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Brown's cask attack is wide of the mark

Added: Monday, January 16th 2017

Cask Ale

The last thing the poor bloody beleaguered pub needs is a leading beer writer saying he’s giving up drinking cask beer. It’s an obvious truism to state that cask beer can only be drunk in pubs and struggling publicans – already hit by cheap supermarket booze, Dry January and dire warning from the health lobby – will welcome Pete Brown’s critique in the Morning Advertiser with all the relish of cleaning the toilets the morning after.

Pete says: “I’ve mostly stopped drinking cask ale.” The reasons have nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of the end product: in common with me, he agrees with the late Michael Jackson that when real ale is properly cellared, allowed to condition and served at the correct temperature, it’s unbeatable.

Pete’s problem is that he finds that too many pints of cask are in poor condition. It’s a fair criticism – and yet it all seems a bit dated. I’ve also heard all the usual guff from behind the bar when you hand back a glass of warm, cloudy, flat, lifeless, vinegary rubbish masquerading as real ale:

“It’s meant to be like that...nobody else has complained...I only put the cask on 10 minutes ago so it’s fresh...London drinkers don’t like a head on their beer...what’s wrong with a hop leaf floating on top?”

But I just don’t hear that any more. Some 20 years ago there was a problem with the quality of cask beer sold in many pubs. Brewers responded by creating Cask Marque with a mission to improve real ale and build its appeal and sales.

The problem back then was the decline and fall of the old national brewers known as the Big Six. They may have acted as a price-fixing cartel but, by golly, they insisted on their cask beers being properly looked after. The likes of Allied Breweries and Bass employed quality control inspectors whose job was to visit their pubs and check on cellars, temperatures and the state of beer when it hit the customer’s glass.

For an article in the Guardian, I spent a day with Allied’s chief quality inspector. He spent a long time in each pub cellar we visited, checking every nook and cranny with a large torch for any sign of dirt, mould, spiders or mouse droppings. He checked the bungs and spiles of every cask and tut-tutted at any spilt beer. And up in the bar he sampled every beer for temperature, clarity and taste. Any backsliders were threatened with spending several hours in the stocks.

Once the Big Six shuffled off to run hotels and coffee bars, there’s no doubt beer quality suffered. The new giant pubcos, who treated pubs as though they were supermarkets or petrol stations, had no interest in beer quality.

Alarmed by this state of affairs, regional and family brewers created and funded Cask Marque with a mission to restore the good name of real ale. It’s been a great success. Its small army of assessors, many of them retired senior employees of independent breweries, tirelessly check cellars, temperatures and beer quality at the bar. A Cask Marque plaque in the entrance to a pub is a recognised sign that you are guaranteed a well-drawn pint when you reach the bar. Any backsliding, and the plaque is removed pronto.

Of course, cask beer is a living, breathing product. Things can go wrong. A cask may get knocked in the cellar, interfering with the natural process of the beer “dropping bright”. The temperature may go hey-wire in a pub cellar: when I visited a West London pub with a Cask Marque assessor, the cellar cooling had failed and warm beer was being served at the bar. The problem was put right by a phone call to the owning brewery which sent an electrician round so fast you could see his skid marks on the pavement.

Fuller’s in London have invested mightily in beer quality. So have Wetherspoon’s. Not everyone likes Wetherspoon pubs, but the group is mustard keen on cellaring and conditioning beer. Smaller pub groups such as Brunning & Price and Stonegate are equally strict about beer quality and -- much though I dislike them – the likes of Enterprise and Punch have got the message that cask beer needs a bit of TLC.

The proof of the pudding...I’m putting the finishing touches to a book about old coaching inns on the Great North Road. In the course of research I’ve driven from the Coach & Horses in London’s Soho to Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and stopped and supped in pubs in Biggleswade, Stamford, Grantham, Newark, Doncaster, York, Newcastle and Berwick and many others in between. I can say, hand on jug, that I didn’t have a bad beer on my journeys. A pint of Landlord in Alnwick was a tad on the warm side but that’s my only complaint.

Pete Brown says “I’m not alone in abandoning cask” and cites the recent furore over the decision by Cloudwater in Manchester to stop producing the style and to concentrate on keg and can. But this is a different argument. Cloudwater was never a major producer of cask and its decision is related to price, not quality.

It finds the return it makes on cask beer is too low to make it worthwhile. There’s no easy answer to this. Cask should not be seen as the “poor man’s drink” but on the other hand many drinkers find the prices demanded for craft keg to be exorbitant. In one pub in St Albans, where I live, a glass of BrewDog is £4.50 – and that’s for a special glass holding two-thirds of a pint.

How cask beer should be priced to make a decent living for small brewers while reaching out to drinkers who’re not joining Bill Gates in Davos this week is an urgent debate that needs to involve CAMRA, SIBA and the family brewers.

But let’s not use price as an excuse for abandoning our great contribution to world beer. Both Conor Murphy, in his Beer Battered blog, and Matthew Curtis of Total Ales, have written in recent weeks with great sense and sensitivity about the importance of cask beer and the need to support it.

Perhaps Pete would like to join me for a pint and a natter at the Euston Tap in London whose manager Tweeted on 4 January: “We are massive supporters of cask beer. Nothing else comes close.”

The Tweet ended with the hash tag: #caskisking.

I’ll drink to that.