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.
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.
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.