Regular readers will be aware that I don’t really have that much time for beer writer Pete Brown. He comes across as arrogant and self-opinionated, his articles too readily assume that London is representative of the rest of the country, and he is prone to allowing his politics to interfere with his opinions on beer. I have to say when I read that CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine had attacked him for saying that he’d largely given up drinking cask, that he’d just gone off on one again.
However, when I came to read what he’d actually written, I had to concede that, while he was over-egging the pudding, he did have a point. At its best, there’s nothing to beat cask in a British pub. But, in practice, too much cask beer is distinctly below par, and does the category no favours.
Now, it must be said that Pete is writing from a London perspective, and many people have reported that, on average, cask beer in London seems to be noticeably less well-kept than in other parts of the country. Whether the reason is lack of knowledge, lack of turnover or low customer expectations, I don’t know. That doesn’t really tally with my own personal experience in the North-West. I have a round of pubs that I visit regularly, some on CAMRA business, some from personal preference, where I can almost guarantee getting a good pint. And on our local branch pub crawls, which include all the real ale pubs in each area, it’s very rare to get a pint that’s returnable. However, those are done on Friday nights – the situation on Tuesday lunchtime might be rather different.
I suspect even if I lived in London, I would still be able to find pubs that served cask reliably well, but they would probably be amongst the scattering of independent brewer tied houses. But I know that if I just went in pubs at random, here as much as there, I would run a serious risk of getting beer that ranged from very tired to completely undrinkable. It’s not confined to any one type of pub, but the worst offenders often seem to be the generalist food-oriented pubs which think a row of six different handpumps is an adornment to the bar even if they hardly sell any of it. And, looking at the pubs I go into, if I decided to eschew cask for something else, I’d generally be drinking either smoothflow, Guinness or lager.
Of course poor beer is nothing new, and that’s why CAMRA started producing the Good Beer Guide and local guides in the first place, so drinkers could be steered towards pubs that did keep their beer well. But, in the old days, quick turnover could cover a multitude of sins, something that is less and less the case today.
The problem may be put down to poor cellarmanship in general, but I’d say the overwhelming reason is that beers are simply not turning over quickly enough. While cask beer volumes continue a long-term decline, the number of handpumps on the bar has been heading in the opposite direction, with all too predictable results. Cask beer, unlike any other product in the pub, is critically dependent on throughput for quality, and, quite simply, if you’re not confident of shifting it in three days, you shouldn’t put it on the first place. But, sadly, the mindset of more choice always being a good thing remains very prevalent, and I struggle to think of any example of a CAMRA magazine criticising a pub for an overambitious beer range.
Rather than just raising their hackles and going on the defensive, CAMRA needs to accept that there IS a widespread problem with poor quality of cask beer at the point of sale, and formulate a strategy to address it. And part of that needs to be a greater willingness to call out badly-kept beer when it is encountered rather than giving it the benefit of the doubt.