Yes, its the arse end of Cask Ale Week, and I've managed the princely amount of two and a half pints of cask ale. It's a bloody poor show on my part, although I will say that it's two and a half pints more than I drank in the preceeding few months. In my defence, all the draught beer I've drunk this week has been cask. As you can tell, for one reason or another, I don't get to the pub as much as I'd like.
But you don't have to go to the pub to drink cask ale. If you're very lucky, you can go to a brewery and do it. Last month, I was the guest of Hall & Woodhouse on a brewery day - a chinwag with the on- and off-trade brands managers, lunch, and then a brewery tour with head brewer Toby Heasman.
During the chinwag (which I'm using as a polite euphemism for a Powerpoint presentation, although I did enjoy it immensely - seriously), it emerged that Badger (which is used interchangeably for Hall & Woodhouse) has seen phenomenal growth in its bottled beers. Their bottled output has trebled in the last 5 years, and in the last 15 years they've seen a tenfold increase in the percentage output of their beer being bottled. Their bottled output is in growth by volume and by value, and they are even trying to create a new small-pack category: premium canned ale. But wait, this is Cask Ale Week, so let's move to their cask output before coming back to their bottled beers later in the week.
Badger ales are only currently available within their own estate of pubs, of which they have 260, all south of the M4 motorway (for overseas readers, that's an east-west line on the same latitude as London). They are probably best known for their strong golden ale Tanglefoot (4.9%abv), which during my teenage years was my nemesis on more than one occasion. I once drank a gallon of it, with predictably dire consequences on my sobriety. But such is Tanglefoot's soft, fruity drinkability that I can still drink it happily today. It's medium gold in colour, with a softly fruity aroma (pear, peaches and ripe melon, to my nose) a gently spicy finish. It's a bit of a classic and, in my opinion, does pretty well in the bottle. On cask, it is, as it's tagline proclaims, deceptively drinkable.
Badger's other permanent beery-beer (as opposed to flavoured beer, which, again, we'll come back to later this week) is First Gold (4%abv). It's a single hop beer, using the eponymous First Gold for both aroma and bittering. It's almost
an ordinary brown bitter, having hints of toffee and even chocolate on the palate, but its robustly spicy hop character gives it a little lift. It punches well beyond its modest weight, and I liked it a lot - in some ways, it's more grown-up than Tanglefoot, with less sweetness and more chewy malt and hop character.
The last cask beer available was Hopping Hare (4.5%abv), their current spring seasonal, a pale golden beer that has a bright, sweet citrus hop character. It's clean and bright, gently zingy in the mouth, with some familiar fermentation-derived (as opposed to added) fruit notes - it has some peach and melon character in common with Tanglefoot, although the hop character is much brighter and vibrant. As with First Gold, I liked it a lot, and the bottled form of Hopping Hare also passed the crucial wife test - tasty enough to be worth drinking, but not so tasty as to be off-putting. That sounds like an insult rather than a compliment, but it isn't. Maybe that's the key to drinkability?
But I digress. That's a round-up of Badger's cask offering, as sampled at the brewery. Next week, we'll talk about their bottles. For Cask Ale Week 2010, this is Zak Avery, signing off.