Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cask Ale: Process & Travel

The Washington Post, in a recent Food Section, printed two articles on cask-conditioned ale:

No frost, no fizz. Just 'real beer' in the glass.
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post art critic
November 11, 2009

Cask hopping in Washington
By Greg Kitsock
Washington Post beer columnist
November 11, 2009

There has been a lot of misinformation written on the topic, so it was refreshing that —for the most part— these were informative and accurate. Enough so, that Steve Parkes, a degreed English brewer residing in the US, and a curmudgeon on such things, declared: "A nice article. For a change the writer seems to know his stuff."

But not enough so, that I and others could not comment. For example, read this excerpt from a response by Andy Anderson, originally posted to DC-Beer, an on-line forum. Pay particular attention to his comments on cask freshness, on cask handling (and mishandling), and on which styles are better suited for casking.
Cask beer, or cask ale, is a term which covers a process, and is not actually a type of beer. If you read CAMRA's definition [the Campaign for Real Ale, a consumer beer advocacy group in the UK], you can legally have "cask ale" lagers (and there are usually some to be found at GBBF [the Great British Beer Festival].). In fact, go to Franconia, Germany and you can find Ungespundet, which is a lager version of cask beer.

REGARDING CASK BEER & TRAVEL, there are 3 factors at work:

1) The capability of the brewery -
If a beer is brewed and consumed locally, it may be only 3 weeks from brewing to consuming a standard British ale. If you now ship it over the Atlantic, its shelf-life may have to be doubled. A fair number of British breweries are not as maniacal about sanitation as the average American brewery, so a British brewery sending its beer to the States may have their flaws exposed with the extra time needed for shipping. [A charge which should allow equal time to be answered!]

2) Temperature fluctuations -
The yeast in the firkin is a living organism and is susceptible to problems when put in a situation of varying temperatures. The changes in temperature have a greater impact on the beer than the actual miles flown/driven.

3) Infrastructure/Stillage -
To serve the beer properly, after a pub receives the firkin it should sit anywhere from 48 hrs to a week or so in the location from which it will be served at a steady temperature of around 55F. You just can't do that except at a very few places in the US, plus, we have already pointed out that some beers may be at the end of their shelf-life when they finally arrive at the pub.

REGARDING CASK BEER AS A PROCESS (and where I will get stones thrown at me):

1) When done correctly, cask beer is fantastic; when done incorrectly, cask beer can be horrid.
There is a reason why lager sales are larger than cask beer sales in England: consistency. Look, as an analogy, you may not like to eat at McDonalds, but you expect a hamburger from McD's in Tempe, AZ, will taste the same as one in NYC. Cask beer, done correctly, requires a skill that the average bar and bartender do not have. That's why it is a lot easier for a brewery to sell its product in a keg, rather than as a cask-conditioned beer.

2) Cask conditioning is not the best method/process for all beers.
From EXTENSIVE product testing (uhm ... that was a joke), I've come to the conclusion that the process works best for lower alcohol and lower hopped ales. It can sometimes be difficult to achieve secondary fermentation in high-alcohol beers (such as barleywines). Also, highly hopped beers, especially those with strong aromatic characters, suffer when going through a beer engine, especially one equipped with a sparkler. Now, you could make the case that a gravity-dispensed firkin would not subject the beer to that fate, which is true, but then you will probably face temperature problems due to infrastructure issues.

3) Cask ale work will only be a niche in American brewing.
To make cask ale work in the US, you would need breweries packing their beer in completely different kegs (a pin, firkin, kilderkin, barrel, puncheon, tun, hogshead, and butt can all lie on their side so that beer dispensing does not take place where the yeast & sediment collect), plus you would need a dedicated space refrigerated at 55 °F for the kegs to sit while conditioning/settling as well as for dispensing. Throwing a firkin on a bartop on a Friday afternoon for Happy Hour just doesn't cut it.

To conclude this 'lesson,' let me be clear on one thing: I really like cask conditioned real ale. However, all that being said, cask conditioning is not the one-and-only perfect process for serving beer. It is a system that really works well for certain styles of beer, but does require an infrastructure commitment as well as a qualified cellarman/bartender.

All I'm trying to say is that while I really appreciate cask conditioned ale when done properly, I also recognize that the process can simply be used as a gimmick. So ask yourself the next time you are sampling a bar's latest cask-conditioned real ale if the cask conditioning is being done in a manner that truly benefits the beer.
  • Andy Anderson is a past president of B.U.R.P. —a Washington D.C. area homebrew club— and an award-winning practitioner of cask ale. He gave permission to re-post his comments.
  • Steve Parkes has had a long career in the US 'craft' beer industry. His first position here was in 1988, as the founding brewer of British Brewing Company, Maryland's first post-Prohibtion microbrewery. He now owns and operates the American Brewers Guild, a distance-learning brewing school.


This post is one in a series on Cask Ale: Fobbing at the Tut.

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