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’?

Draught, Keg and Cask

Cover of Monopolies Commission report on beer, 1969.

Until the 1950s, there was no real need to define ‘draught beer’: it was the opposite of bottled beer, simple as that. Then keg beer came along (Watney kegged bitter in 1936; Flowers coined the term ‘keg’ in 1955) and suddenly draught beer had a split personality.

For many people, it didn’t matter. As long as they got a ‘pint’, they weren’t fussy about where it came from. Some ‘connoisseurs’, however, knew they didn’t like keg, but weren’t sure exactly needed a new term to describe exactly what it was they did like.

They tried ‘beer from the wood’ (in common since at least the turn of the century), until some smart arses pointed out that most casks were made of metal these days anyway. While the confusion continued, big brewers happily promoted keg beers as good, traditional, draught made the way it always has been, from premium malt and hops, only slightly better.

The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood decided the answer was to reclaim ‘draught beer’ and lobbied government for several years from the late sixties. It was a con, they argued, to call keg bitter draught. Draught, they said, was, you know, proper draught, the good stuff, from the wood, but not necessarily actually from wood… oh, sod it. They were repeatedly rebuffed by Whitehall.

In 1969, the Monopolies Commission, which had been investigating various industries in the great era of corporate mergers, reported on pubs and brewing (link to PDF). As bureaucrats are often required to do, they spent no little time establishing terminology, and came up with this handy guide:

We use the description ‘draught’ beer to include any beer which is supplied to the retailer in bulk containers and drawn to order in the pub for each customer. All the large brewers and many smaller ones now brew a kind of draught beer which has become known as ‘keg’ beer. Although the word ‘draught’ is sometimes used to distinguish traditional draught from keg beer, for the purposes of this report we call the former ‘cask’ beer. [B&B’s emphasis.]

The report, which was widely read by those with an interest in beer, probably did a great deal to popularise the use of the term ‘cask’ in this way.

The report, if you’ve got the patience, is a fascinating read, especially the opening section which summarises the types of beer commonly available and most popular with drinkers.

UPDATE: worth noting, too, that Frank Baillie’s 1973 The Beer Drinker’s Companion classifies each brewery’s beers as either draught, keg or bottled.

CAMRA members and keg

We heard the disappointing news today that some very reasonable suggestions by a CAMRA working group were rejected almost completely by the National Executive. This was followed by the rejection at CAMRA‘s annual general meeting of another sensible step towards supporting British breweries. (Though Motion 15 (more here) was carried.)

Neither bit of news was unexpected. Policy doesn’t change overnight and let’s not forget that, as others have pointed out, keg-friendly bloggers are not CAMRA’s core membership. It can’t afford to scare the die-hards away, even if that makes other members sigh and ponder cancelling their direct debits.

Anyway, here’s some thinking about where beer geeks stand in relationship to CAMRA and keg beer. We haven’t numbered the boxes this time, so apologies to those who like to label themselves. (But we’re in the fifth box down.)

UPDATE: changed the diagram. Better?

Attempt to map attitudes to keg beer against CAMRA membership.

We’ll get bored of these graphics soon. Probably. Maybe.

We will never taste what you taste

There are some champions of cask ale (quite a few) who truly seem baffled by how people can be at all impressed by kegged or bottled beer. They are no doubt sincere in finding cask ale a superior tasting product in almost every instance.

To that group of people, hearing us and others say that, occasionally, we prefer the kegged or bottled version of a beer, and that we frequently enjoy kegged beers, must seem irritating in the extreme.

In fact, they must feel pretty much how we do when we hear people say they “just can’t taste skunking“.

There’s a fundamental lack of mutual understanding which, unfortunately, could probably only be solved by a temporary swapping of tastebuds.

Note: there are also a large number of cask ale fanatics who are just awkward sods with a fondness for rigid rules and correcting people. That’s not who we’re talking about.