They say that Manchester is always a couple of degrees colder than London, but I’m not sure how true that is. It was, however, undeniable that as my train from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly steadily made its way up the country, the blue skies gradually faded to the comforting familiar grey I’ve come to know and love.
Settling back, I took a sip from my train beer (a passable pale from Amundsen, grabbed from M&S in the station) and quietly smiled, counting down the minutes til my train arrived in the city I’ve called home for a significant proportion of my adult life.
Stop. See what happened there? A few years ago, I would have been over the moon to be able to buy a cool beer in a funky can from Marks and Sparks at a railway station. I’d at least have tweeted about it, if not written an entire blog post. Now, it’s become so normalised to me that it’s relegated to a brief aside and a one word assessment: ‘passable’.
This is just the way it goes. These days those of us who live in a city have access to a huge range of choices practically everywhere we turn, and we’ve got used to it. Four years ago, it was widely asserted that Manchester was a ‘cask city’. I, and others I knew, had a hard time selling keg beer to bars. They didn’t have many keg lines, or they didn’t sell it quickly enough to want to buy more, or they thought sour beer sounded too weird, or this, or that, or… But now it’s an oddity to find a bar in town without at least one ‘craft’ keg option. Even if it is just, *cough*, Punk IPA. A few local pales on keg, a fruit sour and a coffee stout? Yawn! Standard. And remember how long the can v bottle debate raged for? Now we’re in a different world. You’ve only got a range of ten different cans? God, guys, get it together!
It’s a tough time in the industry, both for breweries and bars/pubs. But for the consumer, we are absolutely spoilt for choice – apart from one aspect.
You know what? It can be bloody hard to find a good pint of cask beer.
Now, of course there are pubs at which you are pretty much guaranteed a decent pint, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Cask beer is rarely kept as well as it should be, and in many places the keg range is expanding (understandable, and not a bad thing) while cask languishes, sometimes even disappearing from the bar altogether.
“Nobody was drinking it so we took it off.” Well maybe people would drink it if you looked after it properly!
When I stepped off the train at Manchester Piccadilly, cask ale was the last thing on my mind. After all, I was off to check out the new Northern Monk Refectory which had opened its doors during the time I’d been out of town. I’d heard glowing reports, seen photos of the numerous taps on the back bar, and couldn’t wait to visit. I was on the hunt for something special.
Eighteen keg lines, two taps dedicated to cocktails, and four cask on… It was a tough decision, but in the end a half of Origin on keg was exactly what I needed after the train journey; zingy, refreshing, and chilled. As my companion and I gazed up at the rest of the extensive beer range, sorely tempted by the BA Toffee Strannik (behave, it’s 3pm, too early for imperial stout!), we spotted something we didn’t expect. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. On one of the cask hand pumps at the end of the bar was a beer which had been a constant presence during my time at Leeds University. It was in perfect condition and tasted great.
The happiness this brought me actually took me aback a little. Since when am I somebody who is excited about cask beer? And then I asked myself, wait – when did I stop being somebody who is excited about cask beer?
My beer drinking career started in 2009, with a pint of Dark Star Hophead. Cask, of course. When I went off to uni, I found myself joining the Real Ale Society in the first week. Under their wing, I discovered Ilkley, Saltaire, Acorn… All of those marvellous local breweries which I took for granted and gradually bored of.
My friends and I quickly went from drinking pints of local cask to spending ages in Beer Ritz, trying to find the coolest new stuff, and splurging our student loan on halves of Flying Dog Gonzo in North Bar. Then there were trips to Manchester for Mikkeller single hop series tastings at Port Street, Kernel tap takeovers in London, discovering sour beer on a visit to Cantillon… Within a couple of years of first getting into beer, I had already fallen out of love with cask.
By 2013 I was working in a beer bar in Manchester city centre, and it was all about the newest American import, or the most bitter IPA you could get your hands on. The ‘craft beer revolution’ (cringe!) was thoroughly under way, and in the bars we were loving it, relishing the chance to gently convert the customers who complained that “this stuff is all cold and fizzy” or asked for “a pint of bitter”.
But now? It’s 2018, and god, I could murder a well kept pint of something classic on cask.
I don’t think it’s just me. From what I’ve seen, a number of us are feeling the same. We’ve become vaguely fatigued by the fervour of attention grabbing beers pushing boundaries and ABVs further and further. The whirlwind of brightly coloured cans and shiny Instagram pictures of cool serves and mad collaborations is great fun, but it can be knackering trying to keep up with it all. Sometimes there comes a point where you just want to duck out of the party early and go home to read a book in your pajamas.
Perhaps it’s not cask I’m craving. Perhaps it’s more moderate flavours and a more relaxed way of enjoying beer. But I’m not convinced. Somehow a pint of 3.9% easy drinking pale on keg just isn’t quite as comforting as the same beer in cask. The light, lively feeling on your tongue. The bright white lacing clinging to the side of the glass. Good cask beer is a little joy. There’s nothing quite like it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disowning keg beer or saying I’m never going to touch another DIPA. Far from it – I am convinced that some styles absolutely work better in keg. Dispense is all about context. But I’ve come back to appreciating well kept traditional cask alongside the huge hoppy hits and mouth-puckering sours I’ve been chasing for the last few years.
Part of that process has been due to being back working in places where they actually know how to look after a cellar. I’ll always try whatever interesting thing appears on the keg lines, of course; Mondo’s Passionfruit Pale deserves a special mention. But more and more I’ve found myself opting for a pint of classic cask pale.
The beer I’ve drank most of in the last couple of months, while I’ve been in London? Surrey Hills Shere Drop. It’s not strong. It’s not tongue-scouringly hoppy, or tart enough to make your face fold in on itself, or as dark as a true crime fan’s search history. It doesn’t grab your attention with every single sip. What it is, however, is 1) good, and 2) consistent. It’s a beer for supping a few pints of while you talk nonsense with a group of friends in a pub where the music isn’t too loud, and the chairs are comfy. Ah – the realisation hits – I’ve got old. (It’s a joke! Of course it’s a joke.)
But the fact is, as my companion commented as we sat in the Northern Monk Refectory that afternoon, “kept right, cask is a beautiful thing”. I agreed wholeheartedly. Then we went back to the bar for the next round, and bought thirds of BA Toffee Strannik. Keg, of course. Context, yeah?