Saturday 26 August 2023

Out of sight, out of mind

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.


  1. It's nonsense. It's an attempt to rationalize it's decline that hints at the truth. Recognition & trust.

    Drinkers are not enthusiasts, they are not thrilled by thousands of breweries dispensing beer you've never heard of.

    Much cask ale, these days, is just that. It lacks trust and recognition that sees a drinker say "I know that beer, I've had it before, it's good, it's trustworthy, I like it"

    The main consumer campaign for this category of ale have championed their own preference for an enthusiast cottage industry which to none enthusiasts is a commodity product they don't recognise or trust. A CAMRA micropub services their niche interest. Leave that there and let normal pubs serve a regular good quality beer drinkers trust, not 6 pumps of commodity indifferent pale ale.

    Champion reliable national and regional brands, ensure those are consistent and good, and people will drink cask ale. A pint of Holts bitter is a decent pint. Remove the "when kept well", "in the right pub", and people will recognise and trust it.

  2. Cookie is right again.

    1. Only if you want a system where you get battered for criticising bad beer.

  3. Yes, just look at the popularity of the casks of Draught Bass behind the bar of the Severn Stars, Falmouth, Star, Bath or Coopers Tavern, Burton where everyone can clearly "see what’s going on".
    Handpumps weren't the best of nineteenth century inventions.

  4. Professor Pie-Tin27 August 2023 at 13:32

    When conversation lulls in the old farts corner at the round wooden table at the end of the bar we sometimes play Moretti Bingo.
    Basically anyone under the age of 40 with a visible tattoo - no chavs in our local so they're all tasteful middle-class Thai gap year tatts - and/or a manbun/piercing generally looks at whatever 3-4 real ales are on tap and immediately orders Moretti and a sweet cider for the Jemima on his arm.
    And anyone over 40 but still showing similar characteristics goes for Amstel. Vaguely remembered from all those cheap Greek holidays before " influencers " discovered the place.
    Only codgers and the occasional American tourist ( it is an exceptionally pretty pub ) go for the real ale. Last night there was Ramsbury Bitter, Great Bustard from Stonehenge and Old Speckled Hen which had thankfully replaced the Pride which had been on the go for nearly a week and was showing its age. Not a bad pint but crikey is it me or is it sweeter than it used to be ?
    Hardly anyone ever asks for a craft beer and the Brixton Brewery tap rarely gets touched.
    Spirit-wise the fad for huge bowls of ice with gin and tonic with half a vegetable garden seems to be fading - watch out for the new kid on the block, Kraken rum.
    The nearby village chavvy pub is basically lager, lager, lager and lines of coke in the outside smoking area.
    This seems to be the natural order of things these days here on the edge of the Cotswolds.
    A young person ordering a real ale would inspire Bateman cartoon-esque reactions.

  5. The doombar font looks naff.

    Maybe if they got a peaky blinder fella on the font, like the Madri chulapa, people would drink it?

    I'm sure there's a way to get people to drink bitter. It's not that bad and cheaper than lager.

  6. Maybe CAMRA could hire a youth spokesperson to advocate real ale to young people? A young troubadour from the hit parade the youth admire. Someone from Top of the Pops or Radio 1 the youth seek to emulate drinking real ale whilst talking to the youth at their level? It could be funded through sponsorship to make real ale cool.

  7. Hard to think that they had no confidence in Doom Bar when it is by far the best-selling cask ale, probably because of brand recognition.

  8. Cooking Lager is correct about recognition . As someone who cut his teeth drinking bitter in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Brakspear country , it was rare in those days to even see a hand pump . Instead the beer was kept either in a cellar or more often in a cool back room and the Landlord would take your pint pot and fill it there before bringing it back to you. Indeed at my then local The Belgium Arms in Holyport you tapped on a cubby hole door which opened , you asked for a pint, the door closed then opened again,, you were given your pint and handed over 1 shilling and 6 pence and the door closed. However you knew the beer and trusted it just as you knew draught Bass or draught Worthington.

    1. Then you won't have any choice. Then the pub will stop serving real ale. Then it's keg only for a while. Meanwhile the pub's becoming an increasingly unpleasant place to be. Then they'll take the pub away because no-one comes in anymore.

      A free market in beer ensures there's plenty of choice. We need more people to drink cask ale for it to flourish.

    2. Sounds very interesting I wonder when did that disappear?

  9. Thing is, lads, I suspect many beer writers know it also. Pedro has a background in marketing and knew the strength of brand Stella built up and eventually let diminish. He knows brands representing recognition and trust are what drive the mainstream beer market and cask beer needs brands to connect with the mainstream drinker. Crikey look at how much the brand of Bass resonates with you lot. But that's at odds with the zeitgeist of cheering 1000s of microbreweries and the commodity beer they churn out to an audience only enthusiasts appreciate.

  10. I think Cookie is probably right. In the good old days drinking cask in the 80s, there was trusted brands. Think Tetley and Boddingtons and of course local brand such as Higsons in my early real ale days. Trust was important. If we were playing darts in some new place, someone would always pipe up "whose ale is it then?" But in those days volume brought trust. You didn't really doubt a Tetley or Higgies pub, but if it was Whitbread say, Bass, or Greenall's you very much did.
    Sadly real ale - at least in some places - has become niche for a multitude of reasons, stemming back to the separation of pubs from breweries.
    We all want our heroes and Pete Brown is probably as horrified as me in seeing iconic brands diminished. How do you go from reassuringly expensive to wife beater, from the Cream of Manchester to a tiny brand, no longer on cask and no longer any connection with Manchester?

    Thinking of icons in modern craft breweries, you'd be hard pushed to name even one. Jaipur perhaps?

    Draught Bass is an icon for many, but as many have been lost. Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale for example.

    Instead we have gone from boring brown bitter to boring railway arch lookalike beer.

    At the same time we have a diminished beer market with vast amounts of ersatz continental beers, brewed in the UK to piss poor standards and not a patch on the original.

    But for those of us who are getting on, we can still find what we want, but the glory days of beer are well behind us.

    Should expand this and make it a blog post really.

    1. While CAMRA's influence on the beer market can easily be overestimated, its obscurantist approach and denigration of major brands must have played a part in this, as we have seen with the controversy over Abbot Ale.

      Note that what are probably the two most iconic craft brands, Punk IPA and Neck Oil, are keg.

    2. CAMRA is ensuring a free market in real ale. If we just had major brands there would be no choice.

    3. My favourite fruit is peaches. I was pleased a few years back when a new variety appeared, the flat peach. I like the taste and they appeared easier to eat. It’s nice having a choice of peaches in the supermarket. But what is a meaningful choice or meaningless choice? Would I be better off with a narrow choice of distinctly different peaches, or am I best served from a choice of 1000s of peaches?

      I would argue the latter would not offer me meaningful choice. I can’t choose which peach I prefer from 1000s. I can from a choice of 3 or 4. I’m not an enthusiast for peaches. An enthusiast may record all the peaches and tick them off. I just want a nice peach.

      A market that offered a narrow choice of beer, bitter, mild stout, lager offered the consumer an opportunity to meaningly choose a preference and be able to build a habit of repeatedly choosing that choice.

      A market of wide choice, even with the sector trust CAMRA and its multi beer pubs attempt to create, is presenting me with an enthusiast’s choice. There are 10 beers, I can pick one. I am assured all are good but not all are to my taste. Any preference I form is meaningless as there are 10 different one’s next week. If I decide I like the stout, well this weeks dry stout isn’t next weeks sweet one. What was the name of the one I had last week? Dunno. The recognition required for the 3000 or so breweries require the engagement of an enthusiast. The is little recognition or trust built with someone’s that likes a beer but doesn’t want a hobby of beer. For the enthusiast, it’s great, it’s a hobby. For the none enthusiast it’s a commodity product.

      I like peaches. It’s not my hobby. I don’t know the Latin name for the flat peach I like. I don’t want a choice of 1000s. A narrow choice, what is in season, I’ll enjoy my peach and get on with my life, most of which isn’t buying or eating peaches.

    4. Drink the same boring lager that you've always drunk and let the rest of us enjoy the glorious free market. Back in the old days you had to put up with bad beer and no choice. You couldn't slag the beer off, you'd get hurt. If you weren't a soldier you couldn't buy beer from a shop.

    5. One other thing I'd like to mention before I go - pubs only came in in the late 1960s because soldiers who left the Army wanted somewhere to drink. Before then, not even ex-squaddies got a pint in a pub. You had to be a serving soldier to drink only on a military base and you weren't given enough to get drunk.

    6. Pretty certain all this stuff about soldiers is total bollocks.

    7. @Paul - the most recent comment you have submitted is total nonsense, so I have rejected it.

    8. Also see the comment policy "Any issues relating to the application of the moderation policy should be raised privately with me rather than in the comments themselves."

    9. i think Paul makes the point himself. Most punters look at the bar and pick a Birra Moretti. Cask beer is an enthusiast product. Something that a small number of people clearly enjoy with a passion.

  11. One major issue with bar barrels, especially in the sixties, was that they took up far too much room behind the bar, so the cellars were gradually brought back into use, and handpumps appreared on the bars as of old. I worked with a builder who did a lot of work for Whitbread and Courage, and this bar alteration made things easier for bar staff, as well as shifting the whole bar back a couple of feet, made the drinking area bigger and more accessible for customers standing at the bar, or couples sitting at tables.

    When hop-picking was in flow, (about this time of year), the pubs around Kent and Sussex got a lot of cheap beer in, netted up the windows, and kept the barrel pouring non-stop into a tin bath, for the barman to scoop up a pint in a few seconds!


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