PHILADELPHIA, April 29, 2011 — Cask-conditioned beer, with strong roots in the U.K., is warm and flat, right? Or at least that’s how the popular, yet incorrect, axiom goes.
Cared for properly - from production to transportation to serving - cask-conditioned beer (or ‘Real Ale’ as it is also commonly called) can produce beers with quite interesting flavors and aromas as the natural production of beer would intend for them.
The road to great beer entails the extraction and fermentation of sugars from a grain - barley, wheat, and rye are three common ones. This is an overtly simplistic description of the complex science that takes place along the way from the farming of the grains and hops to the chemistry of the water to the selection of the yeast strain for use in fermentation to the bottling and presentation of the final product.
It’s the fermentation stage wherein lies the magic of changing sugary water to beer. In this stage, yeast contributes its work to the process by processing the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, as well as various flavor and aroma compounds.
But when a beer is pasteurized and filtered, as is most of the mass-produced “mainstream” beer, the yeast is halted from performing any further work that it had already completed in the fermentation vessel.
This is the point at which cask-conditioned beer diverges. As a side note, while this is primarily a discussion of cask-conditioned beer served on draft, when you see the words ‘bottle-conditioned’ on a beer bottle label, the principle is largely the same, albeit in a different vessel.
In the final stage of cask ale production, since the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized, an extra dose of sugar and yeast is pitched into the keg to induce a secondary fermentation. The fermentation and continuing maturation and refinement of the beer takes place over the course of the following days and weeks leading up to when the beer sent out to market and is served fresh at local watering holes. At the bar, the cask-conditioned beer is finally ready to be served from the vessel in which it undergoes a secondary fermentation.
In cask-conditioned beer, or real ale, the flavor and aroma compounds created during fermentation are still there - but a cask-conditioned beer minus the added carbonation will showcase the malt, hops, and yeast characteristics differently than in a “normal beer”. In some cases, the noticeable hop presence might be dialed back a bit due to the decreased level of carbonation, which can accentuate hops’ presence.
From coast to coast
While many trends in the U.S. go from west to east, the beer “trend” of serving cask-conditioned beers primarily began on the East Coast. Perhaps it is not too surprising, given the geography and proximity to the U.K., that the rediscovery of this timeless method of preparing and serving beer began on beer engines and bartop firkins from Boston to New York to Philadelphia and to Baltimore.
When kegs of cask-conditioned beer are served at bars, one of two methods is typically employed. The beer can be put on a beer engine, or handpump, which aids in the “pulling” of a glass of cask beer. Or, the keg may be placed on bar top and served simply by turning the spigot on the front of the keg and letting gravity work its magic.
Natural carbonation, as discussed earlier, was created in the beer prior to serving. While many cask-conditioned beers will expectedly produce a less foamy head than traditionally kegged beer, cask-conditioned beer should present itself with at least a thin layer of bubbles on top.
Ergo, not flat.
Also, when cared for properly, cask-conditioned beer should ideally be served in the low-to-mid 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ergo, cool, but not warm.
It has been a slow education, but gradually from coast to coast, beer drinkers are waking up to the delights of a glass of real ale. Firkins of cask-conditioned beer can be found more commonly than ever at better beer bars from Wisconsin to Texas to California.
Cask festivals in the Northeast
Across the Northeast region of the country, any quality beer bar or brewpub worth its hops will serve at least one cask-conditioned beer on a handpump at all times. Weekly or monthly special events that feature a firkin of cask-conditioned beer fresh from the brewery on the bar top have also become more common. (‘Firkin’ refers to the size of the keg - 10.6 gallons.)
For many years now, The Grey Lodge Pub in Philadelphia’s Wissonoming neighborhood has been conducting a unique event that coincides with every Friday the 13th on the calendar. It’s called Friday the Firkinteenth and proprietor Mike “Scoats” Scotese tracks down as many as 30 unique firkins of cask-conditioned beers and wields the mallet to tap them one by one for a typically ravenous crowd that lines up early in the morning to secure a spot at the bar.
The same scene plays out multiple times a year in Brooklyn, NY both at the Williamsburg Cask Beer Festival (dba Brooklyn) and the Cask Head Cask Ale Festival (The Brazen Head). Leading proponent and curator of real ale, Alex Hall, plays a role in both.
Recently on three consecutive weekends, other cask festivals could be readily found in Philadelphia and its surrounding region.
Allentown Brew Works: The Fegley’s Lehigh Valley family of restaurants and breweries has continued to grow over the past several years. Most recent, they added a coffee shop and burrito restaurant in the available space next to its downtown Allentown brewery and restaurant. A hearty burrito made-to-order was just what many festival attendees needed after a few hours of great beer and whiskey.
At the festival, Brew Works aimed to satisfy many interests and tastes. In addition to almost two dozen cask-conditioned beers from Brew Works and other regional breweries and homebrewers, Irish Whiskeys, cigars, and meads were available for tastings. Additional entertainment was provided by a local Irish dance school.
General Sutter Inn: Located in the northern heartland of Lancaster County, Paul Pendyck set up shop several years ago at the General. Last year saw the debut of the adjacent Bulls Head Public House and has drawn high acclaim for bringing even more great beer to the small charming town of Lititz.
The third installment of his weekend-long cask festival solidified the reputation that Paul and his staff have earned as some of the best at perfecting the art of gathering and presenting great cask-conditioned beer.
Over the course of the weekend, over 20 firkins of cask-conditioned beer from the U.K. and the States were served in a casual and comfortable ballroom setting perfect for sharing beers and social time with friends and strangers alike.
: The brewery along the Delaware River continues to grow into its large space. But, no matter how many fermenters they put into the large former indoor skate park, it will still be a perfect space for hosting events like the extremely popular Smoke ‘Em if Yous Got ‘Em and the recent fourth annual Real Ale Invitational.
During the festival, in addition to serving beers from the tasting room’s bar area, tables of firkins were set up amongst the brewhouse full of mashtun, fermenters, and brite tanks, and a band played in the corner of another room. Beer pairing-friendly food from Diverse Catering was served in yet another corner of the comfortable space.
What are you waiting for?
With the proliferation of the many varieties and serving forms of great beer, there’s less reason than ever for anyone to proclaim “I don’t like beer…and I know because I’ve tried them all”.
If you or someone you know can’t imagine liking beer, try a cask-conditioned beer. It’s neither warm nor flat and chances are very good that you will look at beer, and taste it, like never before.
For more pictures from the three events described above, please visit The Brew Lounge.
–Read more of Bryan’s work at After Hours in the Communities at the Washington Times.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.