The Future of Cask Ale
Yesterday’s tour took me to the outskirts of Manchester to what was once the heart of the cotton-factory industry that built Victorian Manchester into a powerhouse. A smart man named John Lees looked at those factories and decided the workers looked thirsty, so he built a brewery. A hundred and ninety-two years later, JW Lees is still making beer there. I had a typically wonderful time, starting with a chat with Paul Wood, now manning the 10-barrel pilot batch as he glides toward a retirement he’ll have earned; he started at Lees in 1972.
After our tour, Tom Evans, a 37-year-old who’s replaced Paul as Head Brewer, took me across the street to the Gardeners Arms for a pint of Lees Bitter. Here’s a video of the publican:
Holy moly, it was a fine pint. The Lees yeast contains at least three strains, two flocculant, one not, that always seem to stay in harmony. They started using it 52 years ago and before that just borrowed yeasts from other breweries—thus, likely, the mixed strain. It behaves differently depending on the beer, but in the bitter gives a distinctive green-apple note. That’s generally frowned upon—it can signal fermentation issues—but with a touch of apricot and marmalade was just perfect. Tom saw me dancing around it and said, “The aldehyde?” You won’t find that in the other Lees beers, and if you didn’t find it here, it would produce a much flatter, duller beer. It’s soft but dry, paler than the “brown bitters” of the South—a typical Manchester bitter. I’d be happy to settle down in that pub for the rest of my life.
My position on cask ale is well-established. It’s the least efficient way to serve a pint, and the most likely to produce mistakes. But a pint of cask bitter is also, along with Bavarian helles and Czech světlý ležák, one of the world’s best drinking beers. It’s no wonder drinkers in those three countries are the most renowned in the world.
But man, has it got a branding problem. This perception was heightened by spending most of my time in Manchester and London, two modern cities with large populations of young drinkers. Americans revere the English pub because it drips with romance and nostalgia. The wood paneling, the old pictures on the walls, the fire in the corner, the low lighting, the nooks, crannies, and snugs. But cask’s problem is that it is so tightly fused with the environment in which it is served.
For centuries, this was an advantage. Breweries owned or licensed pubs and created little empires ensuring the need for huge volumes of beer. There was a symbiosis between the pubs and breweries. But centuries ossify institutions, and to young people I can’t help but thinking that pubs feel old and backward-looking, like museums of jolly-ness and olde-ness. Young people don’t go to these pubs much. They are generally full of (mostly) men who make me feel sprightly.
Conversely, cities now offer modern, forward-looking drinking holes that make people feel they are stepping into the future rather than the past. There you can find (good) wine, fun cocktails, interesting cuisine, and see other young people. At the moment, the beer served in places like this is not cask—it’s the kind you’d find in similar places in the US.
I have a theory about all this. I don’t know that cask ale is seen as terminally old-fashioned. It is served at some of the hip places and there is an enduring interest in it. Craft breweries that have abandoned it or never made it are finding their way back. Manchester’s Cloudwater, one of the buzziest of the new breweries and makers of really nice hazies, has started doing cask. And as I’ve tried to document, cask doesn’t have to mean brown bitter.
Cask is a wonderful template, and actually encourages experimentation. Young people just entering the beer world have curious, inviting palates. There’s no reason cask can’t deliver more modern flavors—and as I’ve seen on this trip, breweries are demonstrating that point. I think that’s why it keeps creeping back into the portfolios of erstwhile modern keg brewers—cask offers them another opportunity for expression. There are just some things you can’t do on keg.
I heard something else here that made me wonder about cask’s status. When I was visiting Cloudwater, Paul Jones and some brewers from Salt Brewery visiting for a collaboration were talking about how hard it was to get started. The problem was with the free houses and bottle shops that catered to a craft beer crowd. They didn’t want local beer. It was considered too common. They wanted imported beer with international cache. As bizarre as it sounds to American ears, two or three years ago, Mancunians favored a pint of Odell’s to Cloudwater.
The brewers suggested it was a natural instinct among locals to assume the worst about themselves—surely our beer isn’t the best. I did an event at Cloudwater showcasing Oregon beer, and I got my biggest response of the night when I compared Manchester and Portland by saying, “We feel like scrappy underdogs outsiders don’t respect, but secretly we think we’re the best.” They laughed in recognition.
(I should add here, almost as a sidebar, that “craft” is even more problematic a term here than it is in the US—and more than it was several years ago when I last visited. I use it to designate newer breweries making keg beer using the American model.)
I’ve always been surprised that Brits don’t seem as proud of cask as Germans are of lager or Belgians are of their quirky styles. (Czechs would be proud if they acknowledged any beer brewed outside the country.) But Brits, outside the true believers in CAMRA, seem vaguely embarrassed by it. I don’t know if it has to do with that old-fashioned reputation or because Brits are instinctively embarrassed (not a criticism and certainly far preferable to the American tendency toward arrogance).
But I do wonder if something ironic and unexpected is about to happen. Could it be that craft beer, contrary to the fears it will destroy cask, might not rehabilitate it? By untethering cask from the olde English pub, letting it evolve with the times, and putting it alongside mezcal and CBD cocktails in cool urban saloons, might craft breweries not reintroduce an entirely new generation? It may be wishful thinking by one of cask’s greatest champions and defenders, but the theory at least seems plausible. But the population currently drinking cask aren’t going to keep it going forever.
Oh, and one final cask note: still no to sparklers. Put me with team South: they’re not the worst, but they’re an affectation and do change the texture. Always go out on controversy, I say!