Many beer drinkers are hesitant to admit that they’re cask-dodgers. A line of hand pumps at the bar doesn’t always parallel to the allure of something on keg, especially for the drinker with a modern and adventurous palate. They’re open-minded to cask ales, but the siren call of a new style- or perhaps an arsenal of American hops- is sexier. This seems to be especially relevant with the younger generation of drinkers, who weren’t weened on Newcastle Brown or other once ubiquitous British staples down the pub.
And then there’s a demographic who didn’t grow up in Great Britain at all, and have settled in London, met with its burgeoning brewing landscape, where every neighbourhood has a taproom or bar proffering a series of British breweries making American, German or experimental styles. These drinkers didn’t stand a chance- they were thrust into the jaws of a ‘craft revolution’, where rotating kegs promise a shifting canvas of infinite beers.
Yes, we all have our favourite dependable beers, often squirreled away in our fridges at home, but a novel choice pulls us in with gravitational force. Then the fear of missing out takes control, a side effect of hours spent trawling through beer blogs, Twitter newsfeeds or beer rating apps, always on the hunt for a new release, a seasonal or small batch beer when available. But if they’re not, we’re happy to revisit our preferred IPA.
Some beer drinkers might not identify with this struggle, but there’s an undeniable discomfort with real ales for others- and it’s not because we don’t appreciate cask ales. We know that, by definition, they are unfiltered and unpasteurised; the majority of beer aficionados have developed a palate for live beers and aren’t troubled by the notion of a presence of yeast in our pint. So why are we so uncomfortable with cask?
Well, beer writer Pete Brown has a theory: British breweries simply aren’t making commendable examples of traditional British styles. He blames our very British outlook for this- which, especially within the culinary and imbibing realms, sees us looking outwards rather than in. We have an appetite for what everyone else has because we deem our attempts insipid in comparison. While he speaks of traditional styles of British beers in general, this is intrinsically linked to cask ales. For many, it’s the malty sweet ales with little hop character that just don’t appeal. So, Brown asks, why don’t we strive to improve?
Speaking at the launch of The Five Point Brewing Company’s Brick Field Brown on cask at the charming The Harp pub in Covent Garden, Brown extrapolated on this dilemma. Take this beer, a traditional brown ale that’s been amplified for modern tastes. On keg, it exemplifies wonderful aromas of roasted malts and caramel with a line-up of chewy maltiness, chocolate, nuts and coffee. A nuance of earthiness from Willamette hops also shines through. On cask, it’s completely transformed. It maintains the complex nose and profile without a blast of carbon dioxide pressure. The chocolate aromas come to forefront and are more detectable in this form.
Vito, the Five Points brewer responsible for the Brick Field Brown, briefly spoke about his inspiration to pay homage to a style of beer that he was passionate about. It has taken an Italian brewer from a British brewery to appreciate the form of a brown ale- so perhaps Brown is correct in his supposition that as Brits, we’re too busy looking elsewhere for a muse. Vito carefully explained that in this beer, the malt bill is the nucleus- he used seven malts in the grist, all British, to impart a depth and complexity to the body and mouthfeel. The hops, Willamette are American- but this was for the sake of the consistency that they provided in comparison to British varietals. Finally, the Brick Field Brown is a southern brown ale- characterised by a darker hue and a sweeter profile with strong coffee and chocolate notes when compared to its northern cousin.
Brown picked up on the starring role of malts in British brewing, regaling the crowd with the conception story of Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, the seminal beer often credited for popularising the craft beer movement in the United States (and is still the second best selling craft beer in the country). It’s told that the beer spawned from a botched attempt to recreate Fuller’s Brewery's ESB, demonstrating the influence that British styles have across the pond.
Our obsession with hops has resulted in drinkers overlooking the crucial role that malts contribute to beer. Brown joked that these days, everyone has a favourite hop- just as five years ago, everyone was partial to a particular style of wine. To showcase more British styles, we have to consider malts as a key component to our enjoyment of a beer; this might especially be the case after a faltering of the value of Sterling post Brexit, when access to American hops might be curtailed and British hops- with their more earthy and subdued flavour notes- are readily available.
Vito predicted a movement towards more subdued styles of beer in the coming years, with lagers stealing the glory from aggressive IPAs. Perhaps this shift away from American beers will also see a proliferation in British styles. In turn, we might see resurgence in cask beers as we develop a palate for malty styles, so it might be time to embrace the hand pump.
After all, it’s more difficult to disguise a bad beer with a focus on malt- there’s nothing hidden behind a judicious dry-hopping here. So we might have a lot of delicate and complex renditions to look forward to.
I was kindly invited to attend the Brick Field Brown launch by the Five Points Brewery.