Following up on my previous post, and prompted by a comment made by Curmudgeon, I would like to move on and examine the effect that good cellar practice has on the flavour and character of the finished beer.
Most people are familiar with the story about how bitter, as a style of beer, developed from so-called “running ales” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily to do away with the lengthy maturation periods necessary for high strength IPA’s. Running ales were designed to undergo a short maturation in the pub cellar, before being considered ready for consumption. This maturation process is known as "cask-conditioning", because the beer comes into condition in the cask, and the beer itself, of course, is cask-conditioned ale (often referred to as "Real Ale") .
As an aside, I don’t think that cask-conditioned beer can be a solely British thing. Presumably, before the advent of filtration and pasteurisation, all beers would have continued to ferment slowly and come to maturation in the cask. However, particularly in the case of pilsner-style beers, where clarity of appearance is of prime importance, cask-conditioning would not give quite the degree of clarity demanded; neither could the necessary levels of carbonation be achieved either.
Moving on, as cask-conditioned beers grew in popularity, the demand for people with the necessary cellar skills increased as well. Certainly during the first half of the last century, it was not uncommon for pubs to employ a cellar-man, whose main task was to ensure the pub’s beers were served in tip-top condition. Most large pubs, and even some of the smaller ones, would have employed such a person; a necessity when one considers the phenomenal amounts of bee that would have been served, particularly in industrial areas, where heavy manual work was the order of the day – mining, iron and steel, ship building etc.
The father of a friend of ours once told me about the part time job he had, helping out with the cellar work at a pub in Dartford. It was particularly interesting to learn that 50 years ago, most draught (cask) beer was supplied to pubs un-fined, and the landlords, or their cellar-men, would add the finings themselves. Tony remembers doing this, (we would be talking some time during the 1960’s). There may have been advantages for both brewer and publican alike with this practice. For example, it is known that finings gradually lose their ability to remove suspended yeast from beer each time the cask is disturbed. So for example, if the finings are added at the brewery they will start to work straight away, but will then be re-mixed when the cask is loaded onto the dray. Again, during transit the finings will start to work, but the contents of the cask are then disturbed again when delivery to the pub takes place. The landlord, or his cellar man, may choose to stillage the cask straight away, or they may leave it, standing on end and then stillage it at a later date. Each time it is moved the contents will be disturbed and the finings will have to do their job all over again, and each time their power (ability) to clarify the beer becomes less and less. On paper then it seems quite advantageous for the finings to be added in the pub cellar; so why then did this practice die out?
The main reasons have to be those of poor quality draught beer, caused by a variety of reasons, but in particular by a paucity of landlords, or other skilled personnel with the necessary cellar skills. Worried by a lack of control over the final quality of their beer, along with concerns over other related issues such as unhygienic or incorrect temperature storage conditions for the finings, (especially in the days before temperature controlled cellars), brewers took the task of fining their beers back in-house. This was in spite of the disadvantages of fining at the brewery, mentioned earlier. Although they now had total control over the fining of their beers, there were other areas where, in more recent years, they have also been pro-active in changing things, and not always for the good so far as drinkers are concerned.
The prime areas are those of controlling the yeast count of the beer, when it leaves the brewery, and that of cutting down on the degree of maturation/conditioning that occurs in the pub cellar. The two areas go hand in hand, with most of the maturation now taking place at the brewery in special, temperature-controlled, "conditioning tanks". The yeast count can now be much more carefully controlled. Both these processes mean there is less work for the publican/cellar-man to do, and also much less time is needed for the beer to drop “bright” and thus be ready to serve. I have known casks to clear in a matter of hours, and it is almost unheard of these days for a cask not to have dropped bright overnight. It could be argued that as there is so little suspended yeast in some beers when they arrive in the pub cellar, the term "cask-conditioned" hardly applies! It often seems that clarity is now the sole criterion when judging beer quality, and other equally important considerations, such as degree of condition, removal of so-called "green flavours" associated with immature beer, have gone straight out the window, along with aroma, taste, depth of flavour, etc.! Less time for publicans to wait before the beer can be served, unfortunately often means less time for characteristic “signature” flavours to develop, and this may well be the reason that many once classic beers are now mere shadows of their former selves.
One very recent development in cask beer cuts maturation times even further. fastcask™ is a new innovation from Marston's. The idea behind it is, as the trade marked name suggests, the beer clears virtually straight away. This video from the company shows a cask of Hobgoblin being delivered to a pub cellar, where it is immediately stillaged, tapped and spiled. Despite having just been dropped down the cellar chute, rolled and man-handled into place, the beer is bright and ready to serve immediately after tapping. The company also claim that if the cask is accidentally knocked, or other-wise disturbed, the beer will remain clear. The beer is not “bright” in the commonly accepted use of the word in brewing circles, that is to day it has not been filtered. However, instead of yeast suspended in the usual fashion, the yeast in fastcask™ has been bonded to gel-like beads which, being much denser than normal yeast particles, will sink to the bottom of the cask more or less straight away.
The system was launched in a blaze of publicity two or three years ago, and whilst several Marston’s beers are available in fastcask™ form, Hobgoblin is now only sold in this form. Whilst I can see the obvious advantages of this innovation, especially with regard to handling in the pub cellar, but also as a means of persuading pubs which may not have considered taking cask beer before to now stock it, I can’t help thinking that cutting down on maturation times prior to serving the beer is a step in the wrong direction. Time spent conditioning and maturing the beer has been sacrificed for the expediency of being able to serve the beer straight away. This development is designed for lazy publicans and for people who are unable to plan ahead. I'm not sure just how well fastcask™ has caught on. I certainly haven't read or seen anything more about it recently.
Looking back to my earlier point about what went on in pub cellars half a century ago, I want to end with the following two stories which nicely illustrate old time cellar practices:
Most readers will know I don’t like Shepherd Neame beers, but some will be unaware that back in the late 1970’s - early 80’s their bitter was one of my favourite beers. The all time, absolute best pint of Shep's available locally (or indeed anywhere) was to be had at the Dog & Bear at Lenham. This picturesque village is roughly halfway between Maidstone and Ashford, and the Dog & Bear is a splendid old, former coaching inn overlooking the village square. At the time I am referring to, the pub was presided over by a very dour, yet real character of a landlord known universally as "Squirrel". I never did discover his real name, but Squirrel's Bitter was unsurpassed. Squirrel’s domain was the saloon bar of the Dog & Bear, whilst his wife, Joyce, presided over the public bar. The bars were even signed accordingly as "Squirrels Bar" and “Joyce’s Bar”.
Although not revealing his name, "Squirrel" did divulge his secret of keeping and serving such an excellent pint of Shep's. However, this knowledge was not disseminated to me, but rather to a fellow CAMRA member (now sadly passed away), who not only lived locally but who had been using the Dog & Bear for many years. What Squirrel did was quite simply to order sufficient beer in advance to enable casks to be kept in his cellar for a minimum of two weeks, before tapping them. The result was an absolute explosion of hoppiness, combined with an extremely well conditioned and matured pint. It certainly ranks as being amongst the finest beer I have ever tasted.
The practice of leaving the beer to mature in the cellar was also endorsed in one of the Batsford pubguides. "Kent Pubs", written by D.B. Tubbs and published in 1966, contains a remark attributed to Mr Bob Harvey, landlord of the now sadly closed, Woodman’s Arms, at Hassel Street, near Wye. “The secret of keeping beer and ale, my lad, is to order it in advance so it can lay for two weeks before you tap it". If only modern landlords would adopt this practice, the beer drinker’s lot would be a much happier (and hoppier) one!