Poorly kept beer is the gripe of any drinker.  Sometimes its obvious with a distinctive egg odour, other times it is a case of “something is not quite right here”.  Either way it requires an wait while a replacement pint is poured.   There are legitimate reasons for the occasional hiccup such as the barrel just coming on or running off, that is the nature of cask beer, there is some wastage.  Even in the best ale pubs they occasionally have the duff barrel delivered, but this is usually spotted quickly within a few pints before being pulled and put aside for return to brewer.

In Calderdale, there is rarely a pub where their cask offerings are consistently not right. After 14 years in the area, I can count on less than 2 hands the times it has happened to me and many of those were at pubs which acquired new management or closed soon after, mainly due to slow trade.  However when visiting my home city of Leicester, there is still some poorly kept ale, significantly more than my adopted home town on a pro rata basis.

As part of my day job I am required to spend a couple of days a month in Attleborough, near Norwich and have stayed at the same hotel for the last 3 visits, I’ve mentioned the poor quality draft beer several times previously.  Sharps Doom Bar, which was mentioned the first time isn’t a spectacular beer, but it couldn’t be as bad as I tasted given all the plaudits it gets from regular drinkers.

Last week I gave the pub attached to the hotel a last chance to redeem themselves with their cask beer and something was still not quite right over the 2 different beers I tried.  I still couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was consistently “wrong” as it has been on my previous visits.  Bottled Worthington White Label had to come the rescue yet again.  Talking to a couple of landlords locally about about this, they say its down to poor cellar management, the dark art of rotation, storage and delivery of beer.  If you keep fresh, well rotated beer, rest it correctly before tapping, make sure your lines are clean and keep the cellar at the right temperature you can’t go far wrong.

Beers are a fresh product and can go “stale” when it has been kept open too long.  Sometimes this can be attributed to ordering a 22 when a couple of 9s or 11s would have been better (the number refers to the size of barrel in gallons) or simply a slowdown in trade leading to slower run through.  Ideally you don’t want to run a barrel for over 5 days, after that you get a drop off in freshness.  There are reasons for running a 22 gallon cask as it means swapping over the beer lines less often during busy periods, but incurs the risks above.

Beers are complicated in their nature and if you have tried a beer at the start and end of the barrel, there can be a change in the components of the beer taste, earlier pints may be more citrus in their hop notes, whereas later pints can have a drier note.   Before a beer goes on tap, it usually has to settle for a period, usually up to a week so that the intended taste is achieved and also gives a clear appearance (if that is the desired style of the brew).  Stronger brews sometimes require a lot longer, and very strong beers can survive and mature in the cask for up to a year.

The one thing that can really kill a beer however is poorly regulated cellar temperature.  If you keep it too warm, it shortens the life of the beer, giving poor beer towards the end of the cask, if it is too cold then you get chill haze which clouds the beer and you also get reduced flavour. Beer is designed to be served at cellar temperature, ranging around 52-57 Fahrenheit.  If you have tried an over chilled bottle of real ale, you know it takes time to warm to get the full taste back.  The same with an uncooled bottle at room temperature, it does taste anywhere near its peak.  Scale this up to an 88 pint cask and a minor annoyance at bottle level becomes an expensive mistake if the customers are fussy.

Add regular cleaning routines for the pipe work which gets the beer to the pump and managing the natural carbonation levels, the art of keeping ale which gets the beer from the van to your glass is far from simple, an art which should be well appreciated when done to the right standards and brought to the attention of the landlord when not.