Brighton: cask culture and London's creeping influence

When it comes to drinking craft beer, Londoners are a captive audience. In the city, drinkers are open-minded and are accustomed to flocking to taprooms to drink from rotating selections. They’re content to spend more money to enjoy a tastier beer in smaller measures. They demand their beer as fresh as possible - ideally straight from a fermenter tank. The appetite for assertive IPAs is still rife and is perhaps a factor of why keg still reigns supreme in London bars. Their cooler serving temperatures and carbonation help showcase bitter hops and a blast of carbon dioxide rouses their herbal, earthy or citrus aromas, making them jump from the glass.

Following a visit to the much lauded Harp pub in Covent Garden to hear beer writer Pete Brown extol the virtues of malts and cask ale, it was apparent that there was one gaping absence in London’s drinking culture, a shameful oversight that has yet to be righted – the availability of good cask ale. Despite cask being at the helm of the UK’s traditional beer styles, the brown ales or bitters that have seemingly fallen out of favour with city drinkers, losing out to sours, DIPAs and creamy milk stouts or anything deemed more worthy and novel.

Anyone from outside the confines of the city would dismiss most cask served in London as undrinkable - an uninspiring selection of styles that aren’t properly served. The Harp is an exception as a pub that has fostered a staunch reputation for ensuring that cask is served in a faultless state. Cask necessitates much more care in storage than keg, which requires a meticulous eye and precision in the length of conditioning time, temperature and pristinely kept lines to avoid infecting the beer. Cask beers arrive from the brewery still alive, unfiltered and unpasteurised. The Harp is often cited as one of the few pubs in the city where punters are guaranteed a great cask ale served exactly as it should be.

Of course, that’s London. A quick trip to Brighton demonstrates a focus on cask ales that is astonishing – here, another young, modern city that lies only a 90 minutes’ journey away from the city, almost every pub has a selection of hand pumps in constant use. The beers on cask herald from an all-star list of local Sussex breweries and represent an astonishingly wide range of styles. IPAs, barrel aged beers and espresso stouts are offered, giving a taste of what inventive and audacious options that could be translated to cask.

The Evening Star is one of such pubs, but that shouldn’t surprise – it’s the home of Dark Star Brewing Company, who originated as a microbrewery in 1994. They have since left the premises for a larger brewery, first in Ansty, then in Partridge Green. Specialising in cask beers, they’ve experimented with everything from traditional to continental styles. Their beer has been internationally recognised with a number of decorations, including the Dark Star Original, which won Champion Beer of Britain in 1987 before brewer Rob Jones brought the recipe to the brewery. It was also awarded Supreme Champion of Champions at the Great British Beer Festival in 1996.

The Evening Star remains a popular destination in Brighton, only a short amble away from the train station. It boasts 7 hand pumps and 8 keg lines cramped across a curved bar counter, and locals don’t stop to ponder over the vast cask offerings- they’ve made their choice before approaching to order. It can be initially intimidating for the unversed cask drinker. On our visit, punters made a beeline made for Murder of Crows from Kissingate Brewery on cask, a 10% double mashed imperial stout. Perched against a pillar with both active CAMRA members and beer writers, the normalcy of drinking cask here was striking. At The Evening Star, the crowd was more varied in age, background and appearance than the intensely homogeneous drinking environments in London. It maintained the characteristics of a local pub, replete with the interior cosy stylings of a traditional boozer, but without any infiltration of macro beers. Most were focused on cask, but Tiny Rebel Brewing Co and 8Wired were also pouring on keg.

Other venues exemplifying commendable beer offerings without losing the charm of a local pub were within easy reach of each other, including The Prince Albert and The Great Eastern. A good showing from another Sussex brewery, Gun Brewery, on keg and cask was consistent across this bill. The Zamzama IPA is a good iteration that delivers requisite pine, grapefruit and astringency in a well-balanced, but not too brash, IPA. At home in both the familiar pubs and the trendy brewhouses and craft bars, Gun is obviously appealing to a wide demographic of drinkers.

Turning to the modern industrial décor of trendy craft bars, Brighton has a BrewDog that was heaving with drinkers still polishing off kegs of the annual Collabfest event held a couple weeks prior. Highly reminiscent of its London locations in ambiance and fittings, cask was limited their Dead Pony LIVE project, which is an attempt to modernise cask by dispensing it via key keg. The intended result is serving real ale, conditioned in the container, with the benefits of the consistency of keg.

The spacious North Laine Brewhouse celebrates all locally brewed beer alongside its own range from Laine Brewing, which can also be found in Hackney’s People’s Park Tavern. There were hand pumps at the bar and their take on a traditional bitter – Bestest Bitter - is modern, with a playfully designed cask badge and a silly moniker. It’s an easy-going session beer with nice malty notes rounded off with a dose of bitterness. Served in trendy, young environs, this is a gateway cask beer for a younger generation who have never veered from keg; alongside BrewDog’s LIVE beer, cask is still playing a visible role in the most modern spaces.

Even a trip to The Seven Stars, one of Brighton’s oldest pubs that was recently acquired and revamped into a craft beer pub by Indigo, was noteworthy – Dalston’s 40ft Brewery were on tap next to Beavertown Brewery, Gun Brewery, Siren Craft Brew and Wild Beer Co. Londoners would be at home here, tucking into tasty street food menus against the soundtrack of live jazz. But perhaps this was London outside of London- familiar, current and easy.

Brighton’s drinking culture represents some fascinating juxtapositions. Traditional and modern, cask and keg - all seemed to exist in harmony. Much more ubiquitous than London, cask is more varied and venerated here. However, the more recent additions to Brighton’s drinking scene obviously prioritise keg.

It would be devastating to see the popularity of cask wane because of trends creeping in from London, where the emergence of tank bars and taprooms has seen cask put on the backburner. It seems that cask still needs further revitalisation with stronger and more modern choices to appeal to today’s drinkers.

We can start by treating cask the way it deserves – moving away from the dusty image that unfortunately still persists in London – and discovering what modern styles or reinventions taste like from a hand pump. While not everyone will take to it, some styles of beer have the nuanced complexity that really shines without intense carbonation or served at frigid temperatures. Cask isn’t dead, but it does need a facelift – hopefully more local breweries will begin to expand their range to challenge drinkers who are fully (and often unapologetically) committed to keg.

The good, the bad and the ubiquitous: what makes a good pub?

Within the span of one week, I experienced a pub dichotomy. Visiting two purveyors for the first time- both boasting a craft beer selection- I was left disheartened by one and encouraged by the other. The former was a lacklustre attempt at jumping on the ‘craft’ bandwagon; it was a misjudged attempt at balancing on-trend features with a selection of beer that- frankly- fell flat. The most audacious of their offerings? Well, it was Camden Hells lager on keg and a handful of Beavertown cans in the fridge. I spotted no inclusion of ranges from the myriad of local breweries, which was shocking given their pedigree and proximity to this particular bar.

I’m reluctant to pass such severe criticism on a new business venture, especially at the risk of sounding like a pretentious or insufferable elitist. For me, the nadir was that this bar is within walking distance from my flat, yet my desire to return burns as intensely as my need to swill a syrupy Swedish cider- a range of which were prominently on display.

Onwards and upwards, I discovered the latter pub six days later in the form of Howl at the Moon in Hoxton. I was instantly smitten as I ambled through the door: everything appealed to me- the harmony of the quirky décor and fixtures, the inexplicable presence of a caged cockatiel on the bar, the laidback and approachable staff that- admittedly- weren’t as savvy on their beer as I expected. But it just didn’t matter. The beer selection was exceptional given the modest size of the venue: on keg, there were two iterations of Brew by Numbers, Wiper and True, Siren, Mondo and Kernel. I didn’t even get to the fridge, but a quick recce revealed an abundance of Kernel, Beavertown and Hammerton Brewery in bottles.

Howl at the Moon in Hoxton: quirky and casual.

Howl at the Moon in Hoxton: quirky and casual.

An immense beer selection is highly seductive and the obvious prerequisite of a good drinking pub- but I can’t help but wonder what the winning formula is? What designates one pub as exceptional and another as disagreeable? It all stems from personal opinion, naturally, and I acknowledge that I have a penchant for East London idiosyncrasies in the manifestation of upcycled church pews, plywood banquet tables and exposed lighting fixtures, all in a traditional boozer setting. Awkward space, stools pulled up at the bar- these endearing elements are always welcome.

My bugbear is manicured veneers, where bars exhibit random backlit displays of bottles (art?), chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling and décor and fixtures are all too coordinated. For me, this projects a sense of a slapdash, soulless shelf bar- a bar in a box- that is devoid of any desirable atmosphere. I occasionally find myself drinking at such establishments, usually in shopping centres, event spaces or airports. But given the option, I crave the balance of character and a solid range of beer.

But what about the ubiquitous taproom? Where do these fit into my spectrum? Usually modern, minimal and intentionally stripped bare of esoteric charm, they still appeal to me, but perhaps on the most primitive level- here, the variety of beer and the breweries represented are the focal point. Simply put, they deliver on their promise and the staff are usually highly trained and passionate.

Impressive ranges available at BrewDog Soho.

Impressive ranges available at BrewDog Soho.

I can always count on a Brewdog bar- although pouring their own ranges, they always have a generous guest menu on tap- or Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green to deliver on these fronts; this is why you’ll often spot me in deep concentration, scrutinising their ever rotating choices. Walking through the threshold of a taproom, you’re confident that you’ll find something worthy- even that elusive DIPA that you’ve been trying to track down for weeks (I found it in Brewdog Soho).

Mother Kelly's never fails to please.

Mother Kelly's never fails to please.

So, while the ambiance plays a significant peripheral role in identifying a superlative watering hole, it has to be unforced and inviting. Passionate staff also elevates the experience, especially when they can make astute and educated recommendations to scrupulous customers. Final commended flourishes include a wafting background soundtrack of a vetted playlist and an enticing rotating food menu. But now we’re describing a figurative beer nirvana- a rare idyllic venue- so what’s at the crux of a good bar here in reality? 

Well, obviously, it’s the beer. But the interplay between an outstanding range of drinking and a touch of other elements can be the tipping point. Personally, I’m always happy at The Chesham Arms in Hackney, where I not only get a good pint, but can hunker down on a stool at the bar and always feel amongst friends- the kind of friends that delight in a good beer.

The Chesham Arms: a real diamond in the rough.

The Chesham Arms: a real diamond in the rough.