Cask confidential

With sales of real ale reportedly in freefall, Matthew Curtis asks what’s really in the future for the UK’s iconic method of beer dispense.
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Recently, I had something of a revelation while enjoying some time with friends, over a beer, in one of my favourite pubs. The setting was The Marble Arch in Manchester. Ask any beer lover worth their salt about this place and they’ll likely give you a knowing grin; it’s one of the best places to sit and enjoy a beer in the world. The beer was Marble Brewery’s Manchester Bitter, cellar cool and hand pulled through a tight sparkler, so as to showcase the ripe condition this beer was in.

This year’s Independent Manchester Beer Convention (‘IndyMan’) had once again brought me to this fine city. And it was after a committed session, among the latest and greatest modern beers within the Victoria Baths, that I once again I found myself amid the warm confines of the Arch. Everything about this pub feels welcoming. From the sloping, mosaiced floor, to the aged, ochre tiles which line the walls, to the compact, dark wooden frame of the bar. There are almost always workers from the Post Office around the corner sat enjoying a post-work pint or two, adding to this pub’s already rich tapestry. It entices you in, and doesn’t let you want to leave anytime soon. And that is fine by me.  

It was here, staring deep at the lacing of my pint of bitter, forming Saturn-like rings around the interior of my glass with each gulp, that it hit me. Cask beer is almost always better served through a sparkler. 

If you’ve just picked this magazine up after slamming it down in disgust on your coffee table, welcome back. I understand your concern. I live in London, and drink a lot of excellent, unsparkled cask beer. Some beers, when served in absolutely peak condition, get a pass here. Take Harvey’s Sussex Best as a prime example. Properly served with a perfectly convex head of foam, you’ll likely drain the nonic it’s served in before that condition has had the chance to dissipate. But some beers don’t get a pass. Take the near-perfectly served pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord I recently enjoyed in East London’s The Dove. It was delicious – stay-and-enjoy-three-pints delicious – but had it been pulled through a sparkler, it would’ve been sublime. 

The variety of opinion on the effect a little plastic nozzle has on the taste, aroma and appearance of a beer is somewhat symbolic of how, as a nation, we view cask ale. As a dispense method it’s quirky, downright weird even, something that no other country in the world can seem to get quite right despite trying. Every British person has an opinion on it, and they all differ. Cask ale is British sensibility in a nutshell. When you think about it this way, it’s no wonder it’s seen by many as an iconic, yet somewhat idiosyncratic, representation of British beer at its most pure. 

Sadly, much of the cask ale that’s out there is not a summation of British beer at its best. In fact it’s a long way off it, and this, among other reasons, has resulted in its steep decline in sales over the past seven years. 

Each year, Cask Marque, the company responsible for rating the quality of cask ale in the thousands of pubs which sign up to its scheme, releases the Cask Report. The report is a way of measuring cask’s place in the market, and is typically used to spin some positive PR for the format. 2018’s edition, which was researched by beer writer Pete Brown along with a team of fellow journalists, was somewhat different, in that it took a more honest approach to the format’s mixed fortunes. 

Within the report it was revealed that sales of cask by volume are down almost 7% over the past 12 months. If you add the year previous to that, this figure plummets into double-digit decline. It’s not universally grim reading, but it should be enough to give any fan of cask beer pause for concern. The crux of the report is that most cask beer – around 70% – is served warmer than Cask Marque’s recommended 11-13°C and that 70% of consumers would actually prefer cask to be served below 11°C. They definitely don’t want a beer that’s served tepid and near-flat. Who does?

“Quality is the biggest challenge faced by cask ale at the moment,” Brown said in a video message aired at the launch of the Cask Report. “But quality as seen by the consumer is seen in quite a different way by the industry.”

The report also came with a free digital thermometer, which naturally I decided to have a little fun with in a few of my favourite drinking establishments. Thankfully I’ve not encountered a pub I drink in regularly serving cask any warmer than 11.8°C, with the lowest being 11.2°C (which was at Northern Monk’s new Manchester taproom). This gives me hope that specialist craft beer venues have the knowledge and equipment to do cask beer properly.

However, the majority of drinkers – even the most ardent craft beer fan – isn’t going to start carrying a thermometer with them every time they visit the pub (although, personally, it’s a cross I am willing to bear). If you know good beer, then it’s likely you’ll know the best spots in which to enjoy a perfectly conditioned cask pint, but the majority of people don’t. The reality is that most people might actually find cask beer somewhat intimidating.

“The occasional, or non-cask drinker is not interested in cellar conditioning,” Brown said in his video statement. “When we are talking about a reduction in gravity, we are genuinely confusing, and alarming people as to what the hell we’re talking about.”

Cask has a bizarre image problem. It is simultaneously the hallmark of socks-and-sandals-clad CAMRA diehards, and also of bearded, tattooed and bequiffed hipsters. The common link between those two stereotypes is that they are typically straight, white men (and that, in fact, CAMRA members were the original beer hipsters). Rows of handpulls, replete with unusually-named beer from breweries you definitely haven’t heard of, don’t make the choice of buying cask beer any easier. This is worsened when small pours of each are stored in jam jars and lined up along the bar like urine samples awaiting some inevitably grim analysis. And that’s before you get into the hangover of sexism that still casts its shadow over so much of cask beer’s branding. All of this then adds to the lottery that the cask beer you order might end up being a lukewarm pint of brown nonsense. 

What’s worse is that statistically, cask beer is typically the cheapest pint on the bar, but people still insist that this is a good thing. For you and me, yes. It might mean the difference between and seven-pint and an eight-pint session (not that I would ever encourage such behavior and recommend that you drink ‘responsibly.’) But when we talk about cask being cheapest on the bar we’re talking about it being cheaper than the likes of Carling, Fosters or Stella. Cask is too often the lowest common denominator product in pubs. This means that not only does it provide low profitability for the brewer and retailer but that it is treated without the care and attention that a premium product both requires and deserves. 

Poor cask ale, I hear no-one cry. 

But, somehow, I sense a change in fortune in the air. I’ve been a part of the beer industry long enough now to realise that the majority of consumer beer trends originate within the beer industry itself. Just look at New England IPAs as an example: They began as beers like The Alchemist’s Heady Topper and Maine Beer Co.’s Dinner. Soft and juicy beers that were created because the brewers wanted to drink them. Then these were copied, and copied again, becoming thicker and more hazy with each new generation before things eventually got out of hand and your mum was buying a pack of Lallemand New England dry yeast for her latest batch of homebrew.

The industry has been saying for years, incessantly, that next year will be the year of the lager. And without too much fanfare this year it finally turned out to be true. The increasing popularity of beers such as Thornbridge Lukas, Lost and Grounded Keller Pils and Donzoko Northern Helles over the past 12 months is indicative to me that craft lager has finally arrived as a mainstream product. Next in line for its latest ascension: glorious cask ale, and here’s why I think that is. 

You only have to look to America, leaders of both the beer and the free world (well, the latter is debatable at the moment) to see the evidence. To use an Americanism, beer lovers from the United States think British cask ale is hot shit. They are obsessed with it. At this year’s Beavertown Extravaganza I had the pleasure of meeting Alexandra Nowell and Matt Brynildson, head brewers at California’s Three Weavers and Firestone Walker respectively. When the two met here in London the first question they asked each other was “have you had any cask ale yet?” before planning what sounded to me like a most excellent real ale crawl around some of London’s finest pubs. 

While you may scoff at the American admiration, nay obsession with the perfect pint of British cask ale, it’s worth remembering that without it, we might not have had craft beer as we know it at all. 

“I find it ironic that the beers that launched the American brewing revolution – cask beers like Timothy Taylor’s Landlord – are no longer respected by much of the British ‘craft’ community,” Brooklyn Brewmaster Garrett Oliver tweeted recently in defense of cask ale. “‘Modern American’ is fine, but… where do you think we got this stuff?”

Perhaps due to it being within easy reach of Heathrow Airport, Fuller’s, and its beers like Chiswick Bitter, ESB and the ubiquitous London Pride played a huge part in kick-starting the American brewing revolution. Other great beers such as Landlord, Theakston’s Old Peculiar and even Guinness all had a part to play too. When President Jimmy Carter legalised homebrewing within the US in 1978, these were the beers that a new generation of brewers turned to for inspiration. And from them were born the likes of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Goose Island Honkers, Odell 90 Shilling, Deschutes Black Butte Porter and many, many more. 

It’s through cask ale that craft beer as we know it began. You might think it’s ludicrous to say a young aspiring brewer enjoying a pint of cask ale in the late 70s is what eventually led to us experiencing New England IPA, but there we go. CAMRA is directly responsible for juice bombs. I am all ears if you have a better theory. 

What I see happening now though is young brewers and enthusiastic beer drinkers once again turning to cask ale and vocalising how much joy the depth of flavour and effortless balance – that you can sometimes only find in a pint of cask ale – brings them. It’s this passion and knowledge that has the potential to once again inspire better quality both in the brewhouse and at the bar.

This is how we ensure the future of cask. Not through 20p discounts with your membership card, not through tiny jars of what look like stale piss on the bar top, definitely not through carrying a digital thermometer and immediately dismantling the enjoyment of every pint put in front of you by taking its temperature. It’s a pint, after all, not a toddler. 

Cask ale is going to be just fine, all we have to do is give a damn about it, and I’m in if you are.

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