Tasting beer for a living has to be one of Britain’s best jobs. Getting paid to sample and test beer really fits the ‘living the dream’ stereotype.
I was recently lucky enough to follow in the footsteps of a Cask Marque assessor – who does exactly that. All while making sure while licensees and publicans across the country are selling the best beer possible to thirsty customers.
We didn’t just booze our way through a host of Suffolk pubs. In fact, I’d say we didn’t even consume three quarters of a pint over the course of the day. But it was equally fun, interesting and educational as I experienced first-hand what well-kept, quality cask ale should smell, taste and look like.
Improving beer quality is one of Cask Marque’s main aims. There are around 10,000 Cask Marque accredited outlets in the UK – which are all part of the World’s Biggest Ale Trail. Most of these are pubs, but there are also hotels, bars, and holiday parks. Take a quick search on the CaskFinder App’s interactive map – and you’ll be overawed with the number and variety of places across the country that serve a good quality pint.
Born and raised in Suffolk, it made perfect sense for Ipswich, via a spontaneous trip to the Felixstowe seaside, to be the chosen location on a day I labelled as ‘learning about beer’ in my diary.
Our plan was to audit three pubs – and hopefully award them enough marks to retain their Cask Marque status. Pubs undergo two independent quality checks per year: one in the summer, one in the winter.
The pubs which sell the best cask ale require someone who knows and cares about it and is prepared to follow the rules. The temperature of the cellar where the cask is stored is critical. If it’s too cold, the beer will be slow to condition and could become cloudy. If it’s too warm, it’ll be too fast to condition and will smell rank and taste disgusting! And we all know there’s nothing worse than warm beer! Cellars should be set to a cool 11 to 13 degrees and the doors should be kept closed to prevent, warm air from entering. No ifs, no buts!
Cask ale should always be ‘put to bed’. I plan on going on a cellar course soon, but I’m led to believe that the process works very similarly to when you open up a bottle of coke: to preserve the quality of the taste, you screw the lid back on as tightly as possible. Makes sense, right?
Beer lines should be cleaned every seven days – and the cask should be stored in a clean, organised environment.
Obviously, with over 10,000 different cask beers on offer each year, there is a lot of variation in each ale. The aroma and taste should always be appetising, fresh and non-tainted. Well-conditioned ale should normally appear sparkling bright and completely clear. There are exceptions however as some cask beers are deliberately made cloudy.
How do Cask Marque assessors test for quality?
To pass and gain retain their Cask Marque status, pubs must score at least 16 marks from the Cask Marque assessors’ visit. Pubs are marked out of 20: 5 marks each for the appearance, aroma, taste, and temperature of their ales. They test the:
- Temperature by thermometer: Assessors will test a pint of all the cask ales on sale, using a calibrated thermometer.
- Appearance by holding the beer up to the light: To check the clarity. Points are deducted the hazier the beer is. Haziness in the beer is a fail, unless brewed specifically to be cloudy.
- Aroma by smelling the beer: ‘Off’ beer will often have vinegar / acidic aromas.
- Taste by testing the beer: Saving the best until last! A good sip should tingle the taste buds and entice the taster for another…and another…
And that’s how a Cask Marque audit works. In that order.
Can pubs fail?
Yes. If there’s a failure, guidance is given on site to help the pub improve its practice and succeed next time around. Assessors will often give pubs a couple of weeks to get things right before going back and repeating the assessment.
The most common cause of failure is that beers have been on sale for too long. Once cask is ‘put on’, it should be sold within three days. After this, it could start to develop unwanted aromas and tastes – which can put people off drinking cask!
One more thing
The Waterbreak Test. Assessors test for glass cleanliness. The ultimate beer glass should be clean, cold, and dry. Glasses should be washed using washing detergent and washed separately from dishes and cups.
Our Beer Journey
I must confess that I felt a bit like the beer police at times. Audits are not pre-organised – and assessors can just turn up out of the blue. But licensees and pubs know the rules. They should be serving their beer perfectly all the time: not just for the inspectors’ visit! And so, armed with our thermometers, cameras, phones with CaskFinder Apps, and notepads to hand, here is the route we took…
Stop 1: The Golf Hotel, Foxhall Road, Ipswich (IP4 5TR)
Stop 2: The Fludyers Arms, Undercliff Road East, Felixstowe (IP11 7LU)
Stop 3: The Cock & Pye, Upper Brook Street, Ipswich (IP4 1EG)
It was very pleasing that the three pubs we audited all passed – leading to happy publicans and customers! Talking of which, we also decided to pop into The Dove Street Inn, Ipswich (IP4 2LA), for a social half – and were spoilt for choice! As well as running their own brewery, the pub has more than 12 cask ale pumps on at one time. Impressive!
All in all, Cask Marque have 50 qualified assessors testing and tasting the quality of ale in pubs up and down the country. Many are former brewers and are all technical beer experts. I may not be that, but I might have to start taking my thermometer to the pub from now on…
Thanks to the pubs who allowed us to test their beer quality. Thanks to the pubs who serve good quality ale – and thanks to you for drinking cask and for reading!
If your pub is interested in – and looking to get Cask Marque accredited, visit: https://cask-marque.co.uk/join/