Not the time to be unclear about cask beer

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Cask marque Beer

Pete Brown: "Cask no longer has a monopoly on great, flavourful beer"
Pete Brown: "Cask no longer has a monopoly on great, flavourful beer"
Cask ales have come a long way but, to ensure it doesn’t revert back to its fusty past, education of staff and customers is key, argues Pete Brown.

And so to the Cask Marque AGM where, once again, the great and good of the industry gathered to discuss future prospects for cask ale, the pubs that serve it and the initiatives that will hopefully help sustain its current level of success.

I was invited along to give a speech and was asked to focus on the challenges that face cask ale.

It was a good prompt for me. I’ll be writing the Cask Report again this year and it’s just coming up to the time I need to knuckle down to it, so I’ve been thinking about what new content I can come up with. This talk provided a useful focus.


The overall challenge summed up by the Report has changed over the years I’ve been writing it. We’ve moved from having to convince
publicans that cask has something to offer them, that it is relevant and not in terminal decline, to having to deal with the problems of success.

Cask is enjoying renewed interest, and while it’s not in dramatic growth (how could it be when it’s only available in a shrinking universe of pubs?) it consistently outperforms the beer market overall.

Last time cask was in this position, it fell victim to its own success. Distribution spread rapidly into pubs that weren’t confident about how to keep it properly. Quality suffered.

Throughput fell, and a vicious cycle of low demand and increasing problems convinced a generation that cask ale was supposed to resemble cloudy vinegar.


That’s what Cask Marque, and all the other industry bodies and brewers behind the Cask Matters initiative, want to prevent happening again. The problems of training staff to keep and serve cask still remain.

Only last weekend I was in a Cask Marque accredited pub with six handpulls, five of which were turned round because no one on duty knew how to change a cask.

And I’m keenly aware that when we say cask only requires ‘a little extra effort’, and we suggest publicans should offer try-before-you-buy, put on a beer festival or come up with beer and food matchings and all the other brilliant ideas for boosting cask sales, we’re saying this to many people who would absolutely love to spend more time celebrating beer if it wasn’t for the mountain of red tape, regulation, deliveries, staff management and admin they have to contend with.


Cask faces new challenges too. Among people who know their beer, it no longer has a monopoly on great, flavourful beer. It exists in a broader craft beer universe where bottled, kegged and even canned beers can be excellent, albeit in a different way. The explosion of different beer styles makes the job of understanding beer more difficult.

When some craft beers are unfined and naturally hazy, how do I know if my pint of what is rapidly becoming known as London Murky is opaque because it is supposed to be or because it has been cellared badly?

These challenges are not insurmountable. An industry that was once suspicious of craft beer now accepts that craft is driving interest in beer overall.

And if our notions of what craft beer is are considered and thoughtful, and not founded on prejudice and preference, we can see that cask ale is the epitome of craft beer.

Cask is the style that American craft brewers are still struggling to crack. It’s the style that inspired many of them to brew in the first place.

This is the line we’ll be hearing much more of from many of those who seek to champion cask ale. And it promises a fresh, exciting future, where cask loses completely its old man and Faragian connotations, and occupies its rightful place as a contemporary, artisanal, crafted product.


There’s still a way to go though.

As the meeting ended, the great and good descended on a nearby pub. Annabel Smith, Cask Marque’s training manager and Beer Sommelier, ordered a half of a 3.8% golden ale. It was so cloudy it resembled a glass of fresh grapefruit juice.

“Excuse me,” she asked the barperson, “Is this beer meant to be cloudy?”

“Yes it is,” replied the barperson in a slow, patient voice as if explaining something to a child, “because it’s an ale you see? Ales are cloudy.”

Time to get back to work. 

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