If you asked younger drinkers what deterred them from drinking cask ale, most people would expect the replies to be a mixture of a fuddy-duddy image, inconsistent quality and too often appearing in the form of beers you’ve never heard of. However, according to new research carried out by the Drink Cask Fresh campaign, a key reason is that, unlike keg beers, cask is dispensed out of sight of the drinker. “Cask is the only beer poured beneath the bar where you can’t see what’s going on and this greatly adds to the uncertainty around it.”
I have to say I’m a little sceptical about this, as people responding to surveys often give superficial reasons for things that sound plausible but conceal their underlying motivations. But, let’s assume there is something to it. It’s certainly true now that pretty much all keg beers are served at eye level, either through T-bars or fonts that rise well above the bar. It would be possible to design a handpump with an extended neck that did the same, but it would look ungainly, create an excessive length of pipe for beer to linger in, and force bar staff to adopt an awkward posture.
Might it be more the case that this is a rationalisation of an underlying wariness of cask ale per se? Nowadays, pretty much all cask ale is served through handpumps, but if you go back a generation it was dispensed, especially in the North and Midlands, through a wide variety of bar mountings, many of which were hard to tell apart from pumps for keg beers. All of these also dispensed the beer just below bar level. But increasingly the handpump was adopted as a universal and unambiguous symbol of real ale. However, this can cut both ways – what is a clear positive indication to one drinker can be a sign of something to avoid for another.
A few years ago, Molson Coors carried out an experiment with serving cask Doom Bar through bar mountings of the type typical used for keg beers. As I said at the time, I’d certainly give it a go, and it would eliminate the risk of a poor pint being dispensed due to incompetent pulling technique on the part of the bar staff. But it suggests you don’t have much confidence in your product if you’re trying to disguise it as something else. I never saw this kind of dispense in action, so obviously it’s something that never took off.
But there does exist a historically authentic form of cask ale dispense that originally was introduced with the specific objective of serving the beer in full view of the customer, namely the Scottish tall font. These were originally associated with the traditional Scottish air pressure dispense system, but more recently have been adapted to work with electric pumps. They do have a very distinctive appearance and arguably have more bar presence than handpumps. So there’s the answer to this problem, if indeed it is a problem, but somehow I can’t see them taking off south of the Border.