Pump country

Talk about a cask comeback? In the north of England, it never went away. But times may still be changing, finds Katie Taylor


There’s whispers on the wind that cask beer is big news in trendy town. But what if where you live doesn’t care about trends? What if where you live, keg beers are still treated with suspicion? What if where you drink, the beers have always been cask, poured through sparklers, and served glassy and polished to suit the adage: “If it int bright, it int right”? Is it possible that your local pub, with its pool team, wonky toilet doors and clashing carpets, is at the forefront of craft beer’s trend machine?

That cask is finally getting the appreciation it deserves is lovely to see. It’s an important part of beer heritage in Britain and represents what so many of us view as the pinnacle of brewing (to borrow a phrase from CAMRA). Rather than making a comeback, it’s steeped in my life and connected to me by vivid memories and well-trodden anecdotes. I’m northern, and not only that, I’m rural northern. Cask is as vital to my personal wellbeing as wholemeal toast and woolly walking socks. I can’t separate my heart from the issue, so from now on this will be an unashamedly biased depiction of what cask means to us northerners. 

Why pick out the north of England? Well, that’s my frame of reference. There are plenty of excellent cask beer-loving areas of the Midlands, the South, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland where the beer is good and the cellars are well-kept, but that’s not where my roots are. Perhaps you can corner me and tell me about the best cask where you live if you ever see me out and about. I’d love to hear about it.

"The locality of their beers, the fact they were northern and brewed in the north, it became important"

In any good pub in the north you’ll find people of all ages and descriptions drinking cask beer. There’s a ubiquitous feeling of ownership and loyalty about it, as though cask bitter is one of life’s constants around which you can base an existence. In my particular corner of the north, some of the most common beers you’ll find are pale ales and bitters, and one of the most commonly found breweries in my area is Moorhouse’s. I figured that, as one of the largest independent traditional brewers in the area, they might know a thing or two about cask’s popularity around these parts, so I called to ask why they felt cask beer is so extremely important to us northerners.

“Look at all the once-great northern breweries of the past – Boddingtons, Tetley’s, John Smiths,” said Lee Williams, MD of Moorhouse’s in Burnley. “The locality of their beers, the fact they were northern and brewed in the north, it became important. It was part of the social scene of the beer.” 

And then there’s the important issue of dispense – add northerners’ preference for sparklers and you’ve found another way to set ‘northern cask’ apart as Lee explains:

“Northerners always had a head on their beer, southerners didn’t. It became a badge of identity, and identified them – us – as different. It was a source of pride and that’s where it’s returning to; rather than a drink for old men, craft has developed cask’s relevance to modern tastes and it’s becoming seen more widely as a revered product to be proud of.”

Phil Saltonstall, the director of Brass Castle brewery in Malton, Yorkshire, has seen his fair share of conflicting opinions about cask beer in the north of England. Famous most recently for bagging top visitors’ choice awards at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival for two of its cask beers, I wanted to know if, as a newer brewery with an experimental streak, Brass Castle had seen a different side to the drinking habits of northerners. After all, Moorhouse’s might see more habitual favouritism and loyalty given its 150 years in the business. How did his experiences with northern customers compare? 

“I think like many newer breweries we started with cask because of its relative simplicity and lower initial financial outlay. Obviously, we’re based in North Yorkshire which is an area more amenable to cask, so people already know and love cask beer. The shortest answer though is that people here choose it because of how much it costs. Here cask is seen as ‘cheap and cheerful’ and drinkers, particularly those who have been long-term-loyal to a certain beer, feel any small rise in price very keenly. In the north, cask beer has been seen as a ‘poor person’s pint’ for a long time. We have customers who enjoy all types of beers, but along with those who favour cask, of course we also have keg and can fans who may never cross over.” 

"In the north, cask beer has been seen as a ‘poor person’s pint’ for a long time"

So, it’s fair to say that cask beer is loved in the north for its accessibility, reliability – a person can find a beer they like and stick with it for life – and price. It’s a hard lesson I keep learning, but however many times I deny that we northerners are tight (I prefer “fiscally vigilant”), the point is proven to me all over again. Cask is a birth right around here. Raise the price and you’ll feel wrath from all sides. That’s what worries Phil – that we’ve undervalued cask, and it will become tougher to brew good cask beer unless we learn to price it “correctly”. Even as it gets nudges closer and closer to the craft beer spotlight, this seems unlikely.

“I think cask beer is artificially cheap, and in many cases, keg is artificially expensive. I sincerely hope that the likes of Cloudwater elevate the image of cask beer as a “luxury” product, but it will take time. I think the future of cask, especially in the north of England, will be adjacent to the future of CAMRA. It has the opportunity to be the de-facto authority on how we recognise our beer as a luxury product, but we can’t achieve that while they run money-off coupons.”

The future of cask is a big topic, particularly at this point in time when many craft breweries are looking to cask as their next great adventure. I wanted to know why proper northern Moorhouse’s customers buy proper northern Moorhouse’s beer, according to Lee.

“They’re after reliable quality,” he says. “In all honesty, what we aim to do is make great-tasting sessionable beer that will sell, which is what landlords want to know. Our reputation is for making beer that you know well, and that’s what most of our drinkers are interested in. The problem occurs when we want to break into other areas. How do we stand out with beers like ours?”

It’s an interesting question. As much as cask is well-loved around these parts, there are large groups of the population who aren’t giving it much thought. Lee continues:

“We relied on our legacy for too long. Young people want an experience and they are willing to pay for it. Now we want to meet their expectations and create beer they’d actually want to drink, which is why we experiment on the small kit. When we held our #Tryanuary event at The Wharf in Manchester, it was great to see so many people learning that we can do all the things they expect from a craft brewery, but it was also nice to see everyone drinking White Witch as the night drew on. And that’s what we weigh up: you have to wrestle the positives of whether you want plaudits and praise for your experimentations, or if you want to make a beer that people develop an emotional connection with. For that reason, our cask and other craft brewery cask beers exist in very different spaces.”

"you have to wrestle the positives of whether you want plaudits and praise for your experimentations, or if you want to make a beer that people develop an emotional connection with"

Brass Castle’s appearance at the Beers From The Wood bar at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival showed that tradition has a place for newer, craft-led cask breweries. For Phil, landlords are signalling that beer from the wood could become a larger trend this year, and not just for the older drinkers who still see it as the gold standard of dispense.

“Everybody we’re talking to is asking us if we have beer in the wood to give them. There’s a definite value-added aspect there, and I think it signals quality to many people, because it visually associates beer as being closer to wine.”

Perhaps this is how northerners will begin to see cask as less of an under-appreciated budget product. Will beer from the wood allow it to begin its ascent to greatness? As a parting comment, Phil tells me he thinks we need to tread carefully on that.

I’m very concerned that if we successfully pitch certain cask beers as being of higher quality, a level of wine snobbery will enter the beer world,” he adds. “Beer is approachable for all of us and I would hate for drinkers to begin to sneer at each other’s choices at the bar. I’m intimidated by wine. I would hate for people to be intimidated by beer.”

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