Cask Ale in America
What is it about real ale that evokes such unrestrained passion among beer lovers? In a word: flavor. Beer that is brewed and served following classic real ale techniques has an unmatched depth of flavor and softness of palate.
Unlike most beers, real ales complete their fermentation in the vessel from which they are dispensed. The vessel most commonly used is the cask, whose distinctive barrel shape—wider in the middle than at the ends—actually aids in the beer’s subsequent clarity. That’s why real ale is often called cask-conditioned ale (or, for brevity’s sake, cask ale).
The actual container, however, is not important. Real ale may come from a bottle, keg, or serving tank, but in every instance, one thing is consistent—the beer is in contact with live yeast until the moment it is dispensed. Because it is unfiltered, the beer retains many complex flavors and the continuing metabolic activity of the yeast keeps it at the peak of freshness.
Finally, real ale is served at a cellar temperature (52 to 57 degrees F), naturally carbonated to less than half the level found in regular beers, and dispensed without the use of any extraneous carbon dioxide pressure. As a result, it is decidedly less gassy and lacks the often prickly, acidic bite found in other beers. The mouthfeel is softer, while the slightly warmer serving temperature allows for a greater range of flavors and aromas. Whether served via an elegant hand pump or straight from the tap, real ale is a treat.
It’s important to note that real ale is not a specific beer style but a process. And, although the process is almost always associated with British ale styles, any beer can be handled and dispensed in this fashion. In fact, many lager styles can be conditioned and served from the cask. Chicago’s annual Real Ale Festival has featured a variety of Belgian and German styles.
According to Michael Jackson, consistency is not one of real ale’s well-known qualities. “Ordering a pint of cask-conditioned ale is like opening a bottle of fine wine,” he said. “You know the character of the vineyard, but each bottle will have its own delights or disappointments.”
Since gas pressure is not used to dispense the beer, the cask must be vented and exposed to ambient air, so subtle changes begin to occur as the beer oxidizes. For the beer connoisseur, these changes from cask to cask, or even from the same cask at different times, are part of the allure. On the other hand, the average beer consumer expects unyielding consistency in brands. Variability is thus both blessing and curse. And when you combine it with comparatively warmer temperatures and lower carbonation than most US beer drinkers expect, it’s easy to see why real ale will never be a huge seller in America.
Alive and Well in America
Huge seller or not, cask ale is alive and well in this country, thank you. It’s no longer necessary to travel to Great Britain to experience it. Since the 1990s, pioneering brewers and bar owners, often spurred on by a perceptive and passionate homebrewing community, have made it a reality here.
Real ale festivals are major annual affairs in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Diego, while “Firkin Fridays” and other promotions have become commonplace most everywhere else. And what brewpub or beer bar doesn’t have at least one beer engine these days? Jeez, the Brewers United for Real Potables, a homebrew club in the Washington, DC, area, can easily get 20 of them at their annual club real ale competition!
The Chicago festival has been literally bursting at the seams, both in attendance and the number of beers on offer. It’s now the third largest festival of its kind and the biggest outside of the United Kingdom. Who’d have guessed it?
Even ardent proponents of cask ale in America still see tremendous obstacles in establishing it as anything more than a niche in the beer industry. One need only look to ongoing problems in Britain, where real ale has been part of the social fabric for centuries, to realize that the logistical, economic, and educational hurdles here are enormous.
“In a perfect world, I would serve all of our beers exclusively cask conditioned,” Greg Hall, brew master of the Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago, told me recently. “It’s the best way to appreciate our beers. The problem is, it’s just not feasible financially or logistically to do much more than we do now.” Goose Island does better than most, regularly serving cask ale at its two brewpubs and occasionally at selected local bars. But the offsite locations haven’t moved enough volume to make them part of a regular cask distribution circuit.
Marc Rubenstein, brewer and owner of Middle Ages Brewing in Syracuse, NY, shares this same combination of passion and healthy skepticism. At one time he was the largest cask-conditioned volume brewer in America. In 1996, Middle Ages supplied contract beers for the Highlander Brewery of New York City, a brewpub-in-waiting that aimed to serve exclusively cask ales. “We were processing over 100 casks per month,” Rubenstein said. “If you love cask beer as much as Mary (wife and co-owner) and I do, it was unbelievably satisfying!” By all accounts, their beers were excellent, even award winning, but only months after Highlander’s opening, the pub went kaput.
Middle Ages got the Highlander brands and added most of them to their portfolio, but now their cask production is decidedly more modest. They distribute to six regular accounts. “Cask beer is really for people who care a lot,” says Marc, “so I send it only to pubs that can handle it properly. We used to ship more, but I got too many complaints. If the beer is off, we’re the ones who look bad.”
Consequently, Rubenstein personally supervises the cellaring at his two closest accounts. On the other hand, two British-themed pubs in Rochester, The Old Toad and Rose and Crown, can handle the beers independently because they are operated by experienced English ex-patriots with extensive cellaring training.
A brewpub typically has a much easier task in maintaining cask beer quality than a production brewery, because it is less likely to be at the mercy of inexperienced pub owners. Yet even a brewpub can encounter a world of problems if its staff lacks proper training.
Paul Pendyck operates UK Brewing Supplies, a Lancaster, PA-based supplier of real ale equipment. Most of his clients struggle with real ale, in spite of their best intentions. “Many times a brewpub wants a hand pump and a few firkins, but they’re not willing to invest in adequate cooling equipment,” says Pendyck. In a common scenario, the pub stores the cask in a cooler, but eschews cooling or even insulation on the beer line and hand pump cylinder. With the temperature changes, the line clogs with excess foam and the beer that’s served is warm and flat—exactly what a publican should avoid if he or she is going to make real ale work in this country.
As an ex-pat (from Liverpool), Pendyck is particular about his cask ales. He really wants them to be served properly, and it pains him that he doesn’t have the ability to provide the day-to-day service that many of his customers need to get it right. “For many pubs,” he added, “once the novelty aspect wears off, they tire of the whole thing. It’s not that hard to do proper cellaring, but too often the staff just finds it too much of a nuisance.” Since most pubs routinely charge more for real ales, it’s critical that customers get more than just novelty in a pint glass.
Brewin’ Beagle, of Chicago, provides exactly the sort of cellaring service that Pendyck mentions. After operating for some time as a cask ale equipment supplier, partners Ray Kulka, Di Kulka and Barry Girard shifted their focus and began providing a full-scale cellaring service for Chicago-area restaurants and pubs that want to serve real ales.
The service includes planning and installation of all cooling equipment and stillage; actual execution of stillaging, venting, and tapping of casks; and bar staff education on the proper dispensing of cask ales. They work closely with the retailer and brewers to ensure that the beers are always served in the proper condition and that the equipment is well maintained. An important element in the service is the routine use of a cask breather and CO2 blanket to ensure longer product shelf life. CAMRA purists may blanch, but this is a logical solution for a great many potential real ale outlets in the United States.
The Rules for Survival
Yet, in spite of their solid expertise and high-quality results, Brewin’ Beagle has yet to build a very large client base. Few bars and restaurants are willing to pay even nominal fees for ongoing cellar support. Goose Island’s Greg Hall has tried to sell the Brewin’ Beagle solution to some of his better draft accounts, but with limited success. “Even though the price is not unreasonable, too many bar owners just don’t think it’s worth the expense and effort,” he said.
As should be clear by now, too often businesses underestimate the equipment and staff requirements to make real ale a viable offering. Passion for the product is simply not enough—cask ale requires a very different regimen for production, cellaring and serving.
Sometimes, even a place that gets everything right has trouble surviving. A recent casualty is Sherlock’s Home brewpub in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka. Established in 1989 by Bill Burdick, Sherlock’s was conceived from the ground up as an English-themed pub, right down to the cask-conditioned ales. Everything was first-rate, from the beer recipes to the real wooden casks. The gleaming beer engines pulled beautifully-kept ales from a separate cask cooler that maintained a perfect cellar temperature. Sherlock’s gave many beer lovers, particularly in America’s heartland, their first encounter with real ale. With its closing, America’s real ale movement suffered more than just a symbolic setback.
In the United Kingdom, cask ale probably would not have survived if not for the remarkable success of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Founded in 1971 by four men distressed by the poor quality of their local ales and general state of the British brewing industry, CAMRA obviously struck the right note for thousands of devoted drinkers. By the end of the 1970s it had grown into a powerful consumer force that halted the brewing industry’s wholesale surrender to artificially carbonated, pasteurized and filtered keg beers.
In the 50 years prior to CAMRA’s founding, not one new ale brewery opened in Britain. Some 300 new real ale breweries have opened since. With a membership close to 60,000, today’s CAMRA has expanded its fight for consumer rights and choice.
But CAMRA’s successes have not been as widespread as some in America might believe. Long-standing problems can be almost impossible to overcome. Few realize that Britain lost much of its beer cellaring expertise when many publicans enlisted in the armed services in World War II. The pub trade never really recovered, and substantial changes in drinking habits followed. In time, kegged lagers, typically lower strength versions of famous European brands, would emerge as Britain’s most popular draft style.
Consolidation in the British brewing industry also resulted in fewer choices in beer styles and a declining number of brands. If CAMRA’s grass-roots effort saved cask ale as a critical component of the beer industry, it could not halt the buyouts and closures of many revered regional breweries by a handful of brewing titans. Today, only one of the UK’s biggest brewers is still under domestic ownership, and the average pub customer is just as likely to be drinking a longneck bottle of Budweiser as a pint of cask ale.
Nevertheless, sales of cask ales still account for almost a quarter of all draft beer sales. This may be a sizable drop-off from the glory years, but cask ales remain a viable and lucrative chunk of Britain’s beer market. But the country’s mega breweries have yielded the bulk of this market to independent regional and microbreweries, which means that traditional ales are gradually becoming specialty and niche products, much as craft beers in America. To my mind, this is a positive change, because it leaves real ale in the hands of those breweries most dedicated to its survival and quality.
Cask Marque: Rewarding Quality
The past 15 years have seen impressive growth in Britain’s craft brewing sector. There are at least 2,500 different brands of cask ale in British pubs, an average of five per brewer, regardless of size. And contemporary trends in brewing and pub operations have also yielded an expanding crop of more interesting beers, served under more optimal conditions than ever before. In a fascinating shift, British craft brewers have been inspired by their hophead colleagues in North America and are experimenting with new varieties—and larger additions. This, alone, is cause for celebration.
Some of the quality improvement can no doubt be traced to the Cask Marque program, an accreditation scheme that rewards pub licensees for the proper cellaring and serving of cask ales. A number of regional brewers and pub companies initiated the scheme to counter the indifferent handling of cask beers. Independent assessors perform regular unannounced inspections, checking for serving temperature, appearance, aroma, and taste. I have been to dozens of Cask Marque-badged pubs and highly recommend a visit to any of them. The beer quality has been uniformly excellent.
Redefinition of Real Ale
The introduction and growth of real ale in America in the 1990s may be a more remarkable story in itself, because we didn’t merely revive a process that had once been enormously popular. In effect, we raised it from the dead. Just as our craft brewers have helped revitalize many beer styles, they have also preserved a classic method of beer production and presentation.
Successful strategies for the brewing and sales of real ale in the United States are already following divergent paths, some in the classic methods, others more entrepreneurial. We’re beginning to see a redefinition of real ale brewing and serving techniques to suit American tastes and business realities.
A classic example of this emerging “American Way” of real ale can be seen at the Boscos brewpubs in Memphis and Nashville, TN (and soon, in Little Rock, AR), where partner/brew master Chuck Skypeck has been a forceful proponent. Through his commitment and willingness to experiment, real ale has become such an integral part of Boscos’ product portfolio that it now accounts for approximately 7 percent of total sales in Memphis and 9 percent in Nashville. These are impressive figures for any American brewery, but even more remarkable given Boscos’ location in the Mid-South, often considered a traditional craft beer wasteland.
Skypeck introduced real ale into his Memphis brewpub in 1994, dispensing—as many homebrewers had learned to do—from converted Cornelius soda kegs, although firkins would soon follow. For Skypeck, adding cask-conditioned ale was another essential step in distinguishing Boscos from his competition. “The whole reason we got into it was that so many brewpubs in the South try to appeal to the masses,” he said. “We really tried to have products that differentiated us from other brewpubs and from mass beers.”
So, each Wednesday night he tapped a cask and served it on the bar via a gravity tap. Customer response was swift and positive. “Hump Day” became a strong sales night and people began clamoring for casks to be offered on other evenings. In response, Skypeck added Monday night to the cask schedule, figuring he could tap a firkin on Monday and the beer would keep well enough though Wednesday evening. After all, there are subtle changes due to oxidation, so he could really play to his customers’ growing interest in flavor and aroma. Surprisingly, this strategy failed.
Problem was, the Tuesday and Wednesday customers missed seeing the tapping of the cask and tasting the freshly tapped beer. And while those subtle flavor changes may have impressed the local homebrew club members, they didn’t impress the larger audience seeking greater consistency in aroma and taste. It seemed that the only way to make this work was to tap a new cask every night, but because the pub couldn’t dispense a full firkin (10.8 US gallons) in a single evening, it didn’t make economic sense.
The solution was to switch to the smallest of commercially manufactured casks, the pin (which holds exactly half the volume of a firkin). Pins enabled Boscos to go through fresh beer very quickly and eventually extend the cask promotion to five nights per week by 1995.
That the smaller volume led to quicker sellouts on many crowded nights proved to be a positive promotional tool. “The rarity of the beer added to its attraction,” Skypeck continued, “so people would try to get to the pub earlier to make sure they got some.” Boscos now easily sells out a pin per night, and they can frequently drain additional casks if larger crowds are anticipated.
Boscos takes great pains to train the staff thoroughly, teaching them to put a positive spin on those features that might be off-putting to newer customers. For example, cask beers are always served at “cellar temperature” (not “warmer”) and are “naturally carbonated” (as opposed to “flat”). “We’ve gotten away from process and ingredients because customers really want to hear more about flavor and aroma,” Skypeck says. “We want to remind them why our beer is different and why cask beer is at the pinnacle of the flavor pyramid.”
Boscos eschews most of the standard cellaring methods. “We like to emphasize that we do ‘American-style cask ale,’” said Skypeck.” “We don’t try to play upon European brewing traditions. It’s all about what they’re drinking, not how it’s brewed. We are not traditionalists. We use American recipes and ingredients and don’t follow classic cellaring practice.”
Instead, Boscos treats each cask like a big bottle. They have learned how to adjust carbonation so that the beers will be softly conditioned and not gassy. There is no venting at all, even when beers are dry-hopped. No spiles are used, and they don’t even wait for the beer to “drop bright,” as a slight haze can be used as another point of differentiation versus mass beers. The spiling routine “is something we don’t do, but the results speak for themselves,” says Skypeck.
If you’re a cellaring fossil like me, these techniques seem almost blasphemous. But far be it from me to tinker with Boscos’ success. Skypeck and his colleagues have built a sound formula that adapts traditional practice to fit their style and desired presentation. In a most American fashion, they have broken with Old World methods and managed to make cask beer economically viable and very approachable for their customers.
In the end, no matter how we make or handle it, real ale is still all about flavor. If we learn to appreciate greater complexity in the beers we drink, we’ve made a step forward.
Steve Hamburg is the co-founder and cellarmaster of the annual Real Ale Festival in Chicago. All photographs courtesy of The Real Ale Festival.