My first experience of looking after cask beer was when I was working my way through Uni, or possibly more accurately working through my uni days to pay for my drinks…
I was at Brighton Uni and circa 1999 I got myself a job at The Font & Firkin, Brighton. We had a brewkit onsite brewing kilderkins (18g casks) of ‘Font Bitter’ and occasionally others from now legendary Firkin range. I didn’t get it, I wasn’t interested in the brewing process, I hadn’t developed a taste for bitter. To be frank I didn’t really like many of the lagers I tasted then either. My beer journey hadn’t properly begun.
Looking back I’m gutted I didn’t make more of the opportunity. I barely spoke to the brewer, I never even looked into the brewhouse to smell that sweet aroma of mashed barley and hop steam. What a waste, if only I could kick my 19 year old self and tell him what he was missing!
It was my move to London, and more specifically The Flask in Highgate, that jump started my beer journey. The Flask was an M&B Castle pub at the time (now Fuller’s) and at then under the management of Andrew Cooper, who later went on to found Wild Beer Co. I’d just moved from working in a high street bar with ‘Double up for £1’ offers, and a standard 4x macro lagers, plus Guinness, plus smooth, plus cider line-up. I was somewhat intimidated by the taps, and especially the cellars (yes two cellars!)…
There were six handpulls, including Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and Adnams Broadside on permanently, all cared for in a separate ale cellar. The rest of the draught line up included Belgian beers such as Leffe & Dekonink. Schneider Weiss was on tap, the fridges had a smattering of Trappist ales with a few of the early American Craft imports. In 2004 this was a beer lovers paradise. However, in early 2004, I was not a beer lover!
Its hardly surprising that this changed though, and rapidly. Surrounded by these beers, and tutored by Andrew, I fell hook line and sinker*. Our four changing guest cask lines would have beers such as Hop Back Summer Lightning, Exmoor Gold and Butcombe Bitter (Three of my faves, although I’m sure we had beer that hadn’t originated in the West County too!). We had somewhere in the region of 20 stillages, 6 or 7 taken up by the Kilderkins of Broadside and Timmy T’s. Landlord which always was, and I am assured still is, an untamed beauty, or beast depending on how wet you got. Those kils had a mind of their own, unpredictable and full of life. The effort, and the frequent beer showers, were worth it though, to be able to serve and drink, such a wonderful beer.
Two years working around the Castle pubs left me with an undeniable passion for beer. I was just starting to discover Beer and Food matching and it seemed all of the most interesting things in the UK beer scene happened outside of London (honestly, it was true back then!) Exciting cask ale brewers like Crouch Vale, Kelham Island, Hop Back couldn’t afford to be based in the capital. Many were rural, and servicing rural pubs really well. The restrictions of a pub groups buying list we’re starting to get to me. After another short stint working with Andrew at his first independent pub in Herefordshire, I took the plunge…
I bought The Thatcher’s Arms on the rural Essex, Suffolk borders with my parents in 2006. It served, and always had for as long as time remembered, Greene King IPA. I was told we couldn’t change it, the locals would resist, it’s what they wanted. But the pub was taking less than £2k a week and those locals were a jolly bunch who, as it turned out, were up for a beer journey.
The first cask we ever cellared at The Thatcher’s was Crouch Vale Essex Boys best. The customers never saw any of it, friends and family enlisted to help us ready for re-opening did though. It was a gorgeous chestnut colour, it had sweetness and nuttiness, finished by a healthy dollop of lingering bitterness. It was moreish, and we ran out pretty quickly as I remember. I had to take the troops out for beers to keep up morale!
The first cask ale the customers ever tasted under our stewradship was Adnams Southwold Bitter. We started with just one handpull (despite having 5 installed) and Southwold was to be our new mainstay, a statement in Greene King country that we thought about beer differently. It was less nutty than Essex Boys, and with that distinctive sulphurous Adnams first impression, it was certainly different to the Greene King IPA our customers were used to. The Adams was, reluctantly to start with, accepted. It never left the bar, and by the tine we left almost 8 years on, we were serving over 200 pints every week.
Our second line (just on weekends to start with) was to be our guest ale. Adnams Broadside went on first, in recognition of my days at The Flask. However, it’s a big beer when even your neighbours live far enough way to drive to the pub… Our patrons asked for something lighter. Around week 2 we put Crouch Vale Brewers Gold on as the guest. I could wax lyrical about this beer and come up with tasting notes all of my own, but they wouldn’t do the beer as much justice as Adrian Tierney-Jones did when he wrote about drinking something “as fruity as Carmen Miranda’s hat” on visiting The Thatchers. The customers seemed to agree, and kept asking for it when it ran out. Somewhere very soon after its first appearance as a guest beer, Brewers Gold became our second permanent line and we moved our guest ale to line three. Our lager drinkers switched to Brewers, people travelled to us specifically for the Brewers Gold, it was the default first pint for most of the staff and customers. Four to five firkins were being drained every week by the time we left in 2014.
I loved my cellar at The Thatcher’s, directly under the bar, accessed via a ludicrously dangerous floor hatch, I would disappear to “check on my babies” as my mum used to say. By the time we left we usually had 5 ales on all the time, we ran twice yearly beer festivals with up to 20 ales on for the weekend. Cask ale was the lifeblood of the Thatcher’s. I’m salivating remembering my daily pre opening ritual of pouring off the beer in the line for beer batter for the kitchen then pouring a little snifter of each out, swirling, sniffing and tasting each one in turn making sure they were worthy of staying on the bar.
As an aside, I remember the first time I bought a cask of Taylor’s Landlord to serve at The Thatchers. Before we even got it to the beer festival stillage the cask, which was laying upside down atop another firkin in the cellar, popped it’s shive and drained itself leaving not a drop for anybody and a hole in our festival line up!
I’ve had plenty of beer during lockdown, rarely more than one a night, but I’ve missed cask. You can’t do it at home, some takeaway growlers of London Brewing Co came close, but it’s still not the same as being in the pub watching that bright white lacing coat the inside of the glass as the beautifully conditioned pint slowly dissapears. It’s cask I’ll be drinking when I get back to the pub and I’m planning for that to be very soon.
* I also fell hook line and sinker for Sarah, my then colleague and now wife and mother of our gorgeous son Henry x