“It’s Been Like That All Day”

Cartoon: a man peers at a beer with a beady eye.

We were recently in a pub serving a range of beers we know well enough to realise that they’re never supposed to be hazy.

But, of course, the beer we ordered was served with a light haze, Moor-style, which we gently questioned.

“Oh, it’s been like that all day. It probably didn’t quite settle out right before we tapped the cask.”

It was said pleasantly enough, but dismissively — a variation on “Nobody else has complained” crossed with a watered down “It’s meant to be like that”.

Because we did know the beer, and wanted something particular from it — crispness, hop perfume — we pushed back: would it be OK, we wondered, to taste the beer, and if it had a noticeably different character than usual, or wasn’t at least as good despite the difference, have it replaced?

The manager was consulted and everyone agreed (after a bit more time and effort than one drink deserved) that this was a good idea.

Sure enough, it tasted fine — not sour or nasty — but noticeably muted, and rather dull, so we rejected it.

We — knowledgeable consumers, relatively speaking, and confident about speaking up — were able to navigate this situation to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but we can imagine others coming away thinking ill of that beer and brewery, and probably unimpressed with the pub.

But why would the manager make the choice to keep serving a beer they know isn’t right? Incompetence? Indifference? Our suspicion is that it was an unintended consequence of the corporate setup within which the pub operates prioritising the need to minimise wastage over quality.

Others, though, might argue that this is further evidence that increased acceptance of haze in certain beers is causing confusion and justifying shoddiness more generally. If that’s the case then complaining when possible (quietly, politely), making it more trouble than it is worth, might be part of the solution.

Tinkering With Casks

Casks at a beer festival.

In a comment on yesterday’s post reader AP said: ‘I’m surprised that in the current climate there isn’t more experimentation with cask conditioning going on.’ Well, having put AP’s point to Twitter, it turns out there’s quite a bit.

First, we know that the people behind our local in Bristol, the Draper’s Arms, have acquired a brand new wooden cask from the White Rose Cooperage which they are hoping to get filled by local brewers, putting a subtle twist on familiar beers. This is a similar model to the Junction at Castleford, West Yorkshire, which specialises in ‘beer from the wood’, and has its own casks which filled with beer from all sorts of breweries, including some on the Continent, that don’t normally use wooden vessels.

Various people came forward with tales of casks laid down in cellars to age for varying periods of time. Steve at Beer Nouveau recalled his days as a cellarman in Ipswich ageing Adnams Tally-Ho barley wine for up two years and then selling three different ages side-by-side. He also mentioned his habit (c.1998-99) of ageing Greene King Abbot Ale for six months before serving, without advertising it as aged or otherwise special. Hali and Brian, both former team-members at The Grove in Huddersfield, recalled keeping a cask of Bass P2 Imperial Stout in the cellar for 8 years before serving.

Susannah at the Station House micropub in Durham said (slightly edited):

We love experimenting with ageing. Mostly just, as previously noted, cellar till it’s ready. But Taylor’s beers usually get a minimum of a week, ideally two. There’s the Bass we aged for a month and sold as a mystery beer for our birthday last year (winner got a prize)… Currently ageing is a cask of Fortification from Cullercoats Brewery. Brewed in January, I think. Going on sale this week.

Angus from Mad Hatter Brewery recalled his time at the Wapping Brewery:

[We] used to keep a firkin or two back of our Winter ale for the following year as Vintage Winter. As long as you don’t fine on racking and your sanitation is up to scratch (and the cellar has the space) you’re all good… the spices mellowed out and the beer seemed richer.

One other person mentioned that a pub near them, with the agreement of the brewery, adds a bottle of spirits to casks of one particular strong ale. This is, of course, frightfully naughty. (Bet it tastes interesting though.)

But, still, we see what AP is getting at — it would be interesting to go to, say, a Fuller’s pub and find two different ages of ESB on offer, or vintage London Porter alongside fresh.

We’ve often wondered what effects might be achieved by adding the dregs from a bottle of Orval, or even a commercial Brettanomyces culture, into a straight cask ale and leaving it for a few months. This might even make Doom Bar interesting.

There are also plenty of opportunities for bold experiments with dry-hopping in the cask, with the permission and perhaps even guidance of brewers.

And this business of Guinness on hand-pull fascinates us — what’s to stop anyone buying keg beers, decanting them into clean casks, and throwing in some fresh yeast with some priming sugar? Perhaps only the faff of the paperwork and the risk of being told off by the brewery.

It strikes us that this kind of thing could help to convey the complex fascination of cask-conditioning and might add a bit of fun back into something which, at the moment, is largely the preserve of berks like us muttering about ‘subtle magic’ and ‘sessionability’.

Cask Ale: a Kind of Magic?

“[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?