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.
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.