Friday, March 09, 2012

Confessions of an oak cask man

Early last Friday evening, a group of real ale * fans gathered at Bilbo Baggins, a restaurant in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia, located a couple of blocks from the Potomac River.

There, they saw a cask of Heavy Seas Brewing's Loose Cannon American Hop3 IPA, quietly sitting on the edge of the bar. This was not 'just' a cask; this was a wooden cask.

They ogled it, and they waited.

And, then ... they cheered.

In walked Jonathan McIntire, the brewery's local representative, wielding a mallet. He aimed it at the tap in the keystone of the cask, swung it, and, with a sound like the crack of a baseball bat, the cask ale flowed.

"Superb," exclaimed proprietor Michael Armellino, as he sipped the first pint. "Serendipitous!" enthused a fellow bar mate who had arrived, unaware of the cask, to do 'field research' for her upcoming Cicerone beer exam. Pints would follow for all of us, and the cask would be drained of its contents before the evening was out.

Seventeen years in operation, Heavy Seas Brewing is located just south of Baltimore, Maryland. RateBeer —the crowd-sourced consumer review site— gives Loose Cannon American Hop3 IPA a 98 point score (out of a perfect 100).

Malts: Crisp English Pale, Carapils, and Munich
Hops: Magnum, Centennial, Chinook, Amarillo and Palisade
Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale is a triple hopped IPA containing over 3 pounds of hops per barrel. Not for the faint of palate, it has an intensely floral, spicy, and citrusy hop aroma and flavor. Available year round. 7.25% abv.

To learn more about the cask and the process, I emailed Stephen Marsh, the cellarmaster for Heavy Seas Brewing. Marsh heads up the brewery's burgeoning cask program: responsible for filling the casks, for ensuring their quality, and for design of the program.



What wood was the cask constructed of?
1. The wood is a combination of European oak and American white oak previously used in Scotch Whisky barrels. The cooperage uses both types of wood in the making of each barrel.
2. The casks are toasted lightly to set them into shape and then dressed out (shaved) to reveal clean oak.
3. The paint on the ends is a special one coat chimb paint.

What is the volume of the cask?
The casks measure anywhere from 9 UK gallons + 1 pint to 9 gallon +3 pints. If the casks dry out a bit and the middle hoops were tightened, their actual volume might be a bit smaller. [Nine UK gallons are the equivalent of 10.8 US gallons, yielding 86 US pints.]

Where do you get your wooden casks?
UK Brewing Supplies was our source for the English barrels.

We also have wine barrels that we retro-fit for beer. Our source for these is the Barrel Mill in Minnesota. They use slow-growth Minnesota white oak for both their wine and whiskey barrels. You can get these in light medium and heavy toast. We chose medium toasting.

When we bought brass bushings, we found that they were not an exact fit because the staves on the wine casks were thinner, and the keystone face was vertical not horizontal.

Oak beer barrels
Converted wine barrel (l); English beer barrel (r)

The holes for the bushes had to be tapered exactly, which required two different large tapered drill bits. Then, we had to offset the keystone bush, to avoid drilling between two staves. We took the English brass bushes to a Baltimore-area fabricator, which used them as examples to produce identical sets of keystone and shive bushes, but in stainless steel. This whole process ended up being quite expensive, almost as much as purchasing and shipping over the English beer casks.

What is the volume of those wine casks?
The Barrel Mill wine barrels hold 10 U.S. gallons, which is the equivalent of 80 U.S. pints (16 ounces). They are slightly smaller than the English oak casks (10.8 US gallons).

How many uses do you put a wooden cask through?
As many uses as I can get, before the barrel becomes infected, and unusable. The cask you tapped at Bilbo Baggins was in its first use. We'll continue to re-use it. For example, one of our American-made modified white oak wine casks has been filled over 20 times.

How do you clean and maintain the wooden casks?
The goal is to keep the casks clean and uncontaminated and the wood from contracting and splitting. I seal dry with new keystone and shive and leave empty in cooler, but never for more than a few days. Hot water is used in cleaning and prep for filling. We prepare a brand new barrel by soaking in hot water to seal and swell, then rinse, and repeat to remove excessive oils and overpowering wood character.

I noticed the English beer cask appeared somewhat different (other than the volume) from the converted wine barrels.
Yes. The English casks are solid, with thicker staves (curved wood planks) and thicker metal hoops, as well. The head (the face of the cask) has horizontal cants and middles (flat staves) which allow the keystone (the bung where the tap is hammered in) to be properly positioned.

The converted wine barrels, instead, have vertical staves on the face. Thus the keystone has to be offset to fit within the stave. I have yet to be successful with the shive bush on the wine barrel and ended up just creating a hole the size of the shive, and letting the wood swell to facilitate sealing.

The Loose Cannon we had Friday evening at Bilbo Baggins: was it conditioned (naturally carbonated) within the wooden cask?
Yes. We allowed the beer to complete fermentation in our tanks, and rest for a day. Then, the brewers 'crash-cool' the beer to near freezing, which forces the yeast and other particulates to settle out of the beer into the cone. We take this unfiltered beer and put it into a cask, 'priming' it with freshly fermenting beer from another batch of Loose Cannon. I put whole-leaf hops in a cheese-cloth bag, knot it and float it in the beer, held in place by the shive bung. This is similar to how we fill all of our casks, by the way, metal or wood.

Cannon, punched (03)

What is the average conditioning time before a cask is released from the brewery?
We normally hold a cask 7-10 days before shipping to ensure the cask is primed correctly ... and to ensure that there are no leaks! With the new oak casks, even though I have soaked and rinsed for up to 12 hours, there is still an impressive oak character infused into the beer. The natural oils in the wood also mess with head retention on the first 2 fills. This wood character diminishes with each subsequent re-fill, so, after a few refills, I allow the beer more time in contact with the wood.

The beer you served Friday evening at Bilbo Baggins saw 2 weeks in a brand new cask: thus the 'conditioning' may have been less than normal (that is, the carbonation) but the wood notes should have been impressive. [They were!]

How many wooden casks does the brewery own?
6 English Oak casks and 5 converted Minnesota White oak casks, for a total of 11.

What were the hops and/or special ingredients used in this cask?
U.S. Simcoe, Palisdade, and Centennial. Why those hops? What about their flavor and aroma do you like in the IPA? These are very citrusy hops. Dry hopping in the cask adds pronounced flavors and aromas of grapefruit, blooming flowers, and pine to the beer. These are also some of the hops utilized in the 'regular' non-cask production of Loose Cannon. My goal is not to change the beer drastically, but to enhance the great brew that our brewers create. Our social media director calls me the "ice cream man." I put the ice cream and cherry on top of the beer, so to speak!

How many firkins does Heavy Seas own?
The brewery owns close to 600 stainless steel firkins (10.8 US gallons) and, of course, those 11 wooden casks. Per month, we produce and ship over 100 casks. I believe we are one of the largest cask-owning breweries in the US. Five years ago, when our cask ale program began in earnest, we sold 50 casks, most going to Maryland, and other southern states. Last year, we sold over 1,000 casks up and down the east coast from Maine to Florida. I have personally cleaned and filled over 3,000 casks since the program began.

How long have you been the cellarmaster at the brewery?
I have worked for Heavy Seas for 7 years. With your help and thirst for real ale, you were one of the motivators behind the origins of the Clipper City/Heavy Seas real ale program. I believe together we created the foundation for the cask program we have today. [Thank you, Stephen.]

You have a cask ale event scheduled this weekend at the brewery. Can you tell us more?
Yes, it's the Heavy Seas Real Ale & BBQ Fest. There will be 11 casks, and plenty of barbecue from local restaurants and caterers, like Kooper's Tavern, Heavy Seas Ale House, Alewife Baltimore, Alonso's & Loco Hombre, Kloby's Smokehouse, and others.

For casks, we'll have a vertical tasting of Loose Cannon including casks of Dubbel Cannon, Black Cannon, Loose Cannon casks with special ingredients (as voted for by brewery fans), Loose Cannon in a new American oak barrel, and 'standard' Loose Cannon. For those special casks, we asked Heavy Seas fans to choose their own favorite ingredients by voting for three adjuncts and 2 types of hops out of a list of a dozen possibilities. Those chosen included chocolate nibs, hand-toasted vanilla beans, and orange-blossom honey, East Coast Cascade 'wet hops, and and West Coast Simcoe 'wet' hops.

We've collaborated with local Whiskey Island for a cask of Peg Leg Imperial Stout, spiced with chocolate nibs and smoked heirloom hot peppers called 'fish peppers.'

And, finally, we'll have three different casks of our Pale Ale, each hopped differently. One is 'dry-hopped' with hops used in the 'hop back' and normal brewing processes. The other two contain hops from two Maryland hop farms. Festival attendees will vote for their favorite, and I'll continue to cask that style for the rest of the year.

Uhmm, yumm!

  • Unfortunately, the Real Ale & BBQ Fest has sold out. If you've missed this one, Heavy Seas does present three other festivals at the brewery during the year, and it offers tours every Saturday. More details: here.
  • See a slideshow of photos from the Bilbo Baggins event: here.
  • * Read more about the unique, fresh, character of real ale at CaskAleUSA.
  • Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virgina— I sell the beers of Heavy Seas Brewing.


  1. Wow 3lbs/BBL! And if Im reading this correctly, no pitch lining on the cask. Very different from our German versions.

  2. Yes, and 2/3 of that hop charge (excluding any additions to the casks themselves) is just in the hopback. The barrels do not have pitch, because the wood character is a desired component of the flavor. First use definitely adds woody notes, although not unpleasantly so: from conditioning to service, the contact time is usually less than 2 weeks.

    By the way, when Jim Busch refers to "our German version," he's referring to barrels at Victory Brewing Company, In Pennsylvania, of which he is a major investor. The Director of Brewery operations there is Scott Dietrich, who for several years prior held a similar title at Heavy Seas (then known as Clipper City). Not mentioned in the blog post, Dietrich had a crucial role in in the genesis of cask ale at Heavy Seas, especially back when cask ale in the area was not 'cool', as it is now.


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