the cask project

Cask is building on craft ideas

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Pete Brown on how cask ale can use some hops better than kegged beers

Related tags: Cask ale, Craft beer, Beer, Multi-site pub operators, Pubco + head office

Too often in this industry, we tend to take an adversarial approach to trends: beer versus wine, lager versus ale, keg versus cask, cask versus craft...

It can make us lose sight of the fact that drinkers don’t see these as sides they have to pick, but as a range of alternatives to enjoy.

The Cask Project

The Morning Advertiser​​​ launched The Cask Project​ in a bid to re-energise the category and reinstall it in pride of place on the bar of pubs throughout the country.

Cask beer is in long-time decline and, having joined forces with some of the UK’s leading cask beer suppliers – Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company, Greene King, Sharp’s Brewery and St Austell – we want to reinvigorate attitudes within the trade to a product which should be rightly cherished by operators.

Cask beer is a unique product that can only be replicated successfully within pubs but the perception of cask, particularly among younger drinkers, is that it is made and loved only by an ageing male population.

We want to create a real buzz about cask to get pub owners, operators, general managers, bartenders and all pub staff on board and debunk the myths surrounding the drink and educate them on how to make cask work for their business. And by doing this, we can pass on that knowledge, care and skill into cask beer at the bar for customers to get excited about too.

Cask ale is notoriously seen as backward-looking. It was a tradition that almost died out and was successfully preserved and this can give it a tendency to look more to the past than the future. This means new trends can be treated with suspicion. So when craft beer comes along and offers drinkers flavoursome, complex beers with a modern image, the cask industry initially reacted with hostility. I’ve heard people howl with frustration that we should be telling drinkers off, telling them they should​ be drinking cask beer instead because it’s Britain’s national drink and it’s still got live yeast in it and it’s the most difficult-to-keep product on the bar, and all sorts of other stuff that doesn’t matter to someone looking for a tasty beer in a hurry.

What if, instead, brewers could look at what we insist on calling ‘craft keg’ beer, embrace it like drinkers do, and see what could be learned from it? What if cask ale looked to the future instead of the past?

“Craft has been fantastic for beer,” says Andrew Turner, managing director of Beer & Brands for St Austell. “It’s brought the excitement back into beer. It used to be brands fighting it out over brown ale but now we’ve got so many different styles and flavours, and people curious about what it’s made of.”

Confidence brewing

That’s great news for drinkers. But what about a brewer whose primary focus is cask?

“Craft has given us the confidence that drinkers are happy to look at new things. We weren’t so sure before. Cask has gone wrong when it’s tried to ape craft.”

Instead of ‘dad dancing’ and launching a beer that’s desperately trying to squeeze into craft beer’s clothes and copy its moves, St Austell Brewery has launched Anthem, a beer that is, in Andrew’s words, “100% cask and 100% craft.” It’s a 3.8% ABV ‘British golden ale’ that doesn’t try to sneak the words ‘craft’ or ‘crafted’ anywhere onto the packaging or pump clip but is a bit louder and bolder than we might expect from a traditional cask beer. 

St Austell Brewery’s head brewer Georgina Young oversaw the development of Anthem, which is brewed with all-British hop varieties, working closely with hop merchant Charles Faram. 

“Obviously the biggest impact of craft beer on brewing is the bigger, bolder character you get from American hops,” says George. “But at the same time, there’s an interest in buying local and keeping down food miles. So, Faram has responded to craft by breeding new English hops – relatives of Cascade – with these fruitier flavours. But they’ve been designed with cask rather than keg in mind.”

A hop that works better with cask

This is interesting. For anyone who has lived (and drunk) through the growth of American-influenced craft keg beer in the UK, there’s been consensus that the hop intensity in these beers is nicely countered by the spritzy carbonation in keg beer, which gets the hop volatiles moving and gives zippy, intense aromas. Experiments with cask showed that hops at this intensity with gentler carbonation could result in a cloying, overpowering mouthfeel. With these new hop varieties, the dial seems to have moved once more.

“One of the new hops we used, Harlequin, has vibrant aromas of pomegranate and passion fruit. But in keg, it loses something,” says George. “Here, the softness of the carbonation actually helps to preserve these flavours. The ABV is crucial too. People want lower ABV beer at the moment. These flavours can be masked in stronger beers, but at 3.8%, it’s spot on.”  

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Anthem on cask didn’t reach London in time for me to try it before writing, so the bottled version will have to do. There’s St Austell’s trademark light honey note on the nose blending nicely with gentle aromas that hit me including peach, papaya and violet. On the palate, it’s light and gentle, a bit of caramel sweetness, fruit salad and a gentle dry bitterness at the end. It’s good. On cask, I reckon it would be pretty great. “100% cask and 100% craft” sounds like something a marketer would say, but as a summary description, it’s spot on. You could argue about whether it tastes more like a traditional cask beer or a modern craft beer for ages, until you eventually realise that’s a completely pointless argument to have.

“There are a lot of issues around cask and we’re under no illusions that Anthem can solve them on its own,” says Andrew Turner. The pricing and economies don’t make sense. And the way cask is presented to the drinking public needs a complete overhaul. But here, cask is quietly proving its relevance by joining craft rather than trying to beat it or copy it.

“Craft has increased drinking repertoires,” says Andrew. “Now, people switch between ale, lager and other styles. The idea is that people see this pale ale on cask and maybe give it a go instead of a keg pale ale. We want to persuade them to try cask if they’ve not had it in a while, within their broader repertoire. When they do, it hits the spot.”

Pete Brown is an award-winning writer who has penned 12 books, focusing mainly on beer and the pub trade

Related topics: The Cask Project

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