I have a terrible confession to make – terrible for someone with my CV anyway.
I’ve mostly stopped drinking cask ale.
This may seem tantamount to a betrayal from someone who championed cask ale via The Cask Report for nine years, but I’ve had enough.
I’ve had enough of bar staff saying “seems all right to me,” or “well, no one else has complained,” when I take a pint back to the bar and patiently explain that it’s laced with diacetyl.
I’ve had enough of bar staff agreeing with me that a pint is sub-par, that they wouldn’t drink it themselves, and then refusing to take it off sale.
I’ve had enough of being told that the beer is supposed to be flat and dead because that’s what real ale is like.
I’ve had enough of taking back hazy pints and being told it’s supposed to be like that because it’s craft beer.
And most of all, I’ve had enough of pints that are not off, or infected, or hazy, but just dull and sub-par, either because the beer is tired or because it’s not finished its cellar conditioning and shouldn’t yet be on sale.
This last one is the hardest to explain and the hardest to put up with. I feel like I can’t really take the pint back, because there are no technical faults with it. It just hasn’t been kept well enough.
Even friendly, enthusiastic staff in London pubs now will often say excitedly, “Look! We only got this one in this morning and it’s already clear! Do you want to try some?”
Most bar owners I speak to don’t understand the difference between a beer dropping bright in the cask and the conditioning that takes place when the beer is tapped and vented, the gradual formation of the bright, natural sparkle that emerges while the flavours knit together and this living, breathing product comes into its brief prime.
Brewer’s move away
I’m not alone in abandoning cask. As beer bloggers and Twitterati returned from their Christmas break, the discussion that dominated social media that first week back was Cloudwater’s decision to stop offering their beers in cask.
The brewer offered two main reasons for their decision: firstly, the artificially depressed price expectations of cask, whereby campaigners who insist cask ale is the highest quality beer available, while simultaneously demanding that it is cheaper than any other beer on the bar, make it an unattractive prospect economically for any brewer whose craft keg and bottled beers sell out instantly.
Second, like me, Cloudwater simply doubts that most pubs and bars are capable of serving their beer in cask to the standard it should be served.
This is what scuppered cask ale’s last revival, back in the early 1990s. Cask was stocked too widely, with too many fonts on the bar, so throughput declined and quality suffered.
Publicans were unwilling to pour half a cask down the drain when people were still buying it. But most people don’t complain when they don’t enjoy a tired, stale pint.
They leave it, buy something else, and then don’t buy cask from that pub again, if at all.
Do it right or not at all
The key message for The Cask Report since its inception in 2007 was that if publicans don’t focus on cask-ale quality, the same thing will happen again, and now I believe it is.
People who were convinced by the argument that cask ale was superior to keg because it was brewed by passionate small brewers who put flavour and integrity above greed have found they can now get the same in keg – usually from the same brewers that used to provide cask.
When I visit a pub that has a solid cask ale reputation, run by someone who is obsessed by quality and perfection, there is still no better drink. But now, these are the only pubs in which I’ll drink cask.
If you can’t be bothered to train your staff, if you’re not interested in learning why proper conditioning is important, if you’d rather get rid of sub-standard beer to people who won’t complain rather than taking it off sale, then please – do yourself, your customers and cask ale brewers a favour and stop selling it.
We’re always saying cask ale is special, unique, a cut above other beer, that it requires more care and attention. If you’re not prepared to treat it like that, you’re not supporting cask ale – you’re wrecking it.