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Earlier in the week I finally finished reading Cask - thestory of Britain’s Unique Beer Culture. Researched and written by top beerwriter Des de Moor, and published by CAMRA Books – hardly surprising, given itssubject matter, Des’s book sets out to be the definitive work on the complexsubject that is cask conditioned ale. Along the way the author takes a look at theingredients and brewing processes that go into the beer which CAMRA likes todescribe as, the “pinnacle of the Brewers art,” along with the cellar practicesassociated with looking after it. That latter statement is rather a bold onefor CAMRA to be making but given that cask ale is the raison d'être for thecampaign’s very existence, and the group’s undoubted success over the last halfcentury, in saving this uniquely British type of beer, it's understandable thatthey should do so.
Before going any further, I must confess that I’m not thebest book reviewer in the world, because I lack the dedication and highlyorganised mind necessary to complete the task, and even if this wasn’t thecase, it’s difficult to remain completely objective especially given such a complexsubject as cask. These days, I rarely read reviews prior to getting stuck intothe main body of the book, and whilst this particularly applies to novels andother fictional works, it also holds true with a publication such as this. With hindsight, I did read two reviews of “Cask,” but inmitigation they were both written by bloggers who I happen to know, and whoseviews, by and large, I respect. So, for two thoughtful and unbiased write-upsof Des’s book, please see the links here to Tandleman and Ed Wray, both of whomseemed to get to the crux of the matter about what the author is trying tosay.
On a baking hot August day, in the late summer of 2022, Ijoined a tour of Hukins Hops, at their Haffenden Farm home, near Tenterden.The event was organised byDom Bowcutt from UK Brewery Tours, who not arranged the visit butalso and acted as our guide. There were several people I knew on thattour, including writer Bryan Betts, who sadly passed away at the beginning ofFebruary this year. Also present were two other writers whom I had only met ona couple of previous occasions. One was David Jesudason, author of the award-winning"Desi Pubs" and the other was Des de Moor. The latter’s 2012 CAMRA Guide toLondon’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars, whilst a little out of date now, certainlyopened many people’s eyes to the diverse and vibrant beer scene that had grownup in the capital, so CAMRA’s decision to commission Des to write thedefinitive book on Cask, came as no surprise.
Extending the name-dropping theme a bit further, I’d met Des previously at a BeerWriters Guild event a few summer’s previously, so after he explained to therest of our small group, that he’d come along to Hukins Hops, as part ofresearch for his forthcoming book on Cask, everything clicked into place. “Nicework, if you can get it,” I thought but after reading the book for myself, Irealised that Des must have spent countless hours, days and weeksgathering research material, on the subject, as well as tracking down the rightpeople to speak to, and interview. Perhaps, not such nice work, after all?
A yearlater, and just in time for the all-important Christmas book market, Des’magnum opus hit the bookshops and on-line retailers. Now, after treating myselfto a copy, and then spending much longer reading it than I’d originallyintended, I have to say that this meticulously researched, and well writtenpublication is a real labour of love. It’s almost certainly the definitive bookon cask conditioned beer, or "real ale" as CAMRA still like to call it, but thatdoesn’t mean it is easy to read, and from a casual readers point of view, thebook is far too long.
In fact, even a confirmed beer geek like me found it hardgoing at times, especially as it makes the same mistake that virtually allauthors who write about beer make, which is to go right back to basics, whenthere really is no need to. I've read countless books on beer, each taking anin depth look at the ingredients that go into producing glass of beer and thebrewing process behind it. Consequently, I could tell you everything you needto know about malted barley, hops, and pure water for brewing. I could go furtherby describing in some detail the various stages of mashing, boiling, cooling, fermentation,racking, maturation, clarification and finally drinking. The last thing Ineeded to read then, was yet another in depth review of brewing.
What I did need to read was what goes on in the pub cellar,once the beer has been delivered from the brewery. I knew quite a lot of this, ofcourse, having run my own off-licence selling cask beer, by the pint, for customersto take away and drink at home, and it is here that Des’s book comes into itsown. It is also here that many of the problems associated with keeping cask aleare laid bare, and the means by which they are overcome, are laid out in full.The main problem, and the one which refuses to go away, is that of spoilage, becauseonce broached a cask should ideally only be on service for three days, althoughwith some care that can be extended by a further day or so.The fact that it took me such a long time to read the book,meant there were topics and areas that I'd forgotten about, and yet somehow Desmanages to not only cover them in detail, but weaves them into the main threadof the narrative. Despite all this there is one area that where no satisfactoryexplanation is put forward, and this is why did the rest of the beer drinkingworld ditch cask conditioning and opt for filtration to clear their beers andCO2 gas to dispense them? That’s if cask conditioning was that common in the restof the world, in the first place. Pasteurisation is often involved as well, andagain this process is incompatible with cask conditioning.
These issues aside Cask is still a very knowledgeable, interesting,and entertaining read, that is so packed with facts, comparisons, and derivativeideas, that it's hard to single out a single section that sums up theintriguing history of this complex beer. You’ll understand then if I won't evenattempt to produce a synopsis of the book. I could recommend you buy a copy, regardlessof however long it does take to read, adding if you only ever read one book on Britishbeer, then this is it.The proviso to this, is only do so if you’re a dedicated"beer geek" not just because, as stated earlier, Des’s book is hard going attimes, but more so for the simple truth that, despite what the author claims, Caskis a dedicated piece of work for the real beer enthusiast, rather than the casual reader. Isay this, without wishing to come across as elitist, or as a "beer snob", butthis book really is a serious publication and whilst those wishing to learn moreabout what Des describes as "Britain’s greatest gift to the world of beer," will undoubtedlydo so, they might have to pick their way through lots of peripheral stuff, inorder to do so.
Finally, a couple of points to conclude this review. This book is well illustrated throughout, as we have come to expect from CAMRA Books, so there are plenty of photos, reproductions of old drawings and prints, alongside various tables and diagrams. These illustrations are both timely and relevant, and help break up the text
The other point goes back to the name dropping theme, towards the beginning of the post, and involves yours truly. In the chapter on cellaring & dispense, Des refers to my blog, and a post I wrote, back in 2013, where I quoted from a 1966 book on Kent Pubs, in my possession. The licensee, of a long-closed Kentish pub, told the book's author, "That the secret of keeping beer and ale,is to order it in advance, so it can lay for two weeks before you tap it." You can read that post, here.

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