*** This post lead to a re-connection with The Bell, and their story has taken an interesting turn: they have just successfully funded a community buy-out! Exciting times, and you can read more about it here: http://www.bellcommunity.org.uk/ ***
In June of 2000, my girlfriend (now wife) and I staggered through the streets of Bath, making our way from the bus terminal to the YMCA hostel. It was dark, and nobody seemed to be around. Erika had mis-stepped off a curb leaving London, and had sustained a fairly moderately sprained ankle. To try and help out, I was carrying my own pack and the day pack, as well as heavier items from hers. As new backpackers, we had totally over-packed and were breaking under the excess weight. Upon arriving, we faced yet another roadblock: the elderly church woman volunteering at reception didn’t want to let us share a room, as we weren’t married. Seriously. In Britain, YMCA still very much stands for Young Men’s CHRISTIAN Association. We were rescued by a young chaplain who stepped in, checked us in, then lead us to our room (making apologies along the way). Exhausted and starving hungry, likely with pathetically pleading eyes, I asked the young vicar if there was anywhere nearby to get a sandwich, and (in tentative tones), a pint? He smiled and instructed me to turn left as we headed out the front door, rather than right, which would have lead towards the centre of town. He said two blocks away was a bar called The Bell, and the best takeaway in town was across the street from it. They would have beer, munchies and a live jazz band. We could get food across the street and bring it in if we liked. He said tourists rarely went there, as it was just a plain old pub. We thanked him, dragged ourselves the two blocks and walked into a fairly modest pub. Nothing flashy, just a friendly inviting place. I was confronted by six tall black handles mounted to the bar1. Tall swan-neck spouts. A chalk board listing “Draught” from six breweries I had never heard of (I was still cutting my teeth on Steam Whistle and Mill St back then). The most expensive pint was £2.85; less than $5 Canadian. Based on my experiences of the past 8 hours, I decided to start with the cheapest and work my way up, until I had tried all six. I watched with interest as the barmaid worked what I realized was a hand-pump. I had some vague notions about these being used in Britain, but I had no idea what cask ale was, or that it was any different than draft. I knew the old stories about Brits liking their beer flat and warm, and I was curious what I was about to get.
What I wasn’t expecting was a legitimate paradigm shift.
The beer was a best bitter, if I recall. All I actually remember of my first impressions, was that there was a decent foamy head on it, it was cool, but not cold, and while it wasn’t fizzy, it definitely was bubbly. And whether it was the emotional drain from the day, the romantic setting or just plain old thirst, I drained the pint in about 4 gulps. I had never had a beer like it, and I wanted more. Now. It was sweet, with something fruity I now know is classic British ale yeast. The hops were snappy and dry; it finished clean. But what struck me most, was how full-flavoured, and well-rounded the beer was. With no idea what I was having, no frame to judge this beer in, I had just drank my first cask beer, and it was in exceptional shape. A pint or two later, the young chaplain arrived, pint in hand and we shared a few more while listening to the band and sharing travel stories.
Fast forward twelve years. I had been a newly minted legal drinker then, I am now (among other things) the cellarman at Castro’s Lounge, where we sell about 200 litres of cask beer per week, through our four English-made Angram Hand-pumps. In twelve years of drinking various alcoholic drinks in various places, I have still not come across something more pleasing, more satiating and more comfortable than a well-served pint of cask ale. And I want everybody to know about it.
Okay, let’s start at the beginning. Beer in casks. Well, this might seem painfully obvious, but beer predates mechanically produced inexpensive glass bottles. So while beer certainly was put in glass bottles at points in history, it was not a cost effective way to transport it. Further, wooden barrels were highly durable, highly available and highly useful. So, particularly in the United Kingdom, wooden casks were the normal way beer would be shipped to pubs (this was true through WW2). The beer would generally be kept in a cool cellar, where the beer would be pumped up to the bar using a mechanical hand-pump.
This system was wrought with potential problems. Wood is not easy to clean/sanitize. Once beer was drawn, the remaining beer in the cask would begin to oxidize. With nothing to hold head pressure on the liquid, it would go flat. Unfiltered beer can be somewhat unpredictable compared to modern filtered/pasteurized beer. The actual storage and service of the beer is physically demanding. So when a few cogs clicked together, and filtered pasteurized beers became available in steel kegs that used a gas pressure system to push the beer through to the tap — which allowed for weeks of freshness, rather than days — it was not surprising a lot of people jumped at it. And in a remarkably short period of time, cask conditioned ale was brought to the very brink of extinction. To be fair, there were a variety of other conditions, both in the UK and North America that contributed to this (see E.P. Taylor/ the “boringification” of North American beer; the advent of the PubCo in the UK). But this is a blog post, not a historical study of modern beer service. Though that gives me an idea…..
In the face of many hurdles, though, passionate people have kept cask beer alive. The group CAMRA has played a big role in this, as have many publicans who refused to take the easy road, and continued (or started, in more recent years) to provide excellent cask beers.
Well, there are definitely many different reasons for different people, but let me outline some of them.
Cask conditioned beer is unfiltered, generally drawn right out of the fermenter, which means that yeast and other particulate matter are in the beer. A well conditioned English ale will be mostly clear (though not totally bright), but different cask ales can range from that to totally opaque . The substances that are left floating in the beer certainly add flavour, flavour that would be gone if they were filtered out. Often cask beers get “dry-hopped”, which is the addition of hops to the beer in the cask, imparting extra hop aromas and flavour. Generally speaking, if you ask a regular cask drinker why they choose cask beer, “better tasting” will be one of their reasons. And I would bet in a lot of cases, that drinker could pick their preferred cask beer blind, next to it’s draft or bottle counterpart.
One bad thing about beer (at least ones below about 6.5% abv) is that it generally doesn’t age well. Even well-sealed beers kept in a dark cool environment will inevitably succumb to a number of freshness related failings. This is why things like India Pale Ale and Russian Imperial Stout came into existence. The countdown on the fresh-o-meter starts when the beer leaves it’s fermenter. So why is cask beer different than draught or bottled beer? They all leave the fermenter and are put into the final service vessle, right? Well, not exactly. You see, cask beer is drawn off the fermenter a few days before it’s technically “ready”. The residual yeast and sugar actually continue fermenting in the cask, which finishes the fermentation, and also naturally provides the carbonation. So cask beer generally arrives in your glass, literally fresh from the fermenter. Because cask beers often are served without a cask-breather/blanket-gas, they are only viable for a few days, 4-5 at most, in ideal circumstances. This means, at most, your beer is only days old when you drink it. Compare that to kegs, which can be a week or two old before it even makes it to the pub, or a bottle that could even be months old and still be considered “fresh”. I’m not knocking draft or bottles (both of which I drink a lot of), I am simply pointing out, they’ve got nothing on cask, on the freshness front. That being said, a bar that poorly handles their cask beer could well be serving old cask beer, which loses pretty well every fight against even a mediocre bottle of beer.
While it’s not a rule, most people making cask beers are doing so using traditional natural methods. True, this is generally the same for the rest of their products, but it definitely plays into the “why cask?” answer.
For many people, drinking a pint of cask ale is taking part in something bigger than themselves. People have drank beer out of casks since long before we were thought of, and it’s likely people will continue doing it long after we’re forgotten. Because, despite it’s quirks and difficulties, it’s a good thing which brings us pleasure, often in indescribable ways. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but here goes: In our modern world, there is no reason to ride horses. They are more difficult to maintain than a car or bike, take up more space, and are not as fast or comfortable. Horses are unpredicatble animals that have specific needs. Yet there is something undeniably lovely about taking a horse-back ride through the country. It is slower, but somehow for a great many people, it is a more fulfilling experience than if they had taken the same ride in a 4×4. Part of this, surely, is a connectedness to our past. I suppose, to some extent, the same could be said of sailing. Sitting in a pub, drinking a cask ale is not as quick and easy as a pint of draft, yet it harkens to a different time, and reminds us to slow down and enjoy things that are well-crafted by passionate people, and honour our drinking traditions. And I’m all for that. Even if it makes me sound like I’m writing an Alexander Keith’s advertisement.
This is surprisingly not mutually exclusive with the above. Many brewers use their cask program to experiment with new brews. I’m actually not certain why, to be honest. It could be that the relatively new experience of cask drinking for many people, means that the cask-drinkers are predisposed to trying new things. It could be that the bars which regularly serve cask beer are more connected to their brewery partners, so it’s easier to sell them on crazy ideas. I’m really not sure, but whatever the reasons, you’re more likely to see new/one-off beers being served in casks, than other formats. And for many people this is a big reason why they drink it. If you’re going to be at Cask Days this weekend, make a note of which beers have the longest line-ups, and which casks empty first. I’ll bet the majority are one-off/collaborations. To be fair, unreachable out-of-province stuff will move fast too, but whatever.
Drink cask beer. Drink it whenever you can. Follow the Twitter hashtag #ONcask. Make an effort to seek cask beer out, and support bars that serve it. A year ago I would have probably listed the few bars in Toronto where you can get cask beer; now there is no point. So many have installed a hand-pump, I would likely miss half of them. Some have added a second. C’est What has been a long-time cask supporter, and I believe they also have the most hand-pumps, at 6. The Granite Brewery has also been serving cask ale since before I was legal age, and has 4 or 5 pumps. Castro’s Lounge, as mentioned, has 4 handpumps. And, of course, there’s Volo. Bar Volo has (I think) 4 hand-pumps and often does gravity casks (simply a cask on it’s side, with a tap in the keystone that pours directly to the glass). But beyond that, since 2005 they have been the organizers and hosts of Cask Days, arguably (and I would be on the pro side) the best beer festival each year in the province, if not the country. From small beginnings in 2005, with 21 casks, the event has grown; indeed it has out-grown Volo itself, and took place in the Hart House courtyard last year. This year it will be at the Evergreen Brickworks. With over 100 different casks, the festival now has bigger selection in casks alone, then some North American festivals have in general. The logistics are likely a nightmare, but the resultant festival is incredible. If you aren’t already planning on going, and you’re still reading this, go buy tickets. Session 1 and 2 are sold out, though I believe there are still some combo tickets that get you into the Brewer’s Breakfast Saturday morning, then into session 1. The last update I saw on twitter said there was 150 session 3 tickets left. They will be gone before the inaugural tapping, trust me. Even if you have never had a cask ale before, go. You will not be sorry.
Full event details and tickets available at http://caskdays.com/
See you there.
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1. This is from memory. Looking at their website now, it appears they have 9 hand pumps. I have no idea if this has changed since 2000, or if my memory is that bad. Perhaps there was nine and I got through all of them? Who knows.