It seems to have taken me a while but I finally had a chance to sample the Galway Bay American Amber and it was on cask, apparently a rarity. First off, the beer is outstanding as I have come to expect from Galway Bay. You can read TheBeerNut's thoughts if you want to know more about the kegged beer but I suspect it was a lot better on cask. It was €6.30 for a pint (it's 7.4%) but they wouldn't take my Beoir voucher for .50c off "because of the cask premium". That didn't bother me as I can use the vouchers for plenty of other beers but it got me thinking.
Why is there a premium put on cask beer in Ireland? In my experience, whenever I am in the UK I always notice just how much cheaper cask ale is compared to keg. In some cases, that difference might be influenced by fact that your average cask ale has a lower ABV so it costs less to make but that can't account for all of it.
Here is perhaps the best example of the price disparity. The above image was taken a few weeks ago at The Hanging Bat in Edinburgh. It was during a Tiny Rebel tap takeover. Everything on the left is cask and the rest is keg. Many of the cask beers are duplicated on keg. They are the same ABV so that doesn't come in to it. Taking an example, Fubar is 4.4% and on cask it costs £2.40 but the kegged version is £3.40? Go ahead and click the image to see it full size.
This shows that cask beer is typically cheaper in the UK but why is that? A little reading seems to indicate that it costs more to keg a beer than to put it in a cask. I'm not really sure how that can be to be honest, perhaps something to do with the kegging equipment costing more but that would only be an initial cost and not an ongoing cost surely?
I believe the real reason is consumer expectation. Consumers simply expect cask beer to be cheaper, perhaps because it has a significantly shorter shelf life (a few days) compared to keg. It needs to be a high turnover product or else it goes to waste and charging the same as keg isn't likely to make the average person pick a cask ale over a kegged ale.
In Ireland, cask is only now making a comeback in the last 5 years. We have gone from zero pubs serving cask ale to dozens around the country. Not many are 100% sure what they are doing and almost none have proper cellarmen capable of keeping the casks in optimum condition.
To make things more difficult for the future of cask in Ireland, a premium is charged by pretty much every bar I have been to on their cask products. The average pub goer isn't going pay more for a beer that is essentially warm and flat when they can spend less money for the same beer and have it cold and fizzy.
I'm not sure where the fault lies though. Maybe with the breweries or the pubs or perhaps even both. I do think something needs to change if cask is to have any real future in Ireland. It needs to be a little cheaper than the kegged version. If that means breweries cutting their costs or pubs reducing their profit margin to gain higher turnover, then that's what needs to be done. If it doesn't, the cask revival will not only fade away, it will be good riddance because all people will remember is paying a premium for a beer that was served in bad condition, probably well past its best and by bar staff who likely didn't know how to treat a cask ale in the first place.
One of the few places in Ireland doing cask properly are J.W. Sweetman in Dublin. They only tend to put on cask at the weekend which means it's gone by Sunday. I don't think they charge any more for it, though I don't think they charge less either. At least the beer you get is in good condition because it's fresh but also, the on-site brewer only allows it to be sold if he is happy with it.