Tasting real ale

As the pubs slowly reopen, Katie Mather give us a timely reminder of how to enjoy cask beer

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Yorkshire is one of Britain’s real ale heartlands, where devotees of cask conditioned beer have been contentedly supping away for generations. For those uninitiated into this quintessentially British beer phenomenon though, it can present a bit of a learning curve. While we’re in God’s own country then – and have been kept out of the pubs for a year – it’s about time for a refresher course in how to cask. 

It might be a common joke that real ale fans are quite picky when it comes to their pints (“can you top that up please love?”) but why shouldn’t you be? After all, a pint is one of the greatest things in life. If it’s not up to scratch, it can be one of the most disappointing. Brewers want to know if their beer isn’t being served perfectly, and pubs actually, believe it or not, appreciate being told if the beer they’re serving might be on the turn.

So here I am, telling you to go forth and be confident in your beer drinking skills. You know things. Now go and drink great beer in actual beer gardens.

Look

Depending on your beer’s style, the liquid in your glass could be anywhere between a pale, limpid yellow to a deep, dark well of darkest chocolate. 

It could also be pin-bright — the term for a beer clear enough to see out the other side of — or hazy like a misty morning. Gone are the days when cloudy beer automatically meant there was a problem with your beer. But you know that, you NEIPA hounds.

What should always be the case, is that there is a decent head on your beer. It doesn’t have to be a fluffy bouffant, but if there’s no head at all, it means there’s a problem. Advance to next step.

Sniff

If there’s space, swirl the beer in your glass around a little to release more aroma. Obviously, don’t do this with a full pint. 

Take a few short sniffs rather than a big whiff. Your smell receptors actually prefer smelling in this way, and you won’t tire them out so quickly.

What can you smell?

Good smells: Malty, toasty, chocolate, hop characters like white pepper, spice, resin, grass, citrus fruits and peel, fruitiness — from stone fruit all the way to tropical. 

Off smells: Butter or caramel in a style that doesn’t allow it, sweetcorn, cabbage, ketchup (or thousand island dressing), old pennies, sulphur (eggs, rotten or otherwise), bananas and/or pear drops in a style that doesn’t allow it, burned rubber, skunky-mustiness, damp cardboard, cough syrup, emulsion paint, green apples, baby sick or old milk, cheese, sweat, mouthwash.

Generally, my rule of thumb is that if the smell is unpalatable, it’s a fault. Many beer styles express certain aromas that in other beer styles would be considered a fault. Brewers often get creative with esters and hop characters in new varieties which can have surprising results — but the main point is, it has to be pleasant.

Taste

Take a sip and, if you don’t feel too silly, swish it around your mouth a bit to get the full effect.

How does the beer taste to you?

Generally, if it’s off, you’ll know about it straight away. There are many, many specific off flavours that can occur in tainted or bad beer, and they overlap with the aromas mentioned already:

  • Green apples
  • Hot, unpleasant alcohol
  • Astringency/too much tannin
  • Powderiness
  • Cider
  • Butter
  • Toffee
  • Sweetcorn
  • Boiled cabbage
  • Musty old cut grass
  • Raw cereal
  • Medicinal — from bleach to cough drops
  • Pennies
  • Mouldy bread
  • Damp cardboard or newspaper
  • Old sherry
  • Soap
  • Solvents — like tasting varnish

If your beer tastes like any of these things, take it back to the bar and let them know. Pubs do not want to sell bad beer to people. Also, you’ll be doing the rest of the beer world a favour. If more people stand up for well-kept beer, dodgy pints will get rarer and rarer. 

How to take your pint back

It’s nerve-wracking. Your mates will sip your beer and tell you it’s fine. But you’re looking at its lacklustre, soapy bubbles and sniffing its wet dog scent. You know it’s wrong. And you definitely don’t want to put it into your body.

There’s no secret rule. Just politely head back to the bar and tell them you’re pretty sure the beer is off. Tell them what you think is wrong with it exactly, if you can. In a good pub, they’ll get you a replacement, no questions asked.

In a pub that’s less inclined to care about the beer they sell, they might taste it and tell you it’s fine. You might feel like you can argue, and that’s up to you, but I’d advise against getting arsey. In these situations, as a woman who just wants to have a nice evening without feeling stressed or intimidated, I just tell them to keep it and ask for a glass of water. The fact that I don’t harangue them for a refund or a replacement generally baffles them and I get a replacement anyway. If they are especially rude, I don’t go back to that pub. There are plenty of other places in the world that actually care about selling great beer.

Delicious aromas and flavours to look out for

One of the best things about drinking craft beer is that there’s so much good to look for — it’s not all about checking what’s wrong with it.

Real ale is exactly the same. In a great glass of beer you’ll find a wealth of aromas and flavours to revel in, and with some of your favourite breweries making cask beer more of a priority, modern cask could even at times be described as “surprising”.

Cask beer can be more subtle in its flavour and aroma profiles than craft beer. By their nature, modern styles of beer like American IPA, NEIPA, DIPA and TIPA are bold, exaggerated and full of big, confident aromas. This comes from new hop varieties bred especially for specific density and type of aroma, and/or from the sheer volume of hops used in brewing these beers. In beers like DIPAs and TIPAs the result can be purposefully overwhelming, and in unbalanced versions of these beers, flavours can be distorted by unpleasantly high levels of alcohol, or hop varieties that don’t complement each other at high levels.


Please do not reduce your beer drinking experience to a fault-detecting exercise

When brewers make cask beer, they’re ultimately looking to hit a recipe that’s as refreshing and drinkable as it is delicious. That’s not to say they’re all sessionable — you can find strong ABV cask beers pretty easily, but for the purposes of an enjoyable pint, even these beers pride balance and drinkability above everything else.

Take your cask drinking to another level by taking in what you can smell and taste. Good pints will have you thinking about all sorts of things: freshly cut citrus fruit, or deep malty chocolate ovaltine. Bright summer days, or rich whisky evenings. 

What I’m saying is, please do not reduce your beer drinking experience to a fault-detecting exercise. There are so many delicate flavours at play between malt, hop, water and yeast before you even add fruit or other adjuncts like chocolate or coffee there to be enjoyed. An obsessive search for technical faults can mean that brewers’ leaps of inspiration can be forgotten. Perhaps the style you’re drinking has a touch of wheat in the malt, and was inspired by hefeweizens drank by the brew team on a weekend away in Munich. The banana-clove flavours, then, would make total sense. Take in the context and the style as well as the flavours and aromas.

And above all, ask yourself: is it delicious? Because in the end, that’s all that really matters.

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