English cask ale at its best is magnificent. It has qualities pasteurized and bottled beers cannot equal, it needs proper care and bar staff that know what they are doing.
One reason it went out of fashion in the seventies was probably problems in keeping consistent quality. Better to sell kegged beer of consistent, if inferior, quality than wasting gallons of beer that is past its prime. I think we have generally moved beyond that stage. Professional cellarmanship and better technical equipment, cooling chain unbroken from brewery to pub, there are many factors we take for granted.
I have come to expect good ale in London pubs. The Fuller’s and Young’s pubs are reliable for a good pint, even if it may not be quite as flavoursome as it was some years ago.
I searched out a new pub, well, new for me, when I was in London the other week. They have four rotating cask ales, often from micro breweries.
I arrived at four in the afternoon, so I would think they had done some lunchtime trade. I started with a nice half of Dark Star Golden gate, a beer in good form. When I moved on to the next beer, from the Cottage micro brewery, I had a bad feeling. The head did not have an even foam, instead there were some yeasty particles struggling to get to the top. The first sip confirmed my suspicion. Vinegar.
But when a customer brings back a glass of beer, you should turn the pump clip and investigate, right? I think the lady behind the bar thought I was just another foreigner – this was right behind Marble Arch – not knowing how to enjoy a proper English bitter.
The lesson? Don’t serve cask ale if you don’t have people behind the bar to make sure it is in top form. If not, go for happy hour cocktails instead.
And I will not seek out this pub again, and probably not beers from the Cottage Brewery, either. Which is a pity.