Cask: The Modern Beer Drinker’s Heaven on Earth
If Britain is currently enjoying a Renaissance in Real Ale, then Cask is perhaps the Leonardo da Vinci of its rejuvenated pubs. (This may be a mixed metaphor, but we’re talking booze here, and plenty of it, so sticklers be silenced and stick with me.) Set underneath one of those multiple-angled, low-rise blocks of flats that preposterously passed as attractive architecture in the 1960s and 1970s (and not to be confused with the Pride of Pimlico, in an identical corner just further south on Tachman Street), Cask opened in late 2009, aiming to “fill a large void in the London drinking scene” by offering a regularly rotating selection of “ten real ales and ten beers on keg,” alongside some 500 bottles from all around the world, every one of them available for take-out. Such a range, possibly unrivaled in the UK, instantly rendered Cask not just a destination pub for beer fanatics, but an obvious candidate for promotion in freebie newspapers and magazines, so that people like me – a mix of tourist, native and indie beer aficionado who reads said freebies on the tube – eagerly visit when time and inclination allows.
Cask is, then, first and foremost, a place for good beer, and plenty of it. But that doesn’t make it a good pub. What makes it a good pub is the accompanying lack of snobbery and elitism. Cask makes the point on its web site that it’s as happy to serve you a decent G&T or a nice South African rosé as it is to push upon you its several hundred varieties of fermented barley and hops. Similarly, you’ll note that Cask’s full name is Cask Pub and Kitchen, and that food forms a large part of its business. Being vegan, I hadn’t dared assume Cask would satisfy me, and ate a pleasantly unusual Indian dinner for one at Masala Zone in Soho before catching the tube – only to find that the gluten-free, organic-where-possible food at Cask looked almost as attractive as the drink, with a Mediterranean Platter, the mushroom risotto, and the French Fries all seemingly available in vegan form.
Be all that as it may. I arrived at Cask later than intended – though at least I had nothing going on the next day but a long journey to the USA – and had to fight back my instant inclination to be overwhelmed by everything on offer. Instead, I introduced myself to the bartenders by way of my tastes (i.e., I’m not overly given to the Belgian and German beers of which Cask specializes) and ordered up a half of the Hophead Citra from Brighton’s Dark Star Brewery. A seasonal beer offered only in the month of March, the Citra (the name of its sole hop, not necessarily a reference to lemon or lime flavors) announces itself as “light and hoppy” and to be honest, there’s not much more to say of it than that. At only 3.8% alcohol, it’s a pleasant session beer, a nice introduction to some of the more robust offerings on hand, but it’s by far and away the lightest beer on Dark Star’s seasonal menu and seems almost comically innocuous compared to the rest of Cask’s choices.
Interestingly, Dark Star is among a growing number of British beer producers looking to American micro-brews and their ingredients for inspiration. Through the early spring, Dark Star offers up a seasonal “Golden Gate” beer made with North American hops, and an “American Pale Ale” using American hops and yeast alike. Likewise, Cask itself is fond of American microbrews, and keen to promote them, its bound list extending to some 23 (count them!) pages of Stateside bottles from a veritable multitude of producers. These range from those that the American native would consider near enough household names (Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn), through to the marginal and idiosyncratic (Tommy Knocker, Captain Lawrence, Lost Abbey), and ensuring to include what some perceive as the flagship of modern American micro-brews, Delaware’s Dogfish Head. And not all the American beers at Cask are restricted to glass: an Imperial Stout from the Left Hand Brewing Company in Colorado was available on tap the evening I stopped in.
Expressing my enthusiasm for Pale Ales and IPAs, I found myself in conversation with Cask’s resident American bartender, who had developed similar tastes growing up in New England, before attending University in Burlington, VT, one of America’s greatest micro-brew cities. (Yet again, read my experiences from our camping trip there last year.) Indeed, he wasted no time telling me he had just tasted what he considered the finest IPA of his life. Here at Cask, just the other night. From Norway.
That’s Cask for you in a nutshell, if you can excuse another mixed metaphor: an almost archetypal English pub (on the inside, anyway) employing an American bartender who proudly promotes a Norwegian brewery for making the best beer in a style that the British perfected during its Empire Days. Before I could stop him, my new friend went over to the locked refrigerated display, and brought me back the bottle of the Norweigian Imperial India Pale Ale in question. Stylistically, I could only offer admiration: Nøgne Ø rivals the most creative of Californian wineries for the simplicity and attractiveness of its labels. If the beer tasted half as good as it was packaged, I would surely fall in love. But I hadn’t come to Cask to drink bottled beer, especially one that packed a walloping 10% alcohol; I’d come to sample more modest beer direct from the kegs. I opted instead for one of several guest ales from the Bristol Beer Factory, in this case a half of the Bristol Exhibition. Coming in at around 5.5% alcohol, and promoted as a Classic Rich Ale, this was undoubtedly more serious in all respects than its Brighton-based rivals. (Indeed, it’s a winter beer, whereas the Citra would be considered more of a spring sipper.) I noted the presence of chocolate flavors and the kind of fruit you often find in wine; confirming my first impressions, the company’s web site notes that the ingredients include “Chocolate Malts” and that the brewery describes the finished product as “rich and fruity.” Then again, this stuff doesn’t have to be rocket science, does it?
Cask’s intent to serve as a regular pub was born out the night I stopped by. Though I noticed several solitary customers scattered around the place, perusing the beer list, I also heard one of them confess at the bar that he was hopelessly out of his depth and just wanted a regular English bitter, to which he was immediately, and without prejudice, pointed to a pint of “Challenge” from the Leeds-based Ridgeside brewery. Elsewhere, the pub buzzed with your regular midweek night-out customers, the two men and a woman next to me discussing dating techniques in more detail than was perhaps wise given that one of them had just gotten engaged (and not to anyone else at the table, as far as I could tell), with another couple the other side of me clearly still on a getting-to-know-you basis. Only a small crowd of eager drinkers up at the bar, studying the beermats on the walls, the multitude of artisinal taps on display, and comparing liquids in the glass, were clearly here for the beer. Other than myself, of course. And I was running out of time.
“You’d better serve me that Pale Ale you have on draft,” I said. “The Mikkeler,” the one that carries the warning notice that it’s some £3.95 a pint. (This is roughly three time what a pint of regular ale cost at the Bier Huis in Burnley. But on that note, it’s reassuring to report that, in common with the Bier Huis, Cask pours from Burnley’s own Moorhouse Brewery. In beer, as on Tim Booth albums, everything’s connected.)
“It’s Danish,” I was told as a half pint glass was procured. (Mikkeler is ONLY sold by the half pint.) “And we’re the only place that serves it in the UK.” Quite how Cask figures out such unique imports is perhaps a question for another day; what counts for now is that Cask has clearly got a handle (or tap) on the best breweries in the world, and certainly the most unusual. Mikkel Borg Bjergosø, for whom the brewery is named, considers himself a “gypsy brewer,” making his beers at various breweries not only in Demark, but across Europe (including Norway’s aforementioned Nøgne Ø, England’s Marston’s and Scotland’s Brewdog) and even, apparently, the United States. In fact, as per Brighton’s Dark Star, Mikkeler is proudly pro-American in style: Bjergosø freely admits to being inspired by “American breweries (that) aren’t afraid to play and break all the rules.” Served spectacularly cold (Cask may be a warm British pub, but it knows better than to serve warm beer), the Mikkeler Pale Ale was actually an almost cloudy brown colour, but bright to the taste, full to the touch, well rounded, delightfully balanced and with oodles of fruit flavours buried in its midst. I experienced the sort of mild epiphany that I have frequently seen occur when everyday wine drinkers are encouraged to take a break from cheap Southern Hemisphere plonk and poured something of proven quality (and perhaps maturity) from the Old World. And as in those cases, the beer stuck around in the glass; a good drink goes down slowly. You want to savour every sip.
Mikkeller’s Bjergosø is not so much typical of the modern micro-brewer as he is an extreme outlier: in 2010 alone, he launched 76 new beers. In the wine world, this would be considered insanity – the mark of a desperate producer out to satisfy every possible common denominator. In the beer world, it’s also a mark of insanity, but one associated with accompanying genius: Bjergosø, remember, admires those who “break all the rules.” Besides, this Pale Ale was as good as any I could remember… and got me wondering what I might make of Mikkeler’s Black Hole Barrel Aged Edition Red Wine, which comes in at a red wine-like 13.1% alcohol, as does his other Black Hole beers, each of them also aged in a barrel previously soaked by other alcohol.
Yet even the Black Hole is but the tip of the iceberg. (Again with these mixed metaphors. Blame the Brewers. Mikkeler even makes a beer called “Drink Your Sorrows Away.”) Further perusing Cask’s list, I had to stop and take a picture of the entries for Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck, both from the five-year old Brewdog Brewery way up in Fraserborough, on the Scottish coast north of Aberdeen. Clearly, there are few distractions from brewing in such a remote clime, for the Tactical Nuclear Penguin, aged in Arran whisky barrels for 14 months (you can spot something of a trend going on here), comes in at 32% alcohol (and retails for £45 a bottle at Cask)! And if that seems just a little, heady perhaps, check the Sink the Bismarck; as copied and pasted from Brewdog’s web site, the Germanic beer is “a quadruple IPA that contains four times the hops, four times the bitterness and frozen four times to create at a staggering 41% ABV.” No, that’s not correct English, nor is the spelling of Bismark on the web site’s URL, but you try typing properly surrounded by such high octane beer. On Cask’s beer list, where it costs – prepare to cough – £60 a bottle, Sink The Bismark is listed as “one Time World’s Strongest Beer.” Considering that it packs the same alcohol content as a Single Malt, one hesitates to wonder what might recently have surpassed it.
As per most of the world’s modern micro-breweries, Brewdog wears with honor its sense of humor, not only in its kitchen concoctions but in its descriptions and advertising. The Tactical Nuclear Penguin, it observes, “should be enjoyed in small servings and with an air of aristocratic nonchalance. In exactly the same manner that you would enjoy a fine whisky, a Frank Zappa album or a visit from a friendly yet anxious ghost.” If anyone cares to buy me a bottle, I’ll be sure to follow their advice.
But while both the Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Save the Bismarck were out of my range (ouch!), still I decided to bring home a souvenir. Before settling my account and braving the vagaries of London’s public transport on yet another freezing March might, I ordered up that bottle of Nøgne Ø’s Imperial IPA. It cost me ten quid, as much as I’ve ever spent on a bottle of beer – though far less than I’ve frequently spent on mediocre wine. It’s now resting in the wine cellar, hanging around for the right occasion – a birthday, a well-run race, a book deal or just an evening with beer buddies. If it’s as good as the American bartender promised me it is – and this was a man who clearly knew his IPAs – it should be well worth the wait.
As for Cask, this is a pub that knows what it’s doing – as proven by its award, the very day I wrote this story, from CAMRA as its 2011 West London Pub of the Year, and yet similarly, from what might consider the less real-ale driven Publican Magazine, a nomination for national Pub of the Year. Because for all the fun and games to be had inside the beer list, it doesn’t sell itself as novelty. You could walk in and enjoy a simple beer, a plate of good food, and casual conversation as much as you could – no, make that more so – at almost any other London pub. With a couple of caveats. Cask, I noted, does not have a television. It promotes the old-fashioned concept of conversation. Nor does it serve draft Carling, Heineken, Fosters, Carlsberg, Stellar, Holsten or any of the other lagers associated with the major pub franchies such as once served as my evening meal(s). With the likes of the Bristol Beer Factory, Left Hand Brewery, Moorhouse, Ridgeside, Dark Star and my new favourite maverick Mikkeler on tap, not to mention those 500 global curious in its wide range of fridges, why on earth would it ever want to?