Tuesday 26 October 2010

Why Cask Ale Rocks

Cask ale is important to each of us in very different ways. In this collaborative blogging effort me, Mark (homebrewer), Shea (young female drinker), Glyn (bar manager) and Kelly (brewer) say why it's important to us.

For me it’s the moment when I walk into a good pub and I see a line-up of pump clips; there’s a sense of the unknown, an excitement to see what’s on. Unlike the ubiquitous keg font, these hand pumps represent something different, something hand crafted in small-scale quantity, something which needs to be treated just right so that it’s in perfect condition for drinking. Standing in front of the tall dark hand pulls I point and say a pint of that please. The barman grabs a glass and with four expert drags the pint is full, a gleaming pale gold with a thick white crown to top it off. Raising it to my lips I smell the hops and a background of malt, but it’s the first mouthful which wins it; cool on the tongue, a very gentle carbonation, so gentle you don’t notice it but enough that if it wasn’t there you’d know; it’s got sweetness, fruitiness and then a dry finish which leaves you craving another gulp.

From the moment I had my first pint of well-kept cask ale I knew that things had changed forever and never would a pint of mass-produced lager taste the same again. I remember where it was, what it was and who I was with. It was different – cool, not cold. It was lightly carbonated and not fizzy. It was easy to drink and interesting with each mouthful. It was brewed just a few miles away. It was dark and delicious. It had flavour and there was an aftertaste that was new to me (I later realised that that was the hops). I learnt the breweries I liked and could trust, I learnt what my favourite styles were, what my favourite ingredients were. Over time it all changed. My tastes went from dark to light, from sweet to bitter. I got interested in beers from further away than Britain, I tried the weird and the wonderful, strong or bitter or ones aged in old whisky barrels. I started thinking about what foods I’d like to eat with the beer in my hand. The richness of this dinner would work well with something light and hoppy; the spice in this needs the firefighting cool of a good lager; the cherry in this beer would be amazing with dark chocolate; this pint of bitter needs a pie on the side.

And then one day I realised that the romance had turned into something greater. I wanted to try different beers and had butterflies when I went somewhere that sold things I’d never seen before. It’s something I can still feel, an excitement, a heart-pounding thrill. I went different places and tried different things, I discovered the wild beers of Belgium, the extreme beers of America and the smooth and delicious lagers of the Czech Republic, the best session beers of Britain – the best beers which I can drink all the time. I drank it all because it was all so interesting and different and exciting. And I was writing about it too. I wanted to be a writer and I chose what I was most interested in: food and beer. I wanted to write about the sensations of the senses; to put words to what I was experiencing.

Cask ale is British and it’s brilliant. I might like all beers but I keep coming back to British cask ale as it keeps getting better and more exciting - some of the best beers in the world are brewed here. Whether it’s a pint of hand-pulled session bitter, a well-crafted British lager on keg or a bottle of something special dreamed up in the imagination of a creative brewer, beer is exciting and different, it’s got provenance and craft, it’s got flavour and quality and there’s something out there for everyone. Cask ale rocks and it’s turning the heads and hearts of young and old - its reputation is rapidly changing and I’m proud to be supporting it from the front line. 


  1. Cask is just a form of dispense - I'm not sure how you turn that into a credible ideology. It's like saying "sandwiches rock" - the format is really all about the filling.

    Mark, I love your enthusiasm for great beer, and as always this is a great bit of writing, but the logic here is just a bit skew-wiff.

  2. Great article, and I'm enjoying the contributions from the others too. I'm going to get around to writing something myself about first trying cask ale when I went to university in Scotland. (Should emphasise that this was no fault of my own as I grew up in Northern Ireland.)

    That's the Brewery Tap, innit? What did you think of the Leeds Brewery beers? Is it the first time you've tried them?

  3. First... ignore that formatting line. Stupid blogger.

    Zak - I get what you are saying. The collaboration was based on the Cask Ale Report, it's just taken a few weeks to get it out and up, so the title is kind of a hang on from that and to avoid using real ale or something like that. British Beer would perhaps have been a better title. I hope it's still illustrative of the idea that handpulled British beer is important.

    Beerpole - get something written, we hoped others would take part too. And it is the Brewery Tap in Leeds - I was there on Sunday and thought all the beers were very nice and easy drinking. I could've sat there for a long time and enjoyed them.

  4. My response to this post makes me realise how confusing my blog moniker is...

    Beer excites me in all it's variety and guises and I love to try new beers, to find beer I didn't know and may come to love. It's all very Romantic and that's the way I like it. But my love for beer goes beyond is not held in place by how the beer gets to my mouth. Whether it's dispensed via keg, cask or simply gravity from a freshly cut pumpkin, I love beer for the flavour, the moment and it's diversity. I love cask ale in the UK (it does rock!) but what really rocks is a good quality product, not the fact it is cask conditioned (it is possible to make fantastic beer without it undergoing secondary fermentation in a cask, you know) ;-)

    I think there's a bit of confusion between cask ale and beer here too. You seem to make an assumption here that what cask ale lovers like in their ale is what every beer lover likes. This is not so, I'm, sure Cookie will testify to that. You might call something lightly carbonated but someone else would say flat. You might argue a certain lager is bland but to many it's safe, reliable and refreshing.

    And mass produced beer, ah, that easy to say sentence. Production on large and small scales can both be good and bad. Can the most drunk cask ales in the UK be described as genuinely hand crafted when they are being distributed across the length and breadth of the country every week? Is Thornbridge beer hand crafted - is the brewery not also a shining example of automated brewing technology?

    Mass production in it's own right is wonderful and is required for sustainable development. I love the idea and the Romance of hand crafted beers, and they also bring with them the diversity required to help beer survive, but good quality beer made on a mass scale is not only unavoidable but a wonder when it works.

    One thing I think you rightly highlight is the importance of British beer/cask ale, and it will be an integral part of helping pubs survive, in whatever format that might be. Good quality product will underline their survival ultimately as well as the role they play in the areas they serve.

    PS. Nice pic from Sunday I presume!

  5. You're supposed to drink it, not shag it, Dredgie.

  6. To solve the blogger issue, use the HTML editor rather than the rich text.

  7. Mark - good beer is the most important thing, yes. We attempted this, as I said to Zak, to be able real ale more than anything else and with a 500ish word limit. It's not just about cask beer and I could've written 10,000 about beer in general in its different forms, but I made it personal, positive and about my cask experience. And there's nothing wrong with mass-production provided it's got flavour and more integrity than trying to earn as much money as possible. The semantics of that phrase should probably make it one of those things that beer bloggers should never use... I think I'll try and strip it from my blogging vocab!

    Al - that would assume that I had even the remotest understanding of html, which I don't. And when I try to edit in html after it's posted it still buggers up.

  8. Well, I like the original piece. It's true that some great beer is to all intents and purposes mass-produced, and I'm prepared to believe that it's possible to get a good pint out of a keg tap, but when Mark & friends describe something

    cool, not cold ... lightly carbonated ... easy to drink and interesting with each mouthful ... brewed just a few miles away

    I think they're describing something distinctive and worth celebrating in its own right, not just a style of beer which is sometimes done well and sometimes not. You could call it... oh, I don't know... 'real ale', maybe.

  9. The half pint of Roosters Yorkshire Pale Ale I had today was fabulous, just as described. Could I have got that from another product? Who knows. Sure reminded me that it's a product worth celebrating (whatever we end up calling it!)

  10. Mark (RAR): I'll drink to that! :)

  11. ZakAvery is wrong. Cask beer is living beer, undergoing a secondary fermentation in the cask.
    Keg beer has been pasteurised or very, almost microscopically filtered to kill the yeast action and produce a longer shelf life. All beer styles, mild, porter, bitter, lager etc. can be contained in cask or keg. The dispense method is the next stage of moving the product to the drinking container. Beer deteriorates as it comes into contact with oxygen and wild yeasts. One would not dispense keg without adding pressurised gas or the advantage of a longer shelf life would be lost. Likewise, one would not dispense cask conditioned beer with gas top pressure because it would harm the beer, hence using hand pumps, electric pumps or similar for casks. The cask is designed for atmospheric pressure and is shaped to collect any sediment. Kegs are under a higher pressure but can be straight sided as there should be no sediment in a dead, sterile product.