Views from The Bar
Melissa Cole looks at the future of cask and finds little cause for optimism
Wednesday 31 July 2019
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Right, before I start this column, which I just know is going to see more than a few people getting salty with me on socials, I want to make one thing very clear: I love cask beer.
My beer epiphany was Rooster’s Cream, served at about 100C, and it blew me away; if I absolutely had to choose a desert island beer, that would probably be it because it changed my feelings about beer forever. A rush of sensory pleasure that was quickly cemented by a sublime pint of Kelham Island Pale Rider; no wonder I married the son of the woman who introduced me to it, thanks Pam!
However, at the risk of sounding like a tedious old fart, cask ain’t what it ought to be in too many venues now and I’m deeply worried about it, not only immediately but for the future too.
In the rush to keep up with ‘craft’, handpull lines are fast disappearing from our bars and pubs, the latter of which are also closing at an alarming rate. All too often, I go into places I’ve frequented on and off for years, and upon trying two or three of the casks, I now just take a look at the keg beer and order from there and I know I’m not alone.
But why is this such a problem and what makes the industry, and drinkers, so resistant to evolving this format?
Speaking with a well-respected London publican the other week, who keeps one of the finest pints of cask ale around, he was rhapsodising about the Caskwidge system. A perceived traditional brewer I know, has seen an enormous uptick in customer spend and attraction at his tap room since he started serving real ales at 80C from a tank that has a CO2 head on it and another multi award-winning landlord told me the key is to have the cellar at 110C and the python set to 80C; all of them serve amazing pints but all go about it different ways.
Interestingly, when I put a poll on Twitter (not exactly scientific, I know, but bear with me), I asked three questions about paler beers, which make up the majority of beer sales in the UK.
The questions were: Serve cooler, e.g. 80C; serve cooler and in two thirds, or leave it alone; the results, in order, were 37%, 14% and 44% - which puts the cooler serve in the lead in total, although two thirds not as popular as I’d thought it would be.
What was really telling though, were the comments; nearly everyone who commented that it should be left alone, were talking about ‘if it’s kept correctly’, ‘I voted to leave it alone but too many places aren’t doing so’ and so on and so on, which, to me, shows a very odd attitude of wanting to keep things as they are whilst also seeing the problem that there is. And please be assured that I am not advocating conditioning at this low temperature, merely making sure that it is served at a more palatable one.
Anyway, going back to my comments about the differing ways that people are going about serving their beer shows me that this is part of the problem.
I know it’s a heady and tangled mix of issues, just some of which are pubcos, under-investment, beer ties, high taxes and zero ullage allowances but it’s also down to years of archaic attitudes to ‘how it should be done’, and a significant downturn in the art of the cellar, and it is giving me distinct collywobbles about how beer is being kept and, more importantly, how the craft of caring for it is increasingly being ignored.
With all the love and respect in the world to the people I spoke to, they are all above 50 and whilst I know that they are individually training future cellar devotees, they are just too few and far between to inspire confidence in the future of cask.
And much as I’d like to talk more informatively about how Brewdog’s ‘new’ system may, or may not, be an answer here, I’m afraid that the offer of talking to me about it was made and then all emails on the subject seemingly ignored; perhaps I was asking all the right questions, just not necessarily in the right order.
But, to return to my point about temperature, I decided to try a little experiment at home, with a temperature probe and a glass of 110C beer; within 90 seconds of pouring the beer (probably the average time it takes to pour and pay for a pint) into the glass, without me even holding it, it had increased to 120C and by holding it for another two and taking a mere two sips, it had risen to 140C and I was rapidly losing interest in drinking it, it was going flat and flabby.
The same (or as similar as you can get in a non-lab environment) experiment repeated with 80C beer, saw it warm to 110C about two inches from the bottom of the glass and made me happy to finish it to the bottom.
Yes, I know this is somewhat about personal preference, and I am most certainly not trying to make cask beer into ‘evil keg filth’, and I am not even suggesting that 80C is the perfect serve, what I am saying is that the system is flawed, places that are serving at 80C are gaining or retaining customers (and awards) and everything that sets itself up as a bastion of saving cask seems to be failing to notice this.
Cask Marque is not, I’m afraid, something I can get behind. I have been in far too many pubs with the blue plaque on them and with warm, under-conditioned beer, and an indifference to training the staff about cask that is bordering on negligence that I cannot believe it is doing much good - not to mention it insists on pythons being set to 10-140C and, checking the comments below that survey and others made in the past, I know I’m not alone in this.
CAMRA too has entirely lost its way, something I sincerely hope that its new chief executive Tom Stainer is going to arrest. Instead of pitifully campaigning for the breadcrumbs of pennies off a pint, which most consumers will never see and certainly does zero for the pubs serving cask ale, other than further devalue an already woefully under-priced artisan product, why is it not putting all those funds and resources into free cask cellar skills seminars up and down the country?
And, as for GBBF, well I had to give it a miss last year after 2017’s experience on trade day that saw me break my 10 year vow of only drinking UK beers at what should, in my opinion, only be a showcase for UK beer and visiting the foreign beer bars in a desperate search for something that was drinkable outside of the brewery-run bars. This was mostly to stave off a heavy falling out with yet another volunteer who wouldn’t know green beer if it reached up and bit them on the bum. I have higher hopes that the new team in place will have things under better control this year.
But it’s also important to point out that breweries are often heavily at fault too. I see wholesaler after wholesaler beating their heads on their desks about breweries putting palettes of beer on trucks in the blazing heat or, even worse, leaving them in yards to cook in the sun before dispatching them and then there’s other wholesalers that put beers in thin panel trucks to cook on motorways before delivering them. And in all the gloom, I should mention that wholesale businesses like Jolly Good Beer, with its commitment to cold chain, and breweries like Cloudwater deserve great recognition for the efforts they are making, and even Doom Bar is trialling a two temperature serve method.
My point in all this is, if we want to save cask beer in this country, we need a root and branch overhaul of how cask is perceived and, more importantly, how it is handled.
The brewer I mentioned earlier that serves at 80C calls it ‘our champagne’ and he’s right, it is our unique product, nowhere else in the world has the cask culture we do and if we don’t do something more proactive to protect it and, perhaps more importantly, make it appealing to future generations I fear for its survival - perhaps shaking off the shackles of current serving temperature doctrine is the very least we could be doing, but there is so much more to be done than just that.
Next month: Glass theft, I’ll be popping up another poll on Twitter on your thoughts around glass theft, so keep an eye out for it.
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