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.

The Decline of Mild

“I think that lighter beers… people used to drink with their eyes — if one person lifted a pint and looked through it, everybody did. Another stepping stone was the introduction of lager. When we talk about mild drinkers, they’re probably the lager drinkers now. Didn’t like bitter beer, enjoyed the mild beer, and now gone on to lager.”

Don Nixon, pub landlord 1960-1989, in Public Houses, Private Livesan oral history of Life in York pubs in the mid-20th century. (With some corrections to punctuation.)

The Social Attractiveness of Pubs, 1901

“[Public houses] are, as a rule, brilliantly lit, and often gaudily, if cheaply, decorated. In winter they are always kept temptingly warm. The company is almost entirely composed of young persons, youths and girls, sitting round the room and at small tables… Every one is drinking, but not heavily… In a round of the public-houses [of York] which the writer made on Saturday evening in May 1901, the fact of their social attractiveness struck him very forcibly. It points to the need for the establishment on temperance lines of something equally attractive in this respect.”

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree in Poverty: a study of town life (1908 edition) apparently liking pubs more than he wanted to.

Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House

“This is a basement under the angle between Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street. It is not trying to be Irish; it just is. A big, bare room with a central zinc-topped bar; no concession to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London… It has surely got the fairies on it, though mentioning fairies in this rough, shabby, real place you might get some strange looks.”

Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House, in Nairn’s London, 1966.

(NB. before it was Irish, it was German…)

Counterfeit Grätzer, c.1881

“At the brewery where I washed bottles during my last year of school, beer that had come in kegs was put into bottles, marked with counterfeit labels of brands like Pilsener and Grätzer, and sold as genuine bottles of these beers… I could give examples of dozens of such tricks and prove by them how even poor people are cheated.”

Franz Bergg (1866-1913), originally in Ein Proletarierleben, 1913, translated in The German Worker, ed. Alfred Kelly, 1987.

Overheard in a Craft Beer Bar

“I’ve just ordered a pint of that Lagu- Laga- La-goo-NYE-tas IPA. I’ve got no idea what it is! I wanted Adnams’ Bitter, really — that’s what I normally drink — but I panicked. I mean, you don’t come to a place like this and order Adnams’, do you?”

A young man explaining his choice of beer to friends at the Pelt Trader, City of London, last Friday.