We've all been there. A pint of cask-conditioned beer, much anticipated, but flat in the glass, brimming with off-flavours and possessed with as much character as the Invisible Man. 

It might also be served too warm or too cold — one in four UK pubs had a major temperature issue in 2016 according to the Beer Quality Report of 2017.

When events like this happen too often, questions are asked by both customers and licensees about cask's viability. Drinkers begin to avoid cask like the plague, while licensees start perceiving it might be too troublesome. This is not only damaging to the pub or bar in question, but also to the cask sector.

 

PintofBeerFoam

 

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, more robust and seemingly easier to handle, the new wave of keg beers, or craft keg if you like, is a more attractive proposition. It's especially attractive to those who started their beer journey on BrewDog's Punk IPA and have now progressed to the likes of Camden and Beavertown, none of whom produce cask-conditioned beer.

There is also a small but growing number of specialist beer bars where cask is absent, including the Norwich Tap House, the Grunting Growler in Glasgow, Mother Kelly's in Bethnal Green and fellow Londoner The Arbitrager.

Dan Solo, general manager at The Arbitrager, explains its absence: "We opened in 2015 keg only. Given the size of the bar we don't have the space for cask, but as well as that personally for me I wouldn't. I have worked with cask before and I like it but personally I think it's slowly dying."

A dramatic statement indeed and to understand Solo's view, we have to look at some of cask's problems, perceived or otherwise. For a start, there is the issue of staff, as Rory Walker, at the Borough in Lancaster explains.

"There is certainly apprehension about cask among some staff, particularly those that don't drink it themselves," he says. "Bar work is often a transitory profession and responsibility is left with a small group of experienced staff or managers. Everyone has their own way of doing it that works for them.

"Maybe it's best left to senior staff or maybe everyone should be trained, encouraged and supported. It always helps if all staff are able to sell cask to customers even if they don't manage the cellar.'

According to Benjamin Thomas at the Plasterers' Arms in Norwich, where 15 cask beers and nine keg are offered, "for many people the style, serve/temperature and depth of flavours of cask beers are better than keg."

 

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He continues: "Keg beer is increasing in popularity because brewers aren't as constrained by old fashioned styles that cask breweries think they should be producing, so there's just more delicious stuff out there. We sell a lot of cask beer still though because we spend a lot of time trying to get hold of the most exciting and interesting beer available."

Even though keg beer still needs a certain amount of care and attention, looking after cask can be pretty demanding according to Mark Dorber at the Anchor in Walberswick.

"It is not the physical preparation, stillaging, conditioning, maturing and tapping so much as the need for constant awareness of the carbonation and fitness of the beer in cask during its time in the cellar. It is the attention that has to be devoted to cask beer, a rapidly perishable liquid, that is energy sapping.

"A publican's day is full of diversions and interruptions, and so the need to be on top of cask ale can be a task too far for those who are not natural beer nuts like me."

So what exactly can be done to make sure that your pub's cask offerings are in tip-top condition? Obviously, serving the beer at its correct temperature and regularly cleaning the lines are two musts.

Staff training is also essential, not just with the actual nuts and bolts of cellar management, but with beer styles. Drinkers have a lot more knowledge these days and bar staff need to be able to answer questions with confidence.

Licensees also need to think about what beers to put on the bar-top and realise that it might be more judicious sometimes to pick keg over cask.

 

Porter

 

According to West Berkshire Brewery boss Simon Lewis: "When it comes to selecting beers for your pub, there is one major priority. Quality. There is no point in offering a vast array of adventurous cask ales unless you have the facilities and expertise to serve them at their very best.

"It is better to offer a smaller, well-edited selection of fine beers that you can serve at premium quality, and give your customers the sort of excellent experience that will bring them back to your pub in the future. The aim should be to provide a varied choice that will offer something for everyone.

"Keg offers ease of serve, an option to buy smaller quantities and tends to be the format of choice for the newer, edgier craft beers. For pubs and bars with limited throughput keg may be a more practical choice than cask."

On the other hand, Pete Tilley, at the multi-award-winning Salutation Inn in the Gloucestershire village of Ham, doesn't know why cask and keg cannot sit alongside each other in perfect harmony at the bar.

"Whilst I love craft keg I am always disappointed when I walk into a specialist beer bar and they don't have any representation of our national drink.

"Cask is a brilliant way to serve beer, so I'm always quite sad when I don't see it in beer bars. I suppose the only time for me when it makes sense to focus on craft keg rather than cask is if the licensee wants to showcase a huge range of beers from a large number of beer lines and is worried about selling them fast enough."

There's still plenty of life in cask yet, but sometimes keg can give the beer-loving licensee a helping hand.