ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Cask 2019: Why it rocked; Why it sucked

I had some fantastic beers at the weekend.

To be more specific, I had some fantastic beers between 6 and 11 PM on Saturday at Testbed1 under railway arches in Bermondsey. Beers that, for the most part, will never be seen again anywhere, at any other time. And, fairly obviously, that is part of the problem.

I absolutely loved the Cask 2019 beer festival, if indeed one can call a one-day event, divided into two sessions a 'festival'. I appreciated the beers immensely, and several of them will go down as some of my favourites of 2019. But we have a problem here. And in attempting to outline some of the underlying issues facing the beer industry in 2019, the organisers have only served to create further problems. In a sense.

The beers

Pint drinker that I am, I managed nine 'full Benjamins', four of which scored a rating of 8/9, which is essentially unprecedented for a single session. Signature Brew's 'Jam Sour' (4.0%) was a delightful Raspberry Berlinerweisse, balancing fruity sweetness with an edgy sourness that was altogether delightful. Brewheadz 'Crumble in the Jungle' brought Rhubarb Crumble and custard to the sour format, balanced by a pleasant desserty sweetness that made me - in the words of Greg Wallace - very, very happy.

An atmospheric venue
North Brewing Co. supplied a Triple Fruited Gose, and while it lacked the saltiness that one might expect from the style, it packed in so many of my five a day that it was more smoothies than beer. And then there was Weird Beard's Kill Pils. A 5% ABV cask lager that proved once and for all that pale lager-style beers can not only work in a cask format, but it can be fucking bloody brilliant.

The other four beers I tried - from Harbour, Abbeydale (a Chai stout), Burning Soul, Wilderness and Framework - were also pretty damn good, it has to be said. There wasn't a dud amongst them and quality and conditioning and, importantly, temperature were pretty flawless. The beer was awesome. Absolutely awesome.

But - first world problems alert - it was a tragedy and a travesty that I lacked the capacity to try more of the 30-odd beers on offer. And that's not even considering the completely different range available during the earlier midday to 5 PM session.

As I said, I'm fully in favour of the aims behind this event.

The organisers were trying to showcase how great cask beer can be. I get that. I'm a hundred and a million percent behind that objective.

The Cask 2019 food wasn't bad either...
They were aiming to highlight the senselessness in the cask-keg price differential. I get that too. I think it's insane that people expect to pay lower prices for real ale when it requires more work and has a higher existential volatility (that's the chance of it going off and becoming unsellable) than keg or small-package beer. I'd be quite happy to pay more for really good cask beer.

The £5/pint charged was actually reasonable value, particularly for the stronger beers. And with three pints and a glass included in the £20 entry, it was far from extortionate. Frankly, I'd call it a bargain.

But even if you only drank halves; even if you only shared halves with someone else there is absolutely no fucking way that you'd come close to getting through all of the beers on offer during the whole day.

Most of the beers were cask one-offs - in the unlikely event that you'll ever find them on draught anywhere else, they'll be keg. Or keykeg. or 'craft keg', or however else you want to describe something that is clearly not cask.

But why oh why oh why must it be thus?

Yes, there is very good cask beer available now in lots of places but it tends to be stylistically limited to pale and golden ale, stout, porter and other traditional British styles. And it also tends to be confined to 'sessionable' strengths. Not too strong, but not too weak either. Breweries and drinkers are equally guilty of playing it horrendously safe.

Likewise, there is lots of stunningly good, experimental beer out there too. And it's almost always not cask.

I can't be the only person in the country who likes exciting, innovative, interesting and new beer who also happens to strongly prefer to drink cask, can I? (Judging by the sell-out attendance at Cask 2019, I'm obviously not.)

But is it really fair to give us a taste of Heaven for just a few hours a year?

The experimental beer fans will go back to their keg. The cask fans will go back to their standard cask beers. Both sectors doomed to miss out for all but a few hours every year.

Is that right? Am I wrong?

Surely, this sort of fabulous beer should be available to all of us, all of the time? No?


  1. But cask is highly perishable, and thus is critically dependent on turnover for quality. Most pubs don't turn it over quickly enough anyway at present, so what chance is there for low-volume niche products? It's a restriction that is inherent in the format.

    1. I entirely agree. But, that being the case, what is the point of a market offering the same cask beers in multiple locations, mere minutes apart from one another, from several different concurrently tapped casks, some of which will invariably go off?

      There is a case I think for cooperation between pubs concentrated in local areas - viewing it all as 'one big bar' and avoiding unnecessary duplication.

      I've no doubt that every single cask at Cask 2019 could've been turned over within a few hours, precisely because of their quality and uniqueness. The inherent perishability was never in danger of becoming an issue. Yes, stop when it becomes one, but there's plenty of room for scaling up until it does.


Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.