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.