Have you ever wondered what happens during a Cask Marque visit? Well here is everything you need to know to make sure you’re serving great cask ale.
You won’t be surprised to hear that we get lots of people applying for jobs with Cask Marque. A typical conversation goes like:
Member of the public: “Wow, that sounds brilliant! Got any jobs?”
Me: “what qualifications do you have?”
Member of the public: “well I go to the pub every night and drink 8 pints”
As much as I admire people who have such an understanding wife or girlfriend (they are all men who ask for jobs here), a semi-alcoholic is not actually the sort of person we are looking for to represent us during the 20,000+ visits we make each year. All our assessors are either qualified brewers or very experienced technical service people with extensive taste and flavour training.
So when our assessor visits a pub, what actually happens?
Well the first myth to dispel is that pubs know we are coming. All visits are unannounced and can happen in any four week period. And even if a pub did know we were coming, would they deliberately make sure their beer quality was suddenly good, and then once we had left, make sure it went back to being rubbish again? Licensees are a proud bunch and having good beer to some is as fine an achievement as serving Michelin starred food.
We don’t ask to be treated any differently than a customer would be treated and test the beer in the glass as it would be served to any punter. We sample a maximum of six different cask ales, five random ones and then the slowest selling beer. One of the biggest problems in recent years has been pubs trying to serve too many different beers. Because cask beer is a living product the quality starts to deteriorate quicker than keg beers when touched by air and has to be sold within three days of being opened. That means a pub will need to be selling at least 24 pints a day of each beer for the quality to have a change – and that is assuming they are selling a 9 gallon cask and not something bigger. This sounds easy enough but if it is a pub with a reasonably large range then on a quiet, wet and windy winter’s day it might not be quite so easy.
The first thing we do is to test the temperature using a professionally calibrated thermometer. The temperature specification we work to is 11-13 degrees Celsius with a 1 degree tolerance either side. This is the temperature that 99% of brewers request their beer to be dispensed at and not some sort of ‘campaign to encourage cold beer’. When served at this temperature cask ale is cool and refreshing. During the course of drinking a pint, the temperature will normally rise by 2 or 3 degrees so to ensure the whole pint is enjoyable it is important to get the temperature spot on.
We then have a good look at the beer, holding it up to the light or if it is a gloomy day, gloomy pub or dark beer, then shine a torch through the glass to highlight any haze or impurities.
Next we will take a good lung full of the wonderful aromas that cask beer offers. When it gets too cold some of the smells can be lost, but at the correct temperature these will all come through and tingle the senses.
Only then do we get to taste the product. It is possible for an assessor to visit ten pubs in a day and sample several beers in each pub. 30 beers whilst driving would be extremely foolish so just a small sip will be taken, just enough to decide if there are any tastes or smells which should not be present in the beer. Being able to judge beer quality is not about knowing every beer, but is about recognising the flavours which should not be present and identifying what has caused them.
If the beer is good, which it is in about 90% of visits, then we congratulate the licensee, fill in a little paperwork and tootle off.
If the beer is not good, then we have a duty to the British drinker to try and find out what is going on and resolve it. Warm beer, which is the cause of 80%+ failed visits can occur for a number of reasons, ranging from a warm cellar to beer lines running through a hot kitchen, to ale pythons not being topped up with water by the licensee. Finding out exactly what is happening normally involves a trip to the cellar, the engine room of the pub and requires specific knowledge to understand how all the equipment works.
If there is a problem with the taste, appearance or aroma, it can normally be narrowed down to a training issue (as opposed to faulty equipment) and can be resolved by providing some on the spot training and advice.
Sometimes we recommend further training or a call out to technical services, but either way pubs are normally pretty pleased to have had someone come to visit them, who has no vested interest. They know we are independent and are only interested in helping to improve beer quality in the pub.
So it may seem a glamorous job, quaffing beer on a sunny afternoon and on occasions you would probably be right! In fact a survey from Men’s Health magazine a few years back placed the role of a Cask Marque beer assessor in 8th place of the all time greatest jobs, sandwiched between a porn star and a fighter pilot! However, our assessors are extremely professional and are driving from pub to pub without even getting tipsy, and all to ensure that you get a great pint whenever you visit a Cask Marque accredited pub. So get down your local pub, and imagine yourself as a Cask Marque assessor enjoying a glorious pint of British cask beer.
Other items in our grain to glass program: