What is cask-conditioned beer? It is not the warm, flat beer that most people perceive it to be. Let’s take a look at this growing segment of the industry.
Before mechanical refrigeration, cask conditioning was more the norm than the exception. It was necessary to keep the beer “live” so that it would store well and be drinkable when ready.
The art of cellaring beers has been perfected over the centuries and passed down from cellarman to cellarman. It fell out of favor in past decades as the tastes of the consumer leaned toward cleaner and colder brews. The labor-intensive process of cask conditioning also kept many breweries from continuing the practice.
Here is a short overview of the process.
A “real ale” is pumped from the fermenter without pasteurization into barrels of varying sizes. The most common found here is a 9-gallon firkin but you will also encounter a smaller 5-gallon version called a pin. Sugar and yeast are then added to the keg in order to continue fermentation and the bung is put in place. Finings may also be added to help “flocculate” or get the yeast to settle out.
When the cellarman feels the beer is bright enough and has acquired the correct carbonation, a soft spile or plug is inserted into the bung to allow the beer to vent. Again, when it is ready to be served, a hard spile is inserted and allowed to settle. Then it will be tapped. It is usually served at what is known as “cellar temperature” which is between 45 and 55 degrees.
Of course, depending on the venue, a tap may be inserted into the end of the barrel and served by gravity or if a handpump is present, it will be hooked up to the tapline. A handpump is a device that suctions the beer up to the bar without use of any gases. The beer will be poured as it is in the barrel with natural carbonation. At the end of the day, a hard spile is reinserted so as to not oxygenate the beer. There is also a device called a “breather” that will inject a bit of CO2 into the keg and help it store better, but purists do not condone the use of it.
The major proponent of cask ales is CAMRA, Campaign for Real Ales, founded in 1971 in Ireland. They have since grown worldwide and continue to push for proper care of these beers as well as laws and practices affecting the industry. They host the largest real ale fest in the world in August in London. You will find smaller ones throughout the region and many pubs keep something on the handpump as it becomes available. I will post events and tappings as I see them.
So, here is another experience in the beer world that you can avail yourself of. Give it a chance and see what you think.
Recently I attended two fantastic beer dinners showing that Atlantic City is really coming into the modern times. At Vagabond Kitchen and Tap House, I enjoyed the beers from Troegs Brewery and some excellent food. We also got a special treat from the rep Bryan Wallace. Troegs had supplied some of their Troegenator Doppelbock to Berkshire Distilling and they produced a bourbon from it. Bryan got a bottle from AC Bottle Company — thanks to Hunterdon rep Patrick Morrissey — and he shared it with us all. A great whiskey it was. Keep an eye out on Facebook for all the events that Vagabond hosts. It is a great place for craft beers and fine cuisine.
Speaking of AC Bottle Co, I was able to enjoy an exceptional four-course meal at The Iron Room featuring Flying Fish beers. Rep Chuck Ott was there to explain the beers and Chef Kevin Cronin visited each table to explain the food. Warren rep Cindi Cifelli was also in attendance and owner Paul Tonacci oversaw every detail of the event. I also met the Mayor of A.C., Don Guardian, who was in attendance and was anxious to show me some of his favorite whiskies in the store and discuss favorite beers. There is hope for A.C. after all!!
Be sure to stop in to browse the liquor store and then visit the Iron Room and enjoy the small plate offerings, great beer selection and the extensive 250 bottles of whiskey — Tuesday is half-price whiskey night.
Mark Haynie is a craft-beer expert who lives in Somers Point and travels extensively to find new beers. He is a contributor to the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and is the co-author of the book New Jersey Breweries with Lew Bryson. His column runs every other week.