By Owen Ogletree
With cask-conditioned ales making regular appearances at a growing number of pubs, brewery tours and festivals from Alabama to North Carolina, this interesting process and tradition now forms the hottest new beer trend in the Southeast. Unfortunately, many people responsible for brewing, distributing and serving cask ales sometimes lack complete knowledge and experience needed to provide the very best pint to the customer.
Cask-conditioning comes from the English tradition of placing young, unfiltered beer with yeast, a touch of residual sugar and clarifying finings into sealed metal or wooden casks. Typical casks hold 10.8 gallons of beer and are known as “firkins.” Inside the bunged firkin, yeast consumes remaining sugars, producing soft carbonation and subtle, appealing fermentation notes before settling into the belly of the cask as sediment.
English pub owners - well versed in the care and serving of cask ales - place their firkins in horizontal "stillage" position in the pub's cool cellar immediately upon delivery. From this point, the casks remain still - never moved or jostled until empty. After a few days of allowing the beer to clarify and form a sediment, the publican hammers a porous, wooden peg (spile) into the cask’s top bung to vent any excess carbonation. A tap is later hammered through another bung on the front of the cask, with the ale being served by hand pump.
BORN IN THE U.S.A.
Most pubs in the United States lack cellars and equipment to condition and serve cask ale in the traditional English way. Here, most casks are placed on their sides and vented in the beer cooler, then carried gently (in horizontal position) to a stillage cradle on the bar, and a simple gravity tap serves up the beer.
Cask ale must include a secondary fermentation with live yeast cells and a conditioning period inside the cask, so putting filtered, carbonated beer into a cask doesn't constitute cask ale. All cask ales should have sediment. Watch carefully at a pub's cask ale tapping - if a cask is rolled out or carried in a vertical position, then put in horizontal stillage position, immediately tapped and pours clear, it is probably not real cask ale. If cask ale were handled in this manner, it would pour very cloudy and murky. A slight haze is considered acceptable in U.S. cask versions, but murky, muddy or chunky cask beer should be avoided.
Murky cask ale is no fun. This is an indication that the beer might contain too much residual sugar, still be fermenting actively and hasn't been given time for yeast to settle and the beer to clarify. It's also possible that the cask was up-righted or agitated before serving. Infection from bacteria and/or wild yeasts could also the issue, but taste and aroma will usually give this away.
PATIENCE IS THE KEY
Cask-savvy pub owners don't rush things - they give their cask ales plenty of time to drop clear and form the sediment layer. Cask ales stored in cool stillage position for enough days will typically drop bright without finings, but many cask ale brewers help out the process by employing finings such as isinglass, gelatin and carrageenan. To prevent hop particle "floaters," hole-leaf dry-hops should always be placed into a sealed hopsack inside the cask.
Casks should never be up-righted or jostled prior to serving and should never be delivered and served on the same day. A cask should have at least two to seven days in very cool, horizontal stillage position at the pub before being served. If late delivery of a cask occurs on the scheduled day of tapping, pub owners should immediately place the cask in cool stillage position and postpone tapping for at least a couple of days (one week would be better) - definitely a preferable alternative to murky beer.
Pub owners shouldn't try to soft spile and vent a firkin rapidly just a few minutes prior to serving. Vigorous soft spiling often causes drastic pressure fluctuations that dredge up sediment and make the beer cloudy. Several hours might be needed to allow the yeast to re-settle.
Dense, but still slightly porous wooden hard spiles typically vent pressure above 3-5 PSI or so - just right for a cask. But these hard spiles sometimes take 1-2 days to vent the cask slowly down to desired levels of carbonation pressure. If a day or two exists before tapping a cask, busy pub owners may just use a hard spile to vent - 90% of the time, this works. Also remember that any spile blocked by a hop bag placed in the cask will vent much slower or stop all together.
A COOL SPARKLE
Casks should always be conditioned and stored at cool temperatures (50-60 degrees F). Warm conditioning temperatures make for exploding cask bungs and a tremendous mess. Cask ales can't be shipped in warm months on non-refrigerated trucks, and this explains why casks seem less prevalent in the summer months.
Casks taste best when served no warmer than 50-55 degrees F. Cask ales should offer a soft, subdued, bright carbon dioxide sparkle and should never be flat - with occasional exceptions involving well-aged, port-like, high-gravity old ales or barleywines.
Beer festivals provide even more difficult challenges for organizers wishing to include cask ales. Where should casks be stored and vented in cool stillage position for several days before the event? What's the best way to transfer casks gently and carefully to serving positions on fest day? Pouring staff must be trained regarding the nuances of cask ale tapping and serving. How will the casks be kept cool during serving? Cask ales require planning, preparation and practice.