Wednesday 12 June 2024

Having a Breather or Just About Dead?

Well, it's all kicked off again. Sort of. Cask is dead, don't you know?  It isn't nearly a flame war, so beloved of us old Usenet hands, but like any social media argument, it has the possibility of descending into one. But in reality it isn't likely to over develop into a right old ruck in these more cautious times. Injudicious remarks aren't just a punch to roll with and forgive these days, but have potentially reputational damage to hang round your neck. Back in the Usenet days, we defended our positions robustly and bugger the facts. It's what made it fun. 

What is this about, I hear you ask?  Well, beer writer Jeff Alworth, in an X post - is that right? - well, a formerly Twitter tweet, lamented about the state of cask beer in the UK thusly:

Now Jeff isn't resident in the UK, but he knows his stuff, and often, an outside view is valuable, so his comments are useful. Of course, this provoked a lot of response, as his main bone of contention, apart from cask dying on its arse, is that it needn't have been so. If only these silly buggers in CAMRA had accepted the use of cask breathers (aspirators) long before they actually became neutral on the matter. They therefore didn't care about quality. His blog on this is here:

So, what is a cask breather, then?  Wikipedia describes it well:

A cask breather (sometimes called a cask aspirator) is a type of demand valve used to serve draught beer. The cask breather enables the empty space created when beer is drawn from a beer cask to be filled with carbon dioxide from an external source. This prevents ambient air from being drawn into the cask, thus extending the life of the beer by preventing oxidation.

To avoid carbonation of the beer, the carbon dioxide gas added by a cask breather is at low pressure, unlike the high pressure gas used to pressurize keg beer. Cask breathers are typically used in conjunction with a pressure regulator to ensure the gas pressure is sufficiently low.

Before 2018, the use of cask breathers was opposed by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a policy that was changed in April 2018 to allow pubs using cask breathers to be classified as real ale pubs and listed in the Good Beer Guide.

Now without getting too technical, that'll do for now, but one caveat. Oxygen gets into beer before the  cask is vented, so the demand valve isn't a panacea. It just delays the inevitable for a few days depending on many other external factors, such as handling in the pub cellar, and care in the brewery. Maybe in a limited set of circumstances, cask breathers might have helped, but overall, would it really help the trade to prop up the ailing patient, cask conditioned ale? In the view of this writer, it most certainly wouldn't.*

So, what about the next contention, that cask ale is a dying beast.  Here we have the possibility of a certain amount of disagreement, with cask aficionados planting flags firmly in the "No" camp and in fairness, in the X arguments, few actually claiming that it is in rude health.

Well, where are we really?  In sheer volume, cask is a declining segment of the market, but there are many variations. In many cities, finding good to excellent cask beer is not a problem. In no particular order, I'd suggest that applies to:Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Chester, Wolverhampton, York  - and likely Bristol and Norwich. This list is not definitive and the bonus is that usually, the quality of beer in the surrounding areas is also dragged up by proximity.  Even London is showing signs of recovery, with my own experience of  recent improvement and many defenders springing to its aid on X.

When it comes to cask and point of view and credibility, you can, if you are so inclined, safely put us long in the tooth veterans, in a box labelled "Old Farts". This can then be filed away where you'll never find it. However, there are some younger types who have seen the true light more recently, who can provide a more up to date perspective. Beer writer Matt Curtis, while always a cask drinker among other stuff, is now, since relocating to Manchester, where cask is still doing well, seeing the role and position of cask from a somewhat different perspective: 

He says on X in the same debate; "as someone who spends a lot of time in pubs around the UK, I’d say that cask is not on “life support” but is actually thriving in its pockets.”

Another cask devotee, ex Fullers Head Brewer, John Keeling subscribes to the view that cask is a niche now and that is probably correct. It is no longer a mass volume product in the way it once was, but it is still a substantial niche and even, in some places, still mainstream. 

Sorry Jeff. Cask beer isn't on life support, but increasingly being seen as something that, if done well - and that is what is happening - will have discerning drinkers seeking it out. Volume may have gone, but its innate quality and sheer drinkability will ensure it survives and is sought after, albeit by fewer numbers. And, from my point of view, it will see me out, so that'll do!

*Breathers are almost never used in areas where cask is thriving and viable and never have been, so go figure. I'll contend that while breathers would have saved the odd marginal outlet, they would never have helped against lowest common denominator beers in "couldn't care less" outlets run by big PubCos. It is wishful thinking to my mind, evidenced by the fact they are still so rarely used.

The demise of cask as a mass-produced and volume consumed product has been a long and tortuous one. Mostly stems back to the Beer Orders, but that is another post. There are some great contributions to the debate on X. You could also read this venerable, but relevant article here: