Style Series: Cask Conditioned Ale
Ever have this feeling…?
You’re perusing the tap list at your local pub or brewpub and get hung up on one or two different beer styles listed that don’t quite sound familiar. And sometimes the person behind the counter has no understanding about the style or just a superficial knowledge of what you’re wanting to learn. And while I hope that generally isn’t the case, I know I’ve been there.
That’s the purpose behind this reoccurring series – investigating the unique, exotic, and down-right off-beat brews that have their own story to tell.
To kick this thing off, I’ll be honing in on the traditional cask conditioned Ale. It can be a trickier one to navigate, though it has a serious OG Beer Nerd following. Thankfully, if you’re in Portland, there’s an event this weekend offering just that, which I’ll get to in a moment.
And before we get started, I know what you might be thinking, “cask conditioning isn’t a style.” Yes, it’s more a specific treatment reserved for English Ales, but we’ll get to that as well.
The long and short of the cask conditioned Ale is that it’s packaged and served straight from a gravity assisted cask barrel. Though it’s a naturally carbonated, unfiltered ale that continues to condition with active yeast in the keg. So just because you see a “cask” offering at a taproom, doesn’t mean it’s cask conditioned – be sure to ask.
Another difference you’ll see with this variation are the keg shapes and sizes. Since the 1950’s, most all beer kegs you’ll see are steel, where as the smaller barrels used for cask conditioned ales may be steel, plastic, or good old-fashioned wood. For years, casked ale has been a common staple in the UK, now more common in the US, and is generally served in one of 3 barrel sizes:
- Pin – 4½ gallons = 36 pints
- Firkin – 2 pins = 9 gallons = 72 pints
- Kilderkin (aka ‘Kil’) – 2 firkins = 18 gallons = 144 pints
To be certain, there are larger barrel sizes, though for the purposes of serving these ales, especially those poured from a serving rack or with a gravity/keystone cask placed right on the bar, these are the most common.
What makes cask conditioned or Real Ales (coined in 1971 by CAMRA, England’s Campaign for Real Ale) stand apart from other styles is the one-of-a-kind process that’s intended to create a specific finished product.
Normally when a beer is done fermenting, it’s conditioned or “fined” in a Brite Tank, where the beer is cooled down post-fermentation to clarify out the residual particulate and yeast. It’s often then force carbonated in the Brite Tank as well and CO2 is again used to pressurize the keg being served.
With a cask conditioned ale, it’s racked into the cask amid fermentation, often with finings added to help the yeast eventually settle or drop-out, but may also be served unfined or hazy. Maintaining the right temperature (~55° – though it varies by style) is important for continuing the natural carbonation process.
A number of traditional public houses in the UK have a beer cellar directly below the bar, enabling the kegs to be fed up through the floor, helping them retain a cool, but not too cold, cellar temp. Additionally, since it isn’t force carbonated, this method of serving Real Ale requires a hydraulic beer engine which pulls the naturally carbed beer from where it’s stored up to the tap itself.
The trickiest part about these ales is their short life span. These casks are required to breathe in order to allow airflow for the pour. So, once tapped, they tend to only have a life span of 2-3 days, making it tough to not only find beers on-cask, it’s even tougher to get them fresh and served at the right temp before spoiling.
And then there’s the beer itself. English-style ales, for starters, are a different animal all their own, but only truly enjoyed from a freshly tapped cask. They tend to weigh in on the lower end of the abv spectrum due to their generally lower gravity, although IPAs and DIPAs aren’t uncommon casked options either.
They’re served at that cellar temperature to maintain yeast activity and exude a smooth, full mouthfeel. Since it’s been naturally carbonated, the bubbles don’t look dense nor taste sharp or crisp, but are usually larger, with a soft and smooth texture. Combine that with it’s unfiltered, unpasteurized quality, it all amounts to a beer that exhibits naturally fruity esters, hop flavors, and a different kind of complexity rarely found in colder, force carbonated ales.
Over the past few years I’ve grown quite an affinity for these ales, trying my best to visit the Horse Brass Pub or The Moon and Sixpence locally to try one or more of their dedicated cask taps. Yet I’ve especially grown a taste for the excellent work being done not only by Seattle’s cask ale producer Machine House, but also a number of Oregon brewers putting out casked offerings from time to time.
This is why I’m so excited for the event happening this Saturday, Pressing Matters Proper Cider and Real Ale Festival. It’s being hosted by Cider Riot!® who’ll be featuring many of their own bittersweet and bittersharp traditional ciders as well as guest ciders and perries (27+ in all), but they’ll also have 7 cask conditioned ales on hand. They’ll all be tapped at the beginning of the fest, ensuring freshness and served the proper way, by folks who care about getting it right.
They’ll also have cheese pairings available from Cascadia Creamery, plus food from No Q No Taqueria, all happening from 1pm to 8pm Saturday. You can find tickets for the event here and if you have any questions, feel free to hit me up in the comments, through my contact page, or on social media.
It should be a blast and no better excuse for a chance to revel in this one-of-a-kind treatment of traditional ale.
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