Cask Ale: a Kind of Magic?

"Public Bar" -- sign on pub door.

“[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?

17 thoughts on “Cask Ale: a Kind of Magic?”

  1. I’m sure the setting and the theatre of cask is vital to perception, but oddly the best pint of Robbie’s Unicorn I’ve ever had was in the sterile environment of their Stockport Visitor Centre. And the Banks’s Original on electric dispense was better than the cask in Bewdley last month. Both pints were nectar, the furnishings and pumps were forgotten.

    1. I think the kind of people who hang round beer blogs are maybe better able to detach and look at the beer in isolation, but there’s no doubt that environment actually affects how you taste, there’s a guy at Oxford who changes people’s perceptions of taste just by playing different music. It’s quite a burgeoning field.

      IMO the best Pedigree to be had these days is in plastics at the Marston bars at sports events they sponsor. They control conditioning and logistics and have massive throughput, so everything is in its favour, you know it won’t be more than 20 minutes or so from the start of the cask, even in kils.

      1. Also, things like the amount of light in the room, served in an opaque or clear glass, and drinking alone or in a group can affect perceptions of taste.

        You can add to that things like whether you’re drinking while eating food, the perception of the first beer vs. the third, the sequence – Porter before Bitter vs. Porter after Bitter – and so on.

        And this is true even for experienced tasters. There is an especially large amount of research for wine tasting, with things like the effect on professional wine tasters of adding flavorless red dye to white wine, but many of the results are valid for beer too.

        It’s important to note this isn’t purely subjective. There are brain scans show different activity in these kinds of tests which wouldn’t happen if people were just saying things – the perceptions are real.

  2. Is it maybe that people are judging the entire experience rather than just the beer in isolation?

    And poor beer is poor beer wherever it’s served. Indeed I’ve sometimes felt particularly aggrieved to be served a substandard pint in wonderful surroundings 🙁

  3. For some reason as I read this, I thought of The Shire in Lord of the Rings. Sure there is no reference to cask ale or handpumps or sparklers in Tolkien’s work, but I think the Shire represents a romanticised view of Britain pre the Great War. That vision of the Shire is one of simplicity, rusticity, and ordinary folk. I think the appeal of cask ale taps in (pun intended) to that inherent British (though not exclusively British) nostalgia for a pre-industrial age, even though handpumps are a product of that time. There is also a sense of cask ale being a quintessentially British thing which appeals to a lot of people. Having said that, I might just be an expat with my own romanticised view of home.

  4. I’m surprised that in the current climate there isn’t more experimentation with cask conditioning going on. I’d like to taste an ESB that’s had a month in the cellar rather than three days. Is it too risky? Too expensive? Or are the results just not that interesting?

    1. I’ve no idea how widely or frequently it is done, but Luke at the Bag of Nails in Bristol has celllared a cask of Moor’s Old Freddy Walker for 2 years before tapping it. I can see that working really well.

  5. Many years ago the London Evening Standard took a keg of London-brewed Guinness to a pub in Dublin and a Dublin-brewed keg of Guinness to a pub in London and served them up on the same evening.
    No-one was told of the experiment and not a single person noticed or complained of the difference.
    Another great piece of pub-based journalism they did was sit next to an empty barstool in a Central London pub and interview every person who sat in it from opening till closing time.
    A fascinating slice of London life full of interesting stories.
    Of course these days Seven Jobs is too busy trying to shaft May and the Standard is just a freesheet littering tube trains.

  6. Surely if this were the case, you’d unconsciously calibrate your expectations to the set and setting, with the result that no beer would ever surprise or disappoint you – the holiday pint would always be the perfect thirst-quencher, the Sunday afternoon pint in front of an open fire would always be the perfect example of ye olde caske ale, and so on.

  7. When I used to live in Leeds I would sometimes call in at the Eagle in Sheepscar on my way home from work and have a half of Landlord while they poured four pints into a plastic container for me to take home. The beer in the pub was good, but I actually enjoyed the beer at home more.

    A more recent experience (see my review of the Barley Mow in Kirk Ireton on Pubs Galore https://www.pubsgalore.co.uk/pubs/6628/) of cask ale without the usual pub accoutrements involved Whim Hartington IPA brought from the cellar in a jug by an ancient landlady. No hand pumps involved and I really don’t think the thought of an octogenarian bringing the beer up from the cellar enhanced the experience, it was just very good beer indeed.

    I do agree with you though about a bad beer breaking the spell. No amount of magic can rescue even the best looking pub if the beer is poor. As Peter suggests, it makes the experience doubly disappointing if you’ve been expecting something better.

  8. I’ve had the magic of cask strike in unexpected places so I can speak infallibly when I say it’s not down to the quality of the pub or bar, it’s down to the quality of the beer.

    1. I think it’s a two-way thing. The ideal setting can make you think a 3 out of 5 is actually a 4, but I don’t think it can fool you into thinking it’s a 5. On the other hand, 5s do exist and will infallibly brighten up your day, even if you’re sitting at a formica-topped table under fluorescent light with drum and bass playing.

    1. On the contrary, I’ve had so many mediocre Landlords that I’ve stopped drinking it. The fact that it’s nearly always the most expensive beer on offer might have also had something to do with it. I’ve been told – and I’m sure you’ll agree – that you can still get superb Landlord, but I’m not prepared to drink loads and loads of the mediocre stuff in the hope of one day finding nectar.

    2. Very possible – Landlord must be the most consisently underconditioned beer in the country. Partly because it just needs so much longer in the cellar than most beers and most people don’t give it the time, but also it seems to be ending up as one of the token cask beers in keg-heavy bars where the price is less of an issue, but they just don’t really “get” the concept of conditioning. I’ve even had it green in a Timmy’s pub, so even their own pubs aren’t immune.

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