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The case for making cask ale special

Added: Friday, June 4th 2021

Beer cellar

There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, but the lockdown is coming to an end, we will be able to sup inside pubs and beer will once again be gushing into glasses.

But what kind of beer will the punters be guzzling? The awful truth is that not much of it will be cask beer. Sales of real ale were declining by 10 per cent a year before the pandemic savaged the pub trade. For the past year, whatever people have been drinking, it hasn’t been cask.

It’s a major challenge for CAMRA in its 50th year. We have to make real ale special in order to attract drinkers, especially younger pubgoers who think cask is something consumed by people en route to the undertakers.

We should learn from the wine makers. They have managed to build a mystique around the juice of the grape. You would imagine, if you read wine reviews in the posher parts of the press, that the French consume nothing but vintage claret with their meals and spend their time discussing the merits of Cabernet and Pinot grapes.

You have only to spend a few days in France to discover that most people drink what is irreverently known as plonk: cheap and cheerful wine, made quickly and meant for immediate consumption.

Of course, vintage wines deserve to be celebrated. And so does cask beer. It may be made more quickly than Champagne but the skills of mashing, boiling and fermenting, along with choosing the finest grains and hops, mean the end result is just as worthy of admiration as a bottle of bubbly.

And more skill is required when the beer reaches the pub. It has to go through the arcane rituals of tapping and spiling, carefully checking when the beer has “dropped bright” and can be pulled to the bar for the customers’ delectation.

CAMRA members know all this but we need to spread the message. I recall some years ago, when Whitbread was still involved in brewing, that it produced an oyster stout and placed small booklets on pub tables describing the history of the style and the way it’s made.

When I sat in the Blacksmiths Arms in St Albans supping this delicious beer and reading the booklet, I noticed that many other customers were doing the same. They not only had a fine drinking experience but had also learned a little about the history and heritage of British brewing.

We should build on that experience. We should encourage brewers to top their pump clips on beer handles with the simple message “Great British Beer – our heritage”. This should be backed by booklets with explanations about the myriad beer styles in the cask sector – mild, bitter, IPA, barley wine, stout, porter, golden ale and many more.

We could point out that it was first the arrival of porter in the 18th century and then pale ale in the 19th century that helped transform brewing. Before porter took off like a steam train – but before steam trains existed – brewing was mainly carried out by publicans in their cellars. The demand for porter and its stronger cousin stout was so insatiable that large commercial breweries sprang up to meet the need.

A century later, pale ale and the stronger version, India Pale Ale, transformed brewing on a world scale. It might surprise many   pubgoers to learn that brewers from central Europe came to Britain to see at first hand how pale ale was made and then returned home to fashion the first golden lagers.

This sort of information could be published in CAMRA newsletters distributed in pubs while booklets could be left in pubs with the agreement of pub owners.

I’m the last person on the planet to wave the Union Jack. Other countries also make memorable beers. But we have to make a major effort to champion the beer style we cherish and have campaigned to save for half a century.

I have seen old articles from the 1930s showing a promotion conducted by the Brewers’ Society. It showed a bottle of beer and a glass with the slogan “Drink the wine of the country”. Bring it back – and fast.

First published in What's Brewing, June 2021.