Saving Traditional Cask ale

In a brief discussion on Twitter yesterday, I opined that adding more malt and hops to the run of U.K. real ale might arrest the year-on-year decline of sales in this category.

What is this real ale? It is beer, any style can qualify, served straight from the cask or pulled from the cask in the cellar by handpump, without additional carbonation or filtration. It is not processed by pasteurisation and must be “kept” carefully and served with dispatch else it is liable to spoil, with dire consequences for the palate.

While cask ale can comprise any beer type – it’s a way to “condition” and serve beer rather than a beer type as such – cask ale is typically associated with U.K. “bitter” and more rarely, mild or mild ale.

The bitter is a descendant of 19th century pale ale, e.g. Bass Pale Ale, itself a domestic version of India Pale Ale, or IPA. IPA was the highly-hopped beer style made with pale malt only for much of its heyday and storied for its associations with the British Raj.

Since I first encountered it in the early 1980s bitter is a zesty, distinctive beer with a range of flavours of its own, depending that is on the brewery and sometimes how it is kept.

When compared to bland, mass market lager, the type that conquered the market in North America and was making serious inroads in Britain by then, the bitter had character. A lobby, the Campaign for Real Ale, formed in Britain in 1971 to preserve bitter as the large and many smaller brewers wanted to introduce a processed version of bitter, called “keg beer”, that tended to remove many of its distinctive features.

Keg beer was served filtered and chilled, and had injected carbonation, making it fizzy and soft-drink like. It often used a high proportion of a barley malt substitute such as maize (corn) or sugar of some kind. This all contrived to make it rather tasteless compared to the bitter and mild associated for generations at home and abroad with the English public house.

Yet, bitter was also typically made with grain adjunct or sugar, generally not as much as North American brewers used, but perhaps 20% of the mash. This tended to lighten its taste.

And the hoppy side of the taste equation depended on the amount of hops and their quality. Some bitter was still noticeably acerbic in taste as the very name implies and indeed it was to begin with, as historical studies show.

But much post-1960s bitter at any rate was rather gentle-tasting, presumably to meet the taste of the public, or (more likely IMO) for the reverse reason. Bitter ended by being sweetish too from using some caramel malt, a type that imparts a darker colour and more sugary taste than pale malt alone.

CAMRA did a creditable job to protect this category of beer, one centuries old, indeed all top-fermented beer was “cask” in nature at one time. But with the rise of craft beer, the milder end of pub bitters began to show up less benignly.

This was because craft beer especially in its early years (post-1980 for practical purposes) was all-malt and not fermented to the point you couldn’t taste the malt. It used as well large quantities of hops and North American hops at that, which have a different taste than traditional English varieties and demanded attention by U.K. bibbers for that reason alone.

Cask ale, especially where poorly kept as too often is still the case, in this light started to look fusty and retrograde.

CAMRA carries on albeit that cask ale is only a small part of the national market, about 13%; mass market lager has the lion’s share of the rest, with craft ales, about 7 per cent, climbing.

On my two English trips last year which to a good degree were beer research trips taking in two CAMRA festivals, I concluded U.K. real ale retains its core distinctiveness.

But the writing is on the wall, as many observers have concluded, for traditional cask bitter unless something is done.

This opinion piece a couple of months ago in the U.K.-based Brewers Journal, I believe by Tim Sheahan, the editor, points up the problem: too much beer at a CAMRA festival doesn’t “stand out” and is too warm.

The temperature issue can be mended with enough goodwill and effort. The standing out can be addressed by adding more hops and malt to the beers, and sometimes more alcohol.

I tasted too many indifferent, weak bitters on those trips. (I tasted a lot, based in part on being given small tastes, or discarding most of a purchased glass after tasting, so no I didn’t drink 10-12 beers in a day, nowhere near it).

That type of bitter may have suited to get large bags of crisps down in the heyday of real ale in the 70s-90s but today, with craft beer rising in foamy waves around the country, real ale must up its game to stay current.

Some may say, this is altering the nature of the drink, even history. It’s not. Traditionally bitter and mild were much stronger than today and considerably more hopped. Historical data is available to show this and is daily offered and discussed by the historical beer community, of which I am part.

In fact, craft beer has simply brought back the original taste of cask bitter and mild, or if not literally the taste, the spirit of it, the idea of a well-flavoured drink that emphasises its compositional ingredients.

Far from traducing the character of bitter, giving it a more hoppy taste – in particular but not necessarily with flowery and arboreal English varieties – will enhance its historical character.

Will the drinkers drink it though? Well, look at the success of highly-flavoured craft beer in Britain in recent years. Improve the quality of British beer of the traditional type – bring it closer to what it was originally – and surely people will gain a new understanding of it.

There isn’t much to lose really given a steady decline in sales of cask ale in recent years. See Edith Hancock’s article summarising the dire numbers, from the Drinks Business.

In fact, some brewers have produced bitter or pale ale in the way I’m suggesting. Ridgeway Brewery’s Elf series shows how good this beer can be, I tasted a Winter Ale at only 4.5% ABV purchased in a Florida liquor store not long ago. The beer easily survived the trip and is not pasteurised, due in good part to its charge of fragrant English hops.

Historical recreations of English beer styles by definition attain the palate in question.

The time is nigh, and while the endless discussions of how to improve serving conditions are important, they can be distracting too, as no matter how well you present a beer, if it offers a timid taste by nature you can’t improve that.

Conversely and as the opinion piece stated in the Brewers Journal, a craft beer chilled and carbonated – the typical craft IPA, say – will still impress because made to a high standard to begin with.

The way to make English real ale more successful is to make it a better beer on average. In saying this, by no means do I suggest there aren’t many excellent traditional cask ales in Britain today. Of course there are. One can debate the names but that is not the point here, my brush is broader than that.

Improving the overall standard of traditional real ale will improve its prospects to survive, and likely too for CAMRA as an influential and relevant organization.


6 thoughts on “Saving Traditional Cask ale”

  1. It would also be interesting for you to name names on which beers you thought lacked character. The best-selling cask beer in the UK is Doom Bar, which is often dismissed as bland, and which I admit I don’t much care for. But would it really sell more if it was more distinctive?

    On the other hand, there are plenty of cask beers produced by micro-breweries that frankly are much of a muchness and offer nothing to stand out from the crowd.

    • Thanks, Peter. For the committed pubgoer, I don’t think the festival experience is that different from the local, hence the popularity of festivals.

      The average pint of bitter can be between four and five per cent alcohol and still more impactful than a lot of what I tasted. I’m not sure much lager is any less flavourful in fact, the taste is different but there.

      Clearly the present state is not working and it is not just serving condition, clearly.

    • I was very disappointed by Doombar. Sam Smith’s cask beers always seemed bland to me, even 30 years ago. John Smith ditto. Fuller’s beers are good, especially ESB, but not as hoppy as I like while its Gale’s bitter, Seafarer I think it was, was excellent but hard to find.

      One can go on, and inevitably there will be disagreement, but much of the 3.7 percentish bitter at the festivals seemed very restrained in taste to me, with often the metallic yeast background seeming the main impact on palate.

      I was disappointed in Old Hookey, too, a restrained palate compared to what I recall even 10 years ago.

      The Elf Winter Ale I mentioned earlier, 4.5 per cent with a lovely prominent English taste, is IMO exemplary. There were certainly beers like this at the festival but my anecdotal experience suggested, certainly not the norm. Often they were called strong bitter or English IPA (or similar).

  2. Interesting article. However beer festivals don’t really show traditional British beer at its best – it needs to be drunk in pubs.

    Also, as I’ve said on Twitter, the argument that beer needs to be stronger doesn’t really work. In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift towards lower strengths. In the general run of pubs, you’ll struggle to sell much cask beer above 4.5%. People in pubs don’t tend to want to get too pissed too quickly. Most brewers who produce seasonal beers tend to stick to the 3.6-4.5% strength range, as anything outside that just doesn’t sell.

    Whether it should be more distinctive and flavourful is an argument that maybe has more merit. But it has to be remembered that, in the past, some beers were perceived as being a touch offputting precisely because they had strong flavours. And cask beer needs to appeal to the general drinking population, not just a small group of beer enthusiasts.

  3. I was interested in seeing a post on cask beer from a North American viewpoint. I haven’t really bought into the craft keg thing-despite new technology I find most too gassy , and I’m not sure about the addition of non traditional ingredients.’Malt and hops only’ is my watchword.
    I have found, however, that cask is overall a lot better than when I started to drink and think about it in the early 70s. (That is, once matters of cellaring and chains of supply are correct.) In the 90s I felt that cask had run out of steam, and the newer (and not so new) brewers were marking time:recreating the time honoured staples of Bitter and Best.
    I agree that Craft has benefited cask by widening the flavour profile with the use of global cultivars of hops, and encouraging growers to plant older varieties that fulfil a modern day niche.Nowdays I can usually guarantee to find some exciting cask beers when I go to specialist pubs and micros.Unfortunately there are still far too many pubs that are just going through the motions.

    • Thanks, good to hear a positive viewpoint, and cask stout, or cask ales with New World hops, will help cask overall. The flavoured cask versions, while not my interest either, will help as well given current market trends, ditto sours, etc.

      Still, traditional bitter has been a cask staple and a good many are too mild-tasting IMO. Caught between aggressive, assertive craft keg and mass market lager, I think the traditional base for bitter will defect to one or the other of those camps, leaving trad bitter adrift unless revived on more historical lines.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: