Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Losing Confidence in Cask?

I was in Scotland week before last and as usual, in the land of Tennents Lager, was wary about choosing cask beer where there was any. My experience, even in high turnover places like Wetherspoons, is that it can be hit or miss and more often than not, it misses.  As it happens, my first opportunity, fresh off the train was in the Counting House off George Square and it was hot, so looking at the pump clips with an array of dark Scottish beers, I decided, given the heat, that I wasn't chancing it and enjoyed instead - and I did - a couple of pints of keg. More of that later.

That night in the Captain James Lang, another JDW house, I thought, having spotted that Loch Lomond Brewery's Southern Summit was on the pumps, that I'd give it a go. It was only £1.79 and actually fairly good.  Alas when I returned to the bar, it had gone. I chose Skye Blonde and was immediately, before I'd go it to my mouth, assailed by a distinct whiff of vinegar.  I pointed this out to the barperson who had obviously read the Book of Barkeep Excuses.  "I think" she posited "it's meant to taste like that". Moving on to page 2 of the tome she added "I don't drink beer myself".   I was though given an exchange and turned down the offer of a whisky flavoured 7.8% beer from Strathven - despite it also being £1.79 a pint - in favour of a bottle. Minimum pricing? Take that Scottish Government.

I was in Helensburgh next day meeting an old pal. Alas in the Henry Bell, there was no cask I wanted to drink. All were around 4.8% and brown. As the barmaid herself, a Northern Irish lass of some character, noted "They could do with something pale and hoppy on, that's what I drink". Put her in charge of the cellar I say.  I did take her wise words on board as I stood wondering what to have. "Don't have the Tennents" my sage advised, "it's really shite."  This lass will go far or at least, ought to.

The day after my sister took me out for an hour. We went to the Balloch Hotel on Loch Lomondside, me having noted that it has a wide choice of real ales.  Of course it wouldn't be a Tandleman day out if some idiocy hadn't occurred.  The bar as you enter is L shaped with a bank of five handpumps immediately on your left. On the wall facing is the sign in the photo. My sister sat and I surveyed the wickets. "I'll have the Adnams" I thought. A few moments passed and I looked up the bar to the corner of the L. No barperson appeared but an old soak on a barstool shouted along the other angle of the bar and after a while a barmaid appeared. She seemed annoyed. "You should have come up to where the tills are quoth she."  "Are there more cask beers there then? I enquired. "No" she said "but I stand up there." This was getting interesting, but she had the last laugh. Only two handpumps were on. I chose London Pride which was a little tired but OK. This place is owned by Mitchell's and Butlers as a matter of interest.

On my return to Glasgow Central I had a pint in the Counting House again. This time I went for cask in the shape of Oakham JHB. That distinct whiff and then taste of vinegar again.  On pointing this out the server called a colleague, presumably the cask beer champion or something along these lines.  He took a straw out, dipped it in my beer and allowed a drop to roll onto his tongue."Hops" he pronounced. "And something else."  I agreed and pointed out the something else was vinegar.  My duff pint was exchanged for, yes you've guessed it. Keg.

Right I'm getting a bit fed up of reading this myself, but I am sure you get my drift by now.  Dodgy beer and dodgy bar staff don't make for a great combination.  It's the offer Stupid. If that isn't up to snuff, then you are on a loser.

I rather liked the beer pictured above from Jaw Brew whom I haven't even heard of. Really decent, though you do have to knock a bit of the CO2 out. I had it both visits and despite the murk, it didn't disappoint. Oh and I'm not losing confidence in cask really, but rubbish cask makes others do so.

For those that know Glasgow, I understand, Camperdown Place, another JDW just 50 yards away from the Counting House, has now closed due to Queen St Station redevelopment. Shame, as for the traveller with a suitcase, its ground floor toilets were a boon even if the beer choice was less extensive.


LiamTheBrewer said...

The vinegar taste is usually caused by acetobacter infection. Unfortunately cask beer is very susceptible to this bug. Acetobacter does one thing very well, it converts ethanol into acetic acid in the presence of oxygen.

It may be present before the cask is broached but at very low levels if the brewer is half decent. Once the cask is in service it is drawn into the cask along with oxygen. At cellar temperatures its pretty much the perfect environment.

Tandleman said...

Indeed Liam. I didn't want to go into technical details, but it is as you say.

Firepuffer said...

And as you indicate, Peter there's some good (key) keg to be had these days which are arguably more consistent ( or easier to keep, let's say)...

RedNev said...

It's not very difficult: if they can't do real ale properly, or they don't have enough customers for it, then they should remove it from the bar. If they were running a food shop, they wouldn't sell stale loaves and milk on the turn: real ale should be approached the same way.

Curmudgeon said...

As I said on Twitter, while poor beer is far from unknown south of the Border, these kind of turnover-related quality issues do seem to be more common in Scotland. One or two pumps at the end of a long row of keg fonts is a sure-fire sign to avoid.

Barm said...

Now I’m only in Balloch three or four times a year but the Balloch House and the Tullie Inn over the road have both been pretty poor on every occasion for the last several years. The Loch Lomond beer at the Dog House has always been good and the service friendly, though the pub itself is unprepossessing compared to the others.

John West said...

Good piece - as a Londonder, I have similar experiences with venues outside the circle of trust.

On the subject of Scottish cask, I did raise an eyebrow seeing this from Tempest Brewing Co.

They're cutting isinglass, which is fine (no pun intended) by me: I have a flavour preference for pin bright beer, but am ok with *light* haze and well racked unfined beer will settle just so.

But see what Tempest wrote: "Leaving the beers unfined [...] hopefully will open up some new accounts who actively seek vegan friendly beer and casks which don’t have to be settled before dispense.

"We will still be pursuing a visibly bright product in cask and we hope to continue with similar clarity in our beers, where before we were removing yeast with isinglass the centrifuge should now do its job.”

Casks that don't have to be settled before dispense? Cask where the centrifuge will give you bright beer?

I'm totally ok with brewery conditioned beer, but I'm curious about some of the assumptions and definitions here.

The Maltese Penguin said...

I think a problem with The Counting House is that they have iirc EIGHTEEN cask lines which is probably around ten too many. Last time I was in they had a board showing all their Scottish craft keg lines - seventeen of them. (Did you also have a look in the beer vault?0

py said...

As I've said many times, pubs should either go all out for cask, and make a big feature of it to attract the enthusiasts and thus keep the turnover high, or they shouldn't bother at all and should just stick to craft beer.

"One or two pumps at the end of a long row of keg fonts is a sure-fire sign to avoid."

Absolutely agree with Mudgie on this. Any less than 4 cask pumps is a pointless gesture, a wise customer sticks to the keg in this type of establishment.

Tandleman said...


"Casks which don't have to be settled before dispense"? Umm. So how will the beer obtain its condition? Doesn't seem li,e real ale to me unless I'm missing something. Sounds like bandwago jumping.


I have no doubt you are right. Beer vault? Is that the bottles for takeaway?


Don't really disagree with your remarks.

RedNev said...

I agree with Curmudgeon that "One or two pumps at the end of a long row of keg fonts is a sure-fire sign to avoid", but I disagree that fewer than four pumps is automatically a pointless gesture.

My nearest pub used to have a solitary handpump serving Tetley's at the end of a long row of fonts. 4 or 5 years ago, the licensee told me she was being asked by the pubco to replace it with Sharp's Doom Bar and asked what I thought. I said it would probably sell better to her regulars than the Tetley's, and that real ale drinkers might find it, not wonderful, but a more acceptable alternative.

She took my advice and I was relieved to be proved right: real ales sales more than doubled to the extent that she was sufficiently encouraged to install three handpumps prominently in the middle of the bar, replacing the one at the end. Although the choice isn't usually very adventurous, there's no problem with beer quality.

It's better to have fewer pumps selling a decent pint than more selling indifferent beer.

Curmudgeon said...

"Any less than 4 cask pumps is a pointless gesture"

This is your usual nonsense. What I was referring to was a situation where cask beer is treated as an afterthought. There are plenty of pubs with 3 or fewer cask beers where it is still the core of their ale offering and cask is the best-selling ale in the pub.

RedNev said...

MY usual nonsense? It's interesting you've let your genuine view of me slip, Curmudgeon: that comment wasn't aimed at you.

I was actually replying to a silly comment that PY made (no surprises there) which was "Any less than 4 cask pumps is a pointless gesture", as you would have realised had you read all the previous comments.

Curmudgeon said...

Hey, keep your hair on there Nev! I was replying to py, which is why I quoted his comment that "Any less than 4 cask pumps is a pointless gesture".

I entirely agree with your response to him :-)

Nick said...

Even *I* could follow what Mudgie meant.

I honestly don't know if I've ever had Tetley's. Pretty hard to imagine Doom Bar being preferable to ....anything on cask.

What sort of beer would make up the sort of long line of keg fonts? We're not talking modern-day "craft" beer here, rather, lager lager lager smooth lager lager smooth, right?

RedNev said...

Unconditional apologies, Curmudgeon - I read that one wrongly.

Ben Viveur said...

Obviously it depends:

If the long line of keg is Carlsberg, Carling, Fosters, John Smiths Smooth, Guinness, Guinness Extra Cold, Strongbow and Bud Light, followed by two handpumps with GKIPA and Doom Bar, then you walk out.

If the long line of keg is Tsara, Arrogant Bastard, Calypso, Clwb Tropicana, Halcyon, Cloudwater DIPA etc. followed by two handpumps with Lord Marples and Broken Dream on, the quality of the cask is highly unlikely to be an issue.

I wrote an article for the LD a few years ago titled 'For great cask beer, follow the keg'. If anything it holds even truer today.

Tabitha said...

What an interesting opinion, it is definitely easy to see both sides of this argument, and the cask / keg debate will definitely be around as long as there are passionate drinkers to have it!