Friday 15 September 2023

Book Review - Cask by Des De Moor

The subject of cask conditioned beer is a complex and broad one and to tackle it, Des De Moor has written a comprehensive and extensive book about it. At 334 pages, it covers a wide array of beery topics, presented as a series of chapters with subject titles and a narrative about each. 

 Let's start with the introduction in which the author sets out his aims and objectives, which, broadly, are to describe the product and its history and to fill in gaps that may not be covered elsewhere. It's a big ask and a look at the bibliography and list of those spoken to or interviewed shows the seriousness with which the subject has been approached, and here is the first observation. This is rather serious book. Didn't all those interviewees have some good stories to relate as well as words of wisdom?

At the beginning of the book, the author, in his first paragraph, sets out why cask beer is "unique" and" unmatched by any other".   He concludes by quoting Mark Dorber, a cellarman of some repute, about what we'd lose if we lost cask beer, which is the joy of being in touch with something living.  These are both sets of wise words, and neatly and succinctly bookend the content between them, and are probably the most important sentences in the book.

In many of the following chapters there is an inevitable crossover to beer history and to the techniques of brewing and if you are not already familiar with the art of brewing, these will be of interest, as are the explanations of cask size, filling, returning and the many aspects that make cask beer different from keg or other beer.  The chapters on cellar keeping are meticulous in their accuracy and are recommended as pretty much definitive, though on the downside, may inadvertently give the reader the idea that cask is a much more complicated beast than it is, a possible problem if you are already inclined to think of cask as a difficult to deal with. Whatever your point of view, you will certainly learn a lot about cask beer from these chapters.

There are also strong chapters on what makes cask, cask, and cask beer styles, flavour and taste, though a tendency to over explain creeps in, for example by discussing at fair length beers that should never be presented in cask form.  (Though it is good to say that not all beer suits cask conditioning). 

Controversial subjects include unfined beer and acceptable levels of haze, but skate over the potential damage done to traditionally clear cask beer that gave rise to the doubtful response, often given to punters in the pub, "It's meant to be like that" even when that isn't so.  Rightly the effect of poor presentation is discussed and the difference between live beer and cask beer, which causes no end of difficulties within CAMRA and elsewhere is mentioned, as is the rise of craft beer and its inevitable effect on cask.  The chapters on food and cask beer outside the UK are probably unnecessary, and much of the history could do with a sharper edit. In fact, this is a theme throughout, as the book itself is probably overall a bit too long.

Moving on to recent history and the future of cask, while merger mania is discussed and the Beer Orders mentioned, there is little reference to just how far the cask beer revival had come in the late 1970s and 1980s where throughout the country, both regional brewers such as Greenall Whitley, Shipstones, Morland and many national brewers, particularly Allied (who set up separate cask chains such as Walkers on Merseyside and Holt Plant and Deakin in the Black Country) were pumping out vast quantities of cask beer. Others large brewers like Courage also produced cask in volume. With Independent Family Brewers still flying the cask flag, as they do now, the rise of lager apart, this was peak cask and more could be made of it in the book. 

Then cask beer was mainstream and most that drank it just thought of it, if they thought of it at all, as beer. Not cask beer, not traditional beer, but just beer. And peak cask continued until the Beer Orders separated pubs from brewing, with dire consequences for both cask and the beer industry; a separation which still casts a long shadow today. The author recognises this as the law of unintended consequences, but he could have expanded, to good effect, the devastating effect on cask beer production and subsequently on beer quality, the cost of a pint and much more. 

As I mentioned before, we get little by way of a look at cask beer from the consumer point of view. Where are the uplifting stories from pubs, brewers and importantly drinkers? While craft in its current form may be the younger drinkers' discussion topic of choice under railway arches, cask has always been the social lubricant of the traditional pub goer, to whom the beer is important as an accompaniment to fun, rather than the fun itself - particularly when you could simply ask for bitter, and depend on your local pub or brewery to supply you with a decent pint. What happened to these famous cask beers such as Bass, Ind Coope Burton Ale, Tetley Bitter, Boddingtons and more, that you could depend on?  We could have been told, and a few anecdotes and a bit of background would have lightened and balanced the book.

Referring to the future, there is the unanswered question that if cask is in dire trouble as production figures suggest, why does it thrive in, for example, the likes of Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Derby, Nottingham - and even rural Lancashire and Yorkshire? Can we not learn lessons from them? The question is mentioned, but not explored, though one solution mooted strongly is that the answer to cask's woes is to charge more for the product. This unconvincingly overlooks the fact that brewers are the last to see much of any price increase, and that cask succeeds in the places mentioned, as do the many small brewers that supply it. Perhaps the cost of cask beer, however it is priced, is both a strength and a weakness? A dichotomy that will never be resolved?

These points, however, don't detract from this comprehensive book. It is a very valuable contribution to any beery type's library, and useful for those that want (nearly) everything they need to know about British cask beer in one place. What is perhaps missing though is the affection, romance, intensity and the human interactions that many would say is the hallmark of cask beer, but as a more serious look at the subject, it succeeds in bringing together, the technical aspects over the more ephemeral and nostalgic. 

Reviewer's note. This isn't an entirely neutral review. Where cask is concerned, I have skin in the game. After all, I have been supping it for nearly 45 years and stopped many a firkin going sour over my time.  Whatever happens to cask beer, it will see me out, thankfully!

Disclosure: My review copy of the book was supplied by CAMRA Books, from whom this excellent book can be purchased. (CAMRA Members discount is offered too.)


Curmudgeon said...

It would be interesting to see to what extent the author acknowledges the role of CAMRA in firming up the definition of cask beer. In effect, they had to define that which they were campaigning for. There were various edge cases such as the Scottish air pressure system and the Hull Brewery ceramic jars, some of which were deemed kosher and other not. Plus there was the top pressure system which, although never accepted by CAMRA, was widespread in the 70s.

Cask, of course, is a system of storage, maturation and dispense; it isn't a style in its own right. Bitter and Mild exist independently of cask or keg. But today cask sustains many traditional British beers.

Ed said...

I have to say I found the book theologically suspect. Too happy to see cask confined to a specialist niche for my liking.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't possibly comment. Well I did actually.

Tandleman said...

That was me.

Tandleman said...

Des covers this a fair bit. This is a wide ranging book. In a review you have to take a more general view of the thrust of the book I think.

Mahogany Blues said...

Looks a bit heavy that one. May have a look and see if there are any new Matthew Curtis books out there.

Dave said...

I love this line: "to whom the beer is important as an accompaniment to fun, rather than the fun itself." Somewhere along the line this has been lost. The beer has become a far too important part of the drinking experience.

Cooking Lager said...

History is a story and the the truth is a perspective. Having lived through the history of cask beer, at least from when just beer because "cask beer", you'll both know that history and have your own perspective.

The numbers don't lie, it's a story of a product enjoyed nationally going into decline and becoming a niche product enjoyed and supported by enthusiasts. No different from other superseded technologies, replaced by a technology that offered better consistency & shelf life. Contributed to by its product owners that didn't care for it and let it wither, seeing advantages to its replacement. It's saving in it's current form by an enthusiast campaign that keep a cottage industry going to service their preference. All interesting.

But there is also the real politik of selling a book. How buys a book about cask? Not a general public. CAMRA members mainly. And they want to buy a book that tells them a story they want to hear.

So history becomes not a neutral telling of events in order, but an interpretation, a story, a narrative. One that the reader want to hear and is willing to buy. And that story is not the decline of cask ale but the revival of cask ale. Not a technology being superseded but a plucky set of campaigners out to defeat the big boys that want to thwart them.

I suspect its an interesting story, if you like that sort of thing.

Ed said...

I think you need to read the book cookie

Cooking Lager said...

I'll wait for the sequel, Keg

Paul Bailey said...

Have just ordered myself a copy, so will reserve judgement until I've read the book.

Name dropping now, Des turned up at the tour of Hukins Hops, I attended last year. One of the reasons he was there, was to gather further material for the book on Cask he was writing. It will be interesting to see what he has to say about hops.

Anonymous said...

Des de Moor sounds like a Butlins lounge singer the wrong side of 60.
Does he say what his favourite pint of cask is ?

Professor Pie-Tin said...

Sourdough bread update.My local Aldi is on the verge of discontinuing it.Whenever I go in I'm lucky to get a single loaf of white and all that's left are lots of rye and seeded which with the best will in the world taste more like ordinary brown bread than sourdough.Most of it gets given to charity.
I spoke to an assistant and suggested they only get white in.Computer says no apparently.
However,discovered my local Co-op has a decent offering.Thinner sliced and more holey but tasty enough.First world problems etc.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

Don't ask for cask ?

Being of a pensionable age and with a much younger missus who I'm training up to be my eventual full-time carer life is a bit of a jolly at the moment.
Retirement allows you to do things work and kids haven't let you do in years.
" Why don't we go for a spin and see where we end up " I suggested on Friday afternoon.
With help from the Bath and Borders CAMRA website we ended up in their 2022 pub of the year, the Three Horseshoes in Bradford-upon-Avon.
My, what a belter.
It's not for the faint-hearted.
Friday afternoon on-the-lash hairy builders with double-tied ponytails almost all using industrial-sized vapes indoors and virtually everyone including the female bar staff effing and jeffing like it was an Olympic sport.
Incongruously two of the campest gays in the village flitted among them quite happily.
One had made the attempt to look like Adam Ant although being slightly chubby and ginger he was more like Ron Beasley as a panto Prince Charming.
The other had a set of gleaming white molars so perfect they resembled a piece of Antarctic ice shelf that had just broken off. Like that Rylan Whatisname off the telly who spent a fortune buffing up his image only to end up resembling the Yorkshire Ripper.
The bogs proudly displayed a level of wit and filth in its graffiti I hadn't seen the like of in years.
It is clearly encouraged by the pub which displays a wooden spoon behind the bar bearing the C-word and I don't mean cock although that too was on show next to it.
Don't get me wrong here - it's a very well run pub obviously loved by its gravel-voiced regulars.
A young couple with their three Pekingese dogs and a baby in a pram sat down to eat burgers and chips while the mullet men in hi-viz jackets cooed over the child.
An old boy wandered in and announced it was his birthday.
" Have a drink mate " said one Grizzly Adams.
" Cheers, I'll have a Jack Daniels. "
" No you won't mate you'll have a double JD "
A couple sat in the corner and said nowt to each other for an hour but their eyes clearly showed both were elsewhere on another planet.Zog most likely.They were left alone.
But now sadly we come to the beer.
The first pint - Danish Dynamite - was okay but warm.
The second, something called a chestnut ale, was skunky dreadful. It was discreetly poured down the urinal on my next visit to read the graffiti.
Later the barmaid invited me to taste the third tap.I didn't catch the name but it was equally as bad.
Fortunately by then I had resorted to everyone's favourite standby Guinness Extra Cold which was actually very drinkable.
And then it struck me.
Virtually everyone inside and outside in the beer garden of this large pub was drinking lager or cider. You could count the ale drinkers on the spider-tattooed fingers of a regular's hand that may have been involved in an industrial accident.
I mean I really loved the pub and will definitely return.
" We have music three nights a week and it's proper fucking hardcore " we were told as we left .
But how can a CAMRA branch make this their pub of the year when so few people in it drink the poorly kept cask that is heavily outnumbered by an impressive range of lagers and cider ? Pub of the year deffo but real ale pub ?
I mused on this while Mrs PPT drove me home as part of her full-time carer training.
Tbh she wasn't that interested as I was the only one fluted.

Tandleman said...

Some CAMRA branches have, well, idiosyncratic ways of choosing pubs Prof, but this sounds well worth a visit, though not for the ale!