Cask Marque: Keeping up the quality of Britain’s national drink

Paul Nunny, executive director at Cask Marque

Paul Nunny, executive director at Cask Marque - Credit: Andy Abbott

IT’S a tough job but someone’s got to do it, and 45 people around the country do. The job in question is testing cask-conditioned ale for Cask Marque, the national quality scheme based in Colchester, to ensure that it consistently measures up to customers’ demanding expectations. EADT business editor (and beer writer) DUNCAN BRODIE went to meet Cask Marque chief Paul Nunny – at a pub, of course.

CONSIDERING that cask-conditioned ale is often referred to by its aficionados as “Britain’s National Drink”, a remarkable number of British drinkers – nearly half, according to one survey – claim never to have tried it.

The “national drink” tag is not without its justification. Unlike tea, probably its main rival for the title, the principal ingredients can, at least, be grown here, and ale differs substantially, in terms of character and production method, from the lager-style beers favoured in most other countries, making it quintessentially “British”.

But therein lies the problem. The term “cask-conditioned” (a more helpful description than the more emotive but less informative “real ale”) refers to the fact that traditional British ale is a fresh product which continues to ferment in the barrel.

This “secondary fermentation” gives ale a complexity in terms of aroma and taste which cannot be matched by pasteurised keg beers and lagers.

However, it also means that, unless it is treated with Tender Loving Care, not only during the brewing and distribution process but also once it reaches the pub cellar, the quality of cask-conditioned ale can fall well short of expectation.

This is where Cask Marque comes in. While the Campaign for Real Ale, founded in 1971, succeeded in sparking interest in, and indeed a fierce loyalty towards, cask-conditioned ale among a minority of drinkers, quality remained an issue.

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As a result, many people continued to shun cask ale, whether because of a “bad experience” of their own or simply because of its dubious reputation for quality.

In 1997, however, Paul Nunny, originally an accountant who had made a career in the drinks industry, first with wine merchant Lay & Wheeler in Colchester and then with Southwold-based brewer Adnams, decided that something needed to be done to make cask ale a more reliable choice if it was to fulfil its true potential in the market.

Working initially from home, and with the support of his former employers at Adnams, together with Greene King and Marston’s, he set out to secure backing from more brewers for a quality scheme. Having set himself a target of 10 he went one better and quickly ended up with 11; today Cask Marque has around 40 trade members across the country and a national team of 45 beer assessors and 15 trainers, plus a staff of 10 it its head office in Colchester.

Talking to Mr Nunny in a back room at The Swan in Stratford St Mary, acquired last year by Mark and Sophie Dorber who continue to run The Anchor in Walberswick, the strength of his belief in the cause is as clear as a good pint of bitter. (Neither of us, incidentally, just in case you wonder, is drinking anything stronger than coffee, it being a bit early for a beer.)

The need for Cask Marque at the time of its launch, says Mr Nunny, was illustrated by a consumer survey which indicated that one out of every four pints of cask-conditioned ale was of poor quality. Cask Marque’s own research, as it began its task, suggested that the proportion of poor pints was even greater, at around two out of five.

Cask Marque, he believes, has been instrumental in improving matters, first by ensuring that quality was placed higher on the industry agenda and then by reducing tolerance of poor practice.

“Addressing the quality issue required brewers to invest, in equipment and in training their staff and their licensees,” says Mr Nunny.

In a “worst case scenario”, it could cost up to £5,000 to bring a pub’s infrastructure for keeping and serving cask ale up to the required standard although in most cases the sum involved is rather smaller.

A typical issue is the temperature at which the beer is kept. Even when the temperature of the cellar is in order, the line between the cask and the pump might be long enough, depending on the layout of the building, to hold perhaps a couple of pints, getting steadily closer to ambient temperature before they are pulled.

Staff also have to be trained in the care of the ale and the equipment used to serve it. This is, Mr Nunny concedes, effectively an issue which Cask Marque has created, but it also brings its own benefits, he says, as staff can use their knowledge of the product to help sell it as well as to keep it in good condition.

Although securing Cask Marque approval can require investment in the premises, the award is personal to the licensee (and the improper display of the Cask Marque symbol can result in a Trading Standards prosecution).

Around 8,300 licensees currently hold the Cask Marque award, including around 220 in Essex,120 in Suffolk, 90 in Norfolk and 120 in Cambridgeshire.

In the normal course of events, their pubs receive two inspections a year, although any complaint to Cask Marque about a poor pint triggers an additional “mystery drinker” visit.

In all, the team of inspectors, who test ales for temperature, appearance, aroma and taste, carry out about 20,000 pub visits a year. No prior warning of a visit is given but the assessors show their identity on arrival and so the licensee, or the staff on duty, are aware of exactly which ales are being tested and when.

A second string to Cask Marque’s activity is training. It ran 520 courses last year, including one-day cellar management courses, one-to-one training with licensees and work with sales teams.

“I believe we have influenced the sector dramatically in terms of their perception of the market and the need for education,” says Mr Nunny.

Ultimately, of course, the value of the Cask Marque scheme for the licensee lies in it being understood by the drinking public, and the organisation’s latest research is encouraging.

In a survey of cask ale drinkers last year, 57% said they had seen the Cask Marque plaque at a pub and 62% were aware that it represented a quality standard. This compares with figures of 46% and 59% respectively in a similar survey conducted in 2009.

Cask Marque promotes itself to the consumer in a number of ways including the annual Cask Ale Week, which this year runs from September 27 to October 6.

The organisation also promotes the pubs operated by its 8,300 accredited licensees as “The World’s Biggest Ale Trail”. More than 9,00 participants are registered, using their smart phones to record their visit to each pub by scanning a QR code which is now included on a licensee’s Cask Marque certificate.

Rewards are on offer for those reaching key landmarks, including a day at brewery to learn more about cask ale for those who visit 100 different pubs. The leading participant has now visited more than 980 pubs, with the 1,000th visit presumably not far off.

There is also now a Caskfinder app, available in both iPhone and Android versions, which enables users to identify their nearest Cask Marque-winning pubs and gives details of the beers on offer at the time of the last inspection.

This app has 50,000 users a month and it thought to be the main factor behind awareness of Cask Marque being even higher among those aged under 35, at 62%, than the 57% across all age groups in the organisation’s last survey.

These levels of awareness among consumers are reflected in the views of Cask Marque licensees. Nearly nine out of 10 (88.5%) say holding the Cask Marque award has helped them to increase their cask ale sales and an overwhelming 98.6% said they would recommend other licensees to apply for the Cask Marque.

In terms of market share, East Anglia has, at 12%, the third largest proportion of cask ale drinkers after London and the Midlands, both on 19%. As those figures indicate, however, there is plenty of scope for further growth, with 47% of drinkers never having tried cask ale and many of those who have choosing it only occasionally.

However, progress continues to be made and, last year, cask ale outsold keg beer in the UK.

“It is really a good news story all round, for the brewer, the publicans and the consumer,” says Mr Nunny. “Everyone is a winner.”

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