Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Good News - Cask Saved

Yesterday there was a Twitter post that caught my attention. It referred to an opinion piece in Imbibe Magazine by Jessica Mason in which she claims that "We’re on the precipice of a cask revival". The article goes on to explain her thinking which can be summed up - more or less - that cask can revived - wait for it - by modern brewers adopting Golden Ales.Well I exaggerate, but I hardly agree either with the way the article says "cask is becoming ever more exciting, flavoursome and stylistically broad" as if we've all been drinking flavourless crud for all these years and can only be saved by innovative craft brewers rescuing us from our own stupidity. Try telling that to Phoenix of Heywood for example who have been brewing a West Coast IPA before many of the innovators were out of nappies, or the nearly 40 beers beginning with word "Gold" or "Golden" in the 1998 Good Beer Guide - and that's not counting the dozens more that have "gold" somewhere in the name. In that same edition there are herbal beers, spiced beers, lemon beers, cherry beers, ginger beers. Beers made with liquorice and chillies. I could go on. It isn't new folks. It has all been done before.

So we need modern craft brewers to show us the way and revive cask? These are the same people that give you cask beer that looks like chicken soup and undermine the work done by brewers for many years to ensure clean, clear, bright beer with distinct flavours.We'd more or less lost the "Its meant to be like that" nonsense until craft got its hands on cask. Now it is back with a vengeance, as overturning the orthodoxy has given bar staff the right to say it once more, even if the beer looks like a mixture of lumpy fruit juices and smells like Henderson's Relish.

Another thing in the article disturbs me more than somewhat. This is written as if cask ale is in decline everywhere and needs bolstering by a few hip breweries making their version of it to show the rest of the plebs how it is done. Well not here in Greater Manchester it isn't. Ask Marble, Blackjack, Brewsmith or Brightside and many more?  Or Lees, Holts, Hydes and Robinsons who all sell tens of thousands of barrels of it a year. Or Marstons, the biggest brewer of cask beer in world. Or go to West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands and so many more areas of the country. Sales might well be declining, but in these places it is still drunk in volume.  And here's another thing. Most cask beer is designed to be drunk in volume. Do we really think the odd craft brewery producing the odd batch of "stylistically broad"cask is really going to save cask for the future? Of course it might help their demograhic to appreciate it more - and that's good - but save it? I think not.

Oddly enough our dear friends BrewDog revived cask by bringing out a trad version of  the cutting edge"Dead Pony Club". Not much by way of "cask is becoming ever more exciting, flavoursome and stylistically broad." there then, though Cloudwater hit the nail on the head with its (clear) non golden beers while its pale (cloudy) offerings didn't hit the mark at all. Pick the bones out of that if you can.

I do agree as always about poorly presented cask beer - who doesn't -and the need to attract younger drinkers - but this article postulates a world in which a small number of trendy breweries will be the saviour of cask.  This strikes me clearly as pie in the sky and undoubtedly somewhat London-centric despite references to non London brewers in the article.

No, this is all looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We already have the poncification of keg beer to the extent that all too often it is sillier and sillier. I don't like to cast my rose tinted spectacles too much on the North of England, but fortunately most of our breweries, even the trendier ones, produce decent cask beer, albeit too often pointlessly cloudy.  The point here is the picture around cask beer is endlessly varied.  As it always has been. Does it need the craft treatment? Really?

So is cask beer in danger? Yes and no.  As always with cask, you have to keep supporting it and drinking it. I'll be chairing a debate on the subject of "The Future of Cask" at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival.  We have a cracking panel. Come along and see what they have to say. 

Ironically the vast majority of small brewers produce cask beer. It isn't just the big boys and regional and family brewers. 

The Great Manchester Beer Debate will take place on Saturday 26th January at 15.00. We have Sophie Atherton, John Keeling, JulieO'Grady,  John Clarke and Ian Fozard. Fab or what?


Curmudgeon said...

I was thinking of writing a blog on this subject, but you've saved me the trouble :-)

Dan Klingman said...

You hit the nail on the head - it's all been done before in beer. Each generation relearns this eventually.

Citra said...

It's a bit like the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer effect, a bit of excitement for a while that will eventually return to its level.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

Here's a thought.
I wonder how many people who drink cask are on Twitter or have ever read a blog,beer or otherwise ?
It's like the coverage of Brexit on TV.The same bloody people trooping from one news gazebo to another on Stephen's Green,all interchangeable.
Tom Newton-Brewer,Julia Hartley-Dunn,Kevin Professional Northerner Maguire,Ayesha Chubby Scottish bird,Polly poor socialist with houses in Islington and Tuscany Toynbee and the rest of the Westminster tribe all reacting to each other on Twitter.
When the reality is out in the real world people don't give a toss about what's trending on Twitter or what some metrosexual thinks about the future of cask.
Or who is up or down in the Westminster bubble.
It is not the real world.
The real world is the bloke dropping in for his usual quart on the way home from work or on his way to a match or propping up the bar in his usual spot seven days a week.
Those people will still be drinking boring brown bitter long after the latest sour,grapefruit juice IPA and London murk have spunked their load.
They don't get cask and they don't get Brexit and why people are for and against it because instead of drinking a pint they're photographing it like it's a piece of fucking art.
It's not.It's a pint of beer.

Curmudgeon said...

@PP-T: As I wrote on my blog the other day, in general nowadays people do specifically identify it as "real ale" rather than just "bitter", although "cask" means little to the general public. The days when it was commonplace for a bloke (and it was always a bloke) to do most of his drinking of the same beer in the same pub are largely a thing of the past. People do go round different pubs, and look out in pubs for whatever is on a handpump. In towns like St Albans, pretty much every pub has guest beers.

But the challenge for cask is how to sell more in the general run of pubs, not just jazz it up in a few specialist outlets. And Cloudwater isn't going to do that, no matter how good it is. The ordinary person in the pub has probably heard of BrewDog by now, but they certainly haven't heard of Beavertown or Cloudwater.

qq said...

In your own way you're being just as geographically biased as you accuse Ms Taylor of being. There was a huge revolution 5-10 years ago where most of the country started drinking significant amounts of the kind of UK-golden beer that was coming out of Strangeways a century ago. If you've grown up with Boddies it's hard to see what a big change is represented by the likes of Black Sheep Gold, Spitfire Gold etc being drunk in pubs that traditionally only had brown beer.

But the UK-golden beer is just phase I of a bigger shift towards pale beers with New World hops. It's no coincidence that the regional brewers that are doing well are the ones behind the likes of Ghostship and Proper Job. And it's probably those that are the saviour of cask more than the likes of Cloudwater, although a bit of trendy buzz around the category doesn't hurt. Goat's Milk becoming CBoB 18 months ago was a bit of a landmark for how the tide is turning - it's never going to compete with the likes of Cloudwater, but it's the kind of beer people want to drink now.

It's interesting watching some of the other regionals trying to keep up with the trends. Incredibly, it's becoming hard to find Spitfire (sorry, Spitfire Amber as it's now called) available in Sheps' pubs - Spitfire Gold seems to be a busted flush, but Whitstable Bay Pale has become their standard cask beer. It's not a beer that anyone will remember the next day, but it represents a revolution in its own way.

Anonymous said...

I've had "session pale ales" from some of the newer micros that taste as if their brewers have never even drunk cask beer, just had it described to them by a tourist who tried it once on holiday in London ten years ago. AP

Gary Gillman said...

Improve the quality of a lot of that traditional bitter, the foundation of real ale, as I argued in a post recently, and it will take care of itself.

Truth is, a lot of craft is more trad than today's bitter by its all malt and robust hopping.

Bitter needs to catch up and return to its sources.

Cooking Lager said...

I can't remember a more craftphobic blog in all my life. To fail to credit the pioneers of craft beer who saved beer by gowing beards and figuring out millennials would pay an arm and a leg for unpalatable murk is to fail to appreciate a basic truth that the beer world revolves around a small tap room with a few awesome pours served to beer communicators and not around the thousands of pubs selling mainstream beer to most people.

Cask beer will not be saved if a few more normal everyday people decide to give it a go. It will be saved when beardy gingers called Jasper or Tobes knock out the odd barrel and woke beer sommeliers tell us it's awesome.

This is where the noxious sense of CAMRA entitlement gets you. Craftphobic nonesence.

Alistair Reece said...

Everyone knows that cask doesn't really exist until the trendsetting craft boys jump on board, bit like footie not existing until the Premier League.

Stono said...

Crouch Vale - Brewers Gold, CAMRA supreme champion beer of 2005 & 2006, enough said :) think it won the best bitter,as Im not sure there was a golden beer category then, in 2003 too.

Ed said...

I thought that was an odd article too. Still, good to see crafties are taking more interest in cask.

Tandleman said...

That much is true Ed. Probably.

Paul said...

All this golden ale shite - why do we need it to the exclusion of everything else?

The Cheddar said...

Why are there so many different types of bitter these days? It was better when there was just best bitter. Then you knew you could trust it. Now there's lot of different bitter, you've never heard of it, god knows what the best one is, and you are better off doing the Ped Broon and swerving it.

Paul said...

There was always bitter, best bitter and extra special bitter.

Most want best bitter.

God help us if they fart about with bitter.

Curmudgeon said...

@qq - the shift towards paler cask beers goes a lot further back than ten years. In fact I commented on it in April 2010 when it already seemed to be a well-established phenomenon. It's as evident in the North-West as anywhere else, where Lees and Robinson's pubs are selling lots of MPA and Dizzy Blonde, and Wainwright is ubiquitous in Marston's and pubco pubs. Dizzy Blonde is also very popular in the free trade, with a number of non-Robinson's pubs in central Manchester having it as a permanent beer, not to mention Stockport Spoons.

But that's merely a shift in the overall balance of cask sales, it's not a knight in shining armour arriving on a pale horse to save cask. And I have to say that, personally, I find many of these golden ales a touch wishy-washy, and would much prefer a robust, balanced "brown bitter".

Tandleman said...


I know this of course. I just picked 10 years ago as a for instance.

Ed Wray says Boddies sold 10,000 UK barrels a week of the stuff in the early 19990s.

Curmudgeon said...

@Tandleman - I know you know it - it was a response to qq.

Interesting, though, that Holts never seem to have made a success of IPA, which occupies the same market niche as MPA and Dizzy Blonde. I have to say I am always very reluctant to order it in Holts pubs as I fear I'll get the first one out.

Barm said...

I don't want to go all I-were-drinkin-beer-afore-tha-were-born-son but it appears to me that the same people who ten years ago were droning on about craft beer are now trying to educate us about how great cask bitter and lager are.

We already know, kids.

Tandleman said...

Teaching your granny to suck eggs.

Paul said...

I'm still pissed off there's no demand for mild.

Anonymous said...

There is no demand for mild because it's pointless piss.