opinion pubs real ale

How ‘conservative coded’ is cask ale?

Is cask ale right wing, left wing, both, or neither? Is cask, in American terms, ‘conservative coded’? It’s complicated.

Last week a row blew up when an industry body concerned with cask ale announced plans to promote its newest campaign on the right wing GB News channel.

The controversy was more intense, perhaps, because this happened in a week when even GB News seemed to concede that some of its presenters had gone too far.

Observing this news from across the Atlantic, American drinks writer Dave Infante asked for context via social network BlueSky:

any british drinkers on here that could weigh in on how ‘conservative’ cask ale is coded in the uk?

Travelling on a bus across Somerset, we did our best to answer in a series of quick replies.

But, actually, this feels like a topic worth digging into in more detail, and now we’ve had more time to reflect.

What do you mean by ‘cask ale’?

Literally, cask ale refers to a method of dispense, as explored in-depth by Des de Moor in his most recent book.

But here, we’re talking about its place in British culture. What it means, or signifies.

For many people, cask ale is synonymous with brown bitter, produced by companies hundreds of years old, such as Arkell’s or Shepherd Neame.

It’s horse brasses, Inspector Morse, dimple mugs, shire horses, blazers with badges, regimental ties, red trousers, vintage cars, cricket, golf, Alan Partridge with his big fat shot of Director’s.

A pint of your finest foaming, if you please, stout yeoman of the bar.

This version, or view, of cask ale is distinctly ‘conservative coded’, for one particular idea of what conservatism means.

What do you mean by ‘conservative’?

In Britain, as in the US, conservatism is fractured.

The Conservative Party, AKA the Tories, was for many years the party of the landed gentry, the military and the Church.

They were literally conservative, as in, resistant to social change, and supportive of existing social hierarchies.

Then, in the late 20th century, the Conservatives pivoted under Margaret Thatcher to a more radical form of conservatism.

It prioritised deregulation, low taxes and free market economics, with less emphasis on social class and tradition.

Especially if it got in the way of growth.

You might almost categorise these two factions as (a) cask ale Tories and (b) lager lout Thatcherites.

The latter group, to deal again in broad stereotypes, were less about shire horses and tweed, more Porsches and pinstripes.

There’s no doubt that the late John Young of London brewery Young & Co was a conservative.

Indeed, it’s been suggested he was somewhat further to the right than that gentle word might suggest.

He was also a dogged traditionalist who clung to cask ale throughout the 1970s, arguably playing a large part in saving it.

Then, on the other hand, you might look at the families behind Watneys, Whitbread and the rest of the Big Six.

While supporting the Conservative Party, they were entirely unsentimental about cask ale.

In pushing keg bitter, then lager, throughout the post-war period, they were regarded as the enemies of cask ale.

It was in that context that the script got flipped and cask ale became an element of the counterculture.

An old photo of people marching with a brass band.
CAMRA marches against the closure of the Joules brewery at Stone, 3 November, 1973, with CAMRA chairman Christopher Hutt at dead centre.

Cask ale as a radical cause

Whether the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was left or right wing was something we researched in depth a decade ago while writing Brew Britannia.

Early members of the campaign included “everyone from National Front members to Maoists”, as one interviewee told us.

People who wanted to preserve tradition and turn back the clock found themselves campaigning alongside those who wanted to give Tory brewery owners bloody noses and champion ‘small is beautiful’ principles.

Broadly speaking, though, CAMRA was about challenging powerful capitalist interests (Watneys) and was sometimes talked about as a sort of beer drinker’s trade union.

It seems to us that many of the newer generation of microbrewers shared this rebellious, challenger mindset, even if their owners’ personal politics varied widely.

In the 21st Century

As we keep saying, cask ale’s political image is complicated, and only got more so in recent years.

As ‘craft beer’ arrived in the UK, cask ale came to be regarded by some as a relic, and CAMRA as an obstruction.

Self-declared rebels and revolutionaries like BrewDog (we know, we know – check out chapter 14 of Brew Britannia) made keg beer their cause.

For a stretch there, that meant even small scale cask ale was perhaps regarded as ‘conservative coded’.

Even though BrewDog, Camden and other successful keg-focused UK craft breweries proved to be the most purely capitalistic of the lot.

And much to the irritation of radically-minded cask ale brewers, especially in the North of England.

But in these days of the supposed culture war ‘conservative’ isn’t just about your attitude to economics. It’s also about your stance on feminism, gender, racism, Brexit, vaccination…

Nigel Farage, the most prominent champion of Brexit, made pints of cask ale part of his personal image, and the preservation of the crown-stamped pint glass a key talking point of the ‘Leave’ campaign.

As beer writers are fond of pointing out, cask ale is uniquely British (terms and conditions may apply) and so lends itself to nationalist posturing.

Cask ale is also associated with ‘proper pubs’. For many, a proper pub is the very dream and ideal. For others, it’s an idea loaded with danger signs: doesn’t it just mean white, male and possibly, or probably, racist?

CAMRA has also struggled to convincingly counter suggestions that racism and sexism are baked into its culture – though perhaps headway is finally being made on that front, at the cost of alienating members who liked that.

One final test

If you were writing a fictional character who is a conservative (right wing) what would you have them drink?

Depending on the flavour of their conservatism, it might be Champagne, wine, port or brandy.

If they’re a filthy rich City type, they might go for the most expensive lager on the bar – or a keg IPA, these days.

But in most instances, it would be a pint of cask ale, right?

That’s certainly what Conservative Party politicians like to be photographed holding, even when they don’t drink.

Look, we know it’s almost a decade old, but do give Brew Britannia a read. It goes into much of the above in plenty of detail and should help you work out your own answer to this complex question.

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.