Great Britain The Current State of Cask Beer

Discussion in 'Europe' started by hefehead12, Nov 15, 2012.

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  1. hefehead12

    hefehead12 Initiate (0) Apr 20, 2010 North Carolina

    I was watching an old episode of The Beer Hunter with Michael Jackson today. He was in England for the Great British Beer festival. There were over 200 beers there and all of the beers were in casks. He went to several different pubs and all the beers there were in casks as well. So my questions are: Is beer in England still like this? Is all or a great majority of beer in England served from casks? Why is cask beer in the United States so rare? It seems that casks are an oddity or a luxury in the United States. Additionally, it seems that american brewers just use casks to infuse their beers with honey or chocolate or fruit. Is this ruining cask beer in the U.S.? Thanks for the help.
  2. herrburgess

    herrburgess Meyvn (1,010) Nov 4, 2009 South Carolina
    Industry Beer Trader

    U.S. "craft cask" beer has about as much to do with traditional UK cask ale as U.S. "craft" lager has to do with traditional German/Czech lagers. I have personally found that attempting to in any way equate one with the other is equivalent to banging one's head against a brick wall. Want cask? Go to the UK where, yes, it is still easily found in its original form.
  3. VncentLIFE

    VncentLIFE Meyvn (1,417) Feb 16, 2011 North Carolina
    Beer Trader

    Cask to a good portion of the US means "a vessel with which to fill with beer, and throw in random ingredients from you kitchen in." Usually I dont mind, and sometimes I really enjoy the odd nature of them (Highland Kashmir IPA with pink peppercorns, fresh hops, and cardamom).
  4. MrDanno96

    MrDanno96 Initiate (0) Aug 26, 2009 Ohio

    I would imagine cask is more expensive than just throwing it in a keg after primary fermentation‚ÄĒespecially if you take the time to serve the cask correctly (monitor Co2 levels, get a proper beer engine, etc), which is at least one reason you don't see a lot of it in the U.S. Would love to see more cask beers in the U.S. I don't have any personal experience with U.K. pubs, but I think it is still fairly prominent at most traditional pubs, but not as much so as it was 20 years ago. There is also a group/society in the U.K. that works to continue cask beer's prominence.
    hefehead12 likes this.
  5. Eriktheipaman

    Eriktheipaman Savant (971) Sep 4, 2010 California
    Beer Trader

    Yes it is still this way in England thanks to CAMRA. There is a brew pub near me that has at least 3-4 casks going at all times, it is awesome.
  6. kojevergas

    kojevergas Poo-Bah (7,093) Aug 15, 2010 Colorado
    Beer Trader

    I usually find cask ale inferior. I think CAMRA is horribly misguided. This is just my personal taste.
  7. imbibehour

    imbibehour Poo-Bah (6,091) Mar 18, 2008 Maryland
    Supporter Subscriber

    It all depends on where you live in the USA. In DC area there is plenty of cask served brews...
    Eriktheipaman likes this.
  8. MrOH

    MrOH Defender (616) Jul 5, 2010 Maryland

    Depends on where you go. There are quite a few bars in Philly serving cask beer unadulterated (had a Red Racer on cask last week at the Local 44 bottleshop), and it is usually what I end up going for. That being said, I think that the varietal dry-hopped, maple chunk, etc. casks are fun as well.
  9. tendermorsel

    tendermorsel Initiate (0) Oct 22, 2006 Massachusetts

    Hell yeah the Brits are still drinking cask beer. There are entire bars dedicated to that. Check out the documentary movie Beertickers. There are people that have ticked 30000 different cask beers. LOL

    Honestly I think cask beer is crap here in the states for a few reasons. It takes a well trained and experienced bar hand to properly pour and maintain cask beer. There are expert cellarmen over there. It's not like a keg where a trained ape could tap it and you are ready to go. Also cask beer should be drunk ASAP. You need to have it fresh. I know a place by me that has a cask on all the time... but it is the same cask for 2 weeks! I am sure it was good at one point but the demand isn't there with the consumer here stateside to have the casks turn over quickly. For example Market Porter in London has multiple casks and I have spent an afternoon drinking there and seen the same cask turn over twice in 3-4 hours. You better believe that place is serving fresh stuff. It's warm and flat. Seriously.. it takes a while to get used to this. I have been to London 4 times in the last 4 years and only on my most recent trip did I really enjoy it and look forward to a nice cask IPA. I also think that Americans tend to drink more to get drunk than Brits. Not that Brits aren't getting drunk but in many cases it is more of a social thing. The cask beers are lower ABV 2-3% so you can have pints all night long and not get shit housed. It it took me a while to get used to this too as an American BTW. Also it is standard for a pub in England to do half pints. So you can try different cask stuff without having a full 20 oz pint. There are often TON of different casks from one brewery. Many of them are one off or extremely limited.

    Honestly I think CAMRA was a good thing at one point. Hell they were one of the first ligitimate consumer protection groups. Now I think it is pretty stupid. Many members are so uptight about cask only that they litterally won't even try a regular ale. Looking down there noses at those who don't drink only cask.
    Padraig and hefehead12 like this.
  10. Kinsman

    Kinsman Champion (873) Aug 26, 2009 California

    Yes... sort of. Fizzy yellow lagers are very popular there as well, especially with the younger generations. Many/most bars pup have Stella, Fosters, Carlsberg, Heinken and the like on tap all the time and will only keep a few casks. Other pubs are more real ale centric and will have several fresh, well-kept casks on at all times. Just from my own observations, I'd say the pale lagers are the majority of what is consumed over there these days but real ale does have a pretty significant share of the market. Also, over the last decade or so, the UK has seen a fast growing craft segment and bars to go along with it. Brewdog would be the most notable of these breweries but others are there, and I enjoyed Meantime quite a bit while I was there.

    There's not enough interest in it. BMC drinkers sure as hell wouldn't touch it and most craft beer drinker still seem to shudder at the idea of a subtle low-abv ale served at cellar temp and relatively flat. Most places that I see cask usually use it to take something and dry hop it or flavor it with something so it's really nothing like what you'd get in a pub in the UK.
  11. JrGtr

    JrGtr Disciple (395) Apr 13, 2006 Massachusetts

    Looks up and read the sites of CAMRA and CASC (cask-conditioned ale support campaign)
    There is a small community of cask beer here in the US, as some mentioned, DC has quite a few, and many places in New England (mostly Boston, Portland and Portsmouth) have excellent cask programs.
    Here in Boston, we are lucky enough to have a Cask beer fest twice a year, with a related fest in Portland.
    Look up NERAX. Always great beers, real gravity and pump pours, and good people running it.
  12. Immortale25

    Immortale25 Poo-Bah (3,015) May 13, 2011 North Carolina
    Beer Trader

    According to a Brit I had at my table a few weeks ago, the British sort of scoff at kegged beer and have a hardcore loyalty to casks. Both he and I wondered as to why this might be.
    I think that could be the reason. Cask beer seems to have more of an intricate delivery of the beverage than standard kegging. Also, the higher storage temperature and more delicate mouthfeel seems to put it in a class similar to red wine. Just speculation but it seems to make sense.
  13. CwrwAmByth

    CwrwAmByth Poo-Bah (1,716) Jan 24, 2011 United Kingdom (England)

    Most good beer is still cask, yes. Though keg beer is growing with breweries such as Brewdog, even "craft" breweries over still focus on cask.

    Generally you can find maybe 3 kinds of pub/bar here, beer wise:
    1. Ones that serve only macrolager on tap, their most adventurous stuff being something like Red Stripe or Amstel, maybe they'll do John Smiths or Guinness on nitro, or bottles of Newcastle Brown.
    E.g. Student bars
    2. Ones that serve a mix of macrolagers and cask ales. These range from having a token cask pull of poorly kept bitter to having quite a few cask pulls of well kept beer that changes regularly (several times a week). Might do stuff like Hoegarden or something like that on keg.
    E.g. Any "traditional English" style pubs
    3. Dedicated "craft" bars/pubs that do lots of cask and keg beers from all over the UK and the world.
    E.g. Brewdog bars, Euston Tap
  14. CwrwAmByth

    CwrwAmByth Poo-Bah (1,716) Jan 24, 2011 United Kingdom (England)

    Even to alot of "craft" beer fans, the perfect beer/popular image of beer is one that is cold and is either fizzy or bursting with massive amounts of flavour. Correct me if i'm mistaken but the most popular beers are either macrolagers of "craft" brewed strongly hoppy IPAs and strong stouts/porters. So I can understand why beer that focuses on drinkability and subtle, softer flavours, and being consumed at a relatively warm temperature isn't viewed by American importers as something that would take off well.
  15. Ruds

    Ruds Initiate (0) Sep 15, 2008 United Kingdom (England)

    That would depend on where and what you drink and how much your exposure has been to cask ale, and as you state your personal preference, but it's easy to quote 'inferior' if you've had badly kept cask ale or have just been drinking same old Sharps/Fullers/Youngs/Micro twig water.

    Beer via keg dispense is pretty much a safe bet.

    Most of my best and worst ever pints have been via cask dispense!

    For me it's a case of knowing which bars look after their cask beer well (and provide a varied range that aren't all 3.8-4.5% ABV blonde and bitters).

    Not speaking for you here ( I see you have Galway listed by your location so guess you've made it to the UK many times?), but I've spoken to a number of Americans who have visited the UK/London with 'land of cask' goggles on, who have just gone into A.N.Otherpub in London and had a badly kept pint or just kept coming across the same 3 or 4 beers. Such forrays into pubs were not researched!

    There are around 7,000 pubs in London. Plenty are shite, plenty don't need to make an effort because of the millions of tourists who don't know/care about beer quality/choice, just like any other big city. In fact of the 7,000 there are only around a dozen I regularly frequent or indeed need to frequent to get the best quality and range of beer.

    Chin Chin !
    leinie13, Tut and Zimbo like this.
  16. marquis

    marquis Crusader (717) Nov 20, 2005 United Kingdom (England)

    There is a healthy interest in cask ale here. Firstly , the infrastructure is in place.The majority of pubs are equipped to serve cask beer in good condition.Secondly it is easier and cheaper to produce than keg-less equipment and time are required so a mass of new breweries have sprung up. Thirdly it is perceived as a quality item, even among those people who don't normally drink it.The result of this is that the UK has half as many craft breweries as the US with one fifth of the population.Add to that progressive beer duty-small brewers pay only half the tax per pint as larger ones.
    Anybody who gets served warm and flat cask beer should move to a pub which does it properly.Certainly it's less cold and less gassy than the majority of other beers on draught but that's not the same thing.
    Turnover and line cleanliness are the keys to good cask beer. At its best it acquires an extra layer of flavours and complexity over its kegged/canned/bottled counterpart. It costs about twice as much as the same beer in bottle butI feel it's well worth the extra to the point that I rarely drink bottled beer.BUT - the big issue is well kept. Where I live the vast majority of pubs are fanatical about the quality of their beer and it's very, very seldom I even get even an indifferent pint.Not everybody is as lucky as I am though.
    It's really geared to the pub trade and the last thing a pub wants is for its customers to just buy one drink and move on.So strong beers haven't made a deal of headway and in the vast majority of pubs the weakest beers will be the biggest sellers by far.Session beer is really the cornerstone of the pub trade , customers can drink pint after pint and when there will buy other things too.
  17. kojevergas

    kojevergas Poo-Bah (7,093) Aug 15, 2010 Colorado
    Beer Trader

    I had about 30 different beers on cask at the Bon Accord in Glasgow, which from what I've heard is a rather reputable cask ale pub. I visited similarly highly regarded pubs in London, Belfast, and Wales. I just plain don't get cask ale - for the most part. I've had a few (VERY few) treasures, but just the same I always felt like they'd have been better on-draught. Call me crazy.
  18. marquis

    marquis Crusader (717) Nov 20, 2005 United Kingdom (England)

    Cask ale is draught , the word "draught" meaning "drawn from"...........if you prefer your beers cooler or gassier than perhaps cask isn't for you.
    Bitterbill likes this.
  19. CwrwAmByth

    CwrwAmByth Poo-Bah (1,716) Jan 24, 2011 United Kingdom (England)

    To be fair well kept fullers on cask i've found to be really nice.
    Padraig likes this.
  20. Zimbo

    Zimbo Initiate (0) Aug 7, 2010 United Kingdom (Scotland)

    Craft keg is new, trendy and cool in Scotland and the roots of cask are nowhere as deep compared to England. But cask still holds a special place in the hearts of beer obsessives here. And it's actually cheaper.
  21. kojevergas

    kojevergas Poo-Bah (7,093) Aug 15, 2010 Colorado
    Beer Trader

    A fair point; I usually use on-draught to refer to kegged beer while I call out cask either by its moniker or via "hand-pump" and the like. I suppose I prefer to think that the system is doing the drawing, thereby making it draught; when human hands do the drawing (even via a mechanical pump) it seems independent of the system. In any case, I defer to your definition. The tone came off bit snide, but I digress. I don't mind the temperature (in fact I prefer many beers warmer than they're often served), but I do like a certain amount of carbonation. Cask ales, it seems, are most definitely not for me. Indeed, I think I even prefer nitro over [kegged] draught when the beer warrants it.
  22. Zimbo

    Zimbo Initiate (0) Aug 7, 2010 United Kingdom (Scotland)

    I agree an an awful lot with what Ruds has said here. My worst and best beer drinking experiences have also both largely come from cask ales. Cask still isn't easy. It can be a bugger to get right and still too often substandard cellarmanship serves off pints and puts newcomers off ever trying cask ale again. But even more true is the number of 'meh' cask ales produced by UK brewers. CAMRA won't admit it but its true and a belief firmly held by a new generation of UK brewers more willing to engage with the 'craft' phenomen. Some brewers still seem to be clueless about how tastes are changing and many are not in a good position to cope with these trends in time. If I was a cask brewer today I'd be looking at my quality,innovation and doing something exciting and groundbreakingly new as well as considering how to engage with a new generation of beer drinkers. Ye olde sterile style beer events just won't work on these folks. As James Watt once said (and it still makes me giggle):

    If you go to a CAMRA beer festival-I've been
    to a few and I wanted to shoot myself in the head after ten mnutes -They're
    awful places. Its not going to get people excited about good beer at all. They've
    got bagpipers, they've got morris dancers, they've got a bunch of weirdos.
    jazzyjeff13 and Ruds like this.
  23. CwrwAmByth

    CwrwAmByth Poo-Bah (1,716) Jan 24, 2011 United Kingdom (England)

    My worst experiences with beer have been with bottled beer actually, namely a bottle of Budweiser. They actually managed to make something so bland it ended up being disgusting. I couldn't even drain pour it as it was a Christmas present from my mother too.

    I sort of agree with that sentiment of many CAMRA beer festivals. Sometimes the beer ends up being too warm so it's not that nice, especially as the indoor ones tend to heat up from being so busy and being in the winter months. Yeah and they also only tend to have crappy folk bands/bands doing rubbish covers of generic hard rock, which you know the older generations running the festival have booked. Also the only food you can usually get is some sort of carvery style meat in a roll. Oh and they're quite expensive (Cardiffs GWBF worked out at costing £15 for entry, a glass, and 3 half pints, and that was the student price) It generally works out as being a not very nice experience. (check out Chelmsford's summer festival if you want to see how a good one should run - in a big park, tons of cool belgian and us beers as well etc)

    I will also say that many small breweries seem just produce a range of not very nice bitters and golden ales, yet they still get CAMRA support because it's traditional real ale etc. It's good to see alot of them are starting to get their act together and produce more interesting stuff (one brewery I know has started doing a nice chestnut stout, and another a few miles from it does an interesting one made with mussels). But still some remain adamant in producing bland crap i.e. the "meh" ales that Zimbo mentioned.
  24. marquis

    marquis Crusader (717) Nov 20, 2005 United Kingdom (England)

    Zimbo, cask ale is generally "craft" though this has little meaning in the UK.We are in danger of extending our views on the beer world to drinkers in general and on the whole drinkers are already enjoying the beer scene in the UK.I'm not even sure that tastes are changing all that much , the emergence of certain sorts of beers have been to entice lager drinkers to cask ales.But if they were, the small brewers are in a very strong position to meet the demand.The breweries I deal with and discuss things with are working flat out , are full of ideas and very, very capable.
    I've said before, I live in a region where excellent cask beer is to be found everywhere.Until a year or two ago every single pub and club in our area was a cask ale pub and we have a dreadful time submitting entries for the Good Beer Guide not because we don't have enough good ones but because we are having to leave out some cracking pubs.So it can be done.
    I'm not happy with the idea of innovation because it's really just reinventing the wheel.Evolution is a different matter as new varieties become available of course but changing the variety of apples in an apple pie isn't breaking new ground.
    Can I also remind people that CAMRA is an organisation with a specific goal which is to promote un messed about beer.The fact that it has 140000 members means that it's getting at least something right.But you can't blame it for doing what it says on the tin.
  25. Zimbo

    Zimbo Initiate (0) Aug 7, 2010 United Kingdom (Scotland)

    One other point. Many of the greatest casks ales are sadly no longer with us such as the likes of King and Barnes Festive, Adnams Extra (why Adnams ever dumped it is a mystery),Inde Coupe Burton Ale,Maclay 60 and many many more. But more common is the travesty of once world class beers which are still brewed, almost always in another brewery than the one that gave it its noteriety, but has virtually none of the great chacterisitics which once defined it. Beers like Young Special, Brakespear Bitter, Belhaven 80, Tetley Bitter, Theakston Old Peculier, Marston Pedigree etc etc etc. Its a shame to see so many once great beers reduced to such circumstances.

    Marquis, Il must respectfully disgree with you about 'craft' beer being meaningless in the UK. It definitely has meaning to many and it symbolises a new approach to beer which is not confined to the once closely ridged definitions or rules common among CAMRA. CAMRA has done much for beer in the UK but I fear that in time it will lose its relevance and influence if it doesn't change and embrace the challenges of the 21st Century.
    EssexAleMan and Ruds like this.
  26. Ruds

    Ruds Initiate (0) Sep 15, 2008 United Kingdom (England)

    Nowt wrong with CAMRA or what it does but the wheel is now triangular ... mix of cask , keg, hop infused, ramped up coffee flavoured stouts, RANDALIZERS ... me ... I'm CRAFT DAFT :stuck_out_tongue:
  27. marquis

    marquis Crusader (717) Nov 20, 2005 United Kingdom (England)

    Zimbo, CAMRA is simply about the form of dispense and not in any way about the beer itself. It doesn't restrict or specify styles , just says don't strangle them :slight_smile:
    Had some Brakspear's bitter a week or two ago and it was simply amazing for its gravity.I agree about Adnam's Extra and although I enjoyed my last pint of Old Peculier the other day which used to be as black as sin was just a dark ruby.I was talking to Julian Grocock of SIBA -he has Tetley's as his house beer in the Rose and Crown-he thinks it's a better beer now than when it was brewed at Leeds.I didn't have any today as he had some rather nice Burtonbridge Mild and where there's mild I tend to look no further...........
  28. Zimbo

    Zimbo Initiate (0) Aug 7, 2010 United Kingdom (Scotland)

    Thanks for the tips marquis. I'll have to check out Brakspear Bitter now and Im really intrigued by your report. Can still taste Tetley Bitter's gorgeous flavour (to me a lingering moorish zing ) as I remember it from the mid to late 1980s.
  29. Mark

    Mark Initiate (0) Jun 18, 2001 California

    Yes and thank heavens! Nothing like real cask ale and It is a big part pf my yearly UK trip. It's an English Heritage and hopefully will be preserved long after I'm gone. Whenever i see cask ale offered here at home where I live I always order it.
  30. marquis

    marquis Crusader (717) Nov 20, 2005 United Kingdom (England)

    Looking at the extract from MJ's Beer Hunter-a festival with 200 cask ales wouldn't rate comment thses days. Nottingham's Robin Hood Beer Festival this year had over 1000 different cask brews, a good proportion of them brewed within 20 miles radius.
  31. CwrwAmByth

    CwrwAmByth Poo-Bah (1,716) Jan 24, 2011 United Kingdom (England)

    I'd rather go to a smaller one as you'd end up still drinking the same number of beers. With 1000 ales there will be 980 that you can't try, with a 30 ale festival like our real ale society does, you get to try almost all of them.
  32. RendoMike

    RendoMike Initiate (0) Sep 6, 2011 United Kingdom (England)

    As a CAMRA member who attends most beer festivals which come up in my area, I agree cask ale rates as some of the best beer I have ever had; however, more often than not the beer is bad or less than average. For every great or innovative beer, there are ten more which fall flat in taste and just meet the status quo for an ale. It's not that the demand isn't there for great cask ale. Anyone who doesn't attend a beer fest during the first day or two realizes this.

    My home craft brewery in St. Louis always has at least two cask ales on tap and they are always winners. In my area of England (Cambridgeshire) there are pubs I can go to to reliably get good cask ale, but it seems the turnover in many pubs isn't high enough. I see 30 and under lining up at the bar to drink Coors and Stella, while the same cask sits on tap for days. Went out to one of my top five pubs to eat and drink on Friday night and had a horrible run in with a Gold IPA (forgot the brewery). The two Americans who I talked up about cask ale were not impressed.
    CwrwAmByth likes this.
  33. CwrwAmByth

    CwrwAmByth Poo-Bah (1,716) Jan 24, 2011 United Kingdom (England)

    Yes it's a shame, it's why student bars around here refuse to serve cask, they just can't get rid of it quickly enough to justify stocking it.
  34. marquis

    marquis Crusader (717) Nov 20, 2005 United Kingdom (England)

    That is of course the big IF. IF well kept and IF the turnover is sufficient , cask is the yardstick.Like youth and beauty it only lasts so long.
    Fortunately round this neck of the woods well kept cask beer is the norm.And practically all our locals sell it.I think in our area it's 98%.Also we have a high proportion of of free houses which helps though there's a couple of tied pubs which keep a consistently excellent (though limited of course) choice of beer.
  35. Blueribbon666

    Blueribbon666 Zealot (596) Jul 4, 2008 Ohio

    I had Bell's Best Brown Ale on cask @ Fatheads and enjoyed it even more than the bottle. Even after the Fatheads bartender, a regular who looks very much like the Fatheads character, gave me his opinion of it and even tried to change my mind when I ordered it. Pretty funny exchange from a place offering it in the first place, he served the beer with the memorable "Here's your piss." When I countered with "Nice! What's with that comment?" He simply said he didn't care for cask beer...:rolling_eyes:
  36. CwrwAmByth

    CwrwAmByth Poo-Bah (1,716) Jan 24, 2011 United Kingdom (England)

    Now that's a great way to attract custom.
  37. Mark

    Mark Initiate (0) Jun 18, 2001 California

    I have travelled to England 14 times and soon to be 15. I love cask ale and I will drink nothing else when over there. On my last trip I averaged nearly 7 pints a day over a week's time, can't get enough of good real ale. However there are some good cask beers in the U.S. North Coast Brewing Co's Red Seal in cask form is my favorite domestic beer by far. Due to North Coast messing with their hours I have not been there much lately but a local pub has been offering Red Seal cask conditioned fairly regularly lately. That this has been a great thing is a understatement.
    Hoppsbabo and hefehead12 like this.
  38. ImperialStoat

    ImperialStoat Aspirant (246) May 20, 2009 Ireland
    Beer Trader

    What a pillock. Hope you didn't tip him.
  39. Blueribbon666

    Blueribbon666 Zealot (596) Jul 4, 2008 Ohio

    Part of me wondered if I was getting a bit of poop for not buying any Fatheads stuff, which I ENJOY very much but let's face it guest taps may not be there next time.
  40. rtrasr

    rtrasr Disciple (318) Feb 16, 2009 Arkansas

    I've had cask twice, once at a pub near the British Museum. It was Adnams bitter and it was wonderful. I also had an ESB at the JackOtheWood Pub in Asheville, NC. IMHO Cask is the final frontier of the American Craft Beer Movement.
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