Nineteen-ninety-five was a bad year for cask ale. The summer’s unexpected, prolonged period of hot weather undermined all the good work of the previous five years. Following changes in legislation in 1990, which opened up the pub market to small brewers, dozens of microbreweries had thrown open their mash tuns and hundreds of exciting new ale brands had sloshed on to the counter.
A few torrid months of warm weather⎯“baking sun” is not quite appropriate for England⎯jammed the brakes on the ale expansion. It exposed the distribution network that brought the beers into the pub. Refrigerated trucks were few and far between and the so-called warehouses used by some middlemen were shown up to be no more than basic sheds exposed to all elements. The ale was cooking before it reached the pub.
The heat wave also threw the spotlight on inadequate pub cellars. Former Prime Minister John Major once revealed his ignorance of the brewing business by declaring his love for the idyllic concept of “warm English beer.” But in 1995 he had a point.
Drinkers deserted cask ale in droves and, as they switched to chilled, pasteurized keg lagers and the new, equally cold nitro keg ales, sales of real ale plummeted⎯down 7 to 10 percent.
As is often the case, it is only when profits are hit that changes really take place. Since that time, improvements have been made to the distribution chain, but a more profound change has occurred, too, with the whole concept of cask ale coming under review.
Brewers have finally grasped that when the temperature’s up, folks need to cool down.
On a sunny day, an ale served at its normal temperature of around 54 degrees F doesn’t always hit the spot, and less committed drinkers have ebbed away to colder refreshments. Some shrewder brewers had already recognized this problem and had moved to correct their position, but the summer of ’95 rammed home the message to all.
A Better Summer Ale
The response has not been simply to simply off the summer period and abandon ale production in favor of lager. Small breweries could not do that in any case: they haven’t the equipment, the time or the cash flow to develop lager brews. Instead, they have put their minds to developing a new style of ale, proving at the same time that the ale industry still has the scope to reinvent itself in a positive fashion.
The question facing brewers was simple: how to produce an ale that could be served colder, could attract the lager drinker and yet remain true to the fundamental qualities that underscore cask-conditioned beer⎯those of freshness and flavor.
The answer was, as ever, not so simple, as the new product would need to be conditioned in the same cellar as other ales that wouldn’t appreciate heavy chilling.
There was also the fact that a lower temperature might result in a hazy beer. Then there were the not insignificant truths that ale drinkers demand flavor, and that chilling is one of the best ways of removing this.
The first thing resolved was the color. To compete with lager brands, this new style had to be pale. The brewers have achieved this generally without resorting to lager malts, but by buying in best quality pale ale malt, and the paler the better. Crystal malt, so often used to provide the rich russet color of a British ale, has mostly been cast aside. Room has been saved in some cases for wheat malt to provide a little summery quenching fruitiness.
Strength-wise, there seems to be some conformity about hitting the 4 percent alcohol by volume mark, ensuring that the beer has enough body to make it a satisfying drink, at the same time taking on board the fact that, because it’s summer, customers will probably want to drink more than one or two pints at a time.
Tricks of the Trade
But it’s in the hop department that the major changes have been rung. While the classic English combination of Fuggles and Goldings has not been entirely sidelined (indeed, the rich citric character of good quality Goldings, in particular, has been encouraged), brewers have reached out to the continent to steal a few tricks from the pilsner trade.
Saaz hops from the Czech Republic and Hersbrucker hops from Germany have become a familiar sight in English ale breweries, bought in to give a spritzy, citric lift to the new summer brews. These have been joined by a new breed of fruity English hops⎯Progress, with its soft bitterness, and aromatic Target. The aim, largely, has been to provide plenty of fruity, floral hop flavor without the heavy anchor of deep bitterness.
In the brew house, the beers are top fermented as other ales. They are also conditioned like other ales in casks in the pub’s standard cellar.
Not all producers have the resources to influence the serving temperature of their beer, but the regional breweries with their own pub estates do. Wadworth of Devizes makes use of adapted under-the-counter coolers that bring its SummerSault down to around 48 degrees F. By keeping the beer at an even lower temperature beforehand in the fermenter, the brewers ensure that any protein likely to cause a chill haze drops out before the beer gets near the pub.
Fuller’s of West London goes a step further by chilling its Summer Ale in maturation vessels at 40 degrees, filtering it and then re-seeding the beer with fresh yeast. In the Fuller’s pub, a small flash cooler is employed to serve the beer at 45 degrees. Smaller brewers have less control and the use of wheat is causing a few problems with customers who drink more with their eyes than with their taste buds.
Tiny Tisbury Brewery’s Ale Fresco is likely to have its wheat content removed this year to avoid the prospect of a slight haze in the pub, although the bottle-conditioned version is to remain full and wholesome. It’s one of several real-ale-in-a-bottle summer ales that the English microbrewers have developed in the past five years.
The best-selling bottle (and prominent in cask, too) is Summer Lightning from Hop Back brewery, near Salisbury.
It’s a bit topsy-turvy to mention this beer last, as it was one of the first very pale strong ales produced in England when it arrived in the late 1980s, well ahead of the summer 1995 watershed. Brewery founder John Gilbert decided to concoct the brew after growing tired of strong ales that were thick, heavy and sweet. He proved that by just using pale malt and Goldings and Challenger hops, you could produce a strong, crisp, fruity, hoppy ale with a distinctively light golden color.
Gilbert’s beer has won numerous awards and has to be seen as the catalyst for the development of the summer ale style, even if its 5 percent strength doesn’t precisely conform to the parameters that have been laid down since.
As I conclude this piece, it’s still a damp, cold spring in southern England. The rain has been lashing against the window, competing with the clatter of my fingers on the keyboard. Tonight I shall visit my local and drink something enjoyably dark and malty.
In a few months, in this era of climatic change, we may experience as freaky and torrid a summer as 1995. This time, I’ll have the option of slaking my thirst with an ale that is cool, light and refreshing.
Never let it be said that global warming is entirely a bad thing.
Fuller's Summer AleABV: 3.9
Tasting Notes: Fuller's was already on the ball when summer 1995 arrived and had planned the launch of this 3.9 percent golden ale. The unusual flowery, “lemon toffee” aroma is derived from a blend of pale malt, wheat malt (15 to 20 percent) and Saaz and Target hops. It is crisp and medium bodied, with sweetness just edging out bitterness in the mouth, and a lemon lightness running throughout over a bed of toffeeish malt. (Available in cask-conditioned and pasteurized bottle versions.)
Wadworth SummerSaultABV: 4
Tasting Notes: When first introduced, this pale brew had a little more strength⎯4.5 percent, now backed down to 4 percent for easier drinking. Fragrant with Saaz, Styrian Goldings and Fuggles hops, it has a delicate hop and malt balance on the palate, with a light hoppy finish. From the leading independent brewer in Wiltshire, the county that has been at the forefront of summer ale development. (Others from the county have included Ushers Summer Madness and the two beers below). (Available cask conditioned only.)
Tisbury Ale FrescoABV: 4.5
Tasting Notes: A new beer for 1999, the 4.5 percent Ale Fresco comes from one of England's mighty micros. The hops here are Hersbrucker and Progress, seasoning a base of pale, carapils and wheat malts. One of the brewery's growing range of bottle-conditioned beers, this golden ale is sharp and citrus-like in the aroma, with a dry, refreshing, lemon-citrus taste. The dry, tangy, citrusy finish is enticingly bitter. (Available in cask- and bottle-conditioned versions.)
Hop Back Summer LightningABV: 5
Tasting Notes: The big summer name, although available all year and, at 5 percent, heavy now for the style. The simple combination of pale malt and East Kent Goldings (the cask version still also employs Challenger hops) provides a citric, hoppy and malty nose; light fruit and crisp hoppiness in the mouth; and a dry, hoppy, bitter finish. (Available in cask- and bottle-conditioned versions.)
Author of the Good Bottled Beer Guide and The Book of Beer Knowledge, Jeff Evans is an eight-time editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide and one of Britain's best-known beer writers.