Friday 21 June 2024

Cask beer

Jeff Alworth's piece on cask beer got me thinking. Which is always a bad thing. Hopefully, writing will banish my thoughts and leave my head empty enough for a day watching reality TV.

His basic argument is that CAMRA's refusal to accept cask breathers is the reason for cask's decline. If only CAMRA hadn't been a bunch of romantics, who came up with a non-technical description of what cask was. Except that isn't the case.

Cask-conditioned beer was an industry-defined term. Used by brewing professionals. CAMRA just slightly refined the term to exclude any use of extraneous CO2. Compared to a term like "Craft beer", cask is precisely and simply defined.

To realise why early CAMRA was so against the addition of any CO2, you need to understand what the UK beer market was like in the 1970s. There was quite a lot of cask beer which was either kept under blanket pressure or served by CO2 pressure. CAMRA, rightly in my opinion, opted to not count such beer as real cask. Had they done so, it would have muddied the waters and made the definition of cask more complicated and confusing as to when CO2 pressure was acceptable and when it wasn't.

Seeing the cask breather as the solution to cask beers decline is far too simplistic. It assumes, for one, that the reason or bad-quality cask is always that the cask has been open for too long. Which just isn't the case.

Cask beer is a delicate, perishable product. One that can be fucked up at several points between  racking and serving. During transportation or storage, or, most likely, by poor cellarmanship. The latter either through lack of training or simply lack of interest.

All of these points of failure have been exacerbated by the collapse of the brewery-owned tied house model. Once beer was taken directly from brewery to pub, on a company's own drays. Now that supply chain is much more complicated.

When brewers owned pubs, they were much more careful about the quality of the beer they sold. And, the good ones, at least, provided training and support for their landlords to help them keep their beer in top condition. With that link broken, who is there now to help publicans look after their beer?

And all this is ignoring one of the biggest factors in the decline of any style of beer: ageing drinkers. The decline in cask beer is never going to be reversed unless more young people start drinking it. That's the biggest challenge facing cask beer. Not whether or not to use cask breathers. 

One last point: why is cask cheaper than keg? For purely historical reasons. When keg was introduced in the 1950s, it was marketed as a premium product. Which sold at a premium price. It was exactly the same with Lager. And is still true today. Keg Ale and Lager cost more than cask just because that's what drinkers are used to. And what brewers/publicans can get away with.


Matt said...

You could argue though that the breakdown of the tied house system in large parts of the country was a result of CAMRA campaigning. I know the Tory government watered down the initial radical proposals in its report, but the referral of the Big Six national brewers to the Competition Commission ultimately led to the 1989 Beer Orders. CAMRA envisioned an array of guest beers in tied pubs and an expansion of free houses. What we got instead of course was the Big Six largely getting out of brewing and the creation of non-brewing, debt-laden pubcos, whose tenants are just as restricted in which beers they can sell as those tied to a brewery and who, as you say, often have a patchy knowledge of cellarmanship and lack technical support.

Chris Pickles said...

I think 'smooth flow' beer had a major effect on the decline of cask. Lots of people who usually drank cask beer but weren't fanatical about it went for smooth flow. Caffrey's was everywhere and was very popular (where is it now?). I used to drink it at the snooker club which had never sold cask. I knew lifelong hand pulled Tetley's drinkers who praised Tetley's smooth flow.

The brewers came up with a new product that the punters lapped up. It tasted better than regular keg and was consistent. People liked it, market forces in action. And a second rate product drove out the first class one.

Anonymous said...

How could he be wrong? He poses for all of those instagram shots with such a cute dog!

Anonymous said...

Chris that is one of the reasons Guinness got Michael Ash to develop nitro pour for them. Nitro makes a kegged beer as smooth as cask.

hawthorne00 said...

Alworthy's post can be found here:
I can kind of see the cask breather point, but the more general point that one way or another not enough people have an incentive to look after cask beer is the underlying problem. Cask beer is a collaboration between brewer, pub and drinker, and too many people don't care - that includes the drinker who tolerates filth it's cheap or maybe "it just wasn't on" and pubs that serve flat vinegar because they're sick of being asked to "eh, top it up with beer please" when they serve beer in decent condition. I hope Keeling's right and that cask will survive as a niche where pubs and drinkers care (and are prepared to pay for it), but nothing about the UK justifies such optimism.

Bribie G said...

I think the main problem with cask is that a lot of it, especially during the post war years and certainly during the rise of the big six brewers and their often bastardisation of beers in the cask breweries they acquired, the flavour and body of the vast majority of cask beer was pretty well summed up by one of the Coopers family of Adelaide who visited after the War to get new brewing ideas.

In his opinion most of the cask beer he tried tasted like weak tea. I'd agree. And as most readers of this Blog who are now well versed in the decline of British Beers due to the First and Second World Wars, they would understand.

On trips back to the UK - I had migrated to OZ in the mid 70s just as CAMRA was growing - it's still fairly nasty. Of course there are standouts like Abbot Ale and the other suspects but as one example Hydes still serves variations of weak tea except for Lowry that is sticking its head over the parapet as a decent strength and hoppy ale.

On the other hand Manchester seems to be absolutely rotten with tap rooms offering a vast range of tasty beers but mostly served from glycol chilled fonts with rows of taps so presumably keg. Personally if I went back there I know where I would prefer to drink.

Anonymous said...

Lower strength beer does have the advantage you can drink more of it.

Anonymous said...

I think the small to medium sized independents should be allowed to have a pub estate as it allows them to have their foot in the door when it comes to selling beer. In fact for Porterhouse and Galway Bay brewery and a few others they have a tied house estate but small.

Anonymous said...

For me, cask tastes alive both in the head and in the beer, with carbonation giving the beer great mouthfeel; nitro beer, for me, pushes all that to the head and the beer itself is flat as a fluke. Personally, I'll refuse a beer on nitro that I'd happily drink on cask; personal preference. Guinness an exception obviously, as its nitro or nothing.

Anonymous said...

I’m technically a cask beer lover and am fortunate to live in a city in the UK that has lots of great old pubs with cask. That said, I rarely risk drinking cask ale anymore - save one or two pubs - because the beer is most often in terrible shape. Often the people serving the beer are young hourly paid workers and shrug when you bring a pint back. Other times it seems like it’s just too expensive to take a beer off that’s sour. Recently I’ve been served pints of line cleaner in good pubs who are being stingy with the amount of beer they pull through a newly clean line. Cask beer requires someone in the pub to take ownership of the process and recognise both great and bad beer.

Anonymous said...

Also a lover of cask beer in my 50's...drank keg, then discovered cask, then got so many pints of terrible cask I started drinking lager as it was at least consistent. Would drink cask at selected pubs where it was guaranteed to be excellent; otherwise, it wasn't worth me risking my three or four quid for a pint of crap. Guinness or lager; cask where you knew it was good.

Anonymous said...

I have seen some people suggest at most three hand pumps mostly two or even just the one with the right size casks.