On my first trip to the British Isles, approximately 1 BB (that would be one year Before Beer), I set out to find an example of the legendary English pub. I’d grown up outside of Boston and had a romantic notion of a good public house, something not found at that time in my home state of Colorado. After settling in at a former girlfriend’s flat (yet another reason to cross the Atlantic), I followed her directions to the “local,” the Lamb & Flag in nearby Covent Gardens.
Remember this was 1980 or 1981.
On crossing the threshold, I felt a chill, augmented by the sudden decrease in conversation throughout the small room. I stepped up to the bar and stumbled my way through my order, stymied by my inability to follow “English.” Unsure what to order, I deferred to the publican, all this while many pairs of eyes were fixed on me.
You might say this was a pre-tourist moment for this joint.
I watched with utter incomprehension as the publican pull a pint using a handpump. The sound as the ale splashed into the glass still pulls at my heartstrings. The publican handed across a brilliantly clear, copper-colored pint of Courage and, basically, one stage of my life ended and the next began. There was a hush as I brought the pint to my mouth, which was followed by muted cheers (England, remember) and a back slap or two when the locals saw realization creep over my face.
I had tasted my first cask-conditioned beer.
I instantly understood one of the fissures that separate Americans and the English. The American conception of English beer as “warm and flat” is off the mark. Cask ale is neither: it is served at cellar temperatures, not warm, but not cold either, bringing out layers of flavor. Also, it is naturally carbonated and vented, giving it a softer texture. The English, however, are right about us: American lagers are cold and fizzy, without a doubt.
There have been many trips back over the past three decades, including days lost at the Great British Beer Festival. I’ve whiled away hours at pubs from Edinburgh to Dorset. The late Michael Jackson hosted me at his favorites haunts. I joined Roger Protz for a presentation of CAMRA’s Pub of the Year prize to the Bricklayer’s Arms in London, during which they were serving maybe a dozen cask ales from Yorkshire. Brewery reps from Fuller’s to Scottish and Newcastle dragged my butt from one classic watering hole to another. I always looked for an opportunity to enjoy “real ale” on its native soil.
At some point a few years ago, the longing for cask ale closer to home prompted me to drop the coin on a couple of pins, a handpump, a spare fridge and a temperature control. A little light industrial work and I have a set up worthy of the cask IPA that English brewer (and CAMRA award winner!) John Withey brews at Top of the Hill.
Now, after getting home, I can wander out to my shop and pull a pint of exquisite cask ale any damn time I please. And every pint takes me back, just for a moment, to that first sip many years ago, as fresh as bread right out of a bakery.
This editorial originally appeared in May 2010, Vol. 31, No. 2