Life’s better with (a pint of) bitter
Matt Curtis talks about his appreciation for cask conditioned ale
Saturday 31 July 2021
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Since lockdown officially ended on the 17th of April my thirst for cask conditioned ale has been boundless. Quite simply, there aren’t enough pints in Manchester. My desire is unquenchable. The moment I set down an empty glass I’m already thinking about where my next full one is coming from. Cask is back, and it is glorious.
Cask beer, real ale, or whatever you want to call it, when properly stored, conditioned and served, is peerless. I think lockdown helped me realise this. While there’s no doubting that there are some outstanding beers being produced across all formats in the UK today (I enjoyed many a fine can, bottle and mini keg during our aforementioned period of self-isolation), it’s impossible to replicate a perfect pint of cask at home. Pin bright, bursting with aroma, served with a dense head of tightly packed foam that laces the glass with a perfect circle indicating each long, satisfying sip. Done right, it is the epitome of modern British beer culture.
Relocating from London to Manchester mid-pandemic perhaps galvanised this feeling. At first I was reticent to say this, but after a brief trip back to the capital recently I can say that—generally speaking—the overall quality of cask ale is higher in the North West, compared to the South East. This is not just because in the North cask is correctly served through a sparkler (a plastic nozzle that forces the beer through small holes, essentially knocking carbonation out of the beer to create a creamier texture, and tighter head.) The main reason for this is throughput: people drink more cask here.
I’ve recently experienced this when heading to a local cask-serving venue to enjoy a beer tapped they posted about online the day before, only for it to have already run out by the time I arrive. The majority of cask beers are served from nine gallon “firkins” which officially hold 72 pints (but in reality, with wastage and sediment you’re going to get 68 to 70 out of one). Despite that volume it doesn’t take more than a few hours for local real ale enthusiasts to make short work of one. To my surprise, this is something I rarely experienced in 15 years of living in London. Even the very best real ale establishments occasionally have a cask lifespan of a couple of days or more. I believe it’s this freshness that’s driving the overall quality available up here.
It’s impossible to replicate a perfect pint of cask at home
Mindful of this remarkable thirst for real ale, combined with my own dedication towards celebrating the glory of the cask pint whenever I could, I decided to do some research on why this is happening. Are we really experiencing a lockdown induced cask renaissance? Anecdotally, it certainly feels that way. You only have to dip your toe into the murky waters of beer social media for a moment to see drinkers gleefully sharing a photograph of their latest pint.
The reality, unfortunately, is far starker. When reaching out to members of the beer industry to find out if they were excited about the potential resurgence of the cask format, my optimistic expectations were soon diminished.
“[Cask] is moving a bit slower. I don’t think we’re selling as much as we did before the pandemic,” Elena Rowe, proprietor of South Manchester beer bar Reasons to be Cheerful, tells me. “We haven’t been as busy as we used to be because people are being more cautious. For some people going to the pub is a faff, when they can just sit in their gardens instead. We can’t compete with supermarkets.”
Located on a small high street in Burnage, a residential area about three miles south of Manchester city centre, Reasons to be Cheerful has won the hearts of many local drinkers since it opened in January 2017, including myself. Its modest selection of eight keg taps, plus three hand pulls pouring some of the freshest, best kept cask around, are home to a constantly rotating selection of beers, largely from small, local producers. It’s well worth a trip outside of the city centre to enjoy some expertly-cellared beers.
In fact, it was a recent visit to Reasons that gave me pause to consider that demand for cask is surging. Arriving late one Sunday afternoon, I was shocked to see all three lines were off, due to high demand. However, after speaking to Rowe, I was informed that this had a little more to do with caution than anything else, as the bar is not keeping as many casks in the cellar as it did pre-pandemic. The risks involved in stocking a large amount of a perishable product when there’s still a chance you might have to temporarily close due to yet another rise in Covid-19 cases are ever present. A small business such as this cannot afford to pour unsold beer down the drain.
One of Manchester’s largest producers of cask ale, the family-owned brewery J. W. Lees Brewery, confirmed that demand has been slow since the gradual easing of restrictions. However, they also say the business, which has been based in the North West since 1828, is now beginning to see a “positive” increase in sales.
“Before the 17th May many of our trade customers were slow to order cask beer,” the brewery and pub company’s managing director William Lees-Jones tells me. “Opening hours and capacity were impacted by British spring weather so many opted for kegs to avoid cask wastage.”
Lees-Jones says that the brewery is seeing an increased demand for its Manchester Craft Lager brand, however, he also states that it’s flagship J. W. Lees Bitter is still its best-seller. He also believes that for pubs to truly thrive as they did before Covid, the social distancing and capacity restrictions currently in place within hospitality need to be removed. Personally, I’ve really taken a shine to table service and the more relaxed, dare I say more continental approach to service we’re currently being treated to. The reality is however, that many British establishments simply aren’t equipped to operate this way, and will continue to lose revenue until they can trade as normal.
“When customers can return to the bar on the 19th July I think we are going to see drinkers experimenting far more,” Lees-Jones adds. “Being able to speak to team members and see the range is key to choosing what you drink.”
It’s not all bad news for the industry however. Local Manchester craft beer heroes Track —perhaps best known nationally for their brightly designed cans of tropical, hazy IPA—have seen what they describe as “insane” demand for casks of their flagship Sonoma pale ale since production recommenced. The brewery’s sales and events manager Stefan Melbourne tells me how they’ve always tried to keep this particular product's identity as a “local beer” and ensure that it's provided to specially selected establishments where they know it will be well looked after.
My first post-lockdown pint of Sonoma came in Port Street Beer House, a legendary beer bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Such is its drinkability that you’ll convince yourself that it’s somehow evaporating out of your glass between sips. But while demand is there, Melbourne admits that the cask market in general is still challenging, with pre-existing consumer expectations for lower prices making it less profitable. It also requires a greater degree of care and attention from those stocking it. With all that extra effort, is it still really worthwhile?
It's a beer that requires a relationship. From the brewer, to the publican, to the consumer.
“It's a little bit more complicated than putting a beer into a can, carbonated and ready for consumption. But that's also what makes cask the magical product that it is,” Melbourne says. “It's a beer that requires a relationship. From the brewer, to the publican, to the consumer. If every part of that equation is working correctly then you have yourself one of the most delicious drinking experiences available.”
Before lockdown my thoughts about cask were twofold: I was concerned about it’s gradual decline in sales, it’s inconsistency in quality from venue to venue, and believed better training and education could turn its fortunes around. But I also believed that there was potentially too much cask out there. That in its expansion it’s inherent specialness had somehow been eroded due to—in many cases—there simply being too many options on the bar. William Lees-Jones is still concerned that “the long term category picture for cask is slow and steady decline,” and how “one bad pint can ultimately be very damaging.” But he echoes my view that there is still huge interest in the category, and that the ever changing range made available by small breweries will continue to drive interest in the category.
While it's evident from speaking to those inside the beer industry that cask beer still has a challenging future, as a consumer, part of me still feels optimistic. I can’t escape a nagging feeling that, post-lockdown, there’s something a little different about it. An extra sparkle, something I didn’t notice before—an x-factor that’s causing me to ignore everything else available on the bar and plough into the freshest pint of bitter, mild or golden ale I can find. For reasons I am still figuring out, it’s all I want to drink right now. And part of me hopes that this is an indicator that it’s outlook could become more positive, as people gradually find their way back to the pub after such a difficult 18 months in our lives.
“I think a lot of drinkers are looking for consistency right now,” fellow cask enthusiast and co-host of the Beernomicon Podcast Ross Cummins tells me. “They are looking for a pint they can have again and again. A solid beer the brewery has laboured over, studied, tweaked, and strove to make as good as possible.”
“I think you can find the best consistently with cask.”
Cover photo: Cottonbro | Pexels.com
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