America Isn't Doing Cask Beer Right
By: Patrick Berger
America isn't doing cask beer right.
Is there anything as lovely as a perfectly cellared and properly poured pint of cask conditioned real ale? Thanks to its natural light carbonation and cellar temperature (around 55°f), a pint of fresh cask ale goes down like a dream. The absence of filtration and pasteurization leaves the beer in a more natural state retaining the flavor nuances that can be lost after processing. The lower carbonation levels allow you to take huge gulps without all of the gassiness. And if it's a low alcohol English bitter or mild, it becomes the ultimate session beer to be consumed in quantity without the danger falling off your stool or making a complete ass of yourself.
So if I love cask conditioned real ale so much, why don't I have hand pumps dispensing the stuff for the masses at my bars,
Paddy Long's Beer & Bacon Pub and Kaiser Tiger?
Well, as with most things, the devil is in the details and cask beer in America more often than not gets the details wrong.
So before we go any further, let's talk about what real ale is. Real ale, or cask conditioned beer, refers to beer that is naturally carbonated inside of the vessel from which it is poured. This includes bottle conditioned beer, but for this conversation I am only referring to cask conditioned beer. Cask conditioned beer has yeast and sugar added to the cask (usually a firkin) from which it will be served and undergoes a secondary fermentation that produces CO2. The CO2 gas builds pressure in the sealed cask thus carbonating the beer. The beer is then dispensed without the use of added CO2 to push the beer through the line as is normal in a modern draft system.
Instead, a hand-pull or hand-pump is used to suction the beer from the cask and into your glass. Sometimes the cask is simply tapped and tilted on top of the bar and gravity is used to pour the beer out. This natural form of carbonation and dispensing adds softer, smaller bubbles that give a creamier texture to the head of a beer.
So, now that we're all clear on what real ale is, let me get down to why I don't think it's worth the time and effort to serve it at
Paddy Long's Beer & Bacon Pub or Kaiser Tiger.
First, a hand pump introduces oxygen to the beer in the cask every time you pull the handle. Oxidizing beer will create a fruity 'off' flavor that is very apparent after only a day or two so the beer's shelf life is very short. Many places use a CO2 breather that places a blanket of gas over the beer in the cask to give it a few more days of freshness but you're still left with 3 or 4 days tops to finish that cask.
This might work out if all the bar is offering is a few cask beers, but in my experience the hand pump is usually sitting next to many other taps thus making it difficult to plow through one selection. The use of a CO2 breather also begs the question of why not just pour it through a normal tap system?
Second, my local breweries don't want to deal with firkins. Most of them don't normally fill casks and therefore aren't experienced with it. Try to remember that the perfect pint of cask beer you perhaps had in London, was filled by a brewery that fills firkins everyday and probably has been for the last 100 years. As you can imagine, it takes experience to know how much sugar and yeast it takes to properly carbonate a cask. In America, most of these one-off firkins are prepared for festivals and events so the brewery ends up guessing.
Or even worse, they simply rack the already carbonated beer off the bright tank
leaving you with the exact same product you would get in a traditional keg.
Most American breweries don't own firkins which has led bars to purchase their own and beg the brewery to fill them.
Pro tip: if a brewery doesn't own a firkin, chances are they don't know how to properly fill and condition them. Maybe bar owners shouldn't make them. Some of these firkin fests force breweries to do just that. And while we're talking about these firkin fests, does anyone really think the 30 or 40 casks being poured there were properly cellared for a week by the venue before hand? Maybe, maybe not.
I know my friend, Steve Hamburg, does a great job with the Night of the Living Ales Festival. He makes sure he has all of the casks at least a week beforehand and keeps them in the serving position at the venue so they have time to settle and checks on them throughout the week. But this is very rare. In fairness it's very difficult to find a venue willing to have 30 firkins setup for a week in their space before an event.
My third reason for not serving cask ale has to do with one of the reasons cask beer tastes so good -- the lack of processing the beer has to go through. No filtering, no pasteurization, and no forced carbonating. Very few American craft beers are filtered or pasteurized so the first two points are moot. It is said that force carbonating beer lends a harsher mouth feel than the softer natural carbonation that real ale goes through and I believe this to be true, but does American craft beer benefit from this? Traditional English ales are way more balanced than ours and the softer carbonation brings out the nuances of the caramel malts and earthy hops.
Have you ever said to yourself, “Man, the hops in this West Coast double IPA are really being overshadowed by the carbonation.” Probably not.
Modern American craft beer flavors are not designed with casks in mind and do not necessarily get better when you put them in one. American craft beer is made to be served through a modern (hopefully clean) CO2 draft system. Some beer geeks get downright giddy when they find out their favorite IPA is being served in a cask ("Er, do you even Zombie Dust in a firkin bro?"), but I'm not sure the beer tastes any better. American beers are meant to whack you over the head, not highlight the subtle balance of malt and hops. So why not serve imported firkins from England? Well, mostly because it defeats the whole purpose of fresh cask beer. Some beer will be fine in a cask for a month or two while it sits on a boat and then sits in customs and then in a distributor's warehouse -- but most won't. You really need a willing local brewery partner to make this work which leads us back to my second point.
I don't want to dismiss all cask beer in this country. I think when it's done right it's a wonderful worthwhile thing.
Many bars around the country put a lot of time and effort into pouring real ale and sometimes the result is a wonderful product but a lot of times it just falls short. I stopped ordering cask ale at my local beer bar a long time ago. Many brewpubs are able to pull it off because they have a trained cellarman (the brewer) who can pick and choose which beers are going to benefit from the cask. They also have a willing brewery partner (themselves) and they usually only pour a small selection of their own beer which they tend to plow through. This is where I generally order a cask beer. So while a lot of us beer nerds like to lose our shit over any beer in a firkin, try to keep in mind
- it doesn't automatically make it better.