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 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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