Ding’s Beer Blog

My cask tears – Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting 2013

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.

Secondly, Ed (@TheDogsofBeer on Twitter) wrote this blog post. In it, he explains much of what I say here, and he should take the credit for inspiring my new mantra of…..

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.


27 Comments

  1. Ah, some thing near and dear to me also, and I emphatically agree with your observations about casks in the US. I have managed the Great Taste of the Midwest’s real ale tent for nine wonderful festivals, and I see alarming signs that American brewers and tavern folks have even less idea of what cask ale is as time goes by. We had some truly weird casks such as Berliner weiss (!!!??) and sundry sour, foamy firkins that really made me wonder. How will brewers learn about cask ale when we become a more insular, uneducated and untraveled place to live? We’re talking about beer from the mother country, which may morph to Mexico with time, but nevertheless the source of most of our political and social customs. Education is the key and maybe we need to go 21st century to spread the word on a 19th century beer style. Is a video blitz featuring casks and screaming singers what we need now to spread the word? I save my dollars and go to the UK for cask refreshment, and highly recommend Liverpool’s pubs and festivals as antidotes to our cask bungling. It doesn’t ship well overseas.

  2. You are the first American – brewer or otherwise – I have listened to, read, or met, who truly understands cask beer.

    I heartily agree with every point you make. Americans simply don’t understand.

    I’ve been attending US cask ales fests since the mid-1990s. My hope were always high–and always dashed. Twenty years later, it has gotten worse.

    Then again, the bizarre, over-hopped, out-of-balance, uselessly weird ingredient concoctions that are coming out of most US micros these days fail on all levels.

    Like great artists, US breweries need to try to master and perfect classic styles before they branch out to being ground-breaking.

    Sadly, the only ground they are breaking is the ground at their own collective funerals.

    Well done and intelligent commentary on cask ale!

  3. Ding,
    I head over to the Reading Real Ale and Cider Festival in a few weeks. I’m gonna blog my experience at realaleamerica.com

    Of course I’ll be doing some ‘research’ at a few places in London before I show up at Reading to work at the festival.

    Thought you might like to check it out ( Let me know if you want to join me. I can probably get you on the cellaring team).

  4. Just attended the 2014 Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting for the first and last time ever. Everything you talk about here is spot on. The beers offered there were these absurd abominations that barely resembled beer at all. That same chocolate nib porter with red savina peppers was there and I couldn’t drink ever 4 ozs of it let alone a whole pint.

  5. Ding, I added my blog link to the wordpress form. The link is activated by clicking on my name (wasn’t obvious to me. May be obvious to you)

  6. Ding,
    Here you go.

  7. I know this is an older thread, but I have to chime in.

    What a enjoyable article to read on cask beer. I have had the same thoughts when attending a ‘Real Ale Festival’ in Baltimore, MD. I came away wondering where the real ale was. There were 41 beers and two would even pass as real ale. My thoughts were to stop calling it a real ale festival and call it ‘our regular beer in a firkin festival’ because that’s all it was.

    I am on a personal quest to learn about cask beer. I’ve visited the UK twice this year. I worked a week on the Reading Real Ale and Cider Fest as a volunteer on the cellaring team and spent a week near Manchester taking a course on brewing real ale. Both visits with much homework after hours.

    I did private blog on my last visit to some friends. It was good to be able to get my thoughts out of my head while experiencing the overwhelming learning curve.

    You are on my reading list now. Thank you.

  8. A BA link this morning (Thanks Paxton1978!) brought me here. I know the article is oldish but like you I’m a working man with a wife and children to live for.

    I am truly shocked by what you have described here. It is an abomination. And you have my sympathy.

    BTW, you are greatly missed at BA but you are obviously in a better place here.

  9. When I am at an establishment that offers cask, I always order that first, with my next look to order that brew on-tap, and compare the brews. The cask is almost without fail my preferred delivery method. However, as you are aware, cask-enabled locations are few and far between, and second, often the on-tap equivalent of the is not available, and/or the cask has been adulterated/violated by something which makes no comparison possible.

    A couple of your points made me laugh with familiarity. I don’t know how many times I have read a local has a firkin of whatever available (YAY!), only to find out it was on oranges or cake or something (BOOO!)… And I could pretty much repeat your line word-for-word with a slight age change in regards to having family responsibilities and not being able to rush down and stand in line or fight for a brew. Just can’t rationalize the Beer First mentality at this point in my life. If that makes me less a beer aficianado, so be it.

    Cheers!

    Cheers for the commentary, sorry that you couldn’t find more cask common ground locally. I hope sooner than later you are forced to eat your words and return to your Atlanta beer events, but I won’t hold my breath…

  10. Subtlety and complexity are words that frequently get me into heated arguments. Even when I’m not looking for one.

  11. First, thanks for the shout out. I’m sure though that if I hadn’t gone off on my little rant you’d have brought this topic up eventually.

    As I said in my original post, I have more of a “live and let live” attitude about these things they you do. You’re just not going to stop the current craft beer “creative” avalanche the is prevalent in the current US beer scene. But it does sadden me that for a lot of people this avalanche has run over things like traditional cask beer without even stopping to see what it’s truly all about.

    This was never made more apparent to me than when I recently ran into a couple who are craft beer lovers who hated their vacation in London from a beer stand point because they couldn’t find anything like “Hop Devil on cask”. But that’s another rant, maybe.

  12. If the casks are being used as glorified randalls perhaps the easiest, simplest solution would be to stop referring to these vessels AS “cask”. Perhaps Dogfish Head has a trademark on “randall” (I’m not sure), so if containers with cupcakes and spices and whatnot weren’t referred to as “cask” but rather _____ would you be okay with that?

    I would be.

  13. What a great post! #1 hit home for me. I am in my infancy when it comes to cask ales (I can probably count on one hand the number that I’ve had). But I agree 100% that the type/style of beer matters.

    I went into a brewpub in Maine that had their standard bitter on both cask and regular tap. Ordering both was a great cask learning experience. Wish things like that were readily available.

    Great post!

  14. Ding,

    We are cut from the same cloth. Couldn’t agree more. The only worse travesty is coming up with an event where you invite the non-brewing public to come shove crap into a cask and then have an drink fest to “promote” cask awareness.

    I bowed out of that event the year “Little Chocolate Donuts” won Best in Show.

    • John – Thanks for taking the time. Yep, ‘Brew your cask off’ was/is (is it still going on?) an absolutely DISGUSTING travesty. A crime against cask ale. I went to the first one and was truly appalled. Don’t know that I’ve witnessed a more horrific beer event.

  15. The Cains Best Bitter through the Randall of spices is the worst abomination I’ve heard since Burger King’s Croissan’wich. The saddest part is that while the latter was perpetrated by a corporate fast food chain, the former was perpetrated by so-called beer advocates. Hopeless.

  16. They did WHAT to the Cains? I know it wasn’t the greatest (whatever CAMRA said) – ASDA used to sell it in 4 packs for about three quid, but adding that crap to it is sacrilege in anyone’s book.

  17. Yeah, if we’re doing chocolate cupcake-aged cask beers now, I think you might be in for a long wait.

    That one sounds particularly awful, for the record. Type II diabetes in a glass. Just what we need.

  18. You are, sadly, very close to 100% accurate here. People – and brewers especially – just don’t understand the processes involved and the beautiful nuances of a well made cask ale. So we end up with all of the crazy shit stuffed in there – in volume. For me it’s less a matter of “tradition” than it is simply a matter of what is good and bad.

    I disagree in that some high abv beers are really nice on cask actually. IPAs can be a treat, but they certainly drink very different than when served on tap. The shoulders of the malt are much more forward and that can make for a nice change of pace.

  19. While you’re right on point about the abuse of cask ale in America – I still have yet to find a cask IPA I like – you have to consider that America has a long, proud tradition of ignoring traditions. The one tradition we observe here anymore consists of camping out days ahead of time for, and trampling anyone who gets in the way of, purchasing cheap crap for Christmas. This is after we’ve stuffed ourselves full of chemical-soaked bird flesh, carbs and liquor, mind you.

    What you have described in this post is an accurate but sad commentary on how we treat our beer. And if you’ve had the Rogue Maple Bacon Donut Coffee Chai Elderberry Smoked Baltic Porter with Spruce Tips (aged in used Thunderbird bottles version, of course – only 19.99/bottle, limit 1 case!), you know it’s a sad commentary on how brewers treat their customers.

    To keep this short, America is both great and an embarrassment because it is simply unable to leave well enough alone.

    • I agree 100%, but my (perhaps forlorn) hope is that the next part of the evolution of beer in America will be one where restraint and understatement comes to the fore. Your comments about brewers is the most damning of course, because if they don’t get it, the consumers have got no chance.

      You can still have local interpretations without totally abusing tradition and fundamentals. However, let’s just say that I’m not holding my breath!

  20. Ding, what do you mean by ‘bow out’? I hope you don’t mean from blogging about beer- many of us enjoy your writing and would miss it.

    • Ha! No, I’ll be ‘blogging on’, but beer events in Atlanta after today will be a thing of the past. Thanks for the kind words, some would say I don’t deserve them!