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?

Young People and Bottled Beer, 1958

[The younger generation] tend to prefer bottled beer; perhaps because it is widely advertised, perhaps because it is ‘packaged goods’. Moreover, draught beer is ‘what Dad drinks’ and, presumably, he cannot be right.”

From ‘Pleas­ing all Palates’ in Beer in Britain (1960), based on a 1958 spe­cial sup­ple­ment of The Times.

Capacious Bavarian Beer Bellies, 1873

In South Germany Bavaria takes the lead. Perhaps it is the greatest beer-consuming nation that exists. They drink at all times and in great quantities and always the pretty strong drink known as Bavarian beer. Glass after glass disappears down their large throats into a most capacious stomach, and they always get the ‘drier wi’ the drinking o’t’…  [We] have never met a Bavarian yet who was content with less than three glasses of his own stronger quality, and women and children are alike good and brave drinkers.”

The Con­sump­tion of Beer in Ger­many’, Brew­ers’ Guardian, 14 Jan­u­ary 1873, p7.