Over the last few years we’ve seen a veritable boom in the number of craft beer establishments around the country, including many that specialize in artisanal foods. And with this growth, we’ve also seen another development: a newfound appreciation of cask-conditioned beer.
For the last 20 years, cask ale has seemed like the Next Great Beer Trend in the United States, but it has always had too many mitigating factors conspiring against its success. After all, if it has required the advocacy of the 100,000-member Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and the industry-sponsored Cask Marque education and accreditation program to sustain quality and relevance in England, think about how difficult its chances are over here. The fact that any cask ale is available in America at all is remarkable in itself. But passion is not enough.
Many businesses have tried mightily to make cask ale viable in this country, but failed. Some overestimated consumer demand; others never understood the extensive support network of brewers, importers, distributors and trained bar staff needed to make it work.
Gradually, relentlessly, others have endured and the good news is they’re succeeding. Greater New York City has dozens of bars now regularly serving cask ales (Manhattan’s Rattle N Hum typically serves four; many more during frequent festivals), ditto Philadelphia. Down I-95 in D.C., ChurchKey established a new precedent by opening with five cask beer options on their extensive beer menu. Handpumps are sprouting all over the country: you can find them in pubs and festivals in Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Houston, Pittsburgh, Portland (ME and OR), St. Paul, San Francisco, Seattle, and beyond.
On the other hand, we still have bars and festivals where cask-conditioned beer is viewed as a decorative gimmick. The question is, are American craft beer consumers astute enough to know the difference? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be. That’s my goal here; to teach you how to distinguish the real deal from the pretender, the sublime from the mediocre.
Gimmick or Gestalt
Let’s begin with some basic assumptions. The mere presence of handpumps (also known as “beer engines”) or firkin kegs is no guarantee that authentic cask beer is being served. Sad to say, but this always involves a leap of faith that goes beyond your trust in the dedication and honesty of the bar owner―you also have to trust the brewer and the entire infrastructure of our three-tiered system.
That’s because cask-conditioned beer is not a style but the result of a specific process of brewing, fermentation and dispense. At every point in the supply chain, critical steps must be taken to deliver to you that authentic, beautifully served, sumptuous glass of beer you were hoping for.
That process, once widely followed around the world, persisted in the British Isles while other nations adopted different methods, so it remains strongly associated with British ale styles. Indeed, even contemporary American consumer expectations about the appearance and flavor of British styles are still largely driven by this tradition, whether we are aware of this or not.
Regardless of style, authentic cask beer will have certain shared characteristics. At the very least, it should contain live yeast, because it completes its secondary fermentation in the cask. Then it must be kept and served at a cool cellar temperature (52-57° F), naturally carbonated to lower levels than standard draft beers, and dispensed without the use of any extraneous carbon dioxide pressure. The result should be decidedly less gassy, lacking the often prickly, acidic bite found in other beers. The mouthfeel is softer and gentler, while the slightly warmer serving temperature allows for a greater range of flavors and aromas to emerge.
Few consumers are aware that the presence of live yeast is the defining characteristic of cask beer. If it’s not there, it is something else entirely. It doesn’t matter if it’s been stored at cellar temperature and served via handpump or from a gravity tap―it is not cask-conditioned, merely in a cask. The distinction is critical. Brewery-conditioned, filtered beer that’s been racked into a cask might still be very tasty, but it’s just a warmer version of a brewery’s standard beer dispensed from an unpressurized container. Authentic cask-conditioned beer completes its secondary fermentation in the cask. Period.
Two other distinguishing features of cask beer run counter to expectation. Despite the mythical image of British ales, cask beer should never be served flat. And no, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been to pubs in London that serve it that way―it’s simply not correct. A beer without any carbonation is dull, lifeless, at best insipid, and certainly not what the brewer intended. A good head and the resulting “lace” adhering to the sides of the glass are signs that both the brewer and the pub’s cellarman have done their jobs well. Indeed, many brewers still add a small dose of a sugary solution known as “primings” to the cask to produce a more vigorous secondary fermentation and livelier condition in the beer.
The other feature that runs counter to expectation is clarity, and by that I mean the beer should be brilliantly clear, without any floating particles or haze. The fact that cask beer is unfiltered leads to the misconception that it’s OK if it is served turbid and cloudy, but this is definitely not the case.
In the U.K., a cloudy pint is never accepted at a pub―it is sent back and replaced with another without question. In this country, especially in the craft beer market, clarity isn’t considered a requirement. These days, even the most casual beer drinker has likely been exposed to German hefeweizens or Belgian-style white ales, so a cloudy pint is often considered a sign of quality. But beer styles that traditionally have a hazy appearance are almost never served in cask-conditioned form. For those that are―British styles like mild/brown ale, pale ale/bitter, porter and stout―cloudiness is typically a sign that something is amiss.
If you’re presented with a muddy pint of cask-conditioned beer and told by the server that “it’s supposed to be that way,” don’t believe it. In fact, it’s a sure sign that something has been neglected in the process or the bar staff doesn’t know any better. A slight haze―OK, cut them a break. But otherwise, send it back. If they are unwilling to pour you a clearer pint or offer you another beer, you have little choice but to drink what you’ve been given and chalk it up to experience. Just make a note to yourself that you won’t order a cask beer at that establishment again.
You see, most brewers typically add “finings” to cask-conditioned beer. Finings (a substance whose purpose is to attract organic compounds like spent yeast, hop particles, and other proteins and cause them to fall out of solution and form stable sediment at the bottom of the cask) have been used for centuries as a means of clarifying beer. They were employed long before modern methods of filtering were invented.
Finings are not required, as most beer will ultimately “drop bright” when given enough time to settle in its serving vessel. But as a practical matter, a pub can’t wait indefinitely for beer to clear. Finings make the process more predictable and controllable.
So, if a cask of beer is given ample time to settle and reach its optimal temperature in the bar cellar, and assuming that certain basic techniques have been applied in the pub’s cellar or cooler, the beer in your glass should be absolutely bright and clear. The only exception is if haziness is considered proper for the style of beer being served.
In the U.S., cloudy cask beer is most often a sign that the beer is still “working,” that is, it hasn’t been given the time to complete its secondary fermentation and drop bright. It’s also a sign that the cask might have been jarred or shaken prior to dispense. On the other hand, it can also be a sign of infection, either in the cask itself or due to dirty beer lines and handpumps. In this instance, the aroma and flavor will be obvious indicators, and any good bar or pub should take it out of service immediately and replace your beer without question.
Getting the Job Done
All draft beer requires considerable care to be served under optimal conditions. Lines, taps and glassware must be meticulously cleaned; kegs and beer lines must be properly cooled; gas pressure must be balanced for line length and diameter. Cask beer is no exception, but it also demands an additional set of skills that few people have in this country. Indeed, perhaps the biggest obstacle to the growth of cask beer in the U.S. has been the lack of training in these skills, known collectively as “cellarmanship.”
Cellarmanship is not rocket science; it just involves understanding a very different set of procedures than most bar staff are familiar with. The problem is that there’s a high cost of failure if any of them are improperly―or indifferently―applied.
Like a number of people in this country, I was taught cellaring in the U.K. by Mark Dorber, one of the most-renowned and respected cellarman in the industry, Dorber, the longtime landlord at The White Horse on Parson’s Green (Fulham, London) and now in charge of The Anchor at Walberswick (Suffolk), has never wavered about the cellarman’s ultimate role:
“To promote the most beauty in each cask of beer by developing the most interesting range of sound aromas and flavors, by nurturing wherever possible high levels of natural carbonation consistent with each beer style and, moreover, by serving each beer in a manner and at a temperature that enhances its aroma and flavor profile and creates an appropriate mouthfeel.”
Cellaring techniques are beyond the scope of this piece. The details can, and have, filled books and lengthy articles. If you are interested in knowing more, there are many online resources, courtesy of cask ale stalwarts like Alex Hall and Thomas Cizauskas (see caskaleusa.com). The standard bible is Cellarmanship, by Patrick O’Neill, published by the Campaign for Real Ale.
Consumers need only understand some basics. A cellarman must:
- Secure the cask in its final serving position, making sure to avoid sloshing and shaking that will make the beer too cloudy.
- Adjust the level of carbon dioxide in the cask to assure the proper degree of carbonation and to allow finings to work to clarify the beer.
- Assure suitable aging time based on the style of beer being served.
- Dispense the beer at the optimum temperature and using the best method of dispense for the beer style and the recommendations of the brewery.
In practice, cellaring requires a combination of training and extensive experience. Each cask optimally is treated differently based on style, strength and the amount of time the beer has been in the cask. Cellar temperatures may have to be adjusted at different points to allow conditioning to develop and the finings to do their work more efficiently. Ultimately, it takes a lot of experimentation and good record keeping to get consistent results. For consumers, the proof is in the glass. A bright, well-conditioned pint of beer is a sure sign that someone on the premises has the proper training and experience.
The Scoop on Handpumps
Cask beer can be served directly from the cask via a gravity tap, but most pubs and bars serve via a handpump/beer engine because the beer is kept in a cellar cooler. Most handpumps used in the U.S. have a faucet known as a “swan neck,” which is simply a curved spout that’s meant to aerate the beer in the glass and give it a frothier head. These are also occasionally equipped with a screw-on nozzle attachment known as a “sparkler.” Think of this as a cask version of a Guinness tap, as it accentuates a creamier body and head. In England there’s a North/South divide when it comes to sparklers: they’re popular in the North, not the South.
Not surprisingly, most Americans seem to love beers that are pulled through a sparkler. In my opinion, however, sparklers should only be considered for certain styles (like stouts) where this is a desired characteristic, or if a brewery specifically asks for it to be used. Sparklers reduce CO2 in the beer, resulting in sweeter flavors and a softer palate. Hoppy pale ales typically lose hop aroma and flavor as a result. A good comparison is to nitro-pour beers. Nitro IPAs were a trend for a while, but thankfully we all came to our senses!
There’s another reason I don’t like sparklers: they can be used as a “cover” for poor conditioning if a cask has been over-vented or under-primed by the brewer. You should never have to rely on a sparkler to artificially froth up your beer if your cellar regimen is correct. It should be a matter of taste, not necessity. And if you’re serving via gravity, you’re out of luck.
To Breathe or Not to Breathe…
In traditional dispense, cask beer is exposed to oxygen. Because of this, casks should never be in service for more than a couple of days. While there are many who enjoy the subtle changes in cask beers over time, there’s always the fear that you’ll eventually serve a pint of vinegar. In a U.K. pub with reasonable turnover, a cask of beer will rarely be in service for more than a few days. In the U.S., where cask beer is more of a niche product, turnover will be decidedly slower. Therefore, a “cask breather” (which blankets the beer with low-pressure CO2) is almost a must. The Campaign for Real Ale is completely opposed to the use of cask breathers, but there’s really not much of a choice over here unless your beer turns over very quickly.
How carbonated should cask beer be? I think most people (certainly most Americans!) prefer their beers with a good amount of carbonation, and this is especially true with cask beers since they tend to lose condition while they are in service. At The White Horse we were taught to rate condition on a 0-10 scale, where 0 was flat and 10 was way over-carbonated. Optimally we would begin service on a 7, and this has remained my target when cellaring at beer festivals. Haven’t had any complaints yet!
Young or Old?
Amazing as it seems, too many pubs forget that not all beers are meant to be served as quickly as possible after delivery. Yet many desirable characteristics in cask beer are enhanced if the beer isn’t rushed into service. This is particularly true if beers are dry-hopped, as it can often take a couple of weeks for the desired aromas to fully develop.
In the U.K. lately, I’ve often found beers that are served too young. Indeed, some brewers have had to adjust their recipes to account for this phenomenon. One brewery in particular switched from Kent Golding to Target as its dry hop because the former wasn’t getting enough time in pub cellars to develop its distinctive aroma. In the U.S., on the other hand, the opposite is often true, especially if imported beers are served.
At The White Horse, sweeter, low-gravity styles like mild ales were given the least amount of aging, as they tended to dry out the longer they were held. Most standard-gravity (4-5% ABV) pale ales were matured for around two weeks, while stronger ales could be aged for three to four weeks or even months in the case of certain old ales and barley wines.
Recognizing Tricks of the Trade
As mentioned above, some breweries and pubs will pass off brewery-conditioned and filtered bright beer as cask-conditioned, but how can you really tell if it’s legit? There’s no foolproof method, but here are some things to look for:
- If you’re at a festival or bar and the cask is rolled in, tapped, and the beer is completely bright as soon as it’s served, it’s bright beer. Bank on it.
- If you know a pub or festival cellarman, ask him or her to check the cask when it is empty or drained. A cask-conditioned beer will have plenty of sediment; a beer that was racked bright will not.
- Evaluate the condition visually and by mouthfeel. Natural carbonation normally yields a softer mouthfeel and a creamier head.
Cask-conditioned beers are typically priced higher than standard draft beers. This is certainly fair if the beer is a rare import, but also because of the extra care required to serve the beer properly. That said, some bars and brewpubs serve their cask beers with an enormous head, often two inches or larger. Unlike the U.K., the U.S. has no legal measures for a standard “pint” of beer, so even if your cask beer was served in an imperial measure glass, the two to three inches of foam will often result in a glass that’s barely three-quarters full. If you feel you’ve paid a premium price and not received a fair serving, politely ask for a top-up. If one is not given and foamy pours are standard practice, don’t raise a fuss; just don’t order their cask beer anymore!
Festivals offer a unique opportunity to sample multiple beers at the same setting, and most are a great experience and value. Yet if the organizers have not arranged for the casks to be secured and properly cellared ahead of time, they’re not doing “real ale” a real service. Remember, not every brewer or organizer cares whether cask ale is supposed to be clear or not, and most attendees don’t know enough about it to care one way or the other. If you enjoy them, great, but realize that they are not doing authentic cask-conditioning.
I’ve been organizing cask beer festivals since 1996, many of which have also included judged competitions, so I’ve generally been pretty anal when it comes to cellaring. Normally that means we secure casks six to seven days before the festival and do our conditioning three to five days prior. Realistically, this is not always possible, so organizers will do the best the can under the circumstances. If you’re at an event and you notice casks are being moved around gingerly, you can be quite certain these folks care about what they’re doing.
Standard flaws that may be passed off as “features”:
- Beer is cloudy. Most often in American practice, it’s because the beer is still “working,” i.e., it hasn’t had enough time to properly condition and drop bright.
- Beer has lots of “floaters” because it was dry-hopped. This is quite possibly true, but it’s still a sign that the beer hasn’t had enough time to drop bright.
- Beer is flat and warm. Hey, don’t fall for the myth that this “is the way it’s supposed to be.”
- Beer has obvious aroma and flavor faults (acetic, buttery, oxidized). There are many reasons for them, but none that should ever be passed off as a “feature.” The cask may have been mishandled in transit, been in stock or on dispense for too long, exposed to temperature extremes, infected during racking at the brewery, etc. Off-flavors are not acceptable, period.
Taking One for the Team
At closing time, a good pub will always pump out beer that’s still in the lines. That’s because, even if the lines are cooled, the beer will lose condition. If the beer lines aren’t cooled and insulated, it’s even worse―the beer will get warm and flat. If you go to a pub early in the day and you haven’t seen any cask beer poured yet, be forewarned: The first pint or two may have been “line beer” left over from the previous evening.
In my U.K. travels, I learned quite early to monitor what was being served. If I saw the bartender pour a pint of Bitter A, that’s what I’d order, because I knew mine wasn’t the first pint of the day. Of course, sometimes you don’t have any choice. When traveling with friends, we always alternate who gets the first pint in any pub because we’ve all been similarly burned. The “taking one for the team” strategy means you’ll get burned less often.
Back to the Future
Eight years ago I examined the current state of real ale in America in these pages, and my research revealed that successful strategies for brewing and selling it were following divergent paths. While many of us were holding firm to the classic practices in British brewing and cellaring, others eschewed them as old-fashioned and impractical in the light of very real business concerns. We were witnessing a redefinition of cask beer which supposedly better suited American tastes and the limitations in the complex infrastructure needed to make it work.
Back then I was willing to concede that the ends ultimately justified the means. If brewpubs and bars were educating the public and teaching a new appreciation of complex flavors and aromas, then what could be wrong with that? After all, it’s really difficult to convince people that beer doesn’t always have to be ice cold, fizzy and crystal clear to be delicious.
But I think we’ve moved beyond the need for gimmicks. A new generation has grown up in a world where there’s always been craft beer and an abundance of beer styles. It doesn’t have to be coddled with sweetened , orange-garnished , or low-hopped “training beers,” so why do we still need to “trick up” cask beer to make it appealing?
As one who really loves cask-conditioned beer, I’m thrilled to see more breweries and bar owners committing the time and effort needed to master the process and get it right. What the craft beer world needs even more, however, is a discerning group of consumers who will reward them for doing so.
Steve Hamburg was co-founder and cellarmaster of the Chicago Real Ale Festival (1996-2003) and the Chicago Beer Society's Day & Night of the Living Ales (2005-present). He has been to the United Kingdom so often he actually know how to play cricket.