Further signs of the cask- beer revival were revealed last week in, of all unlikely places, the former main hall of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank.
No prizes for guessing this is now a Wetherspoon (JDW) pub, the Crosse Keys, in the heart of the City of London — all marble walls, chandeliers and a vast central bar serving a wide choice of hand-pumped ales.
Last week the MA reported the findings of the cross-industry Intelligent Choice Report that showed cask beer keeping pubs in business as keg beers and lagers slump. This is borne out by the JDW experience. The chain is gearing up for a major beer festival in 680 of its pubs, to run from 30 October to 16 November, and with cask ale as its driving force.
While beers from British breweries will be central to the festival, JDW has invited craft brewers from Australia, Denmark, Japan and the United States to come to this country and each brew a cask beer at Marston's breweries that will be featured at the festival.
Beer-sale figures at JDW pubs during a festival are literally staggering. In March, participating pubs sold close to two and a half million pints in 16 days — an average of 3,637 pints per pub. More than 5,000 pints were sold in each of 132 pubs, while a further 256 sold more than 4,000. Two pubs at the top of the beer-sales league are in Derby — the Standing Order and the Babington Arms — while third place went to the Imperial, in Exeter.
The festivals are organised with military precision by JDW boss Tim Martin and his team, and the beers chosen in close liaison with the Campaign for Real Ale. Drinkers are given tasting sheets to mark favourite and least favourite beers, and the group has taken the sensible decision to offer third-of-a-pint glasses, enabling customers to sample a wide range.
The 50 beers on offer at the autumn festival include many cask beers from smaller craft breweries. I welcome this — many other pubcos huff and puff about the "wide choice" they offer, but in reality mainly serve ales from bigger brewers, who can afford the discounts demanded.
Beers from international brewers will create particular interest. I was fascinated to meet Richard Adamson from Barons Brewing, in Australia, Toshi Ishii from the well-named Yo-Ho brewery, in Japan, Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker, in Paso Robles, California, and Mikkel Borg Bjergson, from Mikkel's Brewery, in Denmark. They have all enjoyed the brewing experience, either at the legendary Marston's plant in Burton-on-Trent, Banks's in Wolverhampton, or Jennings in Cumbria.
Making beer in Burton was a special labour of love for Brynildson. He has his own small version of the "Burton Union" system in his California brewery and has now had the opportunity to brew using the massive oak vessels in the "cathedral of brewing" in Burton. The unions were invented in the 19th century to clear pale ale of yeast as the new style of beer replaced darker porters and milds in drinkers' affections. Clarity became essential as glass replaced pewter in pubs — and, for the first time, drinkers could see what they were consuming.
In the union system — so-called as the casks used in the fermentation process are linked or "held in union" — yeast forces beer from the casks through swan-necked pipes in trays above. The yeast is retained in the trays, while the beer flows back into the casks. The result is a beer that is sparkling, fresh and clear, with that famous sulphury Burton aroma from the waters of the Trent Valley.
Drinkers will marvel at the cask beer Brynildson has fashioned. In common with most American craft brewers, he "doesn't do subtle". His Firestone Pale Ale brims and bounces with the tart, tangy and uncompromisingly bitter, hoppy aromas and flavours of American Centennial hops, leaving a deep crease in your tongue. It's a memorable drinking experience.
Cask on the rise
Richard Adamson will add his own unique flavours with his Black Wattle Ale. Barons Brewing is Australia's biggest craft brewery and Adamson has given his ales a distinctive style using indigenous ingredients, some used for centuries by Aborigines, others plucked from community gardens. Black Wattle is an amber-coloured beer brewed with ground wattle seeds. Adamson uses leaves from lemon myrtle trees in a second brew.
Toshi Ishii brewed his Yona Yona Real Ale at Banks's, while Mikkel Borg Bjergson fashioned his Viking's Return at Jenning's, in Cockermouth. Cask beer is apparently not a big attraction in Denmark, but aficionados are "big, big fans". Ishii's Yona Yona is an American-style pale ale that will surely entrance drinkers with its complex blend of malt and hop flavours.
The leaves may be falling, but cask ale's fortunes are on the rise. And the way things are going in Britain, I suspect the Crosse Keys will not be the only former bank to offer the JDW beer-festival experience.