Sunday, March 26, 2006


Cask-conditioned beer is all a buzz now. Many pubs in the NYC and Philly areas have installed beer engines or pumps as they're known. Cask beer can be great, but in my opinion, what makes the beer special is two things: temperature and conditioning (carbonation). When a beer, or water for that matter, is warmer it's easier to sense the nuances of flavors and aromas. Similarly, without all those bubbles getting in the way, the beer is easier to drink.

But here's what sticks the potato in my exhaust pipe. The claim to fame of cask-conditioned beer is a 'secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed'. That usually means that near-still beer is racked into a cask and some yeast+sugar or fermenting wort is added, the cask is sealed and allowed to re-ferment. This produces the signature mild conditioning.

That's great but guess what? This is completely unnecessary and it creates other problems. Cask purists will argue against this, but just think about it. This secondary fermentation is the same thing that happens in primary. No new mysterious flavors develop, only a touch more alcohol, lots more yeast and carbonation are created. Now the alcohol and subtle carbonation are welcome, but what do we do with all the yeast? The answer is finings; that usually means adding gelatin or isinglass to settle the yeast. All nasty stuff in my opinion. The other problem is that if the beer is fined and the retail customer doesn't cellar the beer properly, you will end up drinking yeast and maybe even the finings. Now while I agree that natural carbonation is best, I don't think this needs to be developed in the cask.

The confession: I have packaged 'real ale' that has not undergone another fermentation in the cask. This beer is unfiltered (I don't filter any of my beer) and hence still alive. I have a way to rack reasonably cold, moderately conditioned beer into a cask without losing a lot of the carbonation (no finings and little yeast). When the beer warms, the carbonation increases and with a bit of venting, voila, wonderful 'real ale'.

I have had my beer both ways (primed/fined and via the confession) and I cannot tell the difference. Given the shortcomings of the first method, especially in those 'Real Ale' fests where the beer is loaded into the Jeep and trucked 85 miles, slapped up on a table, tapped and dispensed, I prefer the second.

The other thing that bothers me (mildly) about cask beer is what ends up in the cask. Now I know I've been guilty myself, but cask lagers and all these insanely high-alcohol beers have no business in cask. I've decided that from now on, I'm only doing casks that showcase what this form of beer was meant for: lower alcohol, tasty ales.

I guess I've been a bit of a hypocrite about these beers. But the truth is, I do love cask beer and whether it's the so-called genuine article or not, I just want it to be served correctly; bright and modestly carbonated and at cellar temperature.


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