Love at first taste?
Stories of discovering cask ale
Illustration: Hannah Lock
Saturday 24 October 2020
This article is from
Beer52 Awards 2020
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I can vividly remember my first pint of cask. It was 14 years ago, probably sometime early in the month of October. I was sat in the Kean’s Head pub in Nottingham with my friend Harvey for our weekly drinking session that was fast becoming a tradition; late afternoon pints in the city centre, following our heaviest day of lectures in the first semester of our philosophy degree. One round in, he convinced me to try a pint of Castle Rock’s Harvest Pale on cask. As the glass was placed down on the bar top in front of me, I found that it was cool as opposed to cold to the touch. As I raised it to my lips, I was apprehensive, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was easy drinking; smooth, light and mellow.
When it came to beer, I’d been a lager drinker until that point, but Harvey had astutely noticed that I typically picked Pilsner Urquell over lighter lagers, and correctly surmised that I had a taste for rich caramel maltiness and full mouthfeel balanced with sweetness and bitterness. As I was nearing the bottom of my first ever pint of cask, he slid his glass across the table to me. “See if you like this”. His pint was Screech Owl; a more bitter and rich ale than the Harvest Pale, and stronger too at 5.4% ABV. It had notes of grass and fruit, with a long lingering finish which simultaneously left me sated but also eager for another sip. I ordered one for my next round immediately.
By the end of the year, I’d migrated to enjoying autumnal ambers and rich ruby ales. Hobgoblin became a firm favourite which I was sad to see disappear from hand pumps once the weather started turning warmer. When I spent holidays back in London, I was eager to discover more cask, and began keeping a list of every cask ale that I tried. Within a year, I had a handful of new favourite breweries both in the Midlands and back in London. When I did need a taste of the south after a hard day of studying, I knew where I needed to go back to in Nottingham to find the absolute best pint of London Pride – and also where to never order one under any circumstances.
Looking back, I feel incredibly lucky that my first experience of cask was so positive; a well-kept pint in a lovely pub. What if my first pint had been a poorly kept beer served in a dirty glass? I’ve had some of these in my time, and they are truly awful. Would I have thought I hated cask and never tried it again? The thought of that possibility makes me shudder. I decided to talk to some other real ale fans to find out more about first tastes and how important they are. I was keen to hear whether others still hold a fondness for the beer that was their first ever cask pint, as I do for Harvest Pale, and whether they would order one again.
A beer reviewer who goes by the moniker The Ale Lady shared her first ale memories with me. “It was Everards Tiger. It was from the first cask I ever cared for and tapped under expert tutelage, approximately 23 years ago. It was then that I learned the importance of keeping a good cellar and appreciated what a difference it makes. Yes. I would order one.”
For some others I heard from, including Suffolk-based beer enthusiast Dan, it certainly was not love at first pint. “I used to suffer it now and again and just assumed it was supposed to be as still as a duck pond and as warm as an armpit” admitted Dan. Fortunately, this didn’t put Dan off cask forever; I was relieved to learn that he had some better experiences later, when a few evenings at a great pub changed everything. “There is no beer as good as a good cask, in perfect condition. The sweet spot.”
There is no beer as good as a good cask, in perfect condition. The sweet spot...
For those who are simply meant to love cask, it seems that serendipity will drive them towards it – or back towards it - eventually. For Hayley, who now brews for Fullers, her first pint kick-started much more than just a new passion. “Whilst at uni, I lived in Chiswick with my friends. We went on a tour of Fullers Brewery and at the end of the tour my very first cask beer was London Pride. Cutting a long story short, a love turned into an obsession and now not only do I still drink it, I brew it too.” London Pride is still an incredibly special beer to Hayley, even after spending much time trying out lots of different craft beers. “When I come back to Pride I feel so pleased with its complex yet so well-balanced flavour. It’s like a goldilocks beer!”
For some, the initial impetus to try something different from a lager at the bar was as simple as price. Several different cask ale fans I spoke with told me that they first tried a pint of bitter due to it being a few pence cheaper than lager per pint. “Price definitely was the motivation to try cask to start with” said beer blogger and homebrewer Sean. Meanwhile, Ed highlighted cost factors as an initial reason for becoming a regular cask ale drinker. “I was struck at the price difference in my local in Southampton, circa 1999. £2.35 for a Stella, or £1.85 for a Flowers bitter. Habit formed right there.”
In my view, it’s a terrible thing that so many excellent cask ales are so much cheaper than macro lagers – even now. But perhaps what is the most concerning is that macro lager is the ‘default’ that so many are brought into the world of beer with. I was fortunate to be introduced to cask early in life, but as I heard from cask enthusiasts, many told me that they were not aware of its existence for some time.
Leucha, an engineer and historian, has a story which is the perfect example of this. “I tried what I then thought was beer as a teen in the mid-90s and didn’t like it - it was Heineken and other similar cheap lager/pils” she explained, telling me that she mostly drank cider and mixed drinks instead of beer. “I went on to another uni for postgrad, and for the first time had a mate who explained cask to me - I literally didn’t know about different kinds of beer until then. I was sold at once. I asked my Dad why he had never explained any of this stuff to me. His answer: he thought I liked cider! Well, yeah; you never told me about cask ale, Dad!”
It seems that discovering cask ultimately has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. Ralph, an avid photographer from Hertfordshire, got lucky in this regard. He told me that his Watford hockey club boasted 5 handpumps, leading to an early introduction to cask ale for him. “CAMRA folk adopted it as a social club and a succession of stewards put over 400 beers through over time. The number of people who were inculcated into a love of real/cask was amazing- even lads much younger than me developed a taste that they still have.”
The more conversations I had with cask fans, one thing struck me above all; almost everyone I spoke to said of their first pint of cask – whether they loved or hated it – that it wasn’t quite like anything else they had ever had. That was especially true for Noah, a US-based cask fan.
“On a trip to Ireland I saw a cask pale ale on the menu and decided to try it. It was much different than beer I had before, and I loved it. Light taste and a texture that was silky rather than being harsh and bubbly like pale ales in the states. I would definitely order again.”
I wondered if the swirling, golden liquid could be as delicious as it looked
As I spoke with cask fans about their first experiences, I really hoped that I would find others for whom discovering cask was a seminal moment, just as it was for me. Greg, a national pub campaigner, recounted his experience in a way that perfectly summarised just how magical it can be.
“Years before I was even old enough to consider drinking beer, I remember watching in awe as I saw pints settling on the bar. I wondered if the swirling, clearing, golden liquid could be as delicious as it looked. I was spellbound as the white cleared to a beautiful clear gold with a perfect thick white head. Years later I found it WAS just as delicious as I’d imagined! Dreams do come true!”
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