Towards the end of 2015 I turned 38 and it gave me pause to think about my vintage. 1977 was a busy year: the first Star Wars film hit us, the queen celebrated her silver jubilee and Spain’s first democratic elections took place. It also saw the passing of Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Anais Nin and Mark Bolan.
Chatting to older gentlemen with Gandalfian hair I often hear a familiar trigger: a breath is drawn and, like a veteran recalling the Great War, a lustful “I remember when….” I look down at my shoes and suppress myself. I’ve been here many times before – I’m about to be told about Watney’s Red Barrel which I’m too young to remember. I’m about to be educated again. I’m often halfway down a russet coloured pint of real ale, breathing in an aroma of glucose and sweat and wondering whether Watney’s Red Barrel was as bad as this pint. I’ll be absolutely blunt – I want a glass of Watney’s Red Barrel just to see if it lives up to its infamy.
I knew cask beer from an early age. I remember going into pubs in the South Oxfordshire countryside after turning 18 with a folded A3-sized birth certificate in my inside pocket. I looked about twelve. I would order a pint of Morrells, Morlands or Brakspears with the occasional sighting of Wadworths or Arkells. A lot of the beer was bad but some of it was amazing. There was no specification – each one was a pint of bitter.
There was the occasional departure: one of my fondest memories is for a long deceased summer ale by Brakspears. Their summer ale had a tiny ABV and was like drinking the soft yellows & greens in a fruit salad – knocking back summer itself in the beer garden. Ales like that had a way of melding you into the surrounding countryside as if you became the chalk pits, bryony and rapeseed – the downs themselves. This was about two decades before the popularity in Britain of New World hops and I can find no trace of that drink now. It was long before the internet so people weren’t snapping the pump clips with their smart phones.
As a young man I worked in Oxford. I was never fond of Morrells but because it was Oxford, it’s what you had. If a pub had multiple beer engines, they were all Morrells bitter. Looking back, many pubs might’ve been indifferent to cellarmanship – a skill that’s definitely grown. My memory is of a flat woody one-dimensional beer that I’d session indiscriminately.
I witnessed the last throes of Morrells at the Lion brewery in Oxford. In its last years it brought out chilled keg beers previously on cask – College, Graduate and Varsity. I recall one of the cringier slogans: “Morrells – as smooth as the brewery gate”. It had taken its own leathery flat bitter and chilled it down for chrome tapped nitrogen dispense as Worthingtons, Boddingtons and John Smiths were doing. Keg bitter of the mid nineties was the worst of both worlds and as tasteful as Mr Blobby from the same era. The death rattle came in 1998. The beer portfolio changed hands a few times and now belongs to Marstons but is rarely seen. The earliest parts of the brewery dated from 1743 with the machinery originally driven by a water wheel. The buildings are now luxury flats.
I’m impressed by CAMRA for its ability to throw big festivals, erect racking in record time and for its quality control. I’ve been a volunteer at festivals when the beer is tested from each cask. It might sound like an excuse to get free drink but it’s serious; if it’s not ready or something’s gone wrong, it won’t be served. By contrast at a Craft Beer festival I’ve taken a beer style like an imperial stout so ice cold that vapour is deflecting off my face. None of the richness can be detected until your hands gradually nurse it back to warmth. CAMRA’s bar is higher here.
Re-racked beer is the staple of CAMRA beer festivals and only scrapes through its own definition of real ale by virtue of the fact there might be some residual yeast in the cask. This is how come when the taps start running dry at the festivals, they can be tilted onto their spiles without the last drops of beer containing the finings or yeast sediment. Both these things are churndering in the belly of regular casks. If you drank a mouthful, you’d know about it.
I’m fortunate to be within London’s commuter belt. A rare indulgence is to have a half of the same ale on cask and from (key)keg and see how they compare. The carbonation is different: on cask it rises at the back like a sponge cake but on keg it hits the tongue fizzing. There is a depth to cask but a levity to keg. More surround sound on cask but more cool refreshment on keg.
I think that, were one to encounter a bar on two fronts – cask to the fore and craft to the rear (I know cask beer is craft beer too but you get my meaning) – the populations would begin to segregate by age. I would be one of the inbetweeners continually crossing the threshold – not demographically beholden to either and trusted by no-one as the tribes caucus.
I have met members of the 1970s revolt who hold that any beer not dispensed from cask is inferior. I understand why they think this and how this might have been true for many years. The explosion in brewery numbers has come suddenly. The British craft brewing rocket is young and ambitious. For many of my older friends though, it’s vehemently resisted.
I’m descending into stereotype here. I know plenty from the older generation who follow newer brewers closely and conversely, younger brewers who hold cask in high esteem. There is no question that new breweries are more key keg oriented but the cask still endures when it’s the best candidate for dispense: last year Jack Hobday from Bermondsey brewery Ansbach & Hobday celebrated his birthday with a limited bitter on cask rather than key keg. Just down the road, Brew By Numbers brought out a stonking coffee stout (Kenya Gikirima Factory) on cask for the same reason: they figured it was the best way of serving it.
What a thing to have been there in the 1970s. Young swaggering drinkers of cask beer who refused to let Britain’s unique beer tradition die out. They won. But what a thing to be young and a brewer now. A gourmet of hops and ingredients from across the planet and a railway arch to rock your profession under, meet your fans and raise the profile of beer. You don’t just need to be more innovative than the brewery in the next arch along, but with the breweries on the other side of the world. Your fans and their fans talk to each other and compare notes! You duplicate and tweak. Add a twist and include ever more challenging ingredients. The world is just a click away on the internet. You have the ability to talk to brewers across the world face to face in real time and plan a collaboration!
The Craft Beer scene is standing on the shoulders of the 1970s revolution. To push the analogy much too far – is this how come it can see further? With Craft Beer, social media has taken the place of advertising save on bar runners, glassware, hoodies and bottle openers but these are in places where the beer would’ve been within clutching distance anyway. These breweries need no advertising space – just shouts and pictures on social media.
I’m glad I was born when I was. I got the taste for cask from early on when a handful of local breweries were still intact. I witnessed the resurgence of cask beer and later the younger brewers taking their lead from America. These things happened in parallel and people of my vintage walk along straddling the divide. I remember how good cask can be and remain open to how amazing keg can be. I’m much too old to be in CAMRA’s young members group. Much too young to remember leather footballs (for some reason, I’m repeatedly bloody told about them), yet old enough to realise I’m often the oldest person in the bar. I’ve reached an age where, when someone tells me the year they were born in, I’m amazed as I’m sure that year just happened.
Being born in this trough period between revolutions enables me to enjoy both campaigns. They’re causally linked but quite distinct. I’m a sprat to the former and an uncle to the latter and drawn towards the bars that specialise in both. Because of my age, I belong to neither. I believe I and my fellow inbetweeners got the best seats in the house.