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:


Ulysses Tetley said...

Who cares. Since the spring I have been drinking fresh Spanish lager and it's bloody lovely. I don't care where it comes from. I'm not going back to that filth now. Had enough of gambling on whether I get a good pint or not. Future is amber.

The Beer Nut said...

A complete tangent from the main issue, but are breathers really so rarely used? I got the impression, for example, that Wetherspoon uses them routinely but doesn't like to talk about it because it's a controversial subject.

Curmudgeon said...

Jeff Alworth is quite right to say that quality is the Achilles' heel of cask beer, but the answer surely is not cask breathers but sorting turnover out, something about which much of the pub trade remains in denial.

Cask breathers don't so much keep beer fresh, as stop rather dull, tired beer turning to vinegar.

As many people have pointed out on Twitter, there are still plenty of places where cask is in good health, and if you know where to go you should have no problem in finding a decent pint.

And, while it may be happening in That London, I don't see any evidence of pubs you might reasonably expect to have cask taking it out.

Curmudgeon said...

If Spoons routinely use breathers, it explains why their cask beer is so often dull and flat.

Tandleman said...

They don't as far as I know. A while since I had a tour of the then leading cask pub in the chain, but no sign of breathers then.

The Beer Nut said...

Was there a big cupboard marked "Definitely Not Breathers"?

retiredmartin said...

Well said, Peter (as always). I'm reading this drinking a cask Lees Bitter in Manchester Rain Bar in the sun and it's great. I see a few women drinking cask as well, always pints.

Quality is the key, and I reckon cask quality this year is as good as I remember. But then I only visit 50 odd different pubs around the country each month so my sample may not be relevant.

Tandleman said...

You reckon I don't know my way round a pub cellar John? Of course I can't say what happens everywhere, but breathers in UK in trade are not common. Maybe I don't know that either of course?

Tandleman said...

Not worth anything Martin. Let's premiumise and buck things up.

Cooking Lager said...

Many opposing views can be true at the same time if viewed from any given perspective.

The numbers, however, speak for themselves. Cask is in decline and no longer a volume product. As a product reliant on turnover for quality this should concern those that care about such things.

How best to explain differing opposing views being all valid?

Curtis, as do most beer geeks and CAMRAs self-select to a very narrow selection of pubs and favour specialist cask outlets. If I wanted to go say hello to Curtis on a Saturday afternoon I could pop into the Magnet, Corbyn Tap, Heaton Hops. The cask beer in there is universally good and reliable. Plenty of choice of obscure breweries, decent beer if you like hoppy CAMRA micro beer that enthusiast thing all tastes different and none enthusiasts think all taste the same. Likewise I could go out along Castle St. and conclude cask beer is dead on its arse and largely irrelevant and not much cop where you do find a doom bar. I could take you out to a few locals. More gentrified restaurants these days. The cask beer is okay despite few people drinking it. You’d conclude it was an old mans drink with young people drinking wine or Birra Moretti and maybe a gamble, though fine last time I had one. That’s just a few areas of one small town.

Last time I was in Sheffield, cask beer was everywhere and generally good. Last time I was in London it was universally terrible. You can visit towns were it seems a bulk of regular blokes drink the local cask ale without bothering to particularly care whether it’s cask to towns where mainstream lager appears the default in every pub you visit.

There are lots of different anecdotal views on the state of cask beer and the pub trade. All valid from that perspective.

What I would say is the value of a CAMRA recommendation has declined. Whether GBG or local magazine award. I used to trust these were decent recommendations. No more. Lots of poor quality beer selected because somebody want to support a gaff with too many hand pumps for the turnover they get. I take those with a pinch of salt, these days. I am more inclined to take a recommendation off a pal and am influenced by whether others in the pub are drinking cask. If the old bloke is on the Carling, chances are the bitter is crap.

But I will finish my long drawn out tuppence with, everyone has a point of view. The numbers are the facts. The numbers point to casks decline. Either by volume or number of micro breweries. A niche product increasingly enjoyed in specialist enthusiast outlets.

It is what it is. Why care? It appears the market is functioning as everyone is getting what they want. Curtis can go out and enjoy weird beer in any format he wants. I can go out for a skin full of lager. We never have to run into each other. It’s win from both our points of view. Why should either of us care cask in in long term terminal decline?

Anonymous said...

I see Bristol on the tail end of your list ? Shouldn't be even there. Too many pumps in too many pubs not turning over quickly enough- which means too many casks already open down the cellar waiting for those on the bar to finally sell out/ be condemned and therefore are tired before the first pint even reaches the glass (I only put it on fresh today guv...). And couple that with landlords and staff who can't put a hard peg in at night "we forget... ", do they forget to lock the money in the safe ? And before someone says those blue ventilators aren't nearly any kind of panacea, they're actually adding to the lack of quality by landlords believing the marketing rather than tasting the beer....!!!

Tandleman said...

Maybe I'm over influenced by influencers bigging up Bristol. Looks like it from what you say.

Big Boy Billy said...

CAMRA is not responsible for the decline of cask beer, regardless of its views on cask breathers. People give too much credit to CAMRA and its members. Whatever their numbers they are a small club of beer enthusiasts relevant only in so far as the degree to which they may be said to influence the rest of us. A minority may be said to want to conserve the past in the form of a beer tradition or heritage pubs. A majority are beer enthusiast excited about microbreweries and micropubs. They are happy in their niche and have little interest in the mainstream market. They avoid mainstream pubs and are put out when family or work necessitate engaging with mainstream hospitality.

The question to ask is why allow a group of enthusiasts influence beyond the narrow niche of their interest. A CAMRA meeting at a micropub tap will give its branch its highest turnout meeting. A meeting at a family brewery pub with regional best bitter will give the branch its lowest turnout meeting. We can see what CAMRA are about, what interest them, what doesn’t. Good luck to them, but they are not responsible for anything much nor do they have the answer to anything much. Most members don’t give a monkey about cask quality in a regional family brewery pub, visit begrudgingly to score it, and rush at gods speed to the specialist outlet for a pint of micro hoppy goodness. That’s great.

Stop blaming CAMRA and look at the actual reasons why volume is declining. Is it a vicious spiral of quality and trust going down instead of up as appears implied? Is it a generational change in a country where the young don’t maintain the traditions, as they do in other European nations? Is it that cask beer has lost any notable trusted reliable brands in favour of beer you’ve never heard of?

Thom Farrell said...

Which is the leading Spoons pub for cask Tandleman?

They make me drink muck said...

I had some rank stuff in a micropub a few weeks ago. Scared to take it back as there were only three in and didn't want to embarrass the guv'nor. Had to drink it all. In the end he said was the beer ok, with a suspicious look. Like a pansy I said ok. He knew. He knew. This outlet always gets in the GBG

It's a funny old product. Would we stand for this with cheese. Why don't The CAMRA Club set up a police force and sort it out?

Spondon Campaign said...

What happened to Pete Brown's fresh beer campaign?

I thought that was going to sort this all out.

Unpasteurized said...

Here at the campaign for Unpasteurized Milk, we fight on, despite a majority of ignorant claiming to get Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter etc. I say to people, you need to shit yourself through it, build up resistance then you're fine. Sure you'll work through some trousers in the process but it'll be worth it for the barnyard-esque funk. People these days have no dunkirk spirit to work through it.

Same with twiggy CAMRA beer. People just want reliable, cold drinks. We need to educate them to put in the hard graft to work through the taste and smell of living beer until it becomes tolerable.

Keep up the fight, beer campaigners! Us milk campaigners are with you!

Archie Moo said...

Years ago they had a campaign that went something like DRINK-A-PINTA-MILK-A-DAY

That must have been a success as milk tastes nice now with no hairy cow bits and hairs in it.

Perhaps CAMRA should have a word with the milkos and see how they did it.

You also need to bring the women on board. They are not going to go for that slop they turn out. Get the ladies onto it and you will have a bigger market and chances it will taste better

Let the chant be......


Cider Mike said...

I don't see why people see a scatalogical mishap to be bad thing, Unpasteurized.

Here on the APPLE committee of CAMRA we see it as a positive of the cider and a welcome feature. I quite enjoy the trouser warmth after a skinful as I pass out to the tingle of my teeth dissolving.

People are too lar dee dar these days and look down on you for soiling yourself. It used to be expected in the middle ages, for people and things to be covered in shit. Now people want things wiped with dettol.

Sat In A Pub said...

Wetherspoons do not routinely use cask breathers. Not in England anyway. Part of surveying for the GBG used to include checking that pubs weren't using them. Which gave the perfect excuse for a cellar inspection. In 20 years I've never come across one in a Spoons; nor heard from staff that they use them. Considering that they have traditionally had some of the quickest turnover in the industry, there doesn't appear to be any reason for their use.

Tandleman said...

Exactly Alex

Anonymous said...

You write "

Jeff Alworth said...

I should have commented on this when it came out, but like so many others, I followed the wave on Twitter. For posterity, then, let me just add this note.

Thanks for a cordial and serious discussion. As I mentioned on Twitter, I'm a huge fan of cask and I consider this a chat among family (indeed, those are usually the most fiery). I do sort of regret using John Keeling's post as my launching pad, because the question of cask's health was by far the lesser concern to me. Ah well, once things get rolling, they follow their own course.

In any case, thanks for the response--

David Lavery said...

So, the question that I am left with isn't about whether cask is in decline or whether the root causes of early quality issues were the denial of a technology, but today, if the GBG is less than trustworthy, what is the best way to find top quality cask when visiting a city? It sounded as though it was hard to find in that London town. How would I figure out where to visit, using the most updated technology available today?

Professor Pie-Tin said...

I'm very lucky to have as my local a Stonegate pub that still manages to get a good selection of cask ales from the list they're allowed to buy from.
There's normally four taps on - probably one too many for the footfall they get - which tend to rotate each week.
Just popped in to see what's on later after walking our deaf and blind mutt - he sure can't play a mean pinball either - and there's a mild Coming Next, the first I think in the three years we've been here.
The funny thing is I really like good keg beer too. And I mean beer and no some euro-lager. It's all we drink on our frequent visit to the USA - but it's rare to find a boozer here with a good combination of both. Spoons is probably the only one I know.
I like good beer, be it cask or keg, but frankly bad cask is mainly caused by bad cellar management and stale beer.
I know CAMRA is there to preserve cask but I often think it should also be about preserving good keg beer too. There's absolutely no reason not to enjoy both.