As in so many other countries, brewing in the UK is going through its own craft explosion. But the split between craft beer and big beer is not the same as elsewhere. It is not a simple dichotomy. Player three—traditional brewing—has always been in the game.
Historical family breweries and old-school beer styles are ever-present, like speciality malt milled into the grist of British beer culture. It's this traditional side of British beer that is most familiar to people outside the UK. And if there's one thing that stands out above all others it is cask ale—sometimes also called real ale.
What is cask ale?
The term refers to beer that is fermented in the vessel from which it will be served. This means it is still unfinished when it travels from the brewery to the pub's cellar, where it will complete its fermentation under the publican's watchful eye.
Real talk: Cask ale's reputation among Joe Public is not great. Many people, even in Britain, think of cask ale as warm, brown, and flat. None of these descriptions is entirely fair, but all cliché comes from a place of truth. It's worth examining each to unpick fact from falsehood.
Is it really warm?
Cask ale should not be warm. This is the single biggest misconception about cask ale—and by extension all British beer—and it does it a huge disservice. Cask ale may be served at a higher temperature than keg beer drinkers are used to but it should nevertheless be distinctly cool. Not room temperature, but gently chilled. The ideal is what's called “cellar temperature.” This is 52 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit or 11 to 13 degrees Celsius.
Unfortunately, lots of pubs don't follow these guidelines. A recent study found that seven in every 10 pints of cask ale served in Britain last year were warmer than cellar temperature. It's no wonder that the warm beer stereotype persists. Worse, there is a jarring mismatch with customers' expectations; two-thirds of those surveyed said they would prefer to drink cask ale cooler than the recommended temperature.
When you order a pint of cask ale, it will be poured from a hand-pump rather than a tap. These lever-like contraptions draw beer up directly from casks in the cellar below. Keg beers, in contrast, use external gas pressure to serve and carbonate the beer.
Cask ale is naturally carbonated. Its bubbles should be smooth and silky, a sparkle on the tongue. It's an exercise in subtlety. The only carbon dioxide present in the beer is that produced by the yeast itself during fermentation. How much makes its way into your pint is down to when the pub decides to tap the beer.
Because cask ale is a living product—its fermentation subject to the vagaries of time and temperature—it is up to the pub to judge this correctly. Down in the cellar the publican must continually sample the beer in the days leading up to this point. He or she must use skill and knowledge to recognize when it is approaching readiness. The idea is to start serving the beer just as fermentation has come to and end and the beer's condition reaches its peak.
From the moment a pub taps a cask it has just three days to serve the beer in good condition. After that it will go downhill fast. Leaving a beer on too long leads to lifeless pints of increasingly sour beer.
More than boring brown bitter
Sales of cask ale in the UK are slumping because of its old-man image as the preserve of boring brown bitter. This is not helped by pot-bellied traditionalist diehards, dandruff in their beards, boring on about cask ale as if it were a beer style unto itself. It's not.
Cask is nothing more than a method of dispensing. It's a way of getting beer out to the customer in perfect condition. There is no reason to use it for one style over another, yet cask ale is mired with the image of twiggy, foamy pints of murky river water. There's no reason not to serve stouts, porters, goses, or sours in cask. Some beers like this do find their way into cask, but not enough. More breweries should put more interesting beers into cask if this tradition is to flourish rather than simply being preserved, as if in aspic, as some dogmatic craft-o-phobes would have it.
Seeking out the good stuff
Cask ale is capricious and demanding. There's a lot that can go wrong with it, but done right it's sublime. Beers served this way are subtle yet vibrant, enigmatic and fleeting. Every pint will be different from the same beer served in bottles or on draught.
It's worth seeking out a pub that knows how to treat its beer right, because a great beer on cask is a unique experience. It's the freshest beer you will ever taste without brewing it yourself. If beer is liquid bread, cask ale is a sourdough loaf fresh out of the oven, its crust still singing with pops and crackles as it cools. Once you've tasted it at its best you will want to seek it out again and again.
Photo by Michael Kiser / Good Beer Hunting