Fifteen years ago, the most popular wines in the UK were pretty mediocre and if you dined away from home, you would largely choose the house red or white, with only the bravest contemplating a rosé.
How times have changed. Not only is there a massive selection of wines and styles available, we are more discerning and educated, being able to separate a Chardonnay from a Sauvignon Blanc, a Spanish from a Chilean. How has this happened?
First, the wine industry has focused on quality. There has also been an education of the trade and the consumer through the increased choice available, the offering of samples and a huge increase in press coverage. Most importantly, wine is no longer snobbish and exclusive, but accessible to everyone.
So, what about cask ale? Well, we have certainly improved the choice. From the days of Watneys Red Barrel we now have a huge and thriving brewing community, from well-established brands to cutting-edge microbreweries.
Unfortunately, the quality aspect still needs attention - mediocrity and funny pump clips will not cut the mustard and could damage the industry beyond repair. All brewers need to focus on the standard of what they produce. Likewise pubs, clubs and hotels need to improve how they keep and dispense cask ale. After all, the future of the industry is in their hands - supermarkets don't allow bad wine on the shelves and publicans should not permit bad beer to be dispensed through their taps. Training is therefore paramount and programmes such as the Advanced Beer Cellar Quality course should be a must for all cask ale stockists. Likewise, organisations such as Cask Marque should be used more.
the need for education
On education, again we fall short. Go to a top restaurant and you get wine presented by a sommelier; in a good coffee shop you'll get a barista; but who in the pub is the cask ale champion? Who is there to talk to the customer about the extensive range and flavours on offer? In some places it will happen, but unfortunately not enough.
Column inches dedicated to beer are increasing and there are some excellent bloggers pushing the cause, but we need more.
We need to open up the category to more people. We need to engage with them and get them to appreciate what cask ale can offer. We need to allow them to sample the beer before they commit to buy it, and harness their passion for cask ale in the same way that the wine industry has managed to. Then, and only then, will we be onto a winner. And, if we get that far, the good news is that we won't have to ship it in from all over the world.