Sunday 19 May 2024

Cask - the real story of Britain's unique beer culture, by Des de Moor

Earlier in the week I finally finished reading Cask - the story of Britain’s Unique Beer Culture. Researched and written by top beer writer Des de Moor, and published by CAMRA Books – hardly surprising, given its subject matter, Des’s book sets out to be the definitive work on the complex subject that is cask conditioned ale. Along the way the author takes a look at the ingredients and brewing processes that go into the beer which CAMRA likes to describe as, the “pinnacle of the Brewers art,” along with the cellar practices associated with looking after it. That latter statement is rather a bold one for CAMRA to be making but given that cask ale is the raison d'être for the campaign’s very existence, and the group’s undoubted success over the last half century, in saving this uniquely British type of beer, it's understandable that they should do so.

Before going any further, I must confess that I’m not the best book reviewer in the world, because I lack the dedication and highly organised mind necessary to complete the task, and even if this wasn’t the case, it’s difficult to remain completely objective especially given such a complex subject as cask. These days, I rarely read reviews prior to getting stuck into the main body of the book, and whilst this particularly applies to novels and other fictional works, it also holds true with a publication such as this. With hindsight, I did read two reviews of “Cask,” but in mitigation they were both written by bloggers who I happen to know, and whose views, by and large, I respect. So, for two thoughtful and unbiased write-ups of Des’s book, please see the links here to Tandleman and Ed Wray, both of whom seemed to get to the crux of the matter  about what the author is trying to say.

On a baking hot August day, in the late summer of 2022, I joined a tour of Hukins Hops, at their Haffenden Farm home, near Tenterden. The event was organised by Dom Bowcutt from UK Brewery Tours, who not arranged the visit but also and acted as our guide. There were several people I knew on that tour, including writer Bryan Betts, who sadly passed away at the beginning of February this year. Also present were two other writers whom I had only met on a couple of previous occasions. One was David Jesudason, author of the award-winning "Desi Pubs" and the other was Des de Moor. The latter’s 2012 CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars, whilst a little out of date now, certainly opened many people’s eyes to the diverse and vibrant beer scene that had grown up in the capital, so CAMRA’s decision to commission Des to write the definitive book on Cask, came as no surprise.

Extending the name-dropping theme a bit further, I’d met Des previously at a Beer Writers Guild event a few summer’s previously, so after he explained to the rest of our small group, that he’d come along to Hukins Hops, as part of research for his forthcoming book on Cask, everything clicked into place. “Nice work, if you can get it,” I thought but after reading the book for myself, I realised that Des must have spent countless hours, days and weeks gathering research material, on the subject, as well as tracking down the right people to speak to, and interview. Perhaps, not such nice work, after all?

A year later, and just in time for the all-important Christmas book market, Des’ magnum opus hit the bookshops and on-line retailers. Now, after treating myself to a copy, and then spending much longer reading it than I’d originally intended, I have to say that this meticulously researched, and well written publication is a real labour of love. It’s almost certainly the definitive book on cask conditioned beer, or "real ale" as CAMRA still like to call it, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to read, and from a casual readers point of view, the book is far too long.

In fact, even a confirmed beer geek like me found it hard going at times, especially as it makes the same mistake that virtually all authors who write about beer make, which is to go right back to basics, when there really is no need to. I've read countless books on beer, each taking an in depth look at the ingredients that go into producing glass of beer and the brewing process behind it. Consequently, I could tell you everything you need to know about malted barley, hops, and pure water for brewing. I could go further by describing in some detail the various stages of mashing, boiling, cooling, fermentation, racking, maturation, clarification and finally drinking. The last thing I needed to read then, was yet another in depth review of brewing.

What I did need to read was what goes on in the pub cellar, once the beer has been delivered from the brewery. I knew quite a lot of this, of course, having run my own off-licence selling cask beer, by the pint, for customers to take away and drink at home, and it is here that Des’s book comes into its own. It is also here that many of the problems associated with keeping cask ale are laid bare, and the means by which they are overcome, are laid out in full. The main problem, and the one which refuses to go away, is that of spoilage, because once broached a cask should ideally only be on service for three days, although with some care that can be extended by a further day or so.

The fact that it took me such a long time to read the book, meant there were topics and areas that I'd forgotten about, and yet somehow Des manages to not only cover them in detail, but weaves them into the main thread of the narrative. Despite all this there is one area that where no satisfactory explanation is put forward, and this is why did the rest of the beer drinking world ditch cask conditioning and opt for filtration to clear their beers and CO2 gas to dispense them? That’s if cask conditioning was that common in the rest of the world, in the first place. Pasteurisation is often involved as well, and again this process is incompatible with cask conditioning.

These issues aside Cask is still a very knowledgeable, interesting, and entertaining read, that is so packed with facts, comparisons, and derivative ideas, that it's hard to single out a single section that sums up the intriguing history of this complex beer. You’ll understand then if I won't even attempt to produce a synopsis of the book. I could recommend you buy a copy, regardless of however long it does take to read, adding if you only ever read one book on British beer, then this is it.

The proviso to this, is only do so if you’re a dedicated "beer geek" not just because, as stated earlier, Des’s book is hard going at times, but more so for the simple truth that, despite what the author claims, Cask is a dedicated piece of work for the real beer enthusiast, rather than the casual reader. I say this, without wishing to come across as elitist, or as a "beer snob", but this book really is a serious publication and whilst those wishing to learn more about what Des describes as "Britain’s greatest gift to the world of beer," will undoubtedly do so, they might have to pick their way through lots of peripheral stuff, in order to do so.

Finally, a couple of points to conclude this review. This book is well illustrated throughout, as we have come to expect from CAMRA Books, so there are plenty of photos, reproductions of old drawings and prints, alongside various tables and diagrams. These illustrations are both timely and relevant, and help break up the text

The other point goes back to the name dropping theme, towards the beginning of the post, and involves yours truly. In the chapter on cellaring & dispense, Des refers to my blog, and a post I wrote, back in 2013, where I quoted from a 1966 book on Kent Pubs, in my possession. The licensee, of a long-closed Kentish pub, told the book's author, "That the secret of keeping beer and ale,is to order it in advance, so it can lay for two weeks before you tap it." You can read that post, here.




Curmudgeon said...

From what I've heard, this book makes a number of tendentious points, and I don't want to buy and read something simply to disagree with it.

Carrot Top Man said...

This sounds like the most boring book in the world.

I would rather chop off my willy than read stuff like that. What a borefest

Paul Bailey said...

Carrot Top Man, it sounds like my review has done you a favour, then!

Carrot Top said...

I may get a copy for my ex wife, she's a bore and it's her birthday soon.

Can I have your copy or are you using it for your firepit?