05 February 2010

All it's casked up to be?

Session logoI love cask beer, but there's an awful lot of horseshit preached about it, particularly from certain sectors of that lot over to the east of here. One of the observations that often gets trotted out is "I've never had a well-kept cask beer that's not been better than the brewery-conditioned version". Fair enough: you can't argue with anecdotes, but I have a theory that this cask-is-always-best principle only holds up for beers which were designed for cask in the first place. It is, by and large, a British thing, and people who believe it need to get out more.

So, mostly for my own reference, I thought I'd take advantage of this month's Session to examine the handful of beers I know in various dispense formats and see just how often natural condition is the best method of serving.

The two examples I trot out most frequently are Clotworthy Dobbin and Galway Hooker -- two of the best ales in regular production on this island. Bottled Hooker does not yet exist, but I've encountered it on cask on several occasions and it's always lacking. It's very much a hop-driven beer, and the Cascade and Saaz get deliciously propelled by the pressurised CO2, creating a clean, refreshing zingy session beer. When that force is taken away it ends up flat, watery and quite green-tasting, like it's not finished. What it probably needs for cask purposes is a dose of dry hops, but as-is it just doesn't work. Clotworthy also loses its hop character on cask. I'm most familiar with the force-carbonated bottle where late Cascade adds a mouth-watering fruitiness to the dark chocolatey ruby porter. The one time I had it on keg this interplay of malt and hops was even more pronounced, and if it wasn't for a bit of a metallic bum-note on the end, it would have been sublime -- I definitely look forward to seeing the keg version again. But on cask this all gets blended into a homogeneous brown lump, indistinguishable from a zillion other brown beers. A case for dry-hopping again, I reckon. Consider this next to the extremely unhoppy Curim Gold wheat beer from Carlow Brewing. I don't think I've met anyone who likes the dishwater bottled version; the keg edition has more of a fanbase but was still a little soapy for me; but on cask it's stunning -- jam-packed with witbier spice and refreshing lemony zing.

And yet, big hop flavours don't always die in the cask. Porterhouse Hop Head is a beer not at all dissimilar to Galway Hooker -- a bit bigger, a bit bitterer -- and it works equally well from cask, keg and naturally-conditioned bottle. If anything the bitterness is even more extreme in the cask edition, which is why I'd generally opt for it kegged, if given a choice.

Where I've found cask really works best, however, is with black beers. O'Hara's Stout, Porterhouse Plain and Porterhouse Oyster all far outshine their force carbonated incarnations. At least part of this is the unmitigated evil of nitrogenation. I can completely understand why Guinness came up with it: I'd say the early test batches of keg Guinness Extra Stout didn't get very far since the feel of CO2-pressurised draught stout was all wrong. It would have been so good if they'd just said "Well, there you go: you can't keg stout" and went back to casking. Instead, they managed to recreate the texture of the cask beer, but via a method which destroys its taste and aroma. I've met very few beers which are bold enough to stand up to nitro, Wrassler's XXXX being about the only one I can think of, and the Porterhouse have achieved this by brewing a monstrously aggressive stout that's probably undrinkable any other way (bottle-conditioned edition out soon, I hear: beware!). It's a massive shame that even across the water, in the spiritual home of cask beer, the style of beer which works best on cask is overwhelmingly represented by smoothflow keg rubbish. Where are the mainstream cask stouts from Britain's large regional breweries? Why aren't they as ubiquitous as the brown bitter and nitrokeg stout?

I should add that even stout-is-best-on-cask isn't a universal rule. Hilden's Molly's Chocolate Stout manages to dodge most of the rich sumptuous roasty flavours and comes out rather boring and thin. The bottled version at least adds a certain carbonic dryness that makes it a little more interesting. Which brings me on to the beer I'm wedging in for review in this post. It's not one I've had from the cask, but it is bottle-conditioned and wears its "CAMRA says..." badge up front with pride on its neck.

On pouring, Hook Norton Double Stout does a very good impression of a cask stout, coming out smooth and foamy though just a teensy bit overzealous with the carbonation. From the off-white head you get an enticing nosefull of dry and crunchy roasted barley or black malt. The foretaste contrasts this with a silky, creamy, chocolate sensation, followed by a brief tang of hops. Finally, there's a dry finish to clear the palate for the next mouthful. All this complexity on a mere 4.8% ABV makes it nearly perfect as a session stout. I'd love to try it on cask and would be willing to bet that the dryness tones down and even more of that chocolate creaminess comes to the front and hangs around. Yum.

While I remain incredulous in the face of the CO2 fundamentalists, it's only when we turn to stout that I have to bite my lip.


  1. I agree on the hooker on the kegged version is much better than the cask one.

    Congratulations on being Irelands most popular beer blogger

  2. Oh I doubt that. The writer of Ireland's most popular beer blog, maybe...

  3. Clotworthy Dobbin must be one of the few beers that's good and adds something different in cask, keg or bottle

    Well done on the Wikio ranking

  4. I couldn't agree with you more. Select the beer based on the beer....don't generalize based on the style. Very well penned.


  5. Hook Norton Double Stout is a great beer, one of their best I reckon. Another terrific one is Black Isle Porter, which is just about perfect bottle-conditioned.

    I too have often wondered why more micros don't do cask stout and porter. Compared to Guinness it's like night and day.

  6. British micros are generally good about it, and getting better. Or maybe it just seems that way from Pig's Ear and GBBF which, admittedly, aren't exactly representative of the situation on the ground. But it's why the bigger boys aren't going after the black action that boggles my mind. The righteous indignation that several British beer bloggers have expressed over Fuller's London Porter is a case in point.

  7. Well-written and thought provoking article there sir. Obviously, quite a bit of research has gone into it! We should consider ourselves fortunate that we can nowadays compare craft beer in the various forms in Ireland (well, Dublin anyway).

  8. Obviously, quite a bit of research has gone into it!
    How dare you! The above is a definite cause for apology for a long post because I didn't have time to write a short one.

    But yes: it's mind-crogglingly unbelievable that I can blithely chat about the merits of Irish craft beer on cask when, only a couple of years ago, this could only have been in the context of a handful of tiny festivals.

    I haven't even been to most of Ireland's cask beer pubs, though I'm hoping for something daycent from White Gypsy at the Salt House in Galway this day fortnight.

  9. For me, cask is often best largely because of the flavour that's stripped out in any kind of filtration - not that a wise brewer can't account for that & adjust the hopping/coloured malts, etc, but these flavours & other more subtle flavours such as those derived from fermentation can be lost in filtration.

    There are however some styles that for me do seem to do much better colder, or with a good bit more fizz, e.g. many Belgie styles, lagers & Bavarian Wheats. It's perhaps no surprise that many of these to me taste better in part because they're still unfiltered, albeit more carbonated than in cask.

    The other important point for me is that in general beer in keg is more likely to be consistently OK or better than cask. There is enormous room to really f*** up cask beer, between the fermenter & the glass - it's quite a delicate thing - e.g. a slip up in not leaving sufficient fermentability in the beer before racking to cask; or the cellar-staff not hard-pegging at the right point gives a flat pint. Not selling an open cask of beer within a few days, often leads to a beer vinegar, or at least a tired-tasting pint.

    In these sort of cases, where cask isn't served properly, then obviously keg is preferable.

    As well as some people blindly following the CAMRA mantra, the other reason perhaps many UK drinkers prefer cask over keg is the fact that in most pubs, the keg beer on offer is mass-brewed & pretty bland, not craft-brewed & tasty.

  10. Hooky Stout. :-) . Beautiful !!!

  11. Anonymous3:51 pm

    Great piece. We kind of experienced this with the Meantime London Pale Ale when we went to the Union.

    Before coming to the UK, most of the great Micro brews I had in the US were kegged, so I remain open-minded-- I've had plenty of cask beers that just were underwhelming or undrinkable.

  12. Great post. A nice comparison of Irish beer in all it's different forms. I do think many beers benefit from the extra carbonation that being served on keg gives them.

  13. I have experienced the Clotworthy Dobbin Cask V Bottle and completely agree, though TNB knows that as I said so at the time.

    Cask has it's place but is not the only way beer should be served.

    Landlord is a great example of where cask works and bottling does not.

  14. Are you looking for an amount of pressure that would force the bung out of a cask? Otherwise I don't understand why higher carbonation would require kegging.

    I am willing to be educated, as I've never been a cellarman, but it sounds like the converse of Richard English's argument that there are different kinds of CO2. Why not just tap the cask when it's livelier?

    Weißbier and Trappist beer are naturally-conditioned, and I've never heard anyone complain they weren't fizzy enough.

  15. I'm no cellarman either, but the cask will lose pressure after pegging. One point of kegging is that the same level of carbonation is in every pint.

  16. British publican8:20 pm

    The use of the term "brewery conditioned" to describe keg beers is a bit misleading.

    Cask Doom Bar is a brewery conditioned beer - in that all it's been conditioned in the brewery post-racking at the correct temperature and only needs to drop bright in the pub cellar before it's ready to serve. I don't think one that's been pasteurised and filtered and is force carbonated at dispense is in the same category. That isn't to say keg beer can't be good - it's just that using the term "brewery conditioned" in response to cask beer proponents won't really cut it.

  17. I'm just using it to mean the opposite of naturally conditioned. There isn't a neat enough term outside of the 1970s CAMRA thesaurus.

  18. CAMRA didn't think up the terms cask-conditioned, naturally-conditioned or brewery-conditioned. They all originated inside the brewing industry decades before CAMRA was formed.

  19. Wow. I thought I was missing something. The odd times a cask is really great - but not always. I remember testing a few different beers in Tewksbury last year - great keg ales like Abbot Ale are truly insipid from a warm cast, but when lightly carbonated dance on your tongue.

    BTW, kudos for the Bull & Castle for finding a great cask IPA from the Carlow Brewing Company last week. Alas, they were on the last pint as I got in....

  20. Glad you found the B&C and Goods Store. It has been making more comebacks than Lazarus, but its days are sadly numbered.