So, I’m writing this just a few hours before attending Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting of 2013. In fact, I’m writing as the judging for today’s event is actually taking place and I’m texting one of the judges between paragraphs!
This year is the ninth annual event, and I think that I have attended either seven or eight of these, missing only the first one or two. This years ATL cask ale will be the final beer event that I ever attend in Atlanta. Don’t worry, I know that nobody in Atlanta (or probably anywhere else) cares, but as is always the case with this blog, I have to get some of my inner thoughts into a coherent paragraphs for nothing more than my own sanity.
Unconnected to my decision, beer festivals have never been my thing. Noisy crowds, long lines, drunk people and of late in the USA in particular, the hysterical element that for me is the antithesis of beer culture. However, since those things have generally always been place, that’s nothing to do with my decision about giving up the ghost.
Everyone who takes a passing interest in my thoughts on beer, knows that one of the fundamental cornerstones of my beer happiness lies in the cask beer that I grew up with in English pubs. There’s a complicated relationship between me, pubs, real ale and my late father, that I feel sure is at the root of deepest thoughts on the subject, but its origins are not nearly as important as the predicament that it places me in right now.
As everyone who understands beer knows, the United States is a terrible place to live if your beer happiness is strongly connected to cask ale. Sure, there are a few pockets of respite here and there, but that really means Philadelphia, New York, Boston and a few West Coast spots. In reality and pragmatically, a love of cask beer in the US means you’re screwed.
Since Atlanta is particularly bad-offender in terms of beer culture, the cask ale tasting has, over the years, promised to be the single highlight of my year, and a three hour window of happiness in what is otherwise a ‘cask ale year of misery’. It reality it turned out that it never really was much of a highlight for me, but in addition, things have changed dramatically for the worse in recent times. Before discussing the changes that have taken place, there are of course things that have never changed about cask beer culture in the USA, and in particular Atlanta. Here they are.
1. The preponderance of the wrong beer being put in casks. I’ve been over this umpteen times, but hop-forward beers, with a ABV’s of 7, 8, 9 and 10+%, simply don’t belong in casks. Period. The whole point of the cask delivery is that it showcases nuances, subtitles and delicate changes in the beer over the course of the two or three days that it is in the pub. Such beers offer ZERO nuance, ZERO subtlety and ZERO delicacy, and as such is a complete waste of time in a cask.
2. The lack of availability of a permanent cask selection. There are a couple of problems that stem from this. Firstly, when a cask is announced on Twitter by a local bar, it induces a hysterical rush to that bar, and the beer is usually sucked up by the patrons withing a couple of hours (or less). This is a huge issue for me. On one hand I’m not about to drop everything in my busy life in order to be at a certain bar at a certain time so I can fight my way to a the bar and get a couple of pints of cask ale. I’m a 45 year old man with a real job and a family, and that means living my life in that manner. It seems like that the only people that can do that are 20-somethings with no kids.
Secondly, when the cask beer is consumed within a few hours (as is often the case), you are missing out on one of the main points of cask – the natural changes that one can observe over the course of a few days. In such a culture, this beautiful evolution is lost and a large portion of the cask experience, evaporates.
3. The lack of knowledge of cask and how it relates to #1 and #2 above. It’s a little difficult (even for me) to be too critical of that, since there is no culture of cask beer here in the US so it’s hardly surprising that people don’t know what they are doing, but at the same time it’s a big issue. We could get into cask breathers, gravity pours, sparklers, cellarmanship, hard and soft spiles and a whole bunch of other stuff here, but that would be pointless and not the focus of this blog post.
OK, so none of that really explains my decision to pass on the Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting after today. What’s behind that? That decision is based upon what I see to be the single biggest issue with cask ale in the USA today. To identify a bigger issue that the three listed above seems unlikely. What could be worse than those things? Surely those failings can’t be exceeded? Wrong. There is one further abuse of cask ale that I find stomach-churningly disgusting, and it has reached critical mass for me.
In the USA, casks are now being treated routinely as pseudo randalls.
This is fundamentally, WRONG.
I was aware of this problem for a long time, but it really got focused on my radar as a result of a couple of things.
Firstly AleYeah! here in Decatur took a keg of Cains Best Bitter, and ran it through a randall filled with herbs and spices. Now, ostensibly, that is not what I am talking about here (that was a keg and randall, not a cask stuffed with squirrel shit), but it does serve to illustrate a level of ignorance about tampering with beer that is important. Cains Best Bitter was CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain in the Bitter category in 1991, and although perhaps it has seen better days, it is still a beer that represents all that is fundamental about subtle, understated nuance in English beer, and to treat it in that manner was disgusting and ignorant. I have not set foot in AleYeah! Decatur since that day (I guess) 18 months ago.
CASK =/= RANDALL
…and for the piece that brought the matter to the public forum before this one.
In short, the cask delivery is supposed to be simply THAT – a delivery method. It is the delivery method that sets cask aside as being special and different, NOT the misused ‘opportunity’ to stuff a firkin full of crap that abuses and corrupts the beer. This ridiculous, ignorant and tragic practice is now commonplace, and it is totally corrupting a whole nations view of cask ale. Many Americans now think that cask ale is actually ‘a beer with stuff added’. They are being horribly misled about one of the single most important parts of beer history and culture. It breaks my heart. Where’s my kumquat infused stout? What about cocoa nibs in my porter? Why is there no sage, rosemary and thyme in my pale ale? These are questions of the ignorant. It may not be the average punters’ fault, but brewers and people that claim to understand cask beer in the US should know better and have a responsibility to uphold the great traditions.
Are there some people that understand? Sure? A couple of days ago I had a text conversation with a brewer who had recently produced a beer for a special cask event. It was a bog-standard simple beer, in a simple style brewed with a VERY special malt. He was rightly, very proud of it. When he told someone about it, their question was ‘what else did you put in it?’. He was (correctly), horrified at the question. His actual words? ‘It killed me’.
To be honest, I don’t know what the beer list looks like for later today. Maybe there will be a very large number of malt forward, low ABV beers where NOTHING has been added to the casks. Maybe, like last year, a simple beer like Adnams Broadside will win some accolades! However, given that a couple of beers advertised are the ones below, my hopes are not high and my heart (for now), remains broken.
- Strong stout with coffee, cocoa nibs, maple syrup, vanilla, wildflower honey and Mexican peppers. Aged on tequila-soaked charred American oak.
- Imperial stout fermented with cream-filled, chocolate cupcakes. Yeah, that’s no typo!
In short I can’t take it any more and in some ways America has beaten me. I know that will give a lot of people a lot of pleasure, and that’s fine, but I cannot tolerate or abide the abuse of cask anymore, and as a result I bow out.
EDIT: As a quick footnote, modest dry-hopping in a cask is part of the tradition, it’s just not my preference.