Cask ale, once the preserve of chunky-knit folk-music fans, is moving out of the snug bar and into the mainstream. Cask, or "real" ale (fresh, unfiltered, unpasteurised beer containing live yeast which produces a second fermentation in the barrel at the pub) is the only beer type that is actually selling more in pubs.
Meanwhile, premium bottled beer, essentially cask ale in a bottle, is the only beer with growing off-sales and ales like the ones below are now widely available. So, were the weirdy-beardies right all along? Real ale seems to tap into the same part of the brain that craves farmers’ markets, organic food and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Even before the recession we were looking for food with authentic provenance, diversity and minimal "food miles".
Real ale ticks all the right boxes, leaving us with an intriguing contradiction. English pubs are closing at the rate of about 52 a week, yet small craft breweries are popping up everywhere. Seventy-one new breweries opened in 2009 alone, taking the total to 660, the most since the Forties. And 3,000 more pubs began serving cask ale in 2009.
And here’s the good news. According to the latest Cask Ale Report, pubs serving real ale are closing at about half the rate of those that don’t. This is because, even though real ale has a lower price and margin than draught lager, it generates a higher turnover. Real ale drinkers are a captive market in that they can find their drink only in certain pubs. They’re also regarded by their wine, vodka and piña-colada-sipping friends as "in the know" in all matters pub-related, so a group of pub-goers will generally defer to the real-ale drinker when choosing where to spend an evening. Also, the typical real-ale drinker, according to the report, is more affluent than your average lager drinker and is more likely to eat when visiting a pub, thus confirming the "lager lout" and "rugger bugger" stereotypes.
"When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England," wrote Hilaire Belloc. This St George’s Day visit your local, raise a patriotic pint and drink for England.
Three to try
Originally launched as a winter brew, this west London stalwart is a deep mahogany, full-bodied ale. Bursting with marmalade and rich malty notes (5.5% alcohol).
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord
Full-flavoured, amber-coloured Yorkshire ale, a pub favourite in its draught form. Refreshingly bitter and perfumed, with notes of orange peel and lavender. (4.1%).
Straw-coloured Wiltshire beer that is now brewed all year round. It has scents of citrus and apricot, intense, hoppy bitterness and it’s deeply refreshing (5%).
This article was first published in the April 2010 edition of Saga Magazine.