It didn’t all start with cask for me. Some of the first beer I ever had would have been in a can. Fairly weak, but hoppy, bitter was my thing. Until I was old enough to go to the pub, on a Friday night my brother and I would share a four-pack of something like Bentley’s Yorkshire Bitter, and a big packet of monkey nuts, and play whatever new albums he’d bought recently.
We could have just played music and eaten the monkey nuts, but the beer made it an occasion. There was no drunkenness or going OTT because we’d only have the one four-pack: a couple of cans each and anyway, beer is much more social lubricant than intoxicant (unless you are really determined to become intoxicated).
When we got older we would go to the pub on Friday nights, and talk about music and politics. Here we drank cask ale. Pints of bitter, around 4%, all marked out with that satisfying hoppy prickle.
As time went on, my brother wanted to drink with his girlfriend rather than his sister so I found my own friends and new places to drink. We’d venture to new pubs in different towns for beer and conversation. We never ran out of things to talk about but finding good quality beer became a struggle.
I didn’t have the knowledge then that I have now, but I somehow knew you had to look after beer or it would spoil and, at worst, end up tasting like vinegar. A skilled publican knew how to care for beer and made sure it was only ever served tasting the way it should. But it seemed as though there must be a shortage of skilled publicans because wherever we went, in whatever town, we kept being served, flat, smelly and often vinegary cask beer. So I stopped drinking it.
We never went back to any of those pubs either. We’d leave straight away and spend our money somewhere else.
This was all a long time ago now, back in the early 1990s. Things have changed. I’m no longer a fussy teen who won’t drink any beer that isn’t perfect… I’m now a fussy journalist and beer sommelier who makes a living from being particular about beer.
Cask beer will always be special to me, so it was genuinely an honour to be asked to write The Cask Report (which was published last week). The hard part was only having 40 pages to write in, followed by realising a big section on beer quality had to be a part of it.
Even in this amazing golden age of beer there still seems to be a shortage of skilled publicans.
Before the licensed trade gets the hump with me, I know there are stacks of brilliant pubs keeping and serving beer perfectly. I know because I only drink in pubs that do that.
But in The Cask Report I reported these horrifying figures:
► 1 in 3 pints are served through unclean beer lines.
► 33% of glasses are dirty.
► 35% of glass washers are unhygienic.
► Cellars are running too warm an average of four days per month.
► 33% of ale pythons (which keep casks cool) are low on water – leading to inconsistent temperature of cask beer.
► One in ten pubs has had an issue with beer being served too warm.
And I thought to myself, “Shit. Have we gone back to the 1990s?”
Cask beer should be the pride of British pubs – and for many it is – but when it isn’t it’s no wonder people decide they’d rather drink at home.
● The Cask Report isn’t all doom and gloom. It also features success stories, new research on what customers want and stacks of ideas about making money from cask beer. Download your copy at the Cask Matters website.