cask beer

What is the COM-B framework? 

The COM-B framework is a tool for understanding and influencing behaviour change. It consists of four components: Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation – Behaviour (COM-B). According to this framework, an individual’s behaviour is influenced by their ability to perform the behaviour (including physical and cognitive capability), the opportunity to engage in the behaviour (such as time, money, social support, and the physical environment), and their motivation to do so. If there is a lack or reduction in any of these components, the behaviour is less likely to occur.  

A complex challenge: Reviving the cask beer category 

Cask beer (or real ale) is a cornerstone of British brewing culture with a rich history dating back to the Middle Ages. What sets cask beer apart is its unique flavour and texture, which is achieved through an additional fermentation process. However, the quality and enjoyment of a pint of cask beer doesn’t just depend on the craftsmanship of the producers; it also relies on the pubs that serve it. In order to maintain the optimal quality of the cask beer, pub staff must follow strict guidelines for storage and ensure that it is served within 5-7 days of tapping, as its quality can quickly decline after that. This means that the experience of cask beer requires careful attention and care at every stage, from production to serving. 

Despite being a staple of British brewing, cask beer has been losing market share to keg beer, craft beer, and other alcoholic beverages. This decline began before the Covid-19 pandemic, but the pandemic has exacerbated the trend, solidifying cask beer’s downward trajectory. The challenges facing cask beer brands are multifaceted, and so a framework from the behavioural sciences discipline can be useful in understanding the complex web of factors behind this decline. 

COM-B and the decline of the cask beer category in: 

Behaviour – Ordering cask beer in a pub.  

Due to the meticulous nature of cask beer, it is not available for purchase in stores like keg beer and other alcoholic beverages. Instead, it can only be found and consumed in pubs. Therefore, in order for someone to enjoy cask beer, they must first engage in two behaviours: visiting a pub and then ordering cask beer.

Motivation – Are people sufficiently motivated to drink cask beer?  

  • Habit building during Covid – with pubs being forced to close, many people began drinking at home instead. This shift also led to an increase in the purchase of beer at stores and online. Performing these new actions repeatedly may have solidified them for some consumers, forming a new habit.
  • Health concern – even as Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, some consumers may still be hesitant to spend time in crowded places, which could affect their decision to visit a pub. 
  • Perception problem – there is a threefold perception problem around cask beer: 1) It is often perceived as an “old person’s drink,” which may deter younger people from ordering it. 2) It is sometimes seen as being less suitable for the summer season because it is not always served cold enough at pubs. 3) It is often perceived as being lower quality because it is typically cheaper than keg and craft beer options. 
  • Quality – the first impression of cask beer is crucial in determining whether someone will develop a love for it. However, if a pub does not follow best practices, such as serving cask beer within 7 days of tapping, the experience will be subpar and may turn people off from cask beer. 

Opportunity – Do people “get around” to go to the pub and order cask beer? 

  • Cost of living crisis – the current economic climate has resulted in many consumers having reduced purchasing power, which may lead them to look for ways to save money, including on non-essential expenses like alcoholic beverages. 
  • Social occasions – the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a shift in consumer behaviour, with many people becoming more comfortable with ordering online and drinking at home. Additionally, the health concerns surrounding pubs and the ongoing cost of living crisis have likely contributed to the decline in social events and gatherings taking place in pubs. 

Capacity – Do people have the capability to choose cask beer? Do they know about it?  

  • Availability – as pubs have seen a reduction in attendance and demand for cask beer, many have started offering fewer cask beer options, or have stopped offering it altogether in favour of keg and craft alternatives. This makes economic sense for pubs, as serving cask beer requires significant effort and training. However, this trend has made competition among cask beer producers fierce, as they must lower their prices in order to attract pubs. The short shelf life of cask beer also presents a unique challenge to pubs, as they must sell it within 7 days of tapping or risk serving subpar beer or losing money by discarding it 
  • Knowledge gap – the high budgets behind keg beer brands (such as Heineken, Amstel, and Tiger) and the craft beer boom have led to greater awareness and consideration of these options among consumers. This makes it even more challenging for cask beer to attract the new generation of beer drinkers. 

Drawing an interconnected COM-B map allows us to identify the main drivers behind the decline of the category and in turn enables us to see how they connect to one another. They can then help identify what needs to be prioritised and addressed first. Then, the rich field of behaviour insights can be applied to ensure that the solution will be effective and lead to the desired behaviour change: an increase in cask beer consumption. 

Applied behaviour sciences: raising awareness and re-constructing perception  

The long-term survival of the category is in its ability to become relevant and attractive to a younger audience. However, there are several challenges to overcome. Many young people may not be aware of cask beer, as alternative options receive more marketing support. Additionally, cask beer may not be widely available or prominently displayed in pubs, which can make it difficult for younger people to try it. Even if it is available, the lower price point of cask beer may not be enough to entice them to give it a chance. 

One way to address these challenges is to borrow an insight from behavioural sciences: leverage the psychological concepts of loss aversion and scarcity. When something is perceived as rare or in limited supply, consumers tend to value it more highly than readily available alternatives. For example, limited-edition products are valued more precisely because they are not mass produced. 

Similarly, consumers often feel more strongly about losing something they already have than gaining something new. This principle was demonstrated in the public outrage over the proposed removal of Bounty from Celebration chocolates box. Despite being the least popular flavour in the mix, once the removal was proposed, consumers mobilized and protested. As a result, Bounty remained, and the brand received a lot of free publicity. 

A similar approach could be effective for cask beer. If manufacturers and pubs came together and announced that they were stopping production and sale of cask beer but would do one final production run to celebrate the best of British brewing, they could create a sense of scarcity and exclusivity. By raising prices to the level of premium beers available in pubs, they could also increase the perceived value of cask beer.  

This marketing effort could appeal to the British beer-drinking public and help reignite interest and appreciation for the category. As customers flock to the pubs to enjoy the cask beer options, the producers could then “change course” and continue production citing to the high demand. 

For cracking tough challenges and finding out of the box solutions, get in touch with the Behave Team. 

Daniel Hegman - Associate Consultant

Author:Daniel Hegman - Associate Consultant