Cask ale volumes are back in growth for the first time in 20 years, with a 1.6% uplift, according to the Cask Report 2012-13.
Around 2.2 million barrels of cask, equating to some 633 million pints, were sold last year.
Over the same period, cask also overtook keg as the most popular format for draught ale, increased its penetration of the pub market to 56%, according to the report.
And a survey of UK adults showed that 53% had tried it, while the frequency with which it is drunk by existing cask customers increased.
Report author Pete Brown said: "The Cask Report has been analysing the sector for six years now and while cask has been outperforming the beer market for most of them, this is the first full year of actual growth. Sales growth during a recession is an impressive achievement, doubly so against a background of declining overall beer volumes and a shrinking number of pubs.
"This excellent performance speaks volumes for the increasing popularity of cask among consumers, as well as a growing realisation among licensees that cask, as an "only in pubs" drink, can help them drive footfall and sales. Pubs that sell cask are less likely to close than non-cask stockists - as witness cask's increasing share of the declining pub market."
This year's Cask Report is published at the start of Cask Ale Week (28 September - 7 October). This celebration of cask ale - often called real ale - is focusing on "try before you buy", which was highlighted in the report as the single most effective way of introducing new drinkers to cask. Some 8,000 pubs will be offering free tasters during Cask Ale Week, which is also being supported by a national newspaper offer and an "introduce a friend to cask" promotion.
Community, wet-led pubs still dominate cask's distribution base, but it also increased its penetration in café-bars and town-centre circuit venues, demonstrating its growing appeal to younger drinkers.
The average number of handpumps on the bar, among pubs that sell cask ale at all, is 3.1, rising to 4 for "cask champions" - a research group of licensees for whom cask ale forms the core element of their business. Cask champion pubs rotate at least one of their ales weekly, and are keen stockists of microbrewer beers, but crucially they also recognise the need to offer well-known names.
In mainstream managed pubs, drinkers are looking for some permanency in the cask offer, and too many unfamiliar names on the bar, rotated too often, can lead to a drop in cask sales, according to Brown's report.
Among drinkers who have never tried cask ale, the biggest reason cited - by 28% of respondents - is "I don't know" . A further 16% "don't know where to start" or say they need more information.
Brown says, "This means that 44% of current non-cask drinkers are all potential drinkers: they don't have any dislike or prejudice about cask and are effectively waiting for a reason to try it. All we need to do is give them that reason." Persuading these drinkers to buy two pints of cask ale per month - a conservative estimate - would add some 70 million pints to annual cask volumes.
By Neil Gerrard
E-mail your comments to Neil Gerrard here.
Looking for a new job? Find your next job here with Catererandhotelkeeper.com jobs