I love cask beer, but there's an awful lot of horseshit preached about it, particularly from certain sectors of that lot over to the east of here. One of the observations that often gets trotted out is "I've never had a well-kept cask beer that's not been better than the brewery-conditioned version". Fair enough: you can't argue with anecdotes, but I have a theory that this cask-is-always-best principle only holds up for beers which were designed for cask in the first place. It is, by and large, a British thing, and people who believe it need to get out more.
So, mostly for my own reference, I thought I'd take advantage of this month's Session to examine the handful of beers I know in various dispense formats and see just how often natural condition is the best method of serving.
The two examples I trot out most frequently are Clotworthy Dobbin and Galway Hooker -- two of the best ales in regular production on this island. Bottled Hooker does not yet exist, but I've encountered it on cask on several occasions and it's always lacking. It's very much a hop-driven beer, and the Cascade and Saaz get deliciously propelled by the pressurised CO2, creating a clean, refreshing zingy session beer. When that force is taken away it ends up flat, watery and quite green-tasting, like it's not finished. What it probably needs for cask purposes is a dose of dry hops, but as-is it just doesn't work. Clotworthy also loses its hop character on cask. I'm most familiar with the force-carbonated bottle where late Cascade adds a mouth-watering fruitiness to the dark chocolatey ruby porter. The one time I had it on keg this interplay of malt and hops was even more pronounced, and if it wasn't for a bit of a metallic bum-note on the end, it would have been sublime -- I definitely look forward to seeing the keg version again. But on cask this all gets blended into a homogeneous brown lump, indistinguishable from a zillion other brown beers. A case for dry-hopping again, I reckon. Consider this next to the extremely unhoppy Curim Gold wheat beer from Carlow Brewing. I don't think I've met anyone who likes the dishwater bottled version; the keg edition has more of a fanbase but was still a little soapy for me; but on cask it's stunning -- jam-packed with witbier spice and refreshing lemony zing.
And yet, big hop flavours don't always die in the cask. Porterhouse Hop Head is a beer not at all dissimilar to Galway Hooker -- a bit bigger, a bit bitterer -- and it works equally well from cask, keg and naturally-conditioned bottle. If anything the bitterness is even more extreme in the cask edition, which is why I'd generally opt for it kegged, if given a choice.
Where I've found cask really works best, however, is with black beers. O'Hara's Stout, Porterhouse Plain and Porterhouse Oyster all far outshine their force carbonated incarnations. At least part of this is the unmitigated evil of nitrogenation. I can completely understand why Guinness came up with it: I'd say the early test batches of keg Guinness Extra Stout didn't get very far since the feel of CO2-pressurised draught stout was all wrong. It would have been so good if they'd just said "Well, there you go: you can't keg stout" and went back to casking. Instead, they managed to recreate the texture of the cask beer, but via a method which destroys its taste and aroma. I've met very few beers which are bold enough to stand up to nitro, Wrassler's XXXX being about the only one I can think of, and the Porterhouse have achieved this by brewing a monstrously aggressive stout that's probably undrinkable any other way (bottle-conditioned edition out soon, I hear: beware!). It's a massive shame that even across the water, in the spiritual home of cask beer, the style of beer which works best on cask is overwhelmingly represented by smoothflow keg rubbish. Where are the mainstream cask stouts from Britain's large regional breweries? Why aren't they as ubiquitous as the brown bitter and nitrokeg stout?
I should add that even stout-is-best-on-cask isn't a universal rule. Hilden's Molly's Chocolate Stout manages to dodge most of the rich sumptuous roasty flavours and comes out rather boring and thin. The bottled version at least adds a certain carbonic dryness that makes it a little more interesting. Which brings me on to the beer I'm wedging in for review in this post. It's not one I've had from the cask, but it is bottle-conditioned and wears its "CAMRA says..." badge up front with pride on its neck.
On pouring, Hook Norton Double Stout does a very good impression of a cask stout, coming out smooth and foamy though just a teensy bit overzealous with the carbonation. From the off-white head you get an enticing nosefull of dry and crunchy roasted barley or black malt. The foretaste contrasts this with a silky, creamy, chocolate sensation, followed by a brief tang of hops. Finally, there's a dry finish to clear the palate for the next mouthful. All this complexity on a mere 4.8% ABV makes it nearly perfect as a session stout. I'd love to try it on cask and would be willing to bet that the dryness tones down and even more of that chocolate creaminess comes to the front and hangs around. Yum.
While I remain incredulous in the face of the CO2 fundamentalists, it's only when we turn to stout that I have to bite my lip.