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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.

Categories
Beer history london

Cask ale in the 1930s: bugs, smellers and Baltic oak

“Casks are a great source of spoiling well-brewed beer…” That’s the judgement of J.A. Pryor, Chairman of the London brewery Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, writing in The Black Eagle in July 1930.

It’s interesting to see casks presented, first and foremost, as a problem to be solved.

At the same time, the brewery went to a lot of trouble to make sure its casks were as good as could be.

First, there’s the matter of material:

[No] expense or care is spared by T. H. B. & Co., to ensure first of all the purchase of the very best timber, which it may surprise some of you to know comes entirely from the Baltic. This is the only suitable wood in the world for making our casks. English oak is, alas, unsuitable, and only during the War years, when it was impossible to get Russian oak, did we have to use American and a small proportion of Austrian oak. Very unsuitable materials both, and I am glad to say we have none in use to-day.

Ron Pattinson has written about the use of Russian vs. American oak in British and Irish brewing as has Gary Gillman: “The disliked American taste was, evidently, the bright vanillin and coconut flavours familiar to anyone who knows bourbon whiskey or Chardonnay wine.”

Next, Mr Pryor talks about the cleaning of casks – going into some surprisingly squicky detail:

The cleaning of casks is vastly important, and each one as it comes into our London Cooperage is first of all “run in,” i.e., filled with boiling water, and allowed to stand for as long as possible. This is to soften any yeasty deposit there may be, and makes the subsequent washing easier.

Then he introduces an interesting bit of technology:

[The casks] are then taken to the “Goliath” machines, where they are subjected to eight separate processes of either raw steam or boiling liquor under pressure, and the outsides also scrubbed in water and brushed… By the way, it is well worth your while, if you can find time, to go and look at these machines in operation as they are uncannily human. We have a fine battery of them in London, and also at Burton.

Goliath cask-washing machine, The Black Eagle, July 1930.

It’s easy to think of the past – even ten years ago – as a kind of barbarous dark age. This article is a helpful reminder that even in the 1930s Truman’s was brewing scientifically:

After the casks leave the machine they are each placed on drying and cooling nozzles, and pure filtered air is driven into them under pressure. Great care is exercised over the Pure Air Filter, and the two plates following show air before and after filtration.

Unfiltered air and air after filtration, The Black Eagle, July 1930.

Except at the end of the process, of course, things suddenly get very ‘craft’, with the human nose coming into play:

Each cask is then “smelt” and “pricked,” i.e., any remaining pieces of broken shive, etc., are removed from the interior, before they are passed as fit to go into the cellar.

“Cask smeller” was a real, very skilled job and we can actually see cask smellers in action at another London brewery, Whitbread, in this film from 1959:

Pryor concludes with what might be read as a shot across the bows, or as encouragement to do the right thing, depending on your point of view:

This last work is of very real importance, and is entrusted to some of you, who make it a pride not to pass a suspicious cask. If you should by chance miss one you are pretty certain to hear of it, as each cask is again examined in the cellar before filling.

Categories
pubs

Pubs and beer all spick and span

With a week off work we finally managed to make it to a few pubs the week before last – and, more importantly, get our hands on some cask ale served as it should be. The experience has given us reason to feel optimistic.

First, the beer has been outstandingly good even in pubs where there’s no particular reason to expect that to be the case.

Perhaps it’s absence making the heart grow fonder, or the heart overruling the palate, but we don’t think so.

It might be a phenomenon observed by Martin Taylor and others last summer, though: cleaner than usual lines and everyone putting their best foot forward.

Boltmaker

The Butcombe Bitter at The Colston Arms was always reliably decent but, a couple of Saturdays ago, tasted like the showroom display pint with all the optional extras. Leafy hop character, cracker-crust malt, a hint of rustic mystery from the yeast… A great way to break the cask fast.

At the same pub, Timothy Taylor Boltmaker tasted as good as we’ve ever had it and Wye Valley WPA was polished, peach-perfumed, golden perfection.

It was on the Monday when we schlepped out to South Gloucestershire to meet Ray’s brother and partner, however, that we really started to notice some promising signs. Literally, that is.

We walked past pubs that had previously struck us as tatty, or on their last legs, but which had clearly received fresh coats of paint and smart refurbs – the one upside to being closed for several months, we suppose. And perhaps, in some cases, they’d also benefited from investing government support grants.

Tribute

Our destination was The White Harte in Warmley, an already-smart almost-country pub which has gained a large, sturdy teepee-type covering over its beer garden – a feature that helps it comply with COVID-19 regulations, of course, but which will also no doubt be helpful in English summers to come.

Though, as with Timothy Taylor, we’ve still got St Austell on the naughty step for last year’s beer duty reform shenanigans we were glad to be offered Tribute as the only cask ale. Again, it tasted like the Tributest Tribute that ever Tributed – flowery, fresh, full of electric energy.

Finally, towards the end of our week off, we walked across country from Pensford to Keynsham, hoping we might be able to find a pub with space for us on spec. The Lock Keeper, just outside town, is a Young’s pub. It has a large beer garden with grass, trees and the sound of a fast-flowing river – almost up to German standards. 

Masks, sanitiser and check-ins notwithstanding, there was a sense of business as usual. We’ve all got used to this and, at least in more sedate pubs, the processes have been nailed.

The pints of Young’s Ordinary we ordered arrived within about 30 seconds of hitting ‘Submit’ on the app. (Will table service disappear after all this?) And, what do you know, they were extraordinarily good – summery hops, a long train of fresh-bread malt and a pleasing terminal dryness.

Proper Job

St Austell Proper Job? Also outstanding. Clean is the word we keep coming back to. You know how you don’t think the windows need cleaning but then you get them done and suddenly there’s twice as much light? Something like that.

On our final Friday off work we took a train to Bath and walked for a few hours over the hills that look down on the city, re-entering via Lansdown and The Hare & Hounds. There, with a view of what felt like most of England, we came back to Butcombe Bitter. And, again, it was to exhibition standard – and certainly the right beer for that place, at that time.

Next up, we suppose, pints inside a Bristol pub. We haven’t braved it yet – we’re both first-dosers and quite happy sitting outside, even when the weather is rough – but we can’t deny we’re excited at the prospect.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture

The perfect amount of foam on a pint of beer

Of course there is no correct amount – it will vary from beer to beer, from region to region and from person to person – but it looks as if a beer we were served on Friday night was pretty close to perfect.

When we Tweeted this with the message ‘One for the Foam Police’ we were being deliberately vague.

What we meant was ‘This looks pretty good’ but wanted to test a theory: we reckon it is possible for a specific individual pint to have both (a) too much head and (b) too little.

When we Tweet pictures of the beers we’re drinking, it’s quite common for people to reply with either something like ‘Stick a Flake in that?’ or ‘That looks in poor condition’.

In this case, though about 90% of poll respondents thought it looked fairly spot on, the remaining votes were split between too much and not enough, with a slight bias towards too much.

It would be interesting to have the ability to drill down into the results a bit more. We suspect those who voted ‘too much’ will be in London and the Home Counties, while those who voted ‘not enough’ will skew younger. But those are just guesses, for now.

Another interesting thing was that some people wanted to know more about the beer before forming a judgement:

https://twitter.com/scissorkicks/status/1182969139100565506

Of course there’s a lot of ceremony and debate around lager, especially in the Czech Republic, but we hadn’t considered before that keg beer might be expected to have more head than cask. Now it’s been raised, though, it does feel right.

Altogether, though, what this proves is that it’s a matter of taste, as subjective as anything else.

Is the theatrical cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring too long, too short or about right? Would you like more tracks on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, fewer, or about the same number?

Well, subjective except for in the (sort of) legal sense. There’s a general acceptance, reinforced by messages from industry bodies and Trading Standards, that says a pint should be at least 95% liquid, and no more than 5% foam.

We suspect our ‘about right’ pint on Friday might have failed this test, by a percentage point or two, but in the moment, we really didn’t care.

Categories
bristol

Training Day: pull it flat

Lots of drinkers in Bristol like their pints flat. That is, completely without foam.

We’ve written about this before but in the past week got more evidence when we saw a pub manager training a new member of staff.

“No, way too much head, bit more,” said the manager. “Just give it another pull.”

“Like this?”

“No, still too much head. You might get away with that up norf but not in Bristol, mate.”

“It’s OK, we don’t mind a bit of a head on our pints,” we said and then took the opportunity to ask a couple of follow-up questions.

The manager told us that older Bristolian drinkers especially really appreciate pints where the beer is absolutely to the rim with as clear a surface as possible.

He put it down to stinginess – “They’re afraid you’re doing them out of nine pence worf of beer.” – but confirmed that it certainly was a matter of preference, not the result of poorly-conditioned beer.

In Bristol, we’re beginning to think the default flatness of the pints is a pretty good indicator of how many born-and-bred locals drink in a particular pub.

In the city centre, where incomers, commuters and daytrippers drink, it’s quite possible to be served 450ml of beer with several inches of head (“Could I get a little top up, please?”) but that’s much less likely in backstreet pubs and the more down-to-earth suburbs.

The Drapers seems to struggle sometimes, too, with bar staff getting mixed messages from traditionalist locals and beer geeks. A few weeks ago we got served beautiful pints, foam piled high, with an apology: “Sorry, it’s very lively.”

Almost anywhere else in the UK, it wouldn’t have seemed so.

The good news is that at the pub we visited last week, the new member of staff eventually got the hang of it, pulling a string of pints with a perfectly reasonable amount of foam – neither excessively northern nor too strictly Bristolian.