Cask beer equals live music, bottled beer equals CDs

A few weeks ago I went to a performance by Wynton Marsalis, whose music I have been buying since the early 1980s. He arrived then as a young trumpeter who could play jazz and classical music with equal genius: I remember listening to his recording of the Hayden Trumpet Concerto in 1983 and feeling that every note he blew was placed in exactly the spot required: not a femtosecond too early or late, too long or too short. At the same time it was Hayden’s music, but played by someone who was aware of everything that had happened after Hayden.

All the work he’s done since, I think, has been while standing on that same platform: technically impeccable, respecting the music’s history, recognising that we listeners come with modern ears. I commend to your own ears Mr Jelly Lord, his CD from 1999 of Jelly Roll Morton tunes first put down by the fellow New Orleans master 75 or so years earlier. It’s properly Morton, but played by people who are aware, and who know that we the audience are aware, of bop and other developments in jazz history in the decades since Morton’s death.

And yet … I came out of the Marsalis concert feeling that I had listened with real enjoyment to musicians who had played flawless improvisational jazz, rooted in the music’s history, though with enough of a flavouring to show this was not merely a reproduction, a tribute band. But I wasn’t blown away. Was that evening much different to listening to Wynton Marsalis on CD? Not a lot.

Seven days later I saw a performance by the Zawose family from Tanzania – and if you don’t have a grin across your face within 45 seconds of starting to watch those ladies, have yourself checked by a doctor: you may be dead. Fantastic, exhilarating, explosive: as a live experience they shove Wynton Marsalis off stage and out the door. I wouldn’t want to buy their CD, though. The Zawose family are an excellent illustration of a great live act that won’t reproduce well on an MP3 player, or similar sound-only recorded music deliverer. Tremendous visually, fantastic enthusiasm, send you home very happy, but paddling about in the shallows musically.

What has this got to do with beer? Only that while I was thinking about the difference between live and recorded music, and how ultimately live music, when it’s good, is unbeatably superior to the best recorded music, because nothing surpasses the enjoyment of being there while it’s happening, it occurred to me that I have similar feelings about cask beer, proper live maturing-in-the-cellar brews, and bottled beer.

To me, and this is just my opinion, you’re entitled to feel completely different, while there are many fine bottled beers, a fair number of which I enjoy greatly, not one beats a good pint of cask ale caught at the peak of condition. The flavour, the texture, they’re all unsurpassable, and unachievable any other way. Of all the pinnacle moments I can remember in decades of beer drinking, those times when you think: “What I am drinking here is just superb”, only one of many has involved a bottled beer, and that was from the Fuller’s Vintage Ale range, which is, of course, bottle conditioned: about as close to a cask ale in a small container as you’ll get.

Now, you’re going to say: “But you’re dismissing whole traditions and styles of beer there,” and yes, I am. Condemn me as a cask ale chauvinist if you want: it’s only my personal take on beer. But I know what I like. Bluntly, in my experience – and I’ve drunk across five continents and as many decades – nothing is capable of beating the best cask ale. That won’t stop me drinking other types of beer, any more than loving live music stops me listening to the recorded sort: many bottled beers are almost as good as cask beer. Many recordings are almost as good as being there live. Ultimately, however, the best cask ale shoves any other sort of beer off the stage and out the door.

18 thoughts on “Cask beer equals live music, bottled beer equals CDs

  1. Can’t disagree at all. I fact in the intro to my blog I say “cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation.”

    I was being kind to other methods. I might change that.

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  3. Well, I hate to disagree but I might suggest that you have presented a false dichotomy. To my mind, there are styles better in a bottle and others better in cask. Gueuze in the backyard? Imperial stouts by the fireplace? Easily as good as cask. What might be the case is that cask is relatively more readily available in well handled form compared to the questionable history of big beers that have seen a number of birthdays. So…

    1. ho-hum bottle/can = AM radio
    2. craft bottle/can = Mp3
    3. well cellared craft = vinyl or even acetone 78
    4. big format Belgian with a half inch of yeast = live music in a club with a great menu.
    5. cask real ale = live music at a festival on a gorgeous summer Saturday with BBQ smoke gently wafting from over there.
    6. cask from the wood = drinking with elves who play the banjo well as dripping unicorns rotate on a spit over pear wood coals.
    7. drinking with tickers = shortwave radio club meeting on a dreary February Tuesday night after cheese whiz on white bread.

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    • I’ve never gone for bigging up vinyl over digital: I still remember, early in 1983, the first time I heard music on the (FM) radio that sounded vastly better reproduced than what had been played before, and realising this must be a recording from one of those new compact discs. Which it was. But again, everyone’s ears are different. Especially elves’ ears. Don’t know about banjo-playing elves, unless it’s an elf called Béla Fleck …

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  4. Cask can scale the heights, but by and large it doesn’t, even if it’s still by far the best thing to drink on draught in the pub. And, from time to time, it will plumb the depths too. So you have to decide whether you want a roller-coaster ride or a nice trundle along the flat.

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    • I agree with that Curmudgeon!

      And let’s don’t forget that there are additional examples besides Fuller’s Vintage that taste better on bottle; the first examples that come to mind are Fuller’s ESB and Weihenstephaner weiss

      However, this was a very interesting post that I really enjoyed reading, and in particular the music-beer comparison!
      keep them coming zythophile!

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  5. I largely agree, but I think it’s more down to the moment, not the dispense. A cask ale caught at the perfect time is intrinsically linked to the moment you are in. If you feel a bit off, if the weather’s a bit crap, if you had a bad day, then these can all change the enjoyment – I’d be willing to bet that the more memorable moments you’ve had can be remembered by where you were, who you were with, etc, rather than merely the taste.

    Bottles can work in a similar way and a bottle can be absolutely perfect in the right moment. I do like the analogy though and it works well, but there are times when listening to a CD can be perfection, when you can be alone, listening to the music, forgetting everything and everyone else.

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    • I’d be willing to bet that the more memorable moments you’ve had can be remembered by where you were, who you were with, etc, rather than merely the taste.

      No, you’d lose: the occasions were all pretty mundane, made extraordinary by the beer on those occasions being sublime.

      t there are times when listening to a CD can be perfection

      Well, Yo-Yo Ma playing the Bach cello suites would be the one CD I’d stagger ashore with after the shipwreck on the desert island, but fantastically moving though his performance is, it would still be vastly better live.

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    • I though Okocim porter was amazing when I first drank it, and CRS was, and Harvey’s Imperial Stout is, very special:s till don’t exceed the best cask beer experiences on my personal seismometer, though.

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      • I wonder if there are variations by style. For most styles I’d agree with Martyn, but I’ve had one or two bottled stouts which were just incomparable (Marble’s original Decadence to name one).

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  6. I can’t recall tasting a cask beer that did not show signs of oxidation – some more so than others.

    Well handled bottled or kegged beer is my preference, although drinking straight from the bright beer tank can be sublime.

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  7. Good comparison, Martyn. Personally live music and drinking tend to go hand in hand anyway. The Wadworth 6X bar at the Cropredy Festival means it’s always a great weekend. Guinness always reminds me of Ry Cooder – probably because of the amount of the stuff I drank at Cambridge in 1979 when he headlined. That was hell of a weekend. However, I can’t imagine The Albert Hall offering a decent bottled or cask beer. I guess Jackson Browne & David Lindley may be a slightly more sober gig than usual.

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