real ale

BOOK REVIEW: Cask by Des de Moor

With Cask: the real story of Britain’s unique beer culture, Des de Moor has found a new angle, rather to everyone’s surprise. Why hasn’t CAMRA published a book like this before?

It’s not a beer or pub guide but an attempt to think about cask from every angle: its history, the culture that surrounds it, the science, and the appreciation of the beer itself.

It is largely successful, pulling together numerous sources as it grapples with big questions like why, exactly, so many beer drinkers prefer cask ale to any other form.

The author hasn’t simply relied on books and online archives. He has travelled up and down the country speaking to publicans, cellarkeepers, brewers and other experts. They’re often not the usual suspects, either.

Alice Batham, the next generation of the Midlands brewing family, is a particularly insightful voice. Her account of being fed teaspoons of yeast from the brewery as a child is the kind of detail that adds magic and romance to this story.

Several wooden casks on racks with a complicated system of pipes and tubes.
Wooden casks in the cellar of a Benskin’s pub.

Cellar keeping in particular is made to sound delightfully complicated, more of an art form than a process. He uses the phrase “creative cellar keepers” at one point, highlighting just how much room there is for the beer to change between brewery and glass.

In particular, there’s the idea that a good pub will let cask ale sit for around a week before it is tapped, and then aim to sell it within a few days, depending on its strength and durability.

Mark Dorber, who perhaps does count as a ‘usual suspect’ at this point, gives a fascinating account of sourcing his own hop plugs for dry-hopping Bass in the cellar when the brewery decided to abandon this practice.

The flipside of this is a tension between commercial aims and the romance of variability. De Moor explains how breweries have continued to try to find ways to sell beer that is technically cask ale while being shipped in an essentially stable state.

And, of course, for every “creative cellar keeper” there are perhaps a hundred careless, poorly-trained or lazy ones. Do we want them to have any influence on the beer before we get to drink it?

Lovers of the arcane language of beer and brewing will enjoy the way interviewees and correspondents talk about cask ale. The idea that it can be “tired” is an important one.

And we especially liked the suggestion that Scottish air pressure dispense creates beer that is “smoother, more knitted together”. We think we know what that means!

Why is cask better?

As the book winds on, de Moor’s argument begins to cohere: what makes cask special, he argues, is its lower carbonation and slightly higher temperature. And that’s about it.

It should never be flat and he suggests that the perfect pint should “effervesce on the tongue” without being fizzy.

Unfortunately, most cask ale isn’t sold in this condition, and de Moor has the stats to back it up based on analysis from beer festivals. (Admittedly, not cask ale’s ideal habitat.)

He suggests that it’s a problem in pubs because too many publicans find it easier to handle beer when it is flat, without all that troublesome foam. What they don’t consider, he adds, is that “they’ll likely end up pouring it less frequently as fewer customers will want to drink it”.

Two other lesser factors are acknowledged as influencing the distinctive character of cask ale. First, one of his experts says that “The absence of filtering also makes a difference”, contributing flavour complexity and more proteins, making the beer “richer, more mouth-filling”.

Then staling, our pet theory, gets a passing mention via brewer John Keeling, formerly of Fullers, who says that some drinkers of London Pride prefer it when it is just beginning to show the early signs of oxidation, after day two on the bar.

When it comes to the thorny question of sparklers, he deploys words like ‘slightly’, ‘some’, and ‘typically’ to gently argue that, really, there’s not much in it, and it should probably be up to consumers to choose, if they’re really that bothered.

Though clearly a passionate fan of cask ale, he isn’t an unquestioning cheerleader and points out that it doesn’t work well for every style. American-style IPAs and sour beers, he argues, rarely benefit from cask dispense.

He comes right off the fence when it comes to the price of cask ale:

[If] cask beer is to have a sustainably healthy future, its average price will have to rise in comparison to the pub prices of other drinks… One argument for cheap cask is that it helps drive sufficient turnover to keep the product fresh, but that effect has surely reached its limits when price becomes a barrier to maintaining quality.

For balance, he quotes others who disagree, and who worry about cask ale becoming an expensive, niche product, rather than an everyday pleasure.

As a reference guide, it’s likely to be our go-to whenever we need information on the technicalities of dispense, types of beer pump, cellaring, and so on.

A tighter focus on cask

The book isn’t perfect, though. It’s more than 300 pages long and might have been better with a sharper focus at 200.

The bloat comes from sections we’ve read time and again in other beer books. We don’t need another account of how beer is made, how to taste beer, glassware, how to pair beer with food, and so on.

These sections are to some degree tailored with cask beer in mind but often feel as if they’ve come from a more general book about British beer.

And, most crucially, the book feels as if it’s missing a passionate opening essay to help readers understand why they should care.

By the end of the book, the case has very much been made, but the casual or sceptical reader needs their imagination firing from the off.

Even in its current form, we suspect it might inspire some publicans to take cask more seriously and reflect on how they can turn good cellar practice into a selling point.

We bought our copy of Cask from CAMRA’s online shop for £14.99, including delivery, with a member discount.

5 replies on “BOOK REVIEW: Cask by Des de Moor”

It is an interesting book, but too long, as you say. What I would have found interesting would have been some attempt at analysing why cask beer has survived in the UK (and in one or two former colonies such as Sri Lanka) when it disappeared from the rest of the beer-producing countries in the world sometime in the early-to-mid 20th century. After all, any beer in bulk containers produced before the advent of pasteurisation and/or gas dispense would have been cask-conditioned, though probably served on gravity rather than by handpump. The interesting thing is that the style survived, almost uniquely, in the UK. Why was that? Was it the traditional British mixture of xenophobia and (small c) conservatism that caused Andrew Boorde to rant about hops decades after they had come into widespread use in 16th-century England?

And it is not as if gas dispense was unknown in the UK well before ‘keg beer’ appeared. A catalogue issued by Farrow & Jackson in 1898 (reprinted as a facsimile some years ago) has several pages of equipment for use in ‘beer raising by carbonic gas pressure’, and specialist equipment for drawing lager direct from the cask, which could be operated using gas or air pressure. Messrs Sedgwick & Co, Brewers of Watford, testify, “We were not prepared to find such a distinct improvement in the Beer, due to the action of the gas”. And by 1937 Gaskell and Chambers were offering a ‘C.O.2 Pressure System for conditioning and raising stout’. So even before someone had the idea of pressurising the containers themselves, beer in the UK was being stored under a blanket of CO2 and raised to the bar by gas pressure. It would have been interesting to have Des de Moor’s thoughts on why these systems didn’t make much headway until well after World War II.

I did cover all that in the history section, apologies if I didn’t draw it all out in suitably clear bullet points. Yes there was pressurised fraught brewery conditioned beer in the UK, in cask-sized containers and cellar tanks, prior to the promotion of keg. But there was no big push to change the system in pubs because there was no perceived need to and money was short. The tied house system undoubtedly played a role. Only in the merger mania period in the 1960s was there a push for keg, and at first that was largely limited to small turnover outlets and export. And when keg started sweeping the market, it was met with vociferous consumer resistance, partly, as I say, because it was bland and had little local distinctiveness.

I also go to great lengths to explain in the book that no, prior to pasteurisation and gas dispense, not all beer was cask conditioned in the way we understand it today. And while conservatism has certainly been a factor in inhibiting the spread of innovation with, for example, the belated adoption of lager brewing in the UK, again I explain in the book that it likely wasn’t a key issue. Again it’s a matter of whether there is a perceived need to adopt an innovation and the resources to do so.

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