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A Definitive Guide to Cask Ale

Historically, Britain can stake its claim alongside Belgium, the Czech Republic and Germany as one of the most influential brewing countries in the world. But despite the influence of British brewing being profound around the globe, we now import twice as much as we export. And with American hop-driven mass produced lagers being imported in their droves there’s a sense that the ‘British’ is getting lost from the beer. There’s one area where truly traditional British brewing still survives - hope-fully soon to once again really thrive - and that is cask ale. If you were ever looking for a beer type that required the most precise and careful handling, that was resistant to any form of mass scale-up, that balks at being bottled, that is sensitive to the environment - and only remains in its most perfect form for days - then cask ale is it.

But then there’s a reason it’s stayed around for hundreds of years – because it’s quite simply the best.

When you’re served a proper pint of cask that has been brewed by experts, stored and poured correctly, served fresh, well-handled and at the correct temperature, then we’d bet you our brewery that you won’t find a better drink anywhere.

Theres a reason Americans picked the bones of British brewing while leaving its cask soul behind: its just too damn difficult to get right.  

But nothing worth having comes easy.

A little bit of Cask Ale history

While cask ale is the unyielding patron of British brewing – with a rich history dating back through the Middle Ages – it’s not always enjoyed an easy ride.

There’s no denying its popularity starting dwindling in the mid-1900s – in part driven by an ‘old fashioned’ image crisis and  the buy out of small to medium breweries by bigger breweries pushing keg bitters and mass produced lagers into pubs.

At the time, cask ale quality was questionable – and drinkers knew an alternative of crisp clear pint of fizzy lager was essentially guaranteed thanks to the post brewing processing that it went through to kill the beer in exchange for shelf life.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was formed in 1971 with a mission to rescue the traditional industry.

It championed the cause of real ale as the gold standardof beer, educating the consumer and forcing the industry to step up and produce better beers. 

CAMRAs quest has, in the main, proved successful, sparking a resurgence in the cask ale making industry which means these gold standardbeers are still being produced today.

Without their input, cask ale would probably be in a coffin. But even having effectively achieved its goal of promoting cask ale as the only real ale, even some CAMRA purists agreed some focus may need to be paid to the booming craft beer market which was turning heads and tastebuds with a stylish image, modern marketing, and weird, wacky flavours that varied radically from the traditional cask ales on offer.

The meteoric rise in craft beer available in kegs and cans have played a massive role in a 15.4% decline in cask volumes from 2015 to 2020 – a drop that has absolutely been further exacerbated with the mass closure of pubs due to Covid-19.

So what is cask ale?

There have been many misconceptions peddled over the years on what cask ale is, how it tastes, looks and the market it caters for – largely due to quality issues and poor cellar management – as well as a shunning from our American friends who put the boot in by lamenting it for being ‘too warm’ or ‘too flat’.

But freshly casked beer is the best beer. Fact.

Fresh beer is in its optimum state, immediately at the end of the conditioning cycle of the brewing process – which itself can take from a week up to a few months depending on the beer.

Beer tastes at its best at this point and can only hold this perfect flavour for a few days after being tapped.

Brewers let cask ale do all the talking. We dont interfere with it, we dont filter it, we dont pasteurise it and we certainly dont pump CO2 into it like a Soda Stream” to force carbonate it. It goes straight into the barrel where, still in its unfinished form, it remains live and kicking until it lands in your glass.

It is of extremely low carbonation levels, typically between 1 and 1.5 volumes of CO2 and dispensed through a hand pull. Thats in comparison to typical kegged ale, which contains 2–2.7 volumes of CO2 and is pushed out of the keg with CO2.

The net result of this much gentler level of carbonation produces a rounder mouthfeel and, since it is unfiltered, often produces a more complex flavour and aromatic profile. Furthermore, not chilling the beer to an almost fridge like temperature has been proven by Tefal-head scientists to create the very best in both aroma and flavour.

If properly casked, handled with care in transit and properly dispensed, the subtle difference between fresh cask beer and kegged can be profound.

Cask, or Real Ale as it was coined by CAMRA in the 1970s, is a carefully crafted product – a true craft beerif you like.

Getting it right requires love, care, attention and skill, especially after the beer has been racked in a cask.

Its this excellent stewardship that sets cask apart and makes it distinct from its kegged cousin, which doesnt require special after-care once its been filtered, potentially pasteurised and pumped with carbon dioxide or nitrogen prior to serving.

What is a cask?

A cask is a large container typically used to store beverages. The use of casks dates back thousands of years where it was the only way of storing beer and wine. Before metal kegs were introduced into beer brewing in the 1950s, wooden casks were the predominant way of storing and moving beer from the brewery to location.

Casks and other beer containers are now almost exclusively made from metal, making them easier to clean, maintain and reuse, while wooden barrels are more often used for specialist barrel ageing techniques.

Casks come in different sizes:

  • a PIN contains 4½ gallons/36 pints
  • a FIRKIN contains 9 gallons/72 pints
  • a KILDERKIN contains 18 gallons/144 pints
  • a BARREL contains 36 gallons/288 pints

Firkins are currently the most common in the brewing industry, followed by pins and kilderkins. As cask beer has a limited shelf life, venues need to consider the size of cask they order in to avoid waste and bad beer.

How is cask ale brewed?

Cask ale is typically made from just four ingredients –

  • water,
  • malted barley,
  • hops, and
  • yeast.

Key stages of the brewing process:

 

*The brewing process begins by grinding down malted barley to break open the grains and expose the starch

*The remaining product, called grist, is mixed with hot water for around 75 minutes to activate the enzymes within the grist and start to turn the starchy centre into fermentable sugar.

*The resulting sugary solution, known as wort, is separated from the grain husks and then boiled for an hour to sterilise the brew.

*Hops are then added at this stage – which is what brings the all-important bitterness to the final beer. Hops that are added later refine aroma and flavour depth.

*The wort is quickly cooled to around 18C and moved to a fermenter where the yeast is added to the wort solution for fermentation. The type of yeast used, of which there are many types, is crucial to the type of beer being brewed.

*The job of the yeast is to consume the sugars and release alcohol, carbon dioxide and a variety of flavours.

*Fermentation generally takes around 2-4 days, before the young beer is then matured for around another week to allow for its full flavours to develop.

*It is then ready to fill, or rack, into casks ready for its next all-important stage.

*The conditioning process continues as the beer – still ‘live’ with yeast and without having been pasteurised, filtered or pumped with carbon dioxide – leaves the brewery in cask.

*The yeast works its way through the remaining sugars, altering the alcohol levels and producing natural carbonation.

*Its during this secondary phase where the beer matures and develops into subtle flavours that characterise a perfect pint of cask ale.

 

TLC of the cask in the cellar

 

A cask must be stillaged on delivery – a device that ensures the cask is positioned and prepared correctly, level and still, for serving.

In some traditional pubs, casks may still be stillaged on wooden wedges, although newer mechanical stillages now exist with springs that gently tilt the cask as beer is drawn off.

Unlike a keg which is simply stood up, a cask is more often than not, positioned on its belly with the shive on top (where the spile is hammered) and keystone (where the tap will be inserted) vertically aligned.

Stillaging allows the sediment to settle to the bottom of the cask into the belly and below the tapping point. Once this happens it shouldnt be disturbed again.

The positioning also creates an airspace directly below the shive, which will encourage good venting.

After 24 hours, the cask should have settled and reached the correct cellar temperature – between 11-13C – ready to tap and vent.

Tapping and venting

With the cask in position, a hole is made in the shive and a soft, porous peg (spile) is inserted, which is left for up to 72 hours as the conditioning process continues. Once conditioned, the soft peg is replaced with a hard, non-porous peg.

Tapping the cask takes place at the same time – with a clean tap driven through the keystone with a mallet. A soft peg is usually kept in place overnight until the fermentation has stopped before being replaced with a hard peg until ready for sale.

If the clarity, taste and smell seem ok, then you’re good to serve. But remember that once the cask has started to sell, it will only keep for around three to five days – and we all know that real, fresh beer should only be tasted in its optimum state.

The cask in the cellar will need to be tilted to get the most out of the beer yield once it’s around two thirds full. Tilting by approximately 20 degrees so the back of the cask is higher than the front helps to minimise sediment disturbance and ensure a great tasting beer.

Some myths about Cask ale

  1. It’s ‘warm’

Wrong! Cask ale shouldn’t be served warm – or even at room temperature. It should actually be gently chilled to ‘cellar temperature’ of around 11C to 13C – a problem if pubs fail to follow correct storing guidelines.

 

  1. It’s an ‘old man’s drink’

Real beer may have long been associated with working class men in flat caps enjoying a tipple in a smoke-filled backstreet pub. But it’s done a fair job of shaking off this old-fashioned image of the past – and the real ale scene is growing in popularity among a younger generation of drinkers.

Drinkers are demanding a greater variety of beers – including trendy craft and traditional cask – while showing willing to support expert independent breweries over multi-national corporates pushing mass-produced brands – helping to drive its renaissance.

 

  1. It’s ‘flat’

While it’s no secret that cask beer is not as fizzy as its kegged cousins (well it hasn’t been pumped with carbon dioxide or nitrogen to extend its shelf life, has it?!), when conditioned correctly, cask ale offers a natural carbonation from the yeast. Although this carbonation is subtle, it produces fine silky bubbles which leave a smooth finish in the mouth and avoids the drinker getting bloated.

Trust us – when cask ale is done properly it’s the pride of British brewing – a truly awesome drinking experience that makes all the effort worth it.

We are so passionate about cask surviving for future generations that we’re now on a mission to deliver fresh beer – in its most perfect form – direct to your door every month, with the launch of the UK’s first ever nationwide ‘cask at home’ subscription service.

Your support can help this small brewery achieve its big dreams!

Find out more here

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