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 Five Points' Brick Field Brown launch: Pete Brown and respecting malts

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.