Finding cask ale in the desert

Every time I need a taste of home, I head to Sidetrack. It’s a tiny railway-side brewpub in Downtown Albuquerque. It’s a pretty far cry from my previous rail-station-adjacent haunt The Euston Tap (the toilets are in good nick for a start) but it can be equally tricky to get a table on a Friday evening. The real draw of the place for me is that they serve beer on cask; two from their small selection, all the time. That’s rare around here.

The first time I ever sampled one of their cask offerings, I have to admit I was a little disappointed; it was a stout that drank more like a nitro. But over the weeks and months, I tried a few more and I became more convinced. The brown ale was beautifully velvety, and the cask pumps added a smooth, easy-drinking quality to their bitterest IPA.

In the USA, cask tends to be served at cooler temperatures than back home. Right now, in the heat of the New Mexican early summer, I’m not actually sure that I’d truly want it any other way, but in the winter I’d love them to serve it a little warmer.

Cask is mostly a gimmick here. It will likely always stay that way, especially since the spirit of the experiment is often pushed needlessly too far. There’s an ethos to cask that perhaps isn’t fully understood stateside, at least not west of New England.

For example, I recently heard that another favorite taproom of mine would be starting to serve cask on Fridays. Excitedly heading to the bar, I asked the bartender which of the beers was being served on cask.

‘The mango sour’, she replied.

The thought of it made me feel physically sick. I’ll admit that my palate does struggle with (some) sour and farmhouse styles, so this wouldn’t have been my first pick in any world. But even so, this sounded like a pint destined to taste of stale fruit that had been left out in the sun.

Despite a few questionable executions, I’m still glad that the parts of the USA which share little in common with the birthplaces of cask ale are giving it a try. It means there’s innovation, improvement, and that ongoing possibility of one day wandering into a neighborhood brewpub, seeing a handpull upon the counter, and finding a diamond in the rough. Maybe even at the right temperature, though I shall try not to dream too hard.

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.