Friday, 11 November 2022

Drinking Cask in London

Those of you that follow me on Twitter know that I don't drink cask conditioned real ale in London all that often. Let's get a couple of things straight. I love London pubs, not least of all because they very much remind me of how pubs used to be. They are lively and busy, many are unspoilt and haven't had their innards pulled apart in the same way as has happened almost everywhere else - there are exceptions, of course - and they are perhaps surprisingly pretty friendly and generally nice places to be. They have a very mixed clientele, and a general buzz and jolliness which I find attractive. Furthermore, they usually offer a pretty good choice of beer generally, and most tend to sell real ale. What, then, is not to like then, for us casketeeers?  Well, our old friend quality of beer at point of dispense. Many real ales sold are simply not up to my standards, quality wise.

Even allowing for differing dispense preferences - unsparkled beer is the norm - cask beer is often warm, flabby, over vented, under conditioned and served badly by untrained staff. Or a combination of aforementioned serving issues. Despite these obvious shortcomings, the product is still usually sold at over five pounds a pint.  Over the 20 or so years we have owned a flat in London, I have realised that to buy cask beers in random pubs, no matter how attractive they otherwise might be, is often just throwing money away. As an aside, drinking cask in the centre of Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool, Sheffield, York and many more places, is likely going to reward you with a decent price and a reasonable price.  Don't blame me for stating this point. It is just a matter of fact. The downside is that you may well be drinking your splendid pint in less than glorious surroundings, so in some ways, it is a kind of place versus quality thing, though as in London there are exceptions.

I'm not going to list all the places where you get an excellent pint of cask in London - the Good Beer Guide "should" do that, and often does - but even as a CAMRA veteran of 40 odd years, I don't tend to lug the guide about with me, and, secondly, when I am out and about in London, I may not know exactly where I might end up and therefore pop into somewhere pubwise I, or we, like the look of.  That has led to a great few disappointing beers - and I am being kind here - so I tend to drink lager or stout on such occasions, unless I see the wickets being pulled for fun.

Let me give you a recent example.  A couple of weeks ago, I had been out for a wander as E performed her last-ever day of paid work.  After a pint of Anspach and Hobday's excellent nitro porter at Craft Beer - I'm never keen on the cask there - I went to the Sutton Arms in Great Sutton Street (where one can drink cask beer with confidence) and hence via a wondrously confusing Old St - renovations have made this an unsigned maze - towards Commercial Road where I was to meet E.  After a lager in one of our favourites, the Commercial Tavern, I persuaded E to try the Golden Heart, which still bears a large Trumans neon advert and some other external Truman's signage.  We often pass it in summer, when it is usually rammed in and out. It seemed to have been recently cut in half though, with a wine bar being added, but anyway, in we went.

It was moderately busy and had a Heineken bias on the pumps, which meant there was nothing I was keen to drink, but they did have Landlord.  So, against my better judgement, I took the plunge.  Firstly, the barperson filled the glasses via the swan neck from above the glass, resulting in much loose foam. My three-quarter pint was handed to me. I requested a top-up, which again was attempted by filling from above, and the beer (pictured) looked grim.  What could I do?  The lasses behind the bar clearly knew nothing about the beer or how it should be presented, equally clearly nobody had taught them how to pour it. The Landlord wasn't fit for service either, being as green as Ireland on St Patrick's Day. To add insult to injury, the beer was well north of £5 a pint.

This or similar nonsense is still going on all over London, so my friends, that is why I only drink cask beer from trusted venues in the capital. And why premiumisation of cask beer in what is effectively a cask lottery, is a bonkers distraction that should be shunned.

It would have been the work of seconds to show the bar staff how to use a swan neck to dispense beer, and equally the work of seconds to know that the beer wasn't yet ready to be served. If anyone cared, that is - which clearly they did not. (Tip. Landlord needs more time to settle a clear and reach its peak than most cask beers.)

As a matter of interest, I am always wary of Star Inns and Bars (Heineken). Very rarely do they have much worth drinking in my personal opinion.


Tandleman said...

Everywhere? Surely not.

Anonymous said...

Southampton arms at Kentish Town,is always a favourite

Ian Thurman said...

I worked (and in part lived) in London for 35 years and hardly ever had a bad pint of cask. However I only drank cask in pubs I knew.
Re-Heineken's Star chain, my local is a Star pub (new to the GBG) but thanks to the landlord and his son the cask is very well kept and have a limited enough choice to achieve good throughput.
I had a terrible pint of Bass in Newcastle city centre today. As I walked into the pub I knew it wouldn't be good and said to myself, "buy a half". I failed to listen.

Citra said...

As you say there are good cask pubs in London but you have to be in the know or do your homework, else it's needle in a haystack time.

Cooking Lager said...

Imagine a lad that ate at a dodgy looking kebab shop that gave him the squits, and instead of learning from this he went back next week and got the squits again, then tried another dodgy looking rough kebab shop and ... wait for it.... got the squits again.

You'd all wonder why he didn't steer clear of dodgy looking kebab shops.

Now imagine he grew up and swapped to drinking the bitter in London pubs.

Paul Bailey said...

I must admit to being rather circumspect when drinking in London, although with recent visits the beer has taken a backseat due to my quest of visiting as many CAMRA National Inventory Listed pubs as possible. Many of the ones in central London are either owned by Fuller’s of Nicholson’s, and on the whole both companies do tend to care about beer quality, even if the range is sometimes a little predictable.

I do agree with your opening paragraph about London still having plenty of “proper” pubs, and being of a certain age, I certainly come across many that appeal to me, in terms of their architectural features, the diverse clientele they attract, and the atmosphere that these qualities generate.

Long may this trend continue, but as for cask, well I’m not really sure where we go from here, as despite the various schemes, CAMRA-led or otherwise, the style sadly seems to be in terminal decline in many parts of the capital.

Anonymous said...

Its not confined to London, the Home Counties are suffering the same decline.
I have complained four times in 3 weeks about sub par cask, excuses from its sometimes like that to I checked it myself this morning. I fear the desire to sell every pint from a barrel overrides the quality issues.Shortsightedness as I wont revisit these establishments.

ian said...

The Pembury Tavern in Hackney is always worth a visit. The Railway Porter was superb when I visited last night.