpost to the consumer of a quality outlet. That’s why we were delighted to be part of the development of Cask Beer Uncovered. It’s not just about promoting cask beer to current consumers – it’s all around attracting new consumers, the next generation.”
I’d encourage you to go through the Cask Beer Uncovered course, which you can register for here: it kicks off with a short flag-waving, Elgar-playing section on how wonderful cask ale is which, if you’ve seen the “I am a Craft Brewer” film made in 2009 for the American Craft Brewers Conference, will look rather familiar (try playing “name those British brewers” as they shoot past – and spot the one whose brewery, whoops, produces far more keg beer than cask …) but the next five sections, which cover the brewing process, ingredients and their impact on beer flavour, beer conditioning in the pub cellar, choosing the right range of cask beers and the importance of throughput and quality, serving the perfect pint of cask beer, promoting cask beer to customers and matching beer with food, put across their messages in a thorough, accurate and non-patronising manner – and give the viewer a test at the end of each section to see what they have absorbed. It then recommends other cellar management courses, including the BII’s ABCQ (Award in Beer and Cellar Quality) course, and CPL’s Introduction to Cellar Management e-learning course. Take the Cask Beer Uncovered test yourself, see how well you do. I’m delighted (and relieved) to say I got 100% and now have my Cask Beer Uncovered certificate. Can I have a payrise, please, Mr Charity?
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info
© Martyn Cornell