Why is finding a properly kept pint of cask ale such an appalling lottery in Britain’s pubs, despite the existence since 1971 of a consumer organisation dedicated to beer quality – before most pub staff were born – and the existence of a trade organisation dedicated to raising the standards of draught beer, Cask Marque, since 1998, two decades ago?
The answer is actually ridiculously simple. Almost nine out of ten pints of cask beer sold in Britain are sold after the cask they came from has been open for at least three days. According to CGA, almost 90 per cent of cask ale brands sold at below the rate of 18 pints per tap per day required to maintain quality. The typical cask of beer is still on sale seven or more days after it has been opened. This is exactly the same as making a sandwich on Monday, and still having it on sale a week later. The bread will be stale, the filling long past its best. Anybody buying that week-old sandwich is unlikely, after trying it, to buy a sandwich from you again. Cask beer is a perishable product: it loses its best qualities very quickly, certainly within a few days. Most pubs ignore this, and as a result most cask beer is sold a long way off from peak condition.
Paradoxically, there is also a big problem of pubs selling beer too young. Almost three in five publicans confess to putting beer on sale before the recommended three days of cellar conditioning. So there is a fair chance that just as your pint is finally coming into condition, it’s already past its best because the cask has been open too long.
Adding to the problem of poor quality caused by age, the evidence clearly shows most pubs keep their cask beer too warm. This is obviously more of a problem in summer, but cellar air conditioning has been available for many decades: that picture at the top shows a pub cellar from 1947, with aircon units. However, in July this year, Cask Marque found that almost seven out of ten pints of cask ale were served warmer than the recommended 11ºC to 13ºC. Two per cent were served at an alarming 20ºC – almost 70ºF. How is this possible?
Hilariously – or not – more than 90 per cent of pub landlords insist that they are aware of the advise on how to keep cask beer well, advice which strongly recommends arranging turnover so that a cask is emptied within three days, and they claim either that they do their best to follow that advice or don’t actually need it because they are expert cellarmen. And two thirds of landlords insist their cask ales never stay on sale for longer than three days. Unfortunately, the evidence shows clearly that this is totally untrue. Vianet, a company that monitors what happens in pub cellars, found that the majority of pubs sell less than a cask of beer per tap per week. Let’s be generous and say that half of each cask is sold within the recommended three-day period after the first pint is poured. That means half of all pints from the majority of pubs are going to be four days older or more. Would you reckon to buy a sandwich from a place where half the sarnies on offer were between four days and a week or more old?
One underlying reason for all these problems is that too many publicans are either indifferent to or don’t like cask beer. To quote Pete Brown, in the latest Cask Report, out yesterday, “Among publicans who love drinking cask themselves, every single quality measure is significantly better.” Perhaps we should be saying: “If you don’t actually adore cask beer, please don’t sell it.”
In the past five years, cask ale sales have dropped by 20 per cent, while the overall beer market has fallen by just over nine per cent. At that rate of decline, cask ale will effectively have vanished in a few decades. Meanwhile “craft” beer, defined for the purposes of this argument as non-mainstream keg beers made by small brewers, has leapt from nowhere ten years ago to six per cent of the on-trade beer market in 2018. I drink “craft” beer in a pub occasionally, but I do not believe I will ever have a pint of “craft” as wonderful as the very best cask ale can be. If cask ale disappears, then to misquote Hilaire Belloc, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the best of England
The Cask Report has a number of tips to try to stop this apocalyptic scenario. Here are mine:
1) Every pub or bar that sells cask ale must have a cask ale champion whose specific job it is to ensure that every pint is perfect. If this is not the publican, it should be someone else senior.
2) Every pub company, too, must have someone in the organisation to champion cask beer and ensure every outlet is selling the best cask ale it can.
3) Pubs should be taught that a big range of different cask beers on sale at the same time is not automatically a bonus, but a likely contributor to quality problems.
4) Before any pub gets Cask Marque accreditation, it should be able to show a record of how long every cask beer has been on sale, and also a record of every customer complaint about the quality of a pint, and what action was taken about that complaint. Pub companies should also regard this as best practice.
5) If “craft” drinkers are avoiding drinking cask because they perceive it to be all “boring brown bitter”, pubs should urge “craft” beer drinkers to try those modern cask beers closest in flavour to the most popular sorts of craft ale – American pale ales and the like. Then use those beers as a gateway to the joys of traditional cask ales. Staff need to know enough to be able to explain that, actually, the earliest American Pale Ales were directly inspired by Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.
6) Camra members over 65 (and yes, I fall in that segment) should STFU about how awful Doom Bar is, and should be taken behind a wall and shot in the head if they utter the phrase “Remember Watney’s Red Barrel!” Nobody except you DOES remember Watney’s Red Barrel, grand-dad, and it’s the image you and people like you bring to cask ale – slippered, cardiganned, smelly – that is part of the reason why under-30s would rather drink “craft”.