Friday, February 1, 2019

Real Ale: Real Craft

I am in the planning stages of going home to Scotland for at least a month this summer. Inevitably that means things like plane tickets, making sure travel documents are up to date, getting passports for a pair of 15 month old children, getting 15 month old children to sit still for photographs for said passports, and so on and so forth. Thankfully my current employer is ok with me taking my computer with me and working from the UK so I don't have to use up all my holiday time, working in IT is fantastic at times.

Inevitably intermingled with all these practicalities are thoughts of beers to hunt out, pubs to go to, breweries to visit, that kind of beer tourist crap that I admit to being terrible at. You see, I have this problem, when I find a place I like I often don't feel like changing it up, and I have a short list of must hit boozers and must drink beers for my time home. One thing all these bars have in common, whether in Inverness and environs northwards, or in Glasgow, is they have decent selections of cask ale.


While I am not a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, and in no way, shape, or form an anti-keg beer zealot - forget dry January, that would be abstinence in the US - I do consider myself very much a fellow traveller on the path of real ale righteousness. Nothing, and I literally mean nothing, beats a pint of flavourful, well conditioned, well tended ale drawn from a cask, served at the right temperature. That is something each boozer on my little list has in common, they do cask ale right, and that means sparkled as well, naturally.



There does seem to be something of a false dichotomy though in the UK when it comes to the relationship between cask ale and craft beer. Just so there is no room for misunderstanding, let me say very clearly that the biggest difference I see is that craft beer is ultimately a product of a brewery, while cask ale is a craft throughout its life cycle.

Think about that for a moment. Craft beer basically gets made, kegged, chucked in a pub cold room and then poured from a tap. When the keg kicks, a member of the bar staff goes to the cold room, puts a new keg on and carries on. It is exactly what I did for many years behind the bar at the Starr Hill brewery tasting room. It doesn't take any special skill to pour beer behind a bar that serves kegged craft beer. That's not to say that keg beer is crap beer, it is after all just a different dispense method, rather that when it comes to delivery there is very little that can go wrong once the keg is tapped.


Now consider real ale, delivered to the pub cellar where it needs to sit at the right temperature until it is ready to be vented, and even then it takes time to get to the appropriate condition for serving. It takes a trained cellarman to keep the ale flowing with as little disruption to customers. Even in the pulling of your pint, there is right way to pull through a beer engine. There are many stages at which real ale can turn to shit, especially once it has left the relative safety of the brewery, and of course once the cask is tapped the clock is running on when it will turn to vinegar, a problem that keg beer generally doesn't have, I know of breweries that have found old kegs of beer in the back of their storage and put it on tap to customers who were none the wiser, and happily paid full price for essentially old beer.

I think sometimes cask ale gets a raw deal, demeaned by crafties and lout drinkers alike as old man beer, mistreated by far too many pubs, in the US often served slapped on a bar and with the cask groaning with silly shit, and cloudy as fuck too. When the craft of real ale is done right, the beer has passed through the hands of multiple artisans (and being a good cellarman is an art), and the end product is a pint of beautifully cool, well conditioned ale, there is nothing that compares.


Cask ale is the product of craftsmanship from beginning to end.

2 comments:

  1. This is a great post.

    I am constantly frustrated by how poorly pubs in the US treat their cask ale. It's hard enough to find places that keep it in the first place; it seems almost impossible to find places that cellar it properly.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Even draught 'craft' beer, Al. It's uncommon to find a U.S. beer bar where the bartenders regularly pour good pints, let alone understand how their draught system works (when adjustments are required) or know when beers are 'off.'

    ReplyDelete