Thursday 21 September 2023

Cask - the real story of Britain's unique beer culture by Des De Moor

A new book about cask beer, the pinnacle of the brewing art, what's not to like? And yet despite my love of cask beer I must confess I had concerns about CAMRA's new publication.

The author Des De Moor had previously written an article about hating pubs which had disastrous consequences on a global scale and certainly made me question if he was the best person to write the book. Pubs and cask beer are as close as lips and teeth so surely someone what hates pubs is no lover of cask beer?

So it was with an inquisitorial eye that I read the book. It covers a lot of ground, including many things I've researched myself so it's good to see it gathered together in a publication. It starts with details of how beer is made, packaged and dispensed. The latter surprisingly has autovacs, where beer from the drip tray is recycled, getting a positive write up! I have a morbid fascination with myself but really they are just minging. 

Cask is then compared to other lesser packaging and dispense formats before moving on to beer tasting and beer styles. This drifts away from cask beer and goes into foreign territory, discussing amongst others things Czech and German lagers, but strangely not mentioning their unfiltered and naturally carbonated forms, which surely is the closest cask equivalents. 

Food pairing follows, though once again crisps are overlooked, before going back to the prehistory of beer and working back forward to the present day. There's a lot on a subject dear to my heart, Brettanomyces and secondary fermentations, though I don't agree with some of the conclusions reached: that original IPAs weren't real ale and cask beer is a relatively modern invention. 

Cask is a large and comprehensive book about beer but despite it's subtitle it is not the real story of Britain's unique beer culture. There is hardly any mention of pubs at all and culture only really comes up in terms of yeast cultures! It's more a big book about beer and cask's place within it. Technically it is generally sound, the main problems were as I'd feared of a spiritual nature. 

As a man of simple faith I have had trouble adjusting to the ecumenical times we live in. I understand we should try and avoid offending heathens by denigrating the emissions of the devil's drainpipe, but our Mother Church still rightly teaches that cask beer is the pinnacle of the brewers art. So when Des wrote "Cask beer was already Britain's lager" I did think fuck off, bollocks, you're a cunt this is a poor analogy and out of step with with the detailed research present on other matters. 

We're also told that the problem with keg beer when CAMRA was formed was not that it was keg, but that it was bad keg. This is making the common mistake that the opposite of good beer is bad beer. Those of us with that follow the one true faith know that the opposite of good beer is in fact evil beer*. And later we see just how evil as Des confesses that "it's undoubtedly true that craft keg has abstracted volumes from cask". Even a godless heathen will realise that this is bad news for cask beer so I would have expected to see more concern about it in a book called Cask. The promiscuity of "repertoire drinking", where people are not faithful to one drink type, may no longer be anathematized but every pint of keg drunk is a pint of cask not sold.

Inevitably the reactionary position that cask beer should be more expensive is promoted, though to be fair opposing voices are heard. In the final section the author seems intensely relaxed about cask beer becoming a niche product but I can't help but wonder how much poorer the world of beer would be if our church's founding fathers had felt the same. Fortunately they founded a church militant, a campaigning organisation, and we must not tire in our constant struggle to promote beer served as god intended. 

The book contains a lot of good information but its theological shortcomings mean it can't be recommended to the general public and should only read by CAMRA members in good standing. 


* Yes I did gratuitously write that blog post purely so that if I ever got round to writing this review I could link to it. 

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Castlehill Compleator

Some people keep score of the number of different beers they've drunk, and others tick off pubs in the Good Beer Guide. But how many have done the Castlehill Crawl eh? Me and my mate Si that's who. 

In fact we even stopped at a warm up pub, The Kingston Arms, before we'd even started. Oh yes. 

Swerved the Bass mind

We passed the old Dale's brewery on the way, closed by Whitbread in 1958. Whitbread were so fond of closing breweries they even sold off their own in the end.

We passed over the bridge from the Town bit to the Gown bit for our first official stop: The Pickerel. 

It was dead posh round here, the Cambridge universities having more money than you can shake a stick at. Cask beer was selling well though so well done students and tourists!

Stop two for us was the Castle Inn, an Adnams pub but I went for the beer from Cambridge Moonshine brewery and I'm delighted to say it was the beer of the day!

It was a big pub and we sat in the beer garden, which a helpful sign you could only see from the beer garden told you about. 

Think it through lads

The Architect opposite followed, Cambridge's first dedicated fish and chips and pie and mash bar. 

Yes, I thought that was a bit odd too. We were still in the dead posh end of town so you could buy dead posh snacks for your dead posh dogs here. 

The place also stank of fish so we sat outside. We headed up hill next to the pub at the far end of the crawl, The Grapes. 

Entering here it was obvious that tourists and students don't like going uphill as it looked like they were about to have a meat raffle. More my sort of pub to be honest. 

Then, much like our higher functions, it was downhill to our last stop the Sir Isaac Newton.

We finished on Old Peculier and slightly to the surprise of the person serving us (it not being at an end of the crawl) we got our last stamp. 

Five (5) stamps each in a different colour! Which I think shows how great our achievement was. 

Friday 25 August 2023

I've got binoculars on top of Box Hill

The Surrey Alps is one of Southern England's most impressive ranges, towering to almost a thousand feet in places. The ascent of perhaps its best known peak, Box Hill, is not to be taken lightly particularly if you've already been to BJJ training that morning. But did I let that stop me? Oh no! 

My mate Dan was keen to do some navigation practice so it seemed like an excellent opportunity to do one of CAMRA's South East Pub Walks that I'd wanted to do for ages. Our start point was some way from the official start, which meant we walked even further than the route in the book. That's how heroic we are! 

It also meant we passed what looked suspiciously like an old maltings to me:

I suspect this is an old maltings

When tax was paid on malt people would shovel it out of the windows when they saw the tax man coming so a law was passed requiring maltings to have bars on the windows. 

The route took us down tunnels...

over stepping stones ...

and up lots.

I didn't actually have any binoculars with me. I'm more a cup of splosh and a greasy dog man myself anyway, but there is a good view. 

View from Box Hill

We had a look at the fort that kept Napoleon out of London:

Though from the cave art it looks like it's also the site of ancient fertility rituals:

After that it was back into woods, which personally I find a lot harder to navigate than hills. You do get a better class of mushrooms in woods though:

There were some unexpected sights too:

I reckon a folly

And this was definitely folly

The late Bob Steel's pub walks have never let me down but I have to say I was getting worried as the started drawing nearer to the first pub. We had most definitely earned a pint by this stage but as I've said navigating in woods can be hard and the guide book did little to calm my nerves:
"... the confusion of paths on Mickleham Downs make it a bit of a navigational graveyard so stick to my directions carefully here if you want that beer"

Stick carefully we did until we got to what we hoped was the required "indistinct path to the left". This was the point I was most concerned would go wrong and by this stage I was quite prepared to knock on the head temporarily suspend the navigation practice and see if I could get google maps on my phone. I needn't have worried though as Bob saw us right and we got to the William IV. We were told it was table service and though we didn't get any grief when we said we weren't eating I was staring to suspect the place was an abomination unto the lord. Then the beers arrived and I remembered our Mother Church values beer quality above all else.  

Shere Drop, Champion Beer of Britain 2019-2023

As we were heading outside a door sprang open and someone leapt out saying "Hi guys!". It was only someone from the BJJ club! Bumping into someone we know definitely boosted this places pub credentials, as bumping into people is definitely a pub thing. We were in good spirits when we left.

Soon after we had to dash across four lanes of traffic, which made getting delayed by a herd of cows next all the more surprising. 

Though not as surprising as the communist base we passed: 

Should I ever be a soldier 'neath the red flag I would fight

At least I think they were communists, what else could a red flag mean? After passing the Leatherhead Soviet I put the map, compass and guide book away as we'd been told the pub was just over a bridge and you can trust Bob. And sure enough there it was: 

Oh yes

I've wanted to go to the Running Horse for ages, after reading Alan McLeod's blog about it. The pub's been around for ages and there's even rambling sexist doggerel written over 500 years ago by the poet laureate of the time about the then landlady. I guess that's the sort of thing people did before television or feminism were invented. 

The poem features prominently on the outside of the pub but I must confess I was more interested in the inside and more refreshment. I loitered outside a little while before entering as I had a pasty to finish and the smell of pub was wafting out of the doorway. Had it brought back any specific memories it would definitely have been a Proustian moment. But as it didn't it was just a moment when I thought "cor, bet this is a proper pub!" And indeed it was, complete with horse brasses: 

When we left I spotted it even had two bars and you don't get more proper pub than that. It's a Sheps pub but they had Surrey Hills on so I swerved the Spitfire and went for that. Glorious it was too. 

Ranmore Ale

That was the pub walk done, which definitely had a high walk to pub ratio but that's probably for the best as more beer wouldn't have helped with the heroic amount of walking we did or the navigation. 

Sunday 20 August 2023

Where craft beats cask

Devout member of our mother church that I am I have to admit that the London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF) was vastly superior to the Great British Beer Festival

Though I was able to get free tickets for both events at the GBBF I had to pay for my own beer whereas at the LCBF all the drinks come with the ticket so I spent zero (0) pounds and zero (0) pence on beer. There may have been rank heresy on display at the LCBF and most of the beer came from the devil's drainpipe but you can't argue with free beer. The GBBF is going to have to up its game in the giving me free beer stakes if it wants to win the crown back. 

One drawback at the LCBF is the beer is served in tiny "samples". But if you put the work in you can still get pissed, particularly as several types of tramp juice were available. If fact the barley wine from Queer Brewing was my beer of the festival.

It's an awful venue though, too hot, loud, cramped and confusing but I guess you can't have everything. 

Sunday 13 August 2023

There's no conspiracy at Greene King either

 I was entirely unconvinced by the twerps whinging on that the Champion Beer of Britain competition was fixed because Greene King Abbot Ale came second this year. Boak and Bailey have posted on their blog about their experiences judging the CBoB and the title of the post is unambiguous: There’s no conspiracy behind the Champion Beer of Britain.

There's also a secondary conspiracy theory which has been which has been discussed online though: that Greene King didn't send their normal beer to the competition. As I know an ex-Greene King brewer that I think it's fair to say has no great love for the company I figured I might be able to get to the bottom of this one. So I asked them if GK got up to anything with competition beers and the answer came back:

"they didn't do anything different for festival beers when I was there"

Now it's possible things have changed since my friend left the company but why would they? Doing well in the CBoB competition isn't anything new for GK, I can remember GK IPA and XX Mild also doing well (and also similar whinging afterwards!).

I think that's wrapped it up for the CBoB conspiracy theories so if GK could send me the promised money that would be grand ;-)

Monday 7 August 2023

The Great British Beer Festival 2023

What a happy coincidence that my professional body hosted a meeting at the start of the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) trade day. Seeing as I was in the area I of course headed to it for some more networking. But first the CPD:

Pete Brown was giving a talk on the Cask Fresh Campaign, a short marketing pilot aimed at promoting cask beer. 

I was rather disturbed to hear that some pub companies are actively opposed to cask beer because they make more money from lager. There have long been people saying that cask beer should be more expensive but surely the fact that cask beer is cheaper than keg is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy? 

Then we were told that the brewing industry talks cask beer down more than consumers, often repeating old man stereotypes which most of the public don't hold, they're just ignorant about cask. I found this a very interesting point as this crap is something I've heard in the industry, and my non-beery friend's don't say it when I talk about beer. Their eyes do tend to glaze over though, but that's probably just because they're concentrating so hard on what I'm saying.

The usual terms used to describe cask beer, like secondary fermentation and containing yeast weren't used and instead freshness was chosen as it's a popular term with young consumers. It didn't have the impact that was hoped though as it's too close to refreshing which is it seems lager territory. 

Pubs with more engaged staff did better but the small size of the study meant that the results were inconclusive. It was pointed out that cask beers are now the only beers poured below the bar, something I'd not thought about before. And a new marketing slogan was suggested:

Take a fresh look at cask

My background is not in marketing so I take a more spiritual approach and would suggest something along the lines of:

HEATHENS! Do you want to spend eternity in the fiery pit or in paradise? Stop drinking keg beer and drink cask. 

That would surely get the ungodly thinking about the consequences of their actions. 

The networking went well, even if the next morning didn't. I saw Ross from Surrey Hills Brewery right at the start and got as close as I'm ever likely to to the cup the Champion Beer of Britain (CBoB) winners get:

I caught up with everyone I'd hoped to and more, and even briefly spotted an unpopular figure responsible for legislation favouring the rich:

Totally missed Rishi Sunak though. 

And though the next day was a bit of a struggle it was brightened by the return of twerps whinging on about the GBBF on twitter, this time because Abbot Ale got overall second place in the CBoB. CAMRA and the blind tasting panel are in the pay of Greene King it seems. Which I suppose makes a change from Wetherspoons. To me the twerps are just showing their ignorance. The wonder of cask beer means that at times it can elevate beers to highs you would never have expected. If people spent less time suckling at the devil's drainpipe and more time drinking beer served as god intended they would realise this. 

Sunday 6 August 2023

Expound good and evil

Many people think that the opposite of good beer is bad beer. They are mistaken. The opposite of good beer is evil beer

Cask beer, served as god intended, is good:

Cask beers

Keg beer, served from the devil's drainpipe, is evil:

Keg beer

Be pure! Be vigilant! Behave!