However, keg ale brewers say their sector remains buoyant, pointing to the strength of the category in Scotland’s pubs.
Ian Risby, divisional manager for McEwan’s Beer Company, acknowledged that cask ale has benefitted from a “huge revival” which is still “well underway”.
“However, interestingly, within Scotland, keg is still the more dominant category which accounts for 61% of sales, against 39% for cask,” said Risby, in reference to figures from data firm CGA.
Gordon Muir, brand manager at Belhaven, was also candid about the competition facing the keg ale market, highlighting the “rise of craft beers”, a development that has seen Scottish pubs offering a much wider range of ales.
“However, traditional keg ales still remain a huge market and are a very important part of the on-trade offer,” he said.
“We can see interest in flavourful beers growing in sales of our craft beers as well as reflecting well on Belhaven Best.”
Traditional keg ales still remain a huge market and are a very important part of the on-trade offer.
And despite new drinking trends emerging in recent years, Muir highlighted the benefit of the loyal custom enjoyed by keg ales.
“Our research shows that loyal drinkers of keg ale will stick with the category come rain or shine, so seasonal shifts are down to frequency of pub visits rather than a switch between categories,” said Muir.
“The traditional view of drinkers moving onto darker ales as the nights draw in is being challenged by the increasing visibility and popularity of pale ales and IPAs, which certainly showed year-round appeal last winter.”
Loyalty may guarantee the place of stalwart brands in the cellar, but Muir also advised publicans to look carefully at how to make the most of limited space when ranging ale.
“With so many new beers on offer in keg, all fighting for limited cellar and bar space, it is really important for operators to make their range work as hard as possible so that each tap is offering a good choice, taking into consideration aspects such as colour, strength and region as well as providing a range of well-known and trusted breweries alongside some that are lesser-known,” he said.
“Local keg and packaged offerings are also very important as a good mix of Scottish and regional ranges can really drive sales.”
Paul Condron, marketing director at Tennent Caledonian, agreed that “ranging properly is essential” when it comes to ale.
“Using a strong smooth ale brand with good brand support behind it can be critical to strong sales and then supplement this by using your cask and bottles space to offer choice,” said Condron.
Having the right ale helps, but it’s not just product, it’s the way in which it is served that gets results in the on-trade, and Condron suggested operators should aim to provide the perfect serve to their customers every time.
“Where ales are concerned, licensees should look to offer the perfect pour at all times,” he said.
“Ale drinkers are focused on quality and will accept nothing less.
“Simple measures such as ensuring lines are kept clean at all times and glassware in good condition will have a positive impact on sales growth.”
Using a strong smooth ale brand with good brand support behind it can be critical to strong sales.
What goes on behind the bar was deemed “just as important” as what is seen out front by Risby at McEwan’s.
“Making sure bar staff are well trained on pouring technique, glassware for each beer and cellar management is imperative,” he said.
“Staff should also be able to make recommendations to customers to maximise sales and should know the taste profile of each beer on the bar.”
With the festive period on the horizon, Risby suggested that now may be the time to give staff “a refresher” to ensure everyone is up to speed, “and standards don’t slip when it’s exceptionally busy through November and December, so customers get a consistently great quality pint”.
And he also recommended several steps for publicans who are “really shaking up” their range for the season.
“Why not start a ‘try before you buy’ initiative so customers can taste a sample of the new beers on offer – this is also a great way to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t,” said Risby.
“Beer and food matching is another excellent way to encourage those customers who are new to ale to consider your range.
“Why not pick a few key items on the menu to start and provide a different beer match recommendation for each?”