How a bad cask pint can lead to love

If you seek out the greatest beer lovers in any nation, they tend to be inquisitive and hungry for new experiences, especially tasty ones. Prominent beer industry figures frequently note that UK conventions which attract a global audience offer chances to overhear the conversations of American brewers and publicans excitedly discussing cask ale; where to drink it and what to drink. This eagerness to explore new things is to be expected of those with an established passion for great beer and the discovery of such. But are the US folks who are less entrenched in the world of beer as eager to get stuck in?

Sometimes the answer is still yes, but the possibility of a bad experience is higher for tourists than for anyone. When I first met my American husband, I winced as he reported having stumbled into a Nicholson’s pub and ordered a pint of London Glory in the West End on his first night in London. I could make a reasonable guess that it had been served flat, at the wrong temperature, and tasted of brown nothingness. Immediately my mind was racing with ideas of pubs that I could take him to for better cask ale experiences that would hopefully erase that newbie error of ill-fortune for good. Fortunately, he was willing to give cask another try, and loved it by the night’s end (it’s just as well; I’m not sure our relationship would have gotten off the ground had he not appreciated a good hand-pulled pint).

But what about the visitors to the UK who turn their backs on cask after a shoddy and lukewarm experience? How can we convince them to give cask another shot? The upcoming Cask 2019 event run by Affinity Brew Co could help. The participants will be breweries who don’t usually serve their beer in cask, and with trendy names like Beavertown and Pressure Drop already confirmed, it could be just the thing to convince skeptics that cask need not be bland and boring.

Maintaining the good parts of cask’s reputation whilst improving upon the bad parts is a tough PR gig, and is certainly not an overnight job. But together, we can keep the buzz going for this great British institution. And next time you overhear a bad pint ordered in an American accent, why not step in to humbly suggest an alternative? Your advice could even lead to the love of cask spreading a little further.

Pub walks – and why Britain does them best

This time of year, it’s tempting to want to curl up in front of a fire and drink stout from under a blanket. To snap out of this stupor, I find it helpful to remind myself of the fact that pints of beer have always tasted so much better to me after a little bit of exercise and some fresh air.

A couple of weeks ago, I fulfilled a lifelong ambition by hiking into the Grand Canyon. Not all the way in of course (the tricky snowy paths at the top saw to that), but certainly far enough to appreciate the sheer majesty of giant slabs of rock rising up through my periphery as I descended towards the ever-clearer Colorado river basin below. Afterwards, it was time for a well-deserved pint. But given that the eateries in the Grand Canyon National Park itself are most likely what could properly be called ‘tourist traps’, we had to hop back in the car before hitting an excellent brew pub.

canyon.jpg

Having spent much of this year in the mountain west of the USA, my walking boots have never been so well loved. With an extraordinary range of spectacular hiking opportunities and great craft beer alike close by, I definitely feel very lucky indeed. That said, there’s something quintessentially British that I particularly miss; the pub walk.

A true British pub walk should not be too strenuous or too long – about an hour, and between 2.5 – 4 miles, depending on one’s natural pace. This should be enough to warm the bones a little, without breaking a sweat or feeling worn out. The set off point could either be home, or a carefully curated car parking spot. But the key is that the walk’s destination – the finish line – must be a cosy country-style pub serving excellent ales, with a comfy pew to rest one’s feet before embarking on the return leg of the journey.

canal

Britain has a high volume of areas perfectly suited to this most satisfying of Sunday afternoon activities. As a child, the Thames was virtually on the doorstep, and my parents would drive us to some lovely parts of Surrey and Middlesex each weekend, where we could enjoy a spot of fishing before a leisurely stroll to the pub for some well-deserved lunch. More recently, I lived next to the Grand Union canal, and towpath walking became a favourite serene pastime. A stretch I particularly loved was the picturesque Apsley Lock to the Rising Sun pub in Berkhamstead. At 4.5 miles, often with a few muddy patches, this walk was definitely on the more ambitious end of pub walks, but the splendid views of canal life and pretty narrowboats made it worth it. The pub itself is a local institution; year-round outdoor bunting decorates the facade, perfectly kept local ales are served, local bands play in the tiny back room on the weekends, and there’s plenty of places to perch outside to watch or help the passing boaters to navigate the lock.

rising sun

So whilst Britain might be lacking in the mountain ranges, panoramic views and hefty summits that I’ve become used to, I can’t wait to return home to enjoy a little stroll along some stretch of water or other, followed by a delicious pint of cask ale to celebrate my small efforts, in a truly national style.

Is the CAMRA discount killing cask ale?

From my first foray into drinking real ale, I always had a soft spot for CAMRA. Sure, their meet-ups of beardy straight white middle-aged men could do with a bit of diversity, but they always seemed a friendly enough, if decidedly ‘uncool’ bunch.

Over time, sneers in CAMRA’s direction became more common, and inspired in me a somewhat protective knee-jerk response. It seemed to start around the time that the first BrewDog pubs displayed signs reading ‘No CAMRAs’ upon the walls of their hip joints; no doubt tongue-in-cheek, but with an underlying acidic aftertaste. There was a school yard bully vibe about it that struck me as unpleasant. And of course, we all know that what starts as a series of playful jibes at the bespectacled dorky kid eventually amounts to something much bigger.

My CAMRA card was last in the front of my wallet around the same time that I last carried a student card. Like all cash-strapped youngsters, I was a bargain hunter when it came to going out and having a good time, and I took my real ale habit the most seriously of all. It brought me fresh joy each time I found myself receiving 20p off a pint, and I admit that at the time I never thought too deeply about exactly who was discounting me – was it CAMRA themselves, the pubs, the suppliers, or the breweries?

For a while I imagined that it might be the pubs. The Bree Louise in Euston sent a drinking buddy of mine into shock upon demanding about £5.50 for a pint of Guinness several years ago. This seemed so steep given their usual prices that I couldn’t help wondering if this was some sort of ‘bad taste tax’. People who want to drink Guinness when there’s three stouts and two porters on the ale pumps will drink Guinness no matter what it costs. Could it be that the pricing up of the beers which enjoy an absurdly loyal and almost cult-like following was helping to keep the indie selections cheaper for the rest of us?

But on closer inspection, it’s easy to see that the CAMRA discounts are not doing wonders for everyone – especially the breweries. Ben Duckworth, Director and Co-Founder of Affinity Brew Co spoke to me about how breweries can often suffer due to the discounts offered to CAMRA card holders. In turn, the pubs want to pay less for the casks in order to preserve their profit margins. This echoed the sentiment from Matthew Curtis’ recent ‘Cask Confidential’ article for Ferment Magazine; cask is often the “lowest common denominator… treated without the care and attention that a premium product both requires and deserves.”

Ben highlighted the two main threats to cask ale today – pricing and presentation.
“For too long, people have only been willing to spend under £4 for a warm pint of flat ale. Which is probably all it’s been worth!”
Ben explained that this led to an effective ‘race to the bottom’, with pubs looking to pay as little as possible. He said he has heard of casks going for as low as £40 each.
“That’s £1 a litre, and is an absolute insult.”

As we talked, I felt dismayed and a little embarrassed to have celebrated the low cost of cask over keg throughout my student days and early twenties. But then I immediately saw the problem; as craft keg offerings have been getting better and better, cask quality has plateaued and demand has stagnated. It’s tough to feel ok about paying an extra quid for something that isn’t constantly upping its game. Looked at this way, the demise of cask under discounts seems like a sad self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone loves value for money, but could it be that the CAMRA discount could eventually help to kill off the great quality cask ale that it has worked so hard to promote?

This Catch-22 definitely demands a new approach. Ben told me that Affinity’s Cask 2019 festival aims at exactly that.
“We thought, let’s get some of the best breweries in the country, some of whom don’t normally put their beers into cask, to put their beers into cask. We encase all the casks in a cooled container, and serve them on gravity.”
The festival will be offering beers at £5 a pint (halves are also available) and will feature beers from breweries such as Beavertown and Pressure Drop.

Ben’s dedication to reviving the demand for cask gives me hope, and it definitely sounds like it’s time to snap out of my nostalgia. As such, I promise that I will try my very best not to be appalled and whinge about the good ol’ days the next time a pint of cask costs me a fiver. And maybe at the Cask 2019 event, I’ll finally get to see what Smog Rocket tastes like on cask. Now there’s something to look forward to.

You can’t stop progress

As Thomas Wolfe’s novel so wisely observed, you can’t go home again.

I spent my student years in Nottingham. It was here that one lunchtime during my first semester, a fellow philosophy student convinced me to try a pint of cask ale rather than my usual lager. The beer was Harvest Pale from Castle Rock brewery, a Nottingham institution. Shortly after, I graduated to the slightly more toothsome Screech Owl by the same brewery. The damage was done; I was hooked for life.

In the coming years, my passion for cask ale would evolve and my tastes would turn darker. I’d sample my first autumnal ambers, plum porters, spicy ruby ales and oyster stouts. But of course, the first cask ale I had ever tasted would continue to hold a special place in my heart.

The Castle Rock pubs were some of my favourites in the city. In particular the Keanes Head, squirreled away on an alley overlooking a beautiful church, and Canal House, with its quaint wood-panelled interior and outdoor terrace perfect for the summer months. Pints of Harvest Pale cost £2.50 usually, £2.30 with a Castle Rock loyalty card, and £2.00 on a Monday. I will remember these prices until I die. Fortunately, it was entirely possible to drink great beer on a student budget in Nottingham, and it remains one of the many reasons that I’m relieved to have gotten out of London to study.

I landed back in the Big Smoke eventually, and of course the prices were a bit of a punch in the stomach. But there was a silver lining; my beer obsession was dividing and multiplying fast, and with hundreds of new drinking spots to tap into, it was impossible to be bored.

I returned to Nottingham every year or so in an attempt to rekindle the special connection I felt with my university city. Each time, I felt that we had grown apart a little more. The changes to the place I had loved so dearly became increasingly apparent. Taps offering trendy keg beers had appeared in my favourite boozers. Charming ‘spit-n-sawdust’ pubs had gotten modernising face-lifts.

Of course, it’s wrong to expect things to stay the same for ever. But before, there was something nice about the fact that in a fairly compact city which boasted a huge amount of pubs, local was the focus in nearly every one. You could spend an entire afternoon wandering between watering holes, drinking a different pint in each, and never drink a beer that was brewed outside of Nottingham. Maybe if you were out for long enough, you could get a beer brewed in Derbyshire. Just to get really exotic, y’know.

Whilst these beers are of course still available, they now share so much more of the spotlight with many others from down south and from across the seas. It’s just not quite the same community drinking experience that it used to be, from my perspective.

Back in London, I decided to embrace the changing tides fully, heading to The Rake with an old drinking buddy. It’s a tiny little bar nestled in Borough Market, and it was an after-work favourite of mine when I worked in London Bridge. This place is the opposite end of the spectrum from my old Nottingham haunts; I’m fairly certain that I have never had the same beer there twice.

I arrived hoping to beat the after-work rush. But alas, gone are the days when I could nip in at 5pm and catch a table. At 4.50pm, it was already crowded. Their beer board was as diverse as ever, but what had changed quite a bit was the prices. A few of the pints on offer cost an eye-watering £8.00. My friend and I exchanged exasperated glances. This wasn’t our little secret anymore; we would have to keep moving with the times and find a new one.

 

Italian craft beer

When I think of Italy, I think of stunning countryside, imposing architecture, and eating more carbs than I should. And obviously, excellent wine. But great craft beer does not necessarily come to mind right away. But maybe it should, as I’ve come across a couple of pubs dedicated to innovative Italian craft beer in the last year or so.

The Italian Job, located in swanky Chiswick in west London, hosts beers from a handful of different Italian breweries across eight taps. The cinnamon pale from Birrificio Italiano was particularly good. There were also two options on handpull, including a rich porter. I have to say, it was surprisingly every bit as good as the cask ale that’s made on UK soil.

When I was in Berlin at a craft beer meet-up earlier this year, a guy who was visiting the city from Italy told me about an Italian pub ‘Birra’ on Prenzlauer Allee. Since I was passing by the next day, I decided to pop in for a quick pint. The evening seemed in full swing, and jubilant (if slightly raucous) drinkers who I imagined to be ‘the regulars’ created a fun, welcoming vibe. The taps boasted plenty of choice, including a few selections from Milan-based brewery Birrafico Lambrate.

Have you seen any Italian craft on the taps in any other cities in Europe or further afield? I’d love to hear about anything you could recommend!