It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway. There are many exceptions to poorly constructed and wretchedly served American cask ale. But they, sadly, are in the minority. America is doing cask ale wrong.
Patrick Berger is the publican at the Kaiser Tiger, in Chicago, Illinois. He is a fan of cask-conditioned ale. "Is there anything as lovely as a perfectly cellared and properly poured pint of cask conditioned real ale?" he asks. No, there isn't, I'll stipulate ... at least in beer.
But ... despite being an obvious partisan for cask-conditioned ale, Mr. Berger REFUSES to serve any cask ale at all at his pub. And, why? Because, as he writes in a clear and convincing essay, "As with most things, the devil is in the details, and cask beer in America more often than not gets the details wrong."
A hand pump introduces oxygen to the beer in the cask every time you pull the handle. Oxidizing beer will create a fruity 'off' flavor that is very apparent after only a day or two so the beer's shelf life is very short. Many places use a CO2 breather that places a blanket of gas over the beer in the cask to give it a few more days of freshness but you're still left with 3 or 4 days tops to finish that cask. This might work out if all the bar is offering is a few cask beers, but in my experience the hand pump is usually sitting next to many other taps thus making it difficult to plow through one selection.
- Lack of expertise
Many breweries don't normally fill casks and therefore aren't experienced with it. Try to remember that the perfect pint of cask beer you perhaps had in London, was filled by a brewery that fills firkins everyday and probably has been for the last 100 years. Pro tip: if a brewery doesn't own a firkin, chances are they don't know how to properly fill and condition them.
- Inappropriate beers
Traditional English ales are way more balanced than ours and the softer carbonation [as cask ale] brings out the nuances of the caramel malts and earthy hops. But ... modern American craft beer flavors are not designed with casks in mind and do not necessarily get better when you put them in one. American craft beer is made to be served through a modern (hopefully clean) CO2 draft system. Some beer geeks get downright giddy when they find out their favorite IPA is being served in a cask, but I'm not sure the beer tastes any better. American beers are meant to whack you over the head, not highlight the subtle balance of malt and hops.
- Freshness counts
Why not serve imported firkins from England? Well, mostly because it defeats the whole purpose of fresh cask beer. Some beer will be fine in a cask for a month or two while it sits on a boat and then sits in customs and then in a distributor's warehouse -- but most won't. [This can also be a deleterious issue with American casks, often shipped thousands of miles, refrigerated or not, and served weeks or months later.]
And what of the cocoa-puffs and dingleberries American brewers seem to add willy-nilly to their cask ales?
A recent Wall Street Journal piece on cask ale quoted a brewer on just that: "Casks are an incubator for experimentation, a chance to do something new all the time.” In other words, in America, cask ale is not about freshness of flavor and condition, but is used as a pilot brewery on the cheap, with the consumer picking up the tab for experimentation, good or bad. I would think that a brewer would be proud of her beer, as it tastes, as she brewed it. But maybe that's just me.
And what of cask ale at American bars and pubs? Mr. Berger recommends skipping that experience altogether. Go to a brewpub, instead, he writes.
Many brewpubs are able to pull it off because they have a trained cellarman (the brewer) who can pick and choose which beers are going to benefit from the cask. They also have a willing brewery partner (themselves) and they usually only pour a small selection of their own beer which they tend to plow through.
With laws changing to allow consumer consumption at production breweries, I would add brewery taprooms to the list, but only if those breweries understand cask ale and its preparation. Drinker beware!
Last week, I was involved in the following conversation at a 'craft' beer bar near to where I live. It was a conversation that, in similar form, recurs in many American 'craft' beer pubs far too often (but minus the honest admission).
Me: "When was the firkin tapped?"
She: "Two weeks ago." [Points for honesty.]
Me: "What do you have on draft?"
American publicans, on the whole, have little clue as to what cask ale is or how to serve it properly. Without respect for the beer, or the brewery, or their patrons, publicans toss cask ales on bartops without conditioning or care or cellar coolant, and serve room-temperature messes, tilting the casks to catch the last dregs not brewery-intended for human consumption.
Or, they will serve a cask via a hand-pump, and, assuming a magical quality therein, will serve the beer well past a cask beer's two day, three, or four day best-by date (or, on rare occasions, five day lifespan). Often several weeks.
And, after all that, they'll have the temerity to say that that sour, flat, warm, and stale sludge they've served you is cask ale. No, it is not cask ale. It's crap.
What publican Patrick Berger says he desires is proper, well-tended cask ale. I couldn't have said so better myself, so I've quoted him above, and summarized. Please read his entire piece. He has more to say. Read it, and act upon it.
Consumers: demand better. It's your dollar; it's your missed opportunity for 'real' cask ale.
Publicans: learn the art and science of cellarmanship. But if you can't or won't —and that's understandable: there's a lot of work in a busy multi-tap pub— please don't do injustice to cask-conditioned ales. Your patrons won't appreciate that; and cask ale, itself, in the process, will lose drinkers for life. Please choose instead from the wealth of wonderful non-cask kegged beers.
Brewers: likewise. Cask-conditioned ale is so much more than, simply, ale in a cask. If more of you would take care to learn the art and skill of cask-ale preparation, maybe Mr. Berger might be convinced to change his mind. And I. And maybe, as well, a majority of Americans, unaccustomed to beautiful cask-conditioned ale, might change their minds.
I don't want to dismiss all cask beer in this country. I think when it's done right it's a wonderful worthwhile thing. So while a lot of us beer nerds like to lose our shit over any beer in a firkin, try to keep in mind - it doesn't automatically make it better.
- What is cask-conditioned ale?
CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, a consumer-based cask ale advocacy group based in the U.K.) defines 'real ale' (its term for cask-conditioned ale) as ... "a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served [without extraneous gas pressure] through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers, and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide."
'Real ale' is fresh, unfiltered, and unpasteurized; the yeast in the cask is still active. The level of carbonation is less gassy than that of draft or bottled beer. The ale is served at what is called 'cellar' temperature, in the low to mid 50 degrees Fahrenheit (never at room temperature!): the beer's flavors, especially those of lower-alcohol cask ales, are more evident at this temperature.
- I cannot claim ownership of the phrase, "cocoa-puffs and dingleberries." That honor belongs to Joseph Marunowski, past brewer at Samuel Adams (Cincinnati, Ohio) and past Director of Brewing Operations at Heavy Seas (Baltimore, Maryland).
- For more from YFGF: