Why, nearly 50 years after the birth of Camra, can I still not be guaranteed a decent pint of cask beer in most pubs?

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”.

28 thoughts on “Why, nearly 50 years after the birth of Camra, can I still not be guaranteed a decent pint of cask beer in most pubs?

  1. An excellent post quoting evidence that backs up what seems intuitive from one’s tastebuds.

    Anyone who’s ever worked at a cask ale beer festival and sampled real ale when it’s properly ready to be served knows that it’s rare to get a poor quality barrel (maybe one you don’t like very much but not oxidised or contaminated or cloudy). The only way to square that with the fact that finding great beer in pubs is the exception not the norm is that most pubs are doing something very wrong when they serve cask ale.

    If there’s compelling evidence that the majority of cask ales have been on sale for over a week then that’s shocking but not surprising.

    The foolishness of pubs with low turnover having five or six hand pumps on is exacerbated by the type of real ale tickers who are always looking for novelty. To many it’s better to have discovered a “new” beer than have drunk one that’s great quality (these types are and predominantly but not exclusively CAMRA members and don’t really care if their new tick is just a rebadged standard brew).

    Given that it’s an industry body that exists to promote quality cask ale, Cask Marque should address this alarming state of affairs with even more urgency than CAMRA.

  2. Great article. I have been amazed that small pubs offering all sorts of kegs, wines, gins etc also offer about 6 or 10 real ales – how can they all be in perfect condition? Sometimes I find myself hankering (guiltily) after the old days when I went into a pub I knew sold great cask ale but only sold two: bitter or mild and I knew, through experience, if it was in good condition or not. Anyway, I have found that by sticking primarily to Good Beer Guide pubs, and Cask Marque if I can’t find a GBG pub I get good quality ales. Especially in Wetherspoons….

  3. Totally agree with this article. l generally drink good quality cask beer because I am highly selective in where I order cask beer – take today: Calderdale Beer Festival was excellent & the following beer in Drink! was superb (a cask Kirkstall/Verdant collaboration). Much better to have two beers in perfect condition than six which have been available for days.

  4. Well said, Martyn. But after reading the latest Cask Report and your post here, I’m quite surprised that there’s no mention of one tool that can extend the viability of cask ales – the cask breather! Kudos to CAMRA for finally coming to its senses and ending its opposition to breathers earlier this year (http://bit.ly/2Of9XuL).

    Granted, breathers are hardly a cure-all for poor cask quality, but when properly employed along with other sound cellaring and serving techniques, they at least give the beer – and more importantly, the beer consumer – a fighting chance.

  5. Pubs should be more willing to serve cask beers that punters might have actually heard of. Too often, cask is presented as something obscure and mysterious.

    Plus CAMRA need to be less eager to denigrate the majority of the cask beer actually sold in the UK. “If CAMRA says it’s crap, then why should we drink it?”

  6. Actually Martyn, we just brewed a summer pale ale inspired by Timothy Taylor landlord in August with Alewerks. We were lucky enough to get some Landlord yeast for it came out very nice even if we did swap some of the Golding’s for cascade! So some American craft brewers are STILL inspired by Timothy Taylor Landlord.
    Frank Clark, Williamsburg Virginia

  7. We need to get over the strange problem with cask breathers. While keeping a layer of CO2 over the beer in the cask isn’t perfect it is a lot better than having a cask on tap for over a week.

  8. This of course is music to my ears and I welcome the analysis bit. I’ve been banging on about this for years.

    It isn’t exactly CAMRA’s fault though it wasn’t until two years ago in a motion I proposed at Conference that CAMRA actually incorporated quality at the point of dispense into its key objectives.

    You are right in everything you say. I like your stale sandwich analagy and would point out one more thing. If you got stale cold meat at a supermarket, they’d be horrified. If you get a stale pint in a pub you’ll be met with a shrug and possibly “it’s meant to be like that”. Poor standards in pubs are a big problem (not just in beer dispense).

    Sadly Cask Marque isn’t a guarantee of quality either, though it at least provides another outlet for complaint.

    I like your top 5 suggestions though a complaints record sounds somewhat impractical. I wonder too, referring to suggestion 6 where you meet all these old duffers who say these things. Is it a London thing?

    Cask breathers, when used properly might help some, but not if they have over vented the beer in the first place. Flat stale beer will remain flat stale beer.

    Simple cellar practice, good stock keeping, only putting on the number of beers you can sell in 3 days and keeping the stuff cool and in condition are actualy easy. Ensurring the product you sell is in correct condition is really part of the contract when you hand over dosh for it.

    What would really help is if customers were far more militant with their complaints.

    All in all, good stuff.

    1. I’m not dogmatically opposed to cask breathers, but in a sense they are papering over the cracks. They should only be used to support one or two beers which sales volumes would otherwise make unviable, not to allow pubs to keep an extended range on.

  9. A P.S. based on some of the comments above.

    What’s ironic is that many of the pubs that serve the worst beer due to low turnover are food-led (often the big food pub chains) and make a big marketing push about the provenance of their ingredients and their freshness and also prominently feature their food hygiene ratings.

    Then they sell crap, old, contaminated and oxidised beer .

    I don’t see why pubs shouldn’t have to use a form of sell-by date on cask ale — show the date when the beer was first put on sale. It would be a real badge of quality for pubs like The Harp in Covent Garden and similar like it — and might be the kick in the pants that pubs selling too many beers need to concentrate on quality.

    When the CAMRA codgers mentioned in the last point moan about youngsters embracing craft beer the main reason is that craft beer is (mostly) free from these quality issues (either by its methods of dispense or that its drunk rapidly by enthused customers).

  10. Great Article Martyn,

    One or maybe two more I’d suggest for your list is staff selection and subsequent staff training. Nothing pees me off more thean when I take a beer that is past its best back to the bar and when encouraging to get the vendor to try it themselves that state that they do not drink that beer, to which I reply that they should either get trained or get another job!

    Caveat Emptor applies to every pint and if I’m not sure about a beer that I am not familiar with I go back to the bar and find a member of staff who knows the beer and ask them if it is supposed to taste as it does. Sometimes it is a yes and I drink it, other times its a no and I get a different beer.

    Keep up the great articles, Cheers, Brian.

  11. The manager of one of my local GK/Spirit pubs tells me that their cellar training dictates that a cask of any beer should last for a week which sums up the problem nicely if that’s what major chains are telling their staff. Needless to say the cask beer in this pub is usually poor despite decent turnover because they simply have too many on.

    1. but in part thats the competing tensions of the trade model they are in, GK/Spirit want them to sell as much beer as possible, not really through a decision to offer customers more choice or quality, but simply as the means to make more money, and then they use the likes of Vianet to monitor it to ensure their tennants sell every last drop, and only sell the beer they sell them. by and large IMO a pub that is using a computer system to monitor cask flow rates is not interested in beer quality or how long a cask has actually been on.

      and so you end up with these pubs with lots of beers on, no real thought in the selections,and they hang around for a week or more, but the landlord cant or wont take that beer off, because they know its being monitored and anything less than their agreed percentage with their leaseholder, then comes out in essence as a fine for not selling it off what little money they earn.

      so I think we can debate cask quality till the cows come home, but there are very clear business models that drive the behaviour of the landlords running those businesses and its just as important to understand those.

      I mean I know in some cask pubs they can put a cask of a beer on and it can be gone in 3hours but then in the same pub they can have another cask of something on and it lasts 5-6days, same pub, same approach, yet very different outcomes.

  12. Try running a venue where your beers are only open 4 hours a day. 5 days is not a problem even for the weakest of beers. I used to believe the only good for 3 days mantra but it’s not the same for all venues. Obviously we care for the beers as it’s our passion which makes the difference.

  13. “Simple cellar practice, good stock keeping, only putting on the number of beers you can sell in 3 days and keeping the stuff cool and in condition are actually easy.” Absolutely.

    Keeping the stuff cool should be in your recommendations surely.

    An example: My favourite place to drink at the moment is the Beer House in Chorlton in Manchester, near my Old Trafford home. Why? Because it serves a great choice of beers from excellent breweries and the beer is reliably top quality in the glass. It serves cask and keg beers and the cask beer is always fantastic. They serve about 5 or 6 cask beers and 5 or 6 keg beers at any one time. They shift the cask beers quickly because they are so reliably good. I mostly drink cask there, partly because it is always cheaper than the keg, partly because it is so good. They also serve it in any size glass – half, 2/3 or pint, and I choose 2/3 of cask in a straight glass often now. I drink the keg beers too, of course, for variety. My 19 year old son loves the cask Marble Pint, and the price of it, about £3.40 a pint I think, compared to about £5 for the keg beers. So cask and keg can live side by side and appeal to all ages. When it’s in the right hands. And it will only survive in the right hands.

  14. Excellent article Martyn. With the greatest of respect to my_beer, I think that he – or she – is confusing cask breathers with CO2 blanket pressure. The former has, at long last, been approved by CAMRA. The latter has most definitely not!

  15. On a recent visit to the UK I can agree that about 60% of the cask beer served to me was sub standard. Although there is no substitute for correct cellaring procedures it seems to me that if a cask can’t be finished in three days perhaps the breweries and publicans should be encouraged to use smaller casks. This would no doubt increase handling and perhaps cost but if it renders a better pint; why not.

  16. I like beer but know stuff all about good cellar practice and what have you so this might be a stupid question, but if it takes more than three days for the average pub to get through a cask of beer, why doesn’t it come in smaller casks? That way even the most lax landlordlady might manage to sell better quality beer and vary their beers more often, although too many don’t have enough interest or imagination to do so (and why should they, if their punters drink Doom Bar, sell ’em Doom Bar).
    I expect the drawback to smaller casks is cost – but that’s the case for nearly all of life’s trials and tribulations isn’t it?

  17. There are two issues here: firstly people who try cask ale and don’t like it, probably because the pint they tried was some horrible dreck like Doom Bar, Pedigree or GKIPA, and thus never drink it again; and secondly people who do like cask ale, but find themselves drinking something else because all the pub has on is some horrible dreck, like Doom Bar, Pedigree or GKIPA.

    I get that pubs feel obliged to sell horrible dreck like Doom Bar and Abbot because they’re beloved of the 70-year old CAMRA card waiving alcoholics who keep them in business; the problem is that this drives everyone else to drink something else, or somewhere else, instead.

    1. I think you will find that the “70-year old CAMRA card waiving [sic] alcoholics” despise Doom Bar and Abbot as much as you do. Though frankly, if you think Pedigree, one of the finest beers in Britain when well looked after, is “dreck”, then you’re an idiot.

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