Tinkering With Casks

Casks at a beer festival.

In a comment on yesterday’s post reader AP said: ‘I’m surprised that in the current climate there isn’t more experimentation with cask conditioning going on.’ Well, having put AP’s point to Twitter, it turns out there’s quite a bit.

First, we know that the people behind our local in Bristol, the Draper’s Arms, have acquired a brand new wooden cask from the White Rose Cooperage which they are hoping to get filled by local brewers, putting a subtle twist on familiar beers. This is a similar model to the Junction at Castleford, West Yorkshire, which specialises in ‘beer from the wood’, and has its own casks which filled with beer from all sorts of breweries, including some on the Continent, that don’t normally use wooden vessels.

Various people came forward with tales of casks laid down in cellars to age for varying periods of time. Steve at Beer Nouveau recalled his days as a cellarman in Ipswich ageing Adnams Tally-Ho barley wine for up two years and then selling three different ages side-by-side. He also mentioned his habit (c.1998-99) of ageing Greene King Abbot Ale for six months before serving, without advertising it as aged or otherwise special. Hali and Brian, both former team-members at The Grove in Huddersfield, recalled keeping a cask of Bass P2 Imperial Stout in the cellar for 8 years before serving.

Susannah at the Station House micropub in Durham said (slightly edited):

We love experimenting with ageing. Mostly just, as previously noted, cellar till it’s ready. But Taylor’s beers usually get a minimum of a week, ideally two. There’s the Bass we aged for a month and sold as a mystery beer for our birthday last year (winner got a prize)… Currently ageing is a cask of Fortification from Cullercoats Brewery. Brewed in January, I think. Going on sale this week.

Angus from Mad Hatter Brewery recalled his time at the Wapping Brewery:

[We] used to keep a firkin or two back of our Winter ale for the following year as Vintage Winter. As long as you don’t fine on racking and your sanitation is up to scratch (and the cellar has the space) you’re all good… the spices mellowed out and the beer seemed richer.

One other person mentioned that a pub near them, with the agreement of the brewery, adds a bottle of spirits to casks of one particular strong ale. This is, of course, frightfully naughty. (Bet it tastes interesting though.)

But, still, we see what AP is getting at — it would be interesting to go to, say, a Fuller’s pub and find two different ages of ESB on offer, or vintage London Porter alongside fresh.

We’ve often wondered what effects might be achieved by adding the dregs from a bottle of Orval, or even a commercial Brettanomyces culture, into a straight cask ale and leaving it for a few months. This might even make Doom Bar interesting.

There are also plenty of opportunities for bold experiments with dry-hopping in the cask, with the permission and perhaps even guidance of brewers.

And this business of Guinness on hand-pull fascinates us — what’s to stop anyone buying keg beers, decanting them into clean casks, and throwing in some fresh yeast with some priming sugar? Perhaps only the faff of the paperwork and the risk of being told off by the brewery.

It strikes us that this kind of thing could help to convey the complex fascination of cask-conditioning and might add a bit of fun back into something which, at the moment, is largely the preserve of berks like us muttering about ‘subtle magic’ and ‘sessionability’.

Cask Ale: a Kind of Magic?

“[Modern] beer is little more than a symbol. What would a pint of ‘mild’ taste like except dishwater if it were poured down the rural and metropolitan throats anywhere but in a public house?”

‘Y.Y. ’, New Statesman, 13 March 1943

Y.Y. was the pen name of Belfast-born writer Robert Lynd (1879-1949) and coincidentally it was a conversation with a barman from Northern Ireland the other night that got us thinking about the effects of magic upon the perceived quality of beer.

The barman we spoke to rolled his eyes at the suggestion (not from us) that Guinness is somehow better in Dublin: ‘It’s just because they pull through so much. And because, you know, you’re in Dublin, on holiday.’

It’s often been observed that particular beers that taste bland or even bad at home gain a certain glamour in a bar in Barcelona. Here’s Zak Avery on that subject from back in 2010:

In my memory, Cruzcampo was my holiday beer par excellence – cold, snappy, crisp, and perfect to wash down plates of jamon or gambas. In actuality, Cruzcampo is an ordinary mass-produced lager, tasting slightly oxidised and having a faintly sweet yellow apple note, neither of which are appealing or refreshing.

So, if Spanish sun makes bad lager taste good, and being in sight of St James’s Gate makes Guinness taste better, could it be, as Y.Y. suggests, that the pub itself — that romantic, almost sacred institution — is at least part of what gives cask ale its appeal?¹

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

Let’s put that another way: we’ve asked several people over the years exactly why we might prefer cask ale to keg² and the answers we’ve received have tended to point to gentler carbonation, lack of filtration and/or pasteurisation, and slightly warmer serving temperatures. And perhaps those are the tangible reasons, but isn’t it also to do with the paraphernalia?The brass and porcelain hand-pump, for example, could just as easily be (has been) an electric push-button if everyone was being coldly logical about all this. But those pumps add something.

We have a theory that a mediocre pint of, say, Timothy Taylor Landlord in a Victorian pub full of cut glass and dark wood, or a country pub with a crackling log fire, would register as tasting better than a technically perfect one in a laboratory. Or, indeed, that a pint of keg bitter would taste better in that ideal pub than a mediocre cask ale in the lab.

There are limits, of course: at a certain threshold, the spell is broken, and a bad beer will taste bad whatever the occasion or setting.

The point is, it’s complicated, and most of us aren’t coldly logical, and that’s fine: if you’re susceptible to being bedazzled, as we are, then let it happen.


  1. Not to everyone — we know.
  2. We do, on the whole, but of course that’s not the same as saying cask is better. Subjective, innit?

Considerable Resentment

On Saturday we did something we’ve been putting off for a long time: we submitted a rating to CAMRA’s national beer scoring system (NBSS).

What took us so long? The faff of logging on to the website to submit a score, for one thing, although it was pretty painless once we were in, but also, there was a reluctance to get sucked into robotic ticking-scoring-logging behaviour.

We were prompted to action by the fact that, for the second year in a row, the only Penzance pub in the Good Beer Guide is The Crown — a very decent place in its own way but whose beer isn’t the best in town by a long chalk. Perhaps there aren’t many scores logged down this way, or perhaps those that are recorded come from people who (as is common among older Cornish drinkers) have ongoing beef with St Austell, or with particular publicans. Whatever the reason we suspect, or hope, our scores might actually make a difference.

Getting used to the system might take a while, though. We’ve chuckled over the NBSS scale before, when we saw it reproduced in a local CAMRA magazine, but were amused anew when we refreshed our memories in the pub at the weekend:

0. No cask ale available.
1. Poor. Beer that is anything from barely drinkable to drinkable with considerable resentment.
2. Average. Competently kept, drinkable pint but doesn’t inspire in any way, not worth moving to another pub but you drink the beer without really noticing.
3. Good. Good beer in good form. You may cancel plans to move to the next pub. You want to stay for another pint and may seek out the beer again. 
4. Very Good. Excellent beer in excellent condition.
5. Perfect. Probably the best you are ever likely to find. A seasoned drinker will award this score very rarely. 

Our favourite is number 1 which conjures an image of a hard-done-by Albert Steptoe figure grumbling into a pint, too nervous to take it back but too tight-fisted to walk away. But, of course, we’ve all been there, and the same goes for the more positive number 3.

Exactly how rarely will a ‘seasoned drinker’ give a perfect score? We’re probably fairly well salted and peppered these days and, unfortunately, have become quite fussy — it sometimes feels as if all we do is moan. Nonetheless, we regularly come across pints of St Austell Proper Job — a beer we know very well — in absolute peak condition. It would seem daft to hold off awarding 5 just in case there’s an even better, magically wonderful pint to be found somewhere down the line.

What we won’t be doing is using NBSS scores to communicate our experiences here on the blog. No, sorry, but you’re stuck with ‘like licking Kia Ora off a pot plant’ and all that for the time being.

Q&A: Why Are Cask Ends Painted Red?

The Brewers' Company Cask.

Q: ‘Why do wooden beer casks have red paint on the rims?’ The Beer Nut

Having been asked this question more than a year ago we got a nudge earlier today when Barry Masterson issued the same query, with a supplementary question: Is it a special type of paint?

Ideally, we’d have liked to find a whole string of historical texts setting out how this came to be, but… Didn’t. Like many of the more functional aspects of brewery life, it seems to have gone largely undocumented, at least in readily available print sources. There is, however, this nice bit from Alfred Barnard’s 1889 book The Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland in which he describes the purpose of the painted cask-ends at Guinness in Dublin:

The heads of the casks containing single stout are painted with a rim of white, double and foreign stout, red, and export, yellow.

In other words, in this one case at least, it was a pragmatic approach to dealing with the challenges of moving and storing large amounts of different types of beer.

We decided, in lieu of contemporary evidence, that the quickest way to get to some sort of satisfactory answer was to email Alastair Simms (@AlastairSimms), Britain’s last master cooper, at the White Rose Cooperage. He told us (with some small edits for clarity):

The cask ends are painted to seal the end grain of the staves. When everybody was using wood, the ends of the casks were painted in the brewery colours. After the decline in wood, the most popular colour was red, so by default most casks ended up being painted that colour. Originally, the paint used was a special formula devised to dry quickly so a cask could be painted at both ends in an hour. Now we use acrylic paint.

Until we come across any historic material to contradict it that strikes us as a pretty good answer. Thanks, Alastair! And just to prove Alastair’s point that red is merely a matter of taste and tradition, here’s a cask of Wild Beer Co Shnoodlepip painted grey!

Shnoodlepip from the cask.

And, as far as we know, no-one died as a result.

Climate Change and British Beer

The Guardian today features a story about the Cantillon brewery in Brussels which, owner Jean Van Roy says, is suffering as a result of climate change:

“Ideally it must cool at between minus 3C and 8C. But climate change has been notable in the last 20 years. My grandfather 50 years ago brewed from mid-October until May – but I’ve never done that in my life, and I am in my 15th season.”

This reminded us of an exchange we had with a senior figure at one of the larger British breweries last year who said that climate change was among their biggest long-term worries.

In particular, they suggested, cask ale still relies to a great extent on naturally cool pub cellars. (And, as a result, warm summers can already be a problem for cask ale quality.) If those summers last longer, and get hotter, traditional British beer will struggle. Cellar refrigeration is already common but might become absolutely necessary, even in pubs that haven’t needed it in the past.

That’s on top of concerns over how it might affect hop farming and malting barley; a nagging sense of guilt over the amount of water used in brewing; and about the amount of energy used to ship it, and its ingredients, very often under refrigeration.

We’d be interested to hear from others involved in brewing and the pub trade: is climate change on your ‘risk register’?