Cask beer has been with me for over 20 years now, and I can confidently say that without its existence, my life would have headed in a spectacularly different direction. Whilst some of those within the industry may see that as a big positive, I can guarantee that, for all my countless faults, I make a far better brewery owner than I ever would a bank manager or marketing executive.
My first exposure to cask was pretty much my first exposure to beer. I never really went through the rites of passage of cheap lager, cider and wine, because I was lucky enough to have a brother, Greg, running one of the best real ale pubs in Bristol. The Highbury Vaults on St Michael’s Hill was owned by (now defunct) Smiles, who had a range of beers that appealed to every single part of my as yet undeveloped tastebuds. Brewery, a 3.7% golden ale, Best – a 4.1% ruby best bitter, to this day one of my favourite beers ever. And if I was feeling particularly adventurous/pissed, Exhibition, a 5.2% “strong ale” which would barely exceed Session categorization in these Imperial-dominated days but which invariably sent my head into an unrecoverable spin back then. What I most loved about drinking these beers, as well as the pathetic smugness of thinking I was getting one over on my fizzy pop-smashing mates, was the fact that it was just so easy to drink. No conversation about the beer was needed; it flowed as a lubricant to chat, not a subject of it. Those pre-Untappd days where conversation and company trumped ticks and badges are cherished memories. I remember my first trip to Brussels a few years later, being both stunned and a little intimidated by the intensity of the discussions all around me, regarding nothing but the beer. Little did I realise what was to come in the following years, and what my part in it would be!
Anyway, back to cask. Other memories of Bristol include Bath Ales Gem at The Hare On The Hill, still going strong decades later, Wickwar BOB at 85p a pint – no misprint – at The Cadbury House, and pretty much anything being sold at the phenomenal Hillgrove Arms. Actually, that was often Brains SA and Bass. Guffy! Backed up by the best jukebox in the history of pubs.
From Bristol, life took me to Nottingham. After being hoofed out of university for caring far more about playing records (which wasn’t on the syllabus at that time) than learning, I decided I should probably get a job. This, sadly, led me to my darkest cask hour. I won’t name the pub, as for all I know they’ve sorted their act out by now and it would be unfair to the current owners to assume that this practice is still performed. For those of you that have never heard of “filtering back”, be grateful. Back in the mid-90s, way before the heady days of craft, and when yield was everything to a small pub, lots of techniques were used to make up those extra pennies. Some pubs had metered pumps dispensing unreasonable amounts of foam (something which CAMRA, to be fair to them, have done sterling work tackling over the years.) My pub had Boddington’s and Pedigree as its house cask lines. We had the usual row of drip trays, collecting the slops from each overpour or spillage. Except for one key difference. At the end of the night, the cellar manager collected all these slops into a bucket, took them downstairs, and with a rudimentary funnel and layer of filter paper the only barrier, poured this stale, flat wastage back into the casks. To this day I have no idea if this was a widespread practice across the industry, or indeed if it ever happens now, but suffice to say that within a matter of days of learning of this process, I had handed in my notice and got myself out of there. To be frank, I still regret not exposing the pub’s owners for what they did; I was a wee bit less gobby in those days…
That’s not to say that Nottingham didn’t have its high points. The Midlands has a phenomenal cask tradition, and places such as Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (tourist nonsense aside) and The Bell served me many an amazing pint of Kimberley and Castle Rock ales – again, easy-drinking, wonderfully balanced beers served properly and looked after as they should be.
Nottingham also hosted one of my still definitive cask – probably beer – experiences. I remember every part of the experience, apart from the pub it took place in. I’d never heard of any of the beers on the bar, so took a blind punt on one, brewed by Cains, a 150-year-old brewery based in Liverpool. The beer was called Red Fox, and it was as close to perfection as I’d ever tasted. Deep red in colour, creamy (that was what I was after back then – I used to drink Caffrey’s for heaven’s sake!), so much body, so accessible, so many berry fruit flavours; I can almost taste it now, and it’s probably the beer I’ve been looking for ever since! Sadly a cursory web search brings up no record of it whatsoever, so for all I know I may have imagined the whole thing.
My next memorable cask events took place in Cambridge. The Cambridge Blue on Gwydir Street is notable for two things: my introduction to Belgian Beers (WHAT a list), and some of the best-kept cask I’ve ever had. If you find yourself in the area, please go there. A pint of cask in its vast garden is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and you should deny yourself no longer.
The other thing I remember about Cambridge is the yearly delight of the CAMRA beer festival. Every May, a little part of Jesus Green gives itself up to row upon row of casks, dispensing beers and ciders, and the turnover is so rapid, the audience so thirsty, that nothing ever has the chance to proceed past its best. The serving marquee gave way to wide open greenery, students and townfolk side by side in slamming down pints of wonderful fresh ale from across the country, eating phenomenal local cheeses and meats, the best vibes, the greatest of times. When planning Cask 2018, it was these memories I tapped into. Thank you, Cambridge CAMRA. I spent so many happy afternoons and evenings at that festival over my five years in Cambridge that I was beyond surprised at the negative experience presented by GBBF, supposedly the showcase of CAMRA and indeed of British Beer. More of that later.
And so, to London. Throughout all of these experiences, I did jobs I largely despised, in order to pay the bills and allow me to pursue the things I loved doing in my spare time. One of these things resulted, via a good friend in whose debt I will forever remain, in my discovering Cask Pub & Kitchen. I remember my first pours of Dark Star Hophead, Summer Wine Diablo, anything by (sadly now defunct) Hastings Brewery, amongst so many others, and realising that I had quite simply come home. For the next eighteen months or so, it became just that. I wanted this escape from my unhappy world of work to become my actual world of work. And, via a Welsh bloke called Steve – who was to become reasonably important in my future Affinity life – it happened. I learned all about cask ale. About cellarmanship. Identifying when a beer is in that dreamlike, perfect condition to be pulled through and put on the taps (whilst knowing that it would never be as good as a taster poured straight off the cask downstairs), getting to know instinctively which beers might be a little livelier than others and so requiring a touch more venting, obsessing over balance of style and ABV. It was a whole new world, whilst at the same time taking me back to the days of my brother’s pub in Bristol, and I loved every second of it. Memorable beers of this time are much harder to list, as it was a whole new, exciting world for me? However, the three that stand out are Fyne Ales Jarl – if there’s a better cask pale in the UK, I’ve yet to try it; Siren Soundwave – my first introduction into “stronger” IPAs, and to this day one of my favourite beers in the world; and Tiny Rebel’s Vader Shuffle. This was a cask Belgian Porter (I know), brewed by Bradley and the gang in collaboration with our Steve and our Robbie (latterly of Orbit), and its bold, roasty face-off with woody, estery undertones remains to this day one of the definitive taste experiences of my life. I wanted more of these experiences, and thankfully they were everywhere.
During this time was my first (and unfortunately, only) visit to GBBF. I approached the festival full of excitement based on my experiences of Cambridge Beer Festival. I mean, it was going to be a bigger, even more fantastic version of that, right?
From the over-vented, unloved, unrepresentative pours of some of my favourite cask beers in the country, to the astonishingly long wait for something refreshing and cold from the European bar, to the frankly awful food offerings which sat like a rather large rock in my stomach and suppressed the desire for beer almost immediately, I could hardly have been more disappointed. And confused. This is an organisation who have so much passion for their product, who have campaigned tirelessly for beer’s place at the top table. Without whom most of us can probably say we wouldn’t be doing what we do today. Their phenomenal work helped to turn a country’s palate away from bland, fizzy lager and on to beers with flavour, depth and variety. But somewhere along the line, something has gone wrong. Passion has turned to complacency. A desire to change things has morphed into a fear of the innovators, and seemingly a desire to get something from, rather than give back to, this wonderful industry of ours. If your first question upon walking into a pub that you have indirectly helped to save is, “Do you do a CAMRA discount”, then you’re completely missing the point of what all your hard work has done.
It has been profoundly depressing to watch brewery after brewery abandon cask beer over the past few years. In some cases, who can blame them? When a punter refuses to pay over £3 a pint for a beer, the landlord isn’t going to want to pay much over £70 a firkin. Which many now don’t. And if the best breweries won’t supply at that price, then you can be sure that somebody will. A race to the bottom ensues.
This is what we need to challenge. This is why we have selected this fantastic, positive, innovative range of breweries, some of whom don’t even normally package into cask. This is why we’re paying every brewery £100 (+ VAT) per cask. This is why we’re going to treat every single cask with the love and attention it deserves. This is why we’ve selected food vendors to complement, not destroy, the beer. This is why we’ve used LCBF and Indyman as our influences, not GBBF. And this is why we’re asking you to pay £5 a pint for every single beer you buy on the weekend of April 7th and 8th. I still find it mystifying how anyone can be willing to pay £5 a half for a hypey keg DIPA, but balk at anything over £4 a pint for a beautifully-balanced, well-kept pint of ruby ale. If punters are willing to pay a fair price for a product that’s been treated properly, loved and presented as it deserves to be, then this filters up to the pub, then to the brewery, and cask beer survives. It’s as simple as that.
Cask has been a massive part of my life for over 20 years, and I’m not ready to say goodbye yet. We’d love to see you on the second weekend in April, to show you what it can do and why it deserves to be at the heart of every true beer lover’s agenda.
1000 Words in November
And so, here we are. One year into our Affinity adventure. After twelve long months of self-doubt, freezing cold brewdays in a shipping container and endless book balancing, we were lucky enough to celebrate our first birthday last weekend in a space where we feel we can finally express who we are. Being able to personally engage with our customers is everything to us, and Bermondsey offers a still-unique opportunity to meet and talk to beer lovers from every corner of our wonderful community.
In true Oscars style, there are far too many people we need to thank to make a decent fist of it here. However, without the love, support and unending patience of Karis and Lucy, together with our wonderful initial investors and the incomparable Clapton Craft boys, I’m pretty sure that I would be writing an entirely different piece right now. So – thank you. You made this happen for us and we’ll never forget it.
So many times over the past twelve months, we’ve heard the words, “Your labels are incredible. Do you do them yourselves?”
Well, no, we don’t. Possibly the most important meeting we’ve had was just over a year ago, when we told Tida Bradshaw that we loved the design stuff she’d been doing for Mother Kelly’s and Redchurch (amongst others), and is there any way she’d be interested in putting together a few drawings for our beers. We rather arrogantly saw her as a kindred creative spirit, somebody doing things a little differently to the established majority. Wonderfully and luckily, she said yes. And she’s been doing it ever since. From the amazing, intricate artwork for every single beer we’ve produced, to the soaring, uplifting walls of the tasting room, we’ve never told her what to do because we know that she knows exactly what we want. And she’s much better at drawing pictures than us.
Thank you Tida, for making us look pretty. We love you, and we couldn’t do what we do without you.
Our experiences at the various festivals we’ve been lucky enough to pour for this year have reinforced our faith in the goodness and class of the people we share our industry with. Old friends have been drunkenly hugged, and new bonds have been made, leading to some hugely exciting collaborations in the months ahead. The reaction to our Cask 2018 Project from some of the biggest names in the industry has been truly humbling, and we’re giddily excited at putting on an event in April to hopefully challenge convention, but more importantly, to provide you all with some world-class beer served as it needs and deserves to be.
Our larger brewkit and increased capacity also allows us the opportunity to do what we love doing most – experiment. There are many beer styles that Steve and I have been very keen to play with, but have so far been unable to fit into our schedule. This is what has led to The Calendar Series – one new release a month, each one a different style from across the beer world, and each one seasonal. We hope you’ll enjoy drinking these beers as much as we’ll enjoy creating them, and some of the creations will no doubt lead to some healthy debate about what constitutes specific styles. We love a chat.
Which leads me to my final point…
Steve and I have been immersed in the British beer community for a combined decade plus, and the collaborative, respectful tone of the way we address each other is something to be cherished. There’s no doubt, however, that of late, an unsavoury edge has been added to the usual discourse. Criticism and counter-criticism have always been part of beer, of any industry, indeed of life itself. Monopolies are what small businesses fight against. Individuality and the right to an opinion, however dissenting, are cornerstones of who we are. So to see people hauled over the coals, publicly mocked, dismissively accused of jealousy, simply for expressing an opinion that challenges the status quo, is depressing in the extreme. It is perfectly valid for somebody to have an opinion that, for example, a certain style of beer is being exploited for profit, rather than created with love and care. Some of the hysterical rhetoric reminds me of the time when a group of “celebrity” chefs, who should’ve known much better, ganged up on a reviewer several years ago for simply giving one of them a bad review. When did people become so desperate for validation from absolutely everyone, that one counter opinion became such a threat to their existence? Now I don’t mind admitting that a trawl through Untappd (for which I am rightly berated by my business partner) occasionally sows the seeds of annoyance within me. An ill-informed review from a person who has missed the point of what we’ve tried to achieve can be intensely irritating, but is an inevitable part of the journey of any business. They are entitled to their opinion. I don’t feel the need to attack and humiliate them for having it. That would be cowardly, counterproductive and wholly unnecessary. We need to be strong enough, confident enough of our own abilities, to brush off these words, move on and accept that there is actually a lot of constructive content to be found in others’ criticism. People who don’t agree with you are not “haters”; they’re people who don’t agree with you. There’s a guy in Washington right now behaving like an aggressive spoilt child online; the less our industry’s behaviour mirrors his, the better. Let's hope it disappears as quickly as it started.
Anyway, enough of that. A massive cheers again to everyone who’s supported us and beered with us over the past 12 months. And thank you to the wonderful breweries who continue to inspire us, and make exciting, innovative beer to draw more people into our still-tiny fold.
Here’s to another year of great friends, great beer and great discussion.
And a Labour government.