I sit at the bar of the Robin Hood in St Albans with a pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best. It’s Christmas Eve and I couldn’t hope for a better ale – possibly my last in a pub in 2017. The liquid is crystal clear. The gentle hop aroma is received even as the glass stands on a runner before me. On the palate, I feel as if I’m standing in a temple contemplating the artwork inside the panels of the vaulted ceiling. Each sip levitates me closer towards them. Everything’s in high definition. This is what the experience of cask ale should be.
Cask beer suffers when it leaves the cellar.
On racking, it’s hard enough keeping casks at their optimum temperature inside a building where the humans’ combined body heat changes the climate. In the image that heads this post (the St Albans Beer Festival from two years ago), those cask nappies swaddled around the precious pupae need to be constantly watered by a roving worker drone.
Several years ago, a very hard working pub in the city centre wasn’t even throwing a festival but had an added cask chocked forward on the bar dispensing a heavy IPA upward of six percent. The throng was orange under electric lighting. The bar was rammed. I ordered a pint but I should’ve ordered a half. The beer was not just warm but was on the turn into vinegar via Saison. I recall that the pour had been anaemic. I suspect because there was no head of pressure above the tap; it was running out. As a professional toper, I had to focus solely on the elements that still endured. To a non veteran, repulsion would’ve been the automatic and logical response.
A few minutes later in the gents’, the vortex from a golden stream was suddenly engulfed by a rip tide of amber floodwater. Was that sentence necessary? It’s staying in.
I used to visit Bermondsey and its beer mile and mainly stick to keg beer as that’s the staple. On the occasions when some of the breweries did branch out into cask, I was underwhelmed. The casks were served off the bar top. By comparison, they came across as too warm and uncarbonated.
Though it didn’t cross my mind at the time, a lot of the beer producers in London occupying units in industrial sites and railway arches, don’t actually have cellars in the first place. It’s a fact that hadn’t occurred to me until the writing of this post. In their absence, the brewing of ale more suited to colder dispensation has flourished.
Once casks are put directly under the sky, things become even harder.
Not only are the firkins submitted to fluctuating temperatures, but they’re exposed to them at different levels. A chill might affect all barrels equally, but the sun will discriminate the top tier disproportionately whilst the lower levels skulk in its shadow.
And then the casks are left out in the open overnight. Though not impossible, it’s unlikely any publican would bring them back in (and disturb any yeast again). And so the heat of day vanishes and folk retire to their beds. At around four in the morning, the racking might be enveloped by a freezing fog. As dawn returns and Helios climbs, up the heat steadily rises. Who knows what chemical reactions are happening on the insides of those breached vessels.
There are, of course, special thermal jackets that can be fastened around the metal bodies and liberal use of the hose pipe, but the atmosphere outside is something you have to constantly mitigate against.
And yet thinking about the casks gleaming in the sun does summon up fondness because it’s a shorthand for the summer. When I think of it, I think of bunting and wooden seating on the verge of collapse under our stout British bottoms.
In Britain, it’s one of the three al fresco culinary delights of the island; the other two are picnics and the ice cream van.
Last year in a St Albans pub I shan’t name, one such festival was staged representing some well regarded breweries such as: Vocation, Great Heck, Salopian, Waen, XT, By The Horns, Wild Beer and Redemption. Within that same event, the beer trickled out both warm, flat and bland at some times, and chilled cold and hazy at others.
It might be possible to keep beer consistent if the weather agreed, for the sun never to glare too brightly nor get too obscured by the tog of cloud cover, or technologically by a crack temperature-control formula one team.
But the weather in Britain, even in summer, isn’t just temperamental but suffers psychotic mood swings. Rain empties gardens of customers and leaves the stillage canvas pissing at the tassels. It looks as though it’s crying.
It’s difficult for a pub. In summer, people want to have the beer served in the garden for its own sake. It’s what they’re expecting. Even if added beers were kept on stillage in the cellar so as to better ensure the condition, it would make serving very hard for the staff. When the bar’s busy, you can’t expect them to constantly shuttle up and down the stairs. Tasters wouldn’t be likely, either.
All told, a multi-cask festival inside an average sized pub would either compromise the beer quality or staff efficiency. Basically if there’s to be a beer festival there needs to be a strategy.
But one does exist.
Earlier in 2017, there was a beer festival at the White Hart Tap. All the cask ale stayed below and was pulled up through the lines whilst key keg was served through a cooler box in the garden. Dry-hopped crisp Lager outside, spirit-aged porter inside. The spectacle of the marquee and the stillage was lost, but the beer quality was preserved.
If I’ve learnt anything in 2017, it’s that cask beer is best left in the still, cool and controlled environment of the pub cellar.