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.