Going to Font in Chorlton on a Saturday night is becoming a bit of an ordeal. I was there last night for about 45 minutes, a good third of which I spent standing at the bar waiting for someone to take my order. (I blame the cocktails – great way to make every single drink take as long to prepare as a round of pints.) I wasn’t the only one feeling the time dragging, either. When the guy next to me ordered a pint of (Magic Rock) Ringmaster, the young and nervous barmaid made him repeat it twice, then turned round three different pump clips (including the right one) to check, then turned the pump clip round again to double-check, then asked him to repeat it again. “When I say ‘Ringmaster’ I mean Ringmaster,” he explained, not entirely kindly.
The all-but-universal “pour, leave to stand, top up” system for pulling pints didn’t help, either; it took a good three or four goes before my pint of Burning Sky Aurora was ready. (When I got it, it was… OK. There’s a bit of a buzz around Burning Sky, but I don’t think it can be because of this beer: a perfectly decent hoppy pale ale, but no more than that. There was an odd kind of creaminess in the flavour, I thought; probably an effect of the hops, but it got me wondering about stray yeast. Pretty clear, though, so it was probably fine.) Obviously trying to avoid the repeat-fill problem, the young and nervous barmaid pulled my pint of Dark Star Dark Star delicately, precisely and gently enough not to wake a baby; unfortunately this wasn’t one of the lively ones, and her efforts produced what looked like a glass of flat Coke. Someone else had a go at it, and with a bit more vigour on the pump handle managed to kick up a bit of a head, but first impressions were accurate: although the flavour of the beer was fine, it was either very tired or over-vented, and in any case practically flat.
Two pints will usually do me early doors on Saturday, but these had both been so disappointing that I felt the urge for another half. So I had a half of Magic Rock Circus of Sours. Unlike the other two, this one was on keg; unlike them, it was £4.50 a pint; unlike them, it was much colder than I like and rather irritatingly fizzy. Also unlike the other two, it was superb. Despite the name, this isn’t an out-and-out sour beer, like a saison. The best way I could describe it would be to say that it took the sour edge of a lot of hoppy pales – the rougher ones, in particular – and made it work: it’s a really interesting flavour, with a sour quality that feels like it belongs. There’s a distinct – and separate – sour after-taste, too, which doesn’t sound particularly nice but is. For its strength, which is under 4%, the range and intensity of flavours it delivers is extraordinary. Really terrific beer.
Whither my CAMRA loyalties? Well, Font offer a CAMRA discount; my membership saved me £2 on my two pints of cask beer, so you could almost say I got the half free. More generally, I don’t think one evening when the best thing I drank was on keg justifies any broader conclusions about where the best beer is coming from – apart from anything else, I would love to see Circus of Sours on cask; I think it would fly. But it does remind me of a point Tandleman has made more than once, that condition is the Achilles heel of cask beer. In my experience, keg at its best is never as good as cask at its best – but good keg beer vs poorly-conditioned cask beer is a very different comparison. I’ve always said that with keg you get consistency at the expense of some of the quality of cask – particularly that part of its quality that derives from how the beer changes over time: that Dark Star would almost certainly have been a very different beast a few days earlier. But if the quality of a cask beer can’t be relied on, the consistency of keg starts to look a bit more attractive.