Isn't it obvious that cask is better?

This is an interesting and typically passionate post from Brewvana ask why we in Britain need a campaign group to defend and promote cask beer when, to Wilson at least, it’s blindingly obvious how much better it is than keg.

Is the main reason that big breweries (like Whitbread and Watney) had a virtual monopoly and aggressively pushed keg, which was easier for them to package and store? Or did consumers get a taste for it because it was bland but more reliable?

Can the answer be condensed into anything shorter than a small book?

22 thoughts on “Isn't it obvious that cask is better?”

  1. “Is the main reason that big breweries (like Whitbread and Watney) had a virtual monopoly and aggressively pushed keg, which was easier for them to package and store?”

    This is my assumption, but where was the outcry?

  2. Some people prefer keg – you’ll never get a pint of vinegar. But mainly it was brewers using their monopoly position to do what suited them. I’ve also heard stories of beers made with huge amounts of unmalted barley that tasted awful but were cheaper to make.

  3. Spare a thought for us, so: we got the rush to keg, without getting cask back at any point in the process. But I’m working on that…

    I don’t believe the consumers got a taste for it, other than the way it was more likely to be consistent. It was this consistency that meant the brewers and pubs (mostly the same thing in the 1970s UK, right?) pushed it. After all, the consumers did actually raise an objection before too long: the breweries wouldn’t have.

    Would I be right in thinking that cask ale is more popular than keg ale in the UK today? CAMRA seems to have identified lager as the current Pub Enemy No. 1.

  4. This seems a bit like with pasteurisation. Everybody knows that unpasteurised beer tastes better, but still most industrial brewers choose to pasteurise it. It lasts longer and is more stable. Simple as that.

  5. I wasn’t drinking in the early 70s, but I’ll go out on a limb and put forward the possibility that the cask bitters of the day weren’t very exciting to begin with. This is certainly the impression one gets from drinking the surviving beers from that era, notwithstanding possible changes in the recipes.

  6. Yes, I believe that a lot of cask beer in the sixties and seventies wasn’t very good, and was very inconsistant. Seems odd to think of it now but keg bitter was promoted (and viewed) as a premium product, superior to the dodgy unreliable old cask stuff.

    I suppose it must have been a bit like Stella Artois in its “reassuringly expensive” phase – tell people often enough that it’s a premium product and a lot will believe you.

  7. Barm cask bitters of the early 1970’s were generally much more exciting than modern versions: bitterer, more distinctive. To give you some idea, beers like Harvey’s were typical rather than exceptional. Many beers have been seriously dumbed-down in the intervening decades.

  8. During the 1950s and 60s cask beer was sold almost everywhere and sadly the quality was generally abysmal. This led many drinkers to choose “splits” or bottled beers, keg beer had already been developed (1935) and was seen as the answer to the poor quality problems in the pub. Of course the possibility of using lower quality materials and accelerated processes appealed to the expanding big six breweries even then being run by accountants. I can assure Barm that good cask ale was very good in the 1970s but there have been some recipe, process, ingredient and dispense changes since then that have changed the flavour. As an example Gales HSB changed overnight, and not for the better, in the late 70s when whole hops were replaced by pelleted hops. Taylors Landlord tastes pretty much as I remember it in the 70s so it’s probably not just my decaying taste buds to blame for flavour changes.

  9. Keg beer took of because more people bought keg products than cask. It has nothing to do with beer quality, marketing or availability. While it may not be a popular opinion, all consumer markets are influenced by supply and demand.
    Demand for keg lager overtook the demand for cask ales.

  10. Tim: consumer choice is one factor but it’s not the whole story, big brewers had regional monopolies in many areas which allowed them to dictate what the consumers got.

  11. I’d second Ron’s comment that in the 70s (and presumably the 60s too, I don’t go back that far) a lot of cask beers had stronger and more distinctive flavours than their present-day equivalents. Of course this could be a negative feature too, as encountering a distinctive and unfamiliar taste could easily put drinkers off who weren’t used to it. Therefore in a strange area they might be inclined to choose the blander but more homogenous national keg brand ahead of an unfamiliar local cask bitter. Keg ales had made massive inroads into the cask market before lager was even a blip on the radar.

  12. The Beer Nut asks: “Would I be right in thinking that cask ale is more popular than keg ale in the UK today?”

    I have no figures to back this up, but I’d say that keg draught ale (even excluding Guinness and similar stouts) continues to outsell cask beer by a fair margin. Remember that half of all outlets – and 80% or more in Scotland – don’t even sell cask in the first place.

  13. Indeed. As a lad in Scotland I was drinking keg for years, unaware that such a thing as cask even existed.

    And bloody awful most of it was too.

  14. Lots of interesting points there — ta.

    This one, from the Pub Curmudgeon, struck me particularly: “Of course this could be a negative feature too, as encountering a distinctive and unfamiliar taste could easily put drinkers off who weren’t used to it.”

    I often hear people say that they can’t handle fairly standard cask ales like London Pride because they’re “too bitter”. I’m not sure if bitterness is what they’re really talking about but the gist is, they find the flavours too intense. So, yes, I can see that keg bitter’s blandness probably appealed to a lot of people on that basis.

    These days, Greene King IPA is doing a nice job of filling that niche in the market…

  15. London Pride too bitter?
    Good grief!

    Having said that as a spotty youth growing up in Greene King country I would mostly drink bottled beer and sometimes keg. This was mostly due to not knowing any better or preferring sweeter beers. Occasionally I would stray into cask but with mixed results; sadly I often found them tired, sometimes I found them packed with too much flavour for my acned taste-buds.

  16. Dave 25 and Old Boots are right – in the 60s and 70s many of us drank splits – light & bitter, etc. – because much cask beer was so badly kept. This was the case even in pubs known for their cask ales, e.g. the Sun in Lamb’s Conduit Street in London (too many different beers on offer resulting in horribly slow turnover of warm, vinegary beer) and Beckie’s Dive Bar south of London Bridge.

  17. Keg bitter is the reason that lager is the dominant style of beer in Britain today. If that were the only kind of ale I’d ever encountered, I’d be drinking lager too.

  18. I’m surprised, Curmugeon. I and my fellow Irish beerhounds are often morbidly fascinated when in cask-ale-serving English pubs by the endless parade of drinkers choosing Guinness and Kronenbourg; but I’ve never noticed the John Smith’s or Boddington’s shifting in anything like significant volumes, even allowing for Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the latter, like here, ale is hardly consumed at all.

    Anyone have actual figures on any of this?

  19. TIW — bingo! At wedding receptions (at least the type I go to…) it’s usually nothing but Guinness, John Smith’s and one or other weak lager.

  20. More distinctive flavours in the early seventies…? Yes, I think so. When I went to uni then, (not that we called it that), people were scared of Adnam’s inimitable seaweedy flavour: I wasn’t, even though it was gassed up from the depths of the union building. However, the same beer now is good, but not memorable. I’d be tempted to say that there is less variety nowdays, but of course there was no Dark Star or Gadds back in the good old Watney ridden days.

  21. Wittenden — interesting to hear that Adnams used to taste seaweedy. Usually, when people say a particular beer used to be better (more bitter, more fruity, etc.) a bit of me just assumes their tastebuds have actually got worse, but that’s a really specific flavour to have gone AWOL.

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