Twenty years ago, apart from a few pubs in the major cities, there was very little cask beer to be had in Scotland. In most areas, you just had no expectation of finding a pint of the real stuff. Now, the situation has changed, and handpumps are cropping up in more and more bars. However, all too often the quality lottery becomes more like Russian roulette. If you go in a bar, and see a lone handpump hiding at the end of the usual row of keg fonts, do you try it and run the risk of a pint of ditchwater, or do you play it safe and order one of the kegs which at least you know will be clear and cool? Now, obviously the “real ale warrior” determined to bear witness to the cause would do the former, but from my point of view, while a good pint of cask is far better than lout, lout is a damn sight better than a bad pint of cask, especially if you’re just having the one with your lunch.
This point was brought home last Saturday when I met up with someone I know (not in a beer context) in Ayr. We went for a meal and then moved on somewhere for a drink. He’s not a real ale drinker, and I thought it polite to let him choose somewhere in his home town rather than insisting we go somewhere with real ale. We went to a congenial basement bar, and I was pleased to see a couple of handpumps on the bar dispensing beers from Strathaven and Kelburn. I plumped for a pint of the Strathaven, but was not entirely surprised to get a glassful of Scotch broth. I took it back, and it was changed politely. The barmaid pulled a fair bit through and presented me with a glass that had no more than a slight haze. It still wasn’t at all good, though, with a distinctly yeasty taste, and I didn’t spot anyone else drinking it. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be a Good Beer Guide pub, but when I checked the Guide I found out that this pub – Wellingtons – was listed. On the evidence of that evening it certainly shouldn’t be.
I went in another pub in the same town where the sole cask beer was, of all things, Tetley Bitter. It was a bit hazy, and must have been about the flattest, dullest, stalest pint I have ever been presented with. I cut my losses and left it on the table after drinking about a quarter. In different circumstances it would certainly have justified a complaint, but in that situation I honestly couldn’t be arsed.
Having said that, I did have some very good cask beer in the GlenPark Hotel in Ayr, home of the Ayr Brewery. With hindsight, we would have been better going there.
Later in the week I went in another pub at lunchtime, one obviously appealing to the tourist trade. It had Old Speckled Hen on handpump. I didn’t risk it, and neither did anyone else while I was there.
There is plenty of good cask beer to be found in Scotland, but it seems that your chances of getting even a half-decent pint in a non-specialist pub are much lower than they are in England. Of course, as virtually every pub seems to have a fair choice of malt whiskies, the attractions of the top shelf may well prevail.